From “Star Trek” to “Game of Thrones”: The Rise of the Superfan
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The Backstory | The Backstory | Episode 21
From “Star Trek” to “Game of Thrones”: The Rise of the Superfan
Michael Schulman reports on how the Internet has brought fan communities together.
Read the story.
Released on 09/09/2019
[ethereal music]
[Announcer] Some of the fences hold, others do not.
This truly is a social document for our time.
We're all fans of something.
You can be a fan of Joni Mitchell,
you can be a fan of Game of Thrones.
I'm a fan of Broadway musicals.
So much about fandom just boils down to human nature,
we want a sense of identity, of community.
These are forces behind everything
from political parties to religion.
So when does fandom become more of a way of life,
more of a complete identity?
What it means to be a sort of professional fan.
In the summer of 2018, there was a music journalist
in Toronto named Wanna Thompson.
One day, she tweeted a pretty mild criticism of Nicki Minaj,
just saying, you know, I wish she would write
more mature music, she's pushing 40,
I think a new direction is needed.
And then she put her phone away for a few hours,
and by the time she checked it again,
this tweet had gone absolutely viral.
It had attracted the attention
of the Nicki Minaj fan community.
They all flooded her with direct messages,
there were fans who found out her phone number
and started making hateful images
of her four-year-old daughter and spreading them online.
It was a really mild thought
about the direction that her music was headed,
but it completely upended this woman's life.
Fandoms online can become so turbo-charged,
and so hyper-aggressive, that it is very reminiscent
of how, you know, politics works online right now,
but in the name of a singer,
or in the name of, you know, a TV show.
That seems new to me, something a little more dangerous,
and a little more absurd as well.
♪ I got a room full of your posters ♪
♪ And your pictures, man ♪
[Michael] There's this term now, Stan,
which comes from the 2000 Eminem song, Stan,
which is short for stalker-fan.
♪ It's your biggest fan ♪
♪ This is Stan. ♪
[Michael] In it, Eminem fantasizes about
a sort of deranged fan who keeps writing him letters,
and then gets angry that he doesn't respond.
♪ I hope you can't sleep and you scream about it ♪
♪ I hope your conscience eats at you ♪
♪ When you can't breathe without me ♪
So that word, Stan, went through the hip-hop community
and surfaced in more recent years on social media,
especially to mean someone who is a really ardent fan,
almost a crusader for a pop star,
or a movie franchise, or even a politician.
The rise of Donald Trump, who is himself
a kind of pop culture figure even more than a politician,
has a lot of overlap with toxic fandom.
Donald Trump supporters almost act like Stans of a pop star
who they feel like they need to defend against haters.
Audiences now expect to have a voice,
and that can create tension, or even outright conflict.
In these fan uprisings, like the harassment campaign
against Leslie Jones who was in
the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters,
or what happened with Game of Thrones,
where 1.7 million people signed a petition
to remake the entire season with competent writers.
We are now waging these culture wars
through major pop culture events or personalities.
And that to me seems like a change
from, you know, 10, 15 years ago.
But because fantasy and comic book franchises
have completely taken over the entertainment industry,
and pop stars have gotten so big in the music industry,
fandom has just ballooned, and now kind of encompasses
all of mainstream culture.
I didn't wanna just report on online fan activity,
I really wanted to talk to people in person
about how fandom had played a role in their lives,
and shaped who they were, and so...
I knew I had to go to Comic-Con.
[lively music]
Sci-fi conventions have been around since the 1930s
when people who read sci-fi books started connecting.
[Woman] What part of outer space do you come from?
I'm an extra-terrestrial that evolved
from the chicken race.
[Michael] They became more popular in the '60s
with Star Trek, which attracted
a really big, intense fan community,
who actually kept the show on the air
with a letter-writing campaign.
[Man] To seek out new life, and new civilizations.
Pop culture conventions
have now become a $90 million industry.
Comic-Con in San Diego is the king of all of these cons.
It's a four-day affair that brings in 135,000 people.
The sea of humanity, right here.
The dragon queens are out.
What is this?
It's like its own city.
So you have Star Trek, and Harry Potter,
and Marvel, all coming in with stars of shows and movies,
where they often premiere trailers
and try to make some news.
Fans pretty much love this, you know,
it's a real mutual embrace between
these entertainment companies and their fans.
I will say Comic-Con seems to represent
the kind of brighter, friendlier side of fandom.
People just feel emboldened to be meaner
and more negative online, sort of be their worst selves.
Unlike social media fandom,
which can get very quickly intense and combative,
people at Comic-Con who I talked to in person
were really mellow, and really positive
about what fandom had brought to their lives.
Comic books, or pop culture, TV shows, movies,
you can belong without having to try.
It honestly opened my life up to so much more.
You find a group of people that are like-minded,
and you're like, yeah, okay.
I'm not so alone anymore.
You know, making their own communities,
and like, believing, and honestly cosplaying,
like, you're creating your own universe of it, for sure.
The importance of fandom is to give that community,
is to give people that sense of community.
To participate in something bigger than themselves.
I talked to this one guy who was dressed
as Spongebob Squarepants, and he's studying
to be a therapist, and he talked to me about
how everyone needs three things:
they need to be heard, they need to be seen,
and they need to be valued.
In a vast society where you don't always have people,
fandom can bring you a community,
and give people a sense of place, and a sense of belonging.
That's a great thing.
A lot of people just need some sort of organizing principle
in their lives, whether it's religion,
or workplace, or family, and that is
what pop culture fandom does for some people.
It gives you a sense of being in a tribe almost.
But if something threatens your sense
of loving this particular thing,
you can become part of a sort of massive fan group
that might go on the attack.
[TV Announcer] Thursday, it's an all-new, absolutely--
So at some point in 10th grade,
I was so obsessed with the must-see TV Thursday lineup,
I had t-shirts for Friends, Seinfeld, and ER,
and every Friday I would go to school
wearing whatever shirt corresponded to the show
I thought had had the best episode the night before.
This was the '90s, so I didn't have
an online community to be a part of.
If I had had that kind of outlet,
I would have sought it out.
So in writing the piece, I really looked back
at my own fandom, and how pop culture had shaped my sense
of identity as a young person,
and that really made me feel like...
Fandom is a type of love, it's a type of love
that can almost never really be fulfilled.
Kind of like, you know, a Greek myth,
where a mortal might fall in love with a demigod,
except fandom is the love between a human
and a story, or a celebrity, or a work of art.
It is driven by passion, and passion,
you know, can take destructive forms,
and it can take wonderful, positive forms
that get people through life.
[All] Make friends!
[ethereal music]
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