Thursday, March 13, 2014

Living and Dead Fandom; Or, Why It's Okay if GRRM Dies before Finishing ASOIAF

The internet has changed the way people consume media and spread knowledge about media. 

Fandom is perhaps the most important innovation. Fandom is a community that complements each member's consumption of a media franchise. These communities predated the internet, as Star Trek conventions and Star Wars media attests (even to the awkward romantic pairings that are commonplace these days). The internet is a much stronger community building tool than existed in the days of fan newsletters, magazines, and annual conventions. Fandom is open to anyone with an internet connection or a local library and findable by anyone with a search engine.* 

Fandom requires two things: some threshold of interest in the media franchise to make the community is self-sustaining, and the possibility that the franchise continues in the future. Fandom creates complementary media (including fan-fiction), speculates about the in-universe world, and plays out real-world issues in the context of the franchise. Each of these things makes the franchise itself more enjoyable and valuable to the people who consume the media. While a few 'dead' media franchises can maintain the 'threshold' for community survival (Harry Potter, Trek/Wars), most Fandoms cannot survive without the value of speculation and the relevance of the story to contemporary events. 

When Harry Potter was still 'living,' there was an enormous community (several forums and websites) devoted to mining the text to predict what will happen next in the story. LOST inspired similar devotion. The novels of A Song of Ice and Fire do the same today. As does Doctor Who. Once the work is 'dead,' the incentive to mine the text disappears, since few people will choose to painstakingly uncover evidence about the future of the story when the story has an ending. The sort of 'Canon capital' that individuals within fandom acquire, in finding little hints or inventing ingenious theories disappears when the story ends.** The communities surrounding LOST or BSG dispersed at the end of the series finale. Franchises like Firefly or Veronica Mars, which died pre-ending, seem to maintain their communities better than franchises that properly end. 

Fandom's emergence has enormous effects on new media. First, the threshold factor of Fandom makes media franchises more 'superstar' oriented. Franchises which differ little in quality or audience can have drastically different Fandoms: one may reach the 'tipping point' to a self-sustaining community while another falls just short. Random events that push popularity briefly above that tipping point are much more important. Audience members who 'consume' media in a social setting have an outsized influence on the creation of Fandom and the success of a franchise. Media becomes much more feast-or-famine. 

In conjunction with the decline of television advertising, Fandom's knowledge-distributing network can mobilize people to consume media. Keeping franchises alive, or using franchises to tell stories (where they otherwise might have been told 'unfranchised'), becomes much more powerful. The almost absurd propensity to tie things into franchises or reboot old franchises is a natural reaction to Fandom: it gives existing Fandoms hope that their franchise has not seen the end, and it taps into an existing resource. The new miniseries strategy (e.g., 24; Heroes: Reborn; Torchwood) becomes a dominant strategy. British TV has thrived not because of any superiority of content, but because its model better fits the new media consumption reality.We'll move away from a model where TV shows are either renewed or cancelled, towards one where every media franchise is open to constant, uncertain, renewal, similar to British TV and Netflix. 

Overall, there is great value in keeping a media franchise alive. There was joy in the communities that emerged when Harry Potter was incomplete, and the experience can't be recreated by reading the books today. These communities are time-sensitive, so jump in while they're still going. 

*Back when media was a monolith--three channels and few movies--one's media-consumption community and one's social community were much more likely to be one and the same. Once media became much more diverse, one's community would have to be much larger to match the same threshold of like-consumers. As an aside, I wonder if a sort of Fandom emerged in the early mystery magazines, or Western novels? 

**Which raises an interesting point: why does the author of a work have near authoritarian power over the decision of 'canon?' Can one individual, or group, unilaterally change canon, like Disney is apparently doing with the Star Wars Extended Universe? Why might there be no resistance from fans? If the ending to LOST sucked, why not invent a new one? Copyright law is huge here, which is a bummer for Fandoms.