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If the internet is right, these are dark days for fandom.
Barely a day goes by without a major controversy being stirred up on social media, whether the furor over a twist in Captain America which has consumed Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr over the last week, or the long-running hatred being spewed towards the forthcoming reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise, it appears that geek culture is embroiled in a never-ending cycle of outrage and fury.
Many have begun to believe, as columnist Devin Faraci wrote yesterday, that fandom is broken. Some, including the aforementioned writer, would have you believe that this is an irrevocable situation. But is it really?
Is Fandom Broken?
There is no disputing that the online discourse surrounding pop culture in general, and comics in particular, has become increasingly poisonous. Creators receive death threats over story choices, female fans are harassed and those who express minority opinions are often bullied into silence. You will find very few people with any experience in online fora who would dispute any of this. There still exist some champions of positivity in the digital realm. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn took to Facebook in an attempt to stem the tide of negative opinions cascading over the creators behind the Captain America story. Others, such as Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, have tried to direct the conversation towards the issue of online harassment. In reality, the failure of fandom to espouse a culture of polite debate is emblematic of a larger, more chronic illness afflicting the internet and society at large. The art of informed, respectful debate is rapidly becoming lost in favor of hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, and uneducated viciousness, and the nature of social media is largely responsible.
Negativity Bias in Social Media
Social media is inarguably one of the most revolutionary developments in communication in our lifetime. It has allowed for instant access to creators and the development of communities of interest for nearly any point of view, but it has a dark side rooted in the very core of human nature.
There exists within humanity a natural inclination towards negative thought. Repeated studies have shown that negative thoughts or opinions, even when they’re balanced out with positive or neutral opinions, will dominate the thinking of the vast majority of people. Negative opinions spread faster than positive ones and root themselves more deeply in the enduring fabric of any issue. Given the chance, people will attribute negative motivations to others far more rapidly than they will positive ones, even if the evidence for both sides is equal or skewed in favor of the positive.
The massive reach of social media and its enabling of the creation of online interest groups allows for the reinforcement of any and all opinions, whether proactive, reactionary, or anywhere in the social spectrum. Combined with the instant access to creators and content generators provided by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, social media has enabled activist fans of every stripe to voice their opinions at a volume never before seen in the public square. That those opinions are overwhelmingly negative as a result of our inherent biases contributes to a (somewhat accurate) belief that negative opinions are dominating the conversation.
The situation certainly looks bleak, but there is a way forward.
The Three-Fold Solution
The first and most responsible party to a reconciliation within fandom is the genre media. Comics media in particular has become a snake perpetually eating its own tail. Due to the online readership’s inherent negativity bias, pieces which focus on the negative aspects of any controversy inevitably generate higher levels of traffic and engagement than well-reasoned analysis of every side of an issue. Whenever a new problem rears its head, the media falls all over itself to take one controversial stand or another in order to agitate its readership into commenting. What should be covered as news is often little more than thinly-veiled editorializing coated with a thin veneer of fact. The media can and should take a different approach, one rooted in the oldest principles of journalism but have been lost in a post-Fox News era: objective reporting. The media has a responsibility to present readership with facts first and to separate them from opinion. That is one reason this piece is marked clearly as an editorial and not as a news piece. The comics media would do well to take the advice of 50’s television detective Joe Friday: “just the facts.”
Secondly, creators need to exercise self-control. Too often, we see writers like Dan Slott fall into the trap of defending their decisions to the angry mob via online platforms like Twitter. While it is understandable that writers and artists want to use the pulpits available to them as a means of explaining the reasoning behind their choices, there is a case to be made that they simply provide fuel for the fire. These creators can and should restrain themselves from engaging with the most violently outspoken elements of online fandom, because so many of those people are seeking simply to elicit a reaction from someone on the “inside.”
Finally, and most importantly, we come to we the fans.
The only ones who can truly change the tone of the conversation around comics online are the people engaging in that conversation. We have a choice before us: whether to validate the long-standing perception of comic book fans as nitpicking whiners or to redefine what fandom means for the years to come. We can, if we choose, define fandom as a place where people come to express their love for things which inspire them or provide enjoyment. We have the ability, thanks to these same platforms which have given voice to such pervasive negativity, to spread that love to every corner of the Earth. We can tell people the world over all about things in comics which we love.
I would challenge every reading this to work towards this end. Let us bring back reason. Let us bring back positivity. Let us bring back the love to comics fandom and fandoms everywhere. Fandom doesn’t have to be about hate and outrage. Fandom can and should be about love. If we can show that #FandomLoves, then this community can serve as an example to others and maybe, just maybe, make a real difference beyond comics.