I’m starting off with Harlan Ellison here because he is the king of opinions, and I’m going to be sharing a lot of them in this piece. Some I agree with. Some I don’t. But he has found peace with his place in the world. He calls ‘em like he sees ‘em and has no problem sharing that with anybody who asks. That’s ultimately the point of this essay: know yourself. We’ll get to that point when we get to it.
But that last part in the video (starting at 1:30) above is particularly important, because it speaks to the duties between creator and fan. With all of the craziness going on over the past month (let alone the past… forever) about toxic fandom and what to be done about it, this is particularly important to artists of all shapes and types. What kind of duty do you owe to those who read your work?
Back in the days of early man, this responsibility was simple. It happened in in real-time. Everybody was sitting around the campfire and listening to a storyteller spin a yarn. Spin a good one, and you got special privileges. Spin a bad one, and you’d find your credentials revoked, your name put on the short list for a dangerous hunt, and your form chucked at the first sign of danger to help everybody else get back to the cave safely.
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it’s not far from the truth. Storytellers had to play to the audience, molding or shaping their words as they went to please. This evolved the experience in different ways. Plays written during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era were expanded or contracted depending on the audience, as an example, while comedia dell’arte performers had a whole litany of crowd-pleasing sketches ready to go in case an audience went sideways. There’s a reason why theater, comedy, improv, and slam poetry still have incredibly dedicated fanbases to them despite being lower on the totem poll, vis-à-vis the mainstream; the visceral reaction between performer and audience harkens back to the cro-magnon part of our brain that requires direct feedback.
Broadcast media severed that link but made up for it by allowing a much larger fanbase. You could reach thousands with a newspaper, tens of thousands with a novel, hundreds of thousands with a radio show, millions with a film, and tens of millions with a television production. The creators lost power to the emperors of the presses but some became royalty, of sort, as well, even if polite society always treated them with a kind of patronizing disdain reserved for well-trained beasts.
Now we have a global fanbase and a return to the direct communication of ages past, thanks to social media platforms. Which one created the other is irrelevant to this discussion. It’s here now. That means that there are lots of fans out there. It also means that there are lots of bad fans out there.
I want you to think of a percentage: out of 100 people, how many of them will be assholes? I don’t mean Hitler-level genocidal tyrants, but just run-of-the-mill jerks? Be honest. Fifteen percent? Ten? Five? Two? Now multiply that percentage point (100% = 1.0; 25% = .25) by two hundred million people, or roughly the amount of people who went and say Star Wars: The Last Jedi. How many is that? Lots? Like I said: lots. Now add on the people who just want to watch the world burn, percentage wise. How many is that?
Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw put it succinctly when he said that “fans are clingy, complaining dipshits who will never, ever be grateful for any concession you make. The moment you shut out their shrill, tremulous voices, the happier you’ll be for it.” He wasn’t referring to the people who silently consume his fast-paced, breathless, snark-filled video game reviews, however. He was talking about the idiots who think that by yelling at you they’ll somehow get you to acknowledge them. Because that’s what they want: they want your acknowledgement, because that means they win. By granting them the attention that they do not receive in life, you are lifting them up above the standard fan who does nothing but enjoy your work silently.
This goes across any socio-politico-economico-racio-culinary axis you want to throw out there. The minute you start engaging with idiots, that’s the minute you’re welcoming them into your story world, both in a metaphoric and literal sense. In the same way that free speech, by its design, protects unpopular speech (because popular speech needs no protection), so too does fan relation refer to “dealing with assholes.” You do not have to deal with such people. In fact, you should only do so with a fair bit of forethought. Your anger drives audiences to the channels of these jerks and makes them happy… or, well, makes them money.
What you do have to do is focus on your work. That can mean creating something that speaks to one person, or something that speaks to one billion. The former will always be more focused than the latter, and the tighter the audience, the more likely you’ll have to deal with them in order to get them on your side. Of course, the opposite side means that you’re welcoming many more people into your world, which increases the likelihood of you finding a nest of tools. Just remember that you are the creator. You do the grunt work and set the terms.
Uncle Harlan had an opinion on that, by the way. When asked about whether an author and a reader have a duty to one another, Ellison stated:
It’s a contract. Let me give you a for-instance of a breach of that contract. There is a mystery writer, and I won’t name him, ’cause he’s a nice enough man. He wrote a book in which he had a character do something that he was physically incapable of doing. In other words—this was not the example, but if I told you what it was, you could identify the book—but let’s say he had no arms, and this guy had him driving a stick-shift car. The instant I read the scene, I put the book down. I couldn’t trust him any longer. He did not know what he was talking about. He was not paying attention. That is the only message that art conveys: “Pay attention.” That’s it. That’s the beginning and end. That’s the alpha and the omega. Pay attention.
Let me repeat that. Pay attention.
That’s the only thing, as creators, you’re required to give: your attention. But that’s a lot of responsibility. You’re creating a world. If it’s your world, your fanbase, your life, that’s difficult enough. It’s hard business trusting in yourself to do that. I barely trust my belt to keep my pants up.
Now take a story world that’s been around for decades. That world may already have denizens in it. You must know who they are, where they live, and what they’re doing, or you’re doing a disservice to them. You may not be the only creator in this world, too; you have to know who you’re playing with, what their likes/dislikes are, and how you can build something harmonious. You might be able to run it a little fast n’ loose for a while, but the internet is “writ in stone,” and its furies are many. They may not be right (in fact, they often aren’t), but you ignore the minefields at your own risk.
Just ask Gabe Newell:
You have to stop thinking that you’re in charge and start thinking that you’re having a dance. We used to think we’re smart […] but nobody is smarter than the internet. […] One of the things we learned pretty early on is ‘Don’t ever, ever try to lie to the internet – because they will catch you. They will de-construct your spin. They will remember everything you ever say for eternity.
You can see really old school companies really struggle with that. They think they can still be in control of the message. […] So yeah, the internet (in aggregate) is scary smart. The sooner people accept that and start to trust that that’s the case, the better they’re gonna be in interacting with them.
And he should know. He promised us Half-Life 3.
That’s not to say that you can’t create more stipulations to the contract. In fact, that’s how you engage a fanbase. You can:
- Invite people to play in your sandbox, giving them power over the entire narrative of your story world to the point that they create an actual economic construct around it.
- Allow for fans to turn their “fan fiction” into “actual content.”
- Craft content that is designed to be shareable, earning those who post the work on social media spaces the “likes” they so desperately crave.
- Engage in good natured jousts with your fans that remind them that you are not some monolithic entity and that they are not your subjects.
- “Like” and “retweet” your fans posts, validating them for speaking with you and for engaging in your story world.
Just remember that YOU are making the rules. If you engage with your fans, they will expect your engagement. If you promise something, they will expect you to keep your promise. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it. And if you treat your fans will contempt, or praise, or seduction, or ignorance, those are the deal points you’re crafting, as well.
But you don’t have to. A quick case study from the world of booze.
In 2013, Maker’s Mark announced that they would be diluting their bourbon from 45 percent (90 proof) to 42 percent (84 proof) in order to meet with global demand. In truth, this probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in terms of flavor, but the optics of it were really bad. As crazy as film afficianados are, hooch lovers are worse. They called for a boycott and railed on social media. Both Maker’s Mark employees and non-employees defended the action and refused to budge… until they budged. The bourbon’s proof was safe. Then MM went on a full court press tour online to rebuild bridges and trust. The result: brand loyalty returns to normal.
In 2002, on the other hand, Jack Daniels diluted their flagship spirit from 86 percent to 80 percent. This wasn’t the first time they’d done it (they’d gone from 90 to 86 years before) and they followed the same playbook: keep quiet about it. People noticed, of course, and went on the warpath. Jack Daniels did nothing, said little, and continued to push out product.
The results? Jack Daniels’s marketshare increased.
In otherwords: things will work out if you stick to your guns. To do that, though, you need to know what kind of guns you’re holding. I’m not saying you can’t be antagonistic, or that you should let people bully you, or that you shouldn’t report harassment, because sometimes a good beatdown is deserved…
But you are crafting the contract with your fandom. You make the terms. And if you don’t like it, you don’t have to make that deal. You don’t have to sell your content or change your habits in any way that you don’t want. You just have to know what you’re doing and be honest: with yourself, your fans, and everybody in between. Ignore the haters, if you can; report them, when you should; and focus on your craft.
That last point is key. There will always be assholes out there. They should not dictate the terms of your creation. As discussed in my “How to Beat the Nazi Narrative” essay, normalizing good behavior is always a better strategy than demonizing bad behavior. Sometimes you must do both, but a healthy narrative ultimately comes from the core of what YOU want to create. You must build rather than destroy, allowing people in when ready, but remembering that if you allow those people to mess with it, you won’t be pleased with the result.
Oh, by the way, Harlan has something to say about that, too.
You have to do what you’ve gotta do. You are the maker of your own world. When all else fails, pay attention. Do your due diligence.
And, most of all, craft the worlds you want to live in.