The internet changed fandom. This isn’t surprising, really, because it changed pretty much everything for those of us living in first world countries. But I think we don’t always realize just how subtle some of those changes have been.
Contrary to what some of my young friends think, fandom did exist before forums, Facebook, and Tumblr. There were cons, and meetups (spread primarily by word of mouth) and friendships that grew out of shared interests.
But one of the things which didn’t exist back in the pre-internet dark ages was an easy way for fans to connect with a story’s creators. Information about what was coming next dribbled out in interviews, or, more rarely, convention appearances, but it was one-sided. The producer shared information, the audience absorbed it. Sure, fans discussed it among themselves, and perhaps wrote impassioned letters, either to the magazine that printed the interview, or the production offices – but there was no guarantee they’d be seen.
It’s a far cry from how easy it is now to express ourselves, on Twitter, Tumblr, forums, or comments section on entertainment sites. And sure, not every producer has a presence on social media…but still, there’s the belief (probably not unfounded) that they, or someone in the production company, at least, are monitoring such sites to see the response to their work.
That’s not a bad thing. Feedback is essential for good writers to become better ones. But it’s led to some unfortunate side effects, including that an increasing number of people now seem to think that stories are written by committee. That because they love something, they should have a say in how the story is told.
Put as baldly and inelegantly as possible…they’re wrong.
No matter how much you love it, no matter how much time you’ve invested in it, it’s not your story.
You probably think this is another comment about the Bones fandom, and it certainly could be. Hart responded on Twitter yesterday to someone demanding he add more variety to the settings of certain types of scenes. But I see that sense of ownership about stories everywhere online.
An interview with Martin Freeman (who plays Bilbo in The Hobbit) was posted on Buzzfeed this week, where he said this about the expectations of Tolkien fans:
“I tried not to think about it, really. Like with anything I’ve done ever. I’ve had a few parts that are very beloved to people from literature, and I can’t play that. I can’t play their expectations. That’s not the screenplay you’re making. It’s not a democracy in the way that I’ll go and find out what Russell thinks out there in Oregon. I’m afraid he doesn’t have a say. He’s either going to like it or he’s not going to like it, and believe me, we want him to like it. But we have to get on with the job of making a film.”
I suspect most of us have had some experience, somewhere, that has taught us that the more people on a committee, the harder it is to get the job done, that too many people steering the ship just sends it in circles (or into the nearest iceberg.) And yet, still, there’s this sense that the audience should have a voice in the story.
Much of the justification I see for this comes back to two points, both of which have some validity.
The first is the idea that the story must please the fans.This is absolutely true. If nobody likes a TV show, it gets canceled. If nobody goes to see a film, that’s very bad for the people who invested in it. But that still doesn’t give every individual viewer the right to weigh in on how the story should go.
Where a lot of people I see commenting in this way go especially wrong is that they seem incapable of understanding that while they do count – every eyeball matters, as I said a few weeks ago – they don’t represent the entire audience.
I can not think of a single time I’ve seen a criticism of Bones that began with the words, ‘Everyone thinks…’ that was expressing my view of the show. Not once. You speak for yourself, and that’s fine. That’s great. That’s how it should be. But you’re not speaking for me.
It’s not that you’re necessarily wrong, or your idea is bad, but I want, first and foremost, to see the story I signed on to see. That story. The one I fell in love with.
And yes, I know there may be people who agree with you on Tumblr. And that matters. But unless you’ve personally heard from all ten or twenty or fifty million people who watch a TV show or film, you’re not speaking for everyone.
So, no. You don’t have the right to steer the ship, but as long as you’re part of the audience, your views do count. (Note the ‘as long as you’re part of the audience’ – that’s a whole other post, but if you stopped watching years ago, or have no intention of seeing a film, then, no, your opinion about the future direction of the story doesn’t matter. Sorry.)
That leads to the second point I see used as justification for trying to take over the story: that we all have a right to give feedback, to examine the story critically. And again, that’s true. But where we hit a snag is the answer to the question, ‘what is criticism?’
Is its purpose to convince others to watch or not watch? To let the writers know that something they did worked particularly well (or failed spectacularly?) Do you just want to vent? To generate discussion with other viewers, whether or not the story’s creators ever hear about it? And how are you expressing that criticism? Are you ranting and raving like a lunatic, or are you sharing your thoughts in a clear, civil fashion that’s respectful of others?
It matters. A civil, intelligent comment will interest me, whether or not I agree with it, and I assume the writers feel the same way. It may not change anything about how they tell the story, but knowing what people think helps them judge whether or not they communicated what they meant to.
But it still doesn’t make it your story.
They get to decide what happens, when, and how. We get to decide whether we’ll watch, or not, and whether we’ll recommend it to others. That’s the deal. That’s how it works. That’s where our (not insignificant) power is.