Fandom is the reason why New York Comic Con and other cons exist (why else would you brave the hordes at the Javits Center if you weren't a fan?). At cons, you'll find yourself surrounded by fans obsessed with everything from anime to Zelda, with fan creators who level-up that fandom into something mind-blowing, like the type of cosplay you absolutely need a photo of for your Instagram feed. It can be magical — but it can also break the internet.
On the Saturday night of NYCC, the Harnessing Internet Fandom For Good panel explored antidotes to the extreme ways fandom can manifest on the interwebs. When you live in a society where the Guardians of the Galaxy fandom experiences a seismic split over what James Gunn tweeted years ago and McDonald's employees get death threats from Rick and Morty diehards because they ran out of Szechuan sauce, you have to question why people are threatening homicide over fictional characters.
In an exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE, panelists Jay Edidin and Elizabeth Minkel got into what happens when online fandom explodes.
"I think there will always be some communities within a fandom that have a lot of toxicity and some that are really positive," said Minkel. "I also think a lot of the problems you see arise when some of those subcommunities within fandoms start becoming toxic."
Star Wars is an obvious one. The fandom was overshadowed by the Dark Side earlier this year when actress Kelly Marie Tran was harassed with racist and sexist Instagram comments that drove her off social media. Fans then start to wonder if a community that has been smeared with so much toxicity is worth associating with. Whether this spawned from broad negativity lurking within the fandom itself or from a few sociopolitical deviants whose opinions do not represent what Star Wars stands for is debatable. Edidin believes that in this case, it was only a few rogue Sith.
"What happened with Star Wars was that a vocal block of aggressive and largely racist largely sexist people gathered under a mantle to harass a woman of color on social media," he said. "The idea that what happened there was primarily about Star Wars and people's feelings about that universe is incredibly short-sighted on a publicly available platform to rally a lot of people who wanted to do something violent."
That still doesn't erase how undeniably chilling it is for racism and sexism to be associated with a fandom that is supposed to center on the never-ending clash of good and evil and the triumph of unlikely heroes. Fans of the Star Wars franchise were suddenly not butting heads over who was an Imperial soldier or Rebel scum but whether their fandom could survive such a hit. Not too long after that meteor shower, anyone into Guardians of the Galaxy suffered a massive shock when the news of Disney firing James Gunn over some unmentionable tweets caught fire at San Diego Comic Con.
While you can't deny the things Gunn put out in a public space were offensive, another thing to consider is the media's role in adding more gasoline to an already raging dumpster fire.
"I think it stems from the way that the media, and especially news media, are so polarized and the extent to which they report and represent versions of same events, but taken to opposite extremes," said Edidin. "There's not really a model civilly handling something. The rate and progression of online news, how fast it breaks and how fast it moves relies on getting aggressively over-sensationalizing things to grab attention during those few minutes they have to get clicks. I think we face big primed platforms and a culture that fuels a system where things are either all good or absolutely evil in every single way."
It isn't only the inappropriate actions of creators like Gunn or the random harassers on Tran's Instagram harassers that can turn a fandom toxic. Fans can get extremely heated over their own opinions on characters, story arcs, what really qualifies as canon, and the internet leviathan that is shipping. As if that doesn't already sound like Tumblr chaos, the marketers behind social media capitalize on turning fan discrepancies into hard stats.
"Social media teams bait fans who let out a lot of rage in the comments over things like ship wars, and it's like, you just did this so you can go back to your boss and say you got 100,000 engagements even though there are death threats in the comments," Minkel acknowledged. "These engagements turn into people threatening each others' lives over fictional characters and there's no ethical concern; ethical behavior isn't rewarded in a system like this."
If you ask Edidin and Minkel, the antidote to that kind of toxicity starts with creators taking responsibility for their actions and showing their legions of fans model behavior. What actually constitutes behaving like a decent human being can be debatable. Social media is structured in a way that certain people who can wield much more power than others, which is problematic when it comes to the breakdown of communities. Just think of certain subreddits and shudder. Minkel is slightly optimistic about the future.
"I think that now we're shifting in terms of Facebook and Twitter; the internet is going to look very different in 5 years," she said. "I don't know what it's going to look like, but I do think some of the problems we're seeing now with this total hierarchy will be decentralized."
"It's really important to understand what we can make changes to," Edidin added. "I think the biggest thing is media literacy and understanding of what people are engaging with and how they're engaging with it. Modeling is super important, but media literacy is even more important."
Fandom wars might still be erupting all over the internet, but there is hope for a future where you don't get hate for shipping certain characters no one wants to see in bed together or writing fan fiction that isn't entirely based on canon. Until then, anti-fandom haters will continue to crawl around spaces where they can bash someone who idolizes a character they want the creator to kill off in the next issue or episode.
Just don't be that person.