Is Undertale more fun in peaceful or violent mode? Is Problem Sleuth a web comic or a video game? What’s more gay-positive: Madoka Magica or Sailor Moon? Would Vriska look better painted with or without the blood on her face?
Wander into our house, and you will be required to have an opinion on questions like these. Fail to have an opinion and you will be subjected to a passionate exegesis of why one position or the other is the correct answer. Such are the joys of child-rearing in the age of online fandom, when the formerly passing enthusiasms of childhood can be ossified and amplified through the companionship and conversation of thousands (or even millions) of fellow fans.
Of course, the internet’s role in fostering fan intensity extends far beyond the world of adolescence. Fandom is now firmly embedded in the contemporary cultural landscape, and we can thank social and digital media for its ascendance. Any of us may suddenly find ourselves pinned against a wall, figuratively or quite possibly literally, by an ardent fan who feels the need to hold forth at length on the subject of the latest episode of Game of Thrones, the most recent issue of Bitch Planet or the newest Star Wars movie. I once had the misfortune of sitting next to a Highlander fan who was returning home after a fan convention and tour of shooting locations. Do you know how long it takes to fly from the West Coast to the East? Well, double that estimate if you must spend it hearing an exhaustive catalogue of Highlander locations and the episodes in which they were embedded.
Whether you’re trying to make sense of your kid’s latest obsessive fandom, or simply trying to extricate yourself from the fellow party-goer who won’t shut about Rick and Morty, at some point you may find yourself asking three questions: Is this healthy? Is it the internet’s fault? And most of all: How do I make it stop?
1. Is fandom healthy?
When you read about people who spend significant amounts of time obsessing over the geopolitical implications of the latest Bond movie (“Popular Geopolitics and Audience Dispositions: James Bond and the Internet Movie Database“), mapping their personal history against the release dates of the various Harry Potter novels (“IF ONLY I COULD APPARATE, MY HARRY POTTER COLLECTION WOULD TRULY APPRECIATE“), or defending the notion that Disney’s Song of the South isn’t really that racist (“Reassuring Convergence: Online Fandom, Race, and Disney’s Notorious Song of the South“), it’s hard not to wonder if there’s something wrong with them.
I mean, I’m sure nobody asks that about my passion for show tunes or occasional ventures into Star Trek cosplay, but it’s the kind of question that can pop into your head while you’re waiting for someone to stop lecturing you about the the relative merits of Marvel vs. DC. Or, just hypothetically, if you’re wondering whether it’s normal for your fourteen-year-old to spend fifty hours a week drawing characters from their latest anime or web comic obsession.
To answer this specific question, look no further than Marjorie Cohee Manifold’s 2009 article, “What Art Educators Can Learn from the Fan-based Artmaking of Adolescents and Young Adults.” In a survey of nearly three hundred fan artists aged 14-24, Manifold found that “66% of the respondents indicated that they were between the ages of 12-14 when they became serious fans of particular pop-culture phenomena.” (I’m hoping for a follow-up survey that reveals the age at which the artists’ parents stopped feeling annoyed by particular pop-culture phenomena.)
According to Manifold, many of these artists described their fan art
as a way of figuring out how the world works—not by reading how the original authors of popular narratives presented character interactions—but by personally manipulating and experiencing the consequences of alternate interactions, and by discussing or debating interpretations of these experiences with other fans.
Manifold’s description of these young fan artists supports the widely-cited description of fandom provided by media theorist Henry Jenkins—and indeed, Jenkins seemed to anticipate this kind of phenomenon two decades ago. In his 1997 article, “Empowering Children in the Digital Age,” Jenkins noted that “many adults find writing original stories about media characters and situations a useful way of asking questions about gender roles and of proposing alternative understandings of masculinity and femininity,” and argued that we should therefore help children “develop these same skills of critical writing and cultural appropriation.” Speaking specifically to the potential of the internet to foster those skills, he wrote:
Children may need an unpoliced arena of popular culture if they are going to develop autonomy from their parents and learn to think for themselves. If traditional media, such as television, comic books, and films, can spark this kind of creative and social interaction, the potentials of new media technologies are even greater. The term, “interactivity,” speaks to a popular desire for media we can actively reshape to reflect our own life experiences, desires and agendas.
Just what I thought: fan intensity is the internet’s fault. But that doesn’t explain why I have to listen to fans obsess offline.
2. Can I blame tedious fandom on the internet?
While I can forgive the internet for catalyzing global economic integration, the destruction of our attention spans, and the incipient death of investigative journalism, I am not sure I will feel as forgiving if I am forced to feign interest in yet another anime series. Surely the whole point of the internet is that Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fans can obsess with one another and leave us innocent bystanders to innocently by-stand.
And indeed, in her look at adolescent fan artists, Manifold notes that “[s]eventy-three percent (73%) of all the respondents sought the friendship of like-minded peers predominantly or exclusively through online sites.” That’s exactly what they should be doing. After all, according to Manifold, they find lots of rewards there:
One 16-year-old wrote that exploring her own experiences through fanart and cosplay provided insight about how to deal with classroom bullies, made her a more secure person, and helped her “understand some social issues”. For example, Jade (personal correspondence, February 14, 2006) explained that because she and her family had moved a dozen times during her childhood, people she met in online fandom became constants in her social community. Likewise, Jessie (personal correspondence, March 15, 2006) indicated that size and the impersonal environment of her urban high school inhibited her ability to make and maintain close personal ties with other students.
It’s hard to read that without thinking that maybe, just maybe, this online fandom phenomenon might actually be good for kids. Maybe even good enough that I, as an empathetic conversationalist and legal guardian, should actually be willing to indulge in a little fan-chat offline. Which leads me to re-assess my final question:
3. How do you get an online fan to stop annoying you?
In light of the revelation that online fandom is a wonderful incubator for budding artists and humans, it would seem that I have to move away from my original solution of shutting down the internet (which probably wouldn’t make my kid stop talking about anime, anyhow) and instead take refuge in resources that will help me survive this continued daily immersion.
So I searched JSTOR for advice on how to cope with boredom, and found the promising title “On Being Bored out of Your Mind,” by Elijah Millgram. “You can’t control interest (although you can take an interest in something, in the hope of finding it interesting), and when you’re uninterested, it’s hard to pay attention,” Millgram wrote. A nice summary of my problem, but hardly a solution.
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Then I looked specifically for help on what I thought was my most promising option: feigning interest. That turned up these discouraging words in the 1933 article, “What I Look For In A Teacher:” “In order to thoroughly understand children she must have a genuine love for childhood; she must love to associate with little ones if she is to be their teacher; she must not feign interest but she must actually be interested in the things in which they are interested.” Thank goodness I’m not a teacher, but merely a mom.
At long last, I found some useful guidance—in Stephanie Francis Ward’s “Best Interests.” Offering career advice for lawyers, Ward explores the value of bonding with your law firm’s senior partners by finding shared interests that can build your relationship. Noting that this can be difficult for young associates who aren’t into basketball, Porsches. or wine, Ward suggested that “female associates not interested in traditional male pursuits can still make a connection by inquiring about the person’s passion.”
I tried that out.
“So, what is it about Homestuck that appeals to you?” I put that question to my kid, and was rewarded with a ten-minute answer I have no memory of. Perhaps I will win a parenting prize for enduring it, but I just think of it as ten minutes I could have spent watching half an episode of Veep.
I decided to test another of Ward’s recommendations: “Even if you don’t share anything in common with a partner in the law firm, you could forge a relationship over dividing or conquering those differences.”
I asked my fourteen-year-old if they had any ideas for how we could forge a stronger relationship by dividing or conquering our differences in the matter of Samuel v. Anime and Comics.
“You could read all my web comics,” my child ventured. “But it would take a month. Or maybe just a day, if you didn’t sleep.”
That prospect did not appeal, so I asked if they had any other options for me when it came to the matter of our frequent and extended “conversations” about their latest fan enthusiasms.
“Just listen, please,” my kid suggested. “You’re the only people I can talk to about this to with no repercussions.”
Finally, I’d found my way to the heart of the matter: the reason that the internet has failed to fully satisfy all the online fans it helped to mint. Sure, online communities can provide fans with a way to connect with one another, to explore and elaborate on the movies and shows and comics they adore, and to find their own artistic voices. For adolescent fans in particular, these spaces can become important places to make friends or do certain kinds of identity-building that are easier when you’re surrounded by people who share your passions.
It’s this experience of shared enthusiasm that separates fandom from the more solitary enjoyment of simply watching a TV show or reading a book. At the end of the day, fandom is a form of connection. And as much as the internet enables and fosters an extraordinary range of connections, sometimes the connection you need is with the person who’s right in front of you, smiling bravely while you rant.