Another day, another big story about toxic fandom – in this case, various Star Wars fans seem to have hounded actress Kelly Marie Tran (Rose in The Last Jedi) from Instagram because… well, if you’ve spent any time at all online you can probably guess.
As usual, this has led to the usual hand wringing about the state of fandom in 2018: are fans too entitled, is reviving older franchises a good idea, is it possible to love (or hate) a fictional character too much, and so on and so forth. These are questions worth asking; thing is, we already know the answers, and they’re not going to change anything.
When Hollywood buys up old franchises and characters to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on turning them into blockbuster movies, this kind of reaction – crazed fans treating other people like punching bags – is exactly what they’re hoping for. Engaged fans are fans who spend time and money keeping a franchise alive: nobody is out their writing horrible hate-rants about how the movie version messed Rampage up, because nobody cares about Rampage. The ideas contained in Star Wars are pretty much worthless because everybody knows that the magic of George Lucas when he made the first Star Wars wasn’t in his amazingly original ideas, but in the way he slapped a whole bunch of old ideas together to create something special. Anyone can write a space opera; it’s the layers and layers of fan engagement that make a franchise worth money, and it’s this engagement that results in fans bullying people who they don’t think are doing it right.
Of course, there’s never going to be a “right” way; much of what drives these fans is an urge to recapture emotions long gone. But that’s a pretty powerful urge for people, and you need to harness powerful urges if you’re going to make a profit on a $200 million dollar movie.
What’s new in all this is social media giving fans the ability to get together in real-time and rev each other up about perceived mistakes and slights while also making it possible for them to take instant hostile action in a way impossible barely a decade ago. That side of things isn’t part of why corporations invest in franchises, but it is why corporations invest in social media. Basically, the rise of toxic fandom is the pointy edge of the join between two different kinds of media organisation: traditional media companies want their fans to be committed to the stories they tell, while social media companies want their users to be committed to the stories they tell each other.
In theory, this relationship is mutually beneficial – social media helps new fanbases get off the ground and helps franchises grow as the fans find each other to talk about what they love. In practise, it doesn’t take much for those fans to turn hostile at the first development they don’t like. But even then, neither side really lose: the fans are still passionate, and passionate fans spend time and money on what they’re passionate about. It’s just that their passion has turned to hate – but corporations are notoriously difficult to target with that hate and individuals… well, they can be replaced. This is a story that isn’t going anywhere.