Although there’s a world of positivity among Internet fans and fandom in general, sometimes it really is tiresome. The same arguments, the same drama, repeated ad nauseam. Perhaps partly because the relative anonymity of the online world gives people the confidence to say things they might not say offline (although I work in retail and can attest to the fact that some people will now say equally horrendous things to my face). But every day it gets harder to navigate fandom without stumbling across conflict, unpleasant content, or frankly ridiculous behaviour.
So here’s my list of things I wish all online fans knew.
1. You are responsible for your own fandom experience
Many years ago, when I worked with schools and youth groups, one of the things we taught kids was how to pick out the information they were looking for when using search engines. How to decide which link had the material they were looking for; how to skim an article for useful content; how to decide whether a source was relevant to what they were doing. The aim was to help them, as readers, navigate the web efficiently and safely, so they didn’t waste time looking at things they didn’t need.
Sometimes I feel like people don’t learn these skills anymore. Why else would people keep reading things they didn’t want to read? Unless…you’re actually clicking on stuff you know will harm you? Looking through tags you know will make you angry?
I get the urge to look at stuff I know might make me uncomfortable, whether it’s pictures of spiders or comments on news articles. But I know also that when those things make me feel icky, it’s largely my fault for clicking on the link in the first place. Dead dove, don’t eat, and all that.
Morbid curiosity is totally a thing, and sometimes it’s good to push our barriers and explore new ideas, if only to develop our understanding of our fellow humans and the world around us. We need to know what is dangerous so we can better identify and avoid it. But the onus is on us to avoid something once we know it’s harmful. If we’ve identified content as ‘bad’, we can’t blame the content anymore if we keep going back to look at it. It’s not the rain’s fault if I leave the house without an umbrella.
If you’re giving your own time, effort and attention to problematic content and people, you are opting for a negative fandom experience. Those people aren’t going to stop simply because you don’t like what they’re doing, and they won’t stop because a stranger on the Internet told them to stop. The best thing for you to do is report, block, and walk away. They might have knocked on your metaphorical door, but you can choose whether or not to let them in.
You have ultimate responsibility for whether your fandom experience is a positive one. But with that in mind…
2. You will affect other people’s fandom experiences
Unless you are an entirely passive fan, only ever consuming without ever commenting, producing or interacting with others, your actions count in fandom. Every comment, every like or kudos, every work you post, and every tag you use or don’t use: all these things act as either signposts or roadblocks, not just on your fandom journey, but on other fans’ paths as well.
Every time you post a story, a piece of artwork, an essay or meta post, a video or song – whether it’s your own or you’re sharing someone else’s work – you are responsible for tagging to alert others to content they might want to avoid. There’s no arguing over this one. You have a moral responsibility to alert people to anything they might find disturbing, because not doing so is insensitive and inconsiderate. There is no reasonable justification for not tagging your stuff. You wouldn’t set up shop at a bake sale and not label which treats have nuts and which are gluten-free – you shouldn’t post content without tagging whether it’s NSFW or fluff.
Likewise, you have a responsibility not to misuse tags (using ‘anti’ tags for material that will upset antis, tagging NSWF as SFW), or posting work on inappropriate platforms. While you are not responsible for who is searching for your content, you are responsible for being honest about what people will find when they click on your stuff.
Even if you’re not posting your own content, what you do affects others. If you encounter content you dislike and react by throwing out insults and abuse, people will remember the vitriol more than the purpose. If you devote your time, effort and attention to making someone else feel bad instead of just reporting and blocking, your behaviour has as much impact on fandom as the content you have issues with. Same goes for pestering creators for more content – just today, I saw an anonymous post on another writer’s Tumblr along the lines of “I am disappointed because you have not updated this story”. No regard for why the writer might not have updated – they could be taking a break for mental health reasons, or they might be struggling with the work, or they might just not want to. But I very much doubt that this anonymous complaint has actually had a positive impact on the writer.
But we can make use of this to do good things for fandom as well. We can encourage creators to produce more of what we like with positive reinforcement. I’m happy when someone likes my work; I’m even happier when someone shares my work and recommends it to others, or takes the time to comment. That way, I know my work has actually had a positive impact on someone instead of just disappearing into the ether, and I’m much more likely to produce more work for that fandom.
So when you find yourself itching to make a scathing comment on someone’s hot take, or lash out at someone whose work upset you, stop for just a moment and ask yourself: how would I react if someone said that to me? Because your words aren’t directed at the art or the fic or the tweet; they are directed at an actual person who isn’t just going to let all that vitriol slide off them like they’re teflon-coated.
3. A disagreement is not a challenge
A family friend used to make insulting comments every time he saw me eating vegetarian food. I never said a word about anyone else’s food choices, never suggested other people to eat what I was eating, and never complained about anyone eating meat. But every single time he was present at a shared meal, I could guarantee that even the mere sight of a veggie burger would set him off and I’d have to put up with insults and mean comments. After a while, I’d stop eating around him. Eventually, I started avoiding him altogether, because I started thinking of him as ‘the guy who says mean things unprovoked’. He was the guy who saw my opinions and my actions and immediately took it as an affront to his own beliefs. And he could have kept quiet, but instead he made the choice, every time, to make personal attacks (on a much younger person) and make jokes at my expense.
A Quorn sausage isn’t exactly a controversial concept. But then again, neither is shipping. Neither is an opinion on a TV show, in the grand scheme of things. Still, I can’t think of a single fandom I’ve been part of that hasn’t fallen victim to huge arguments over inconsequential things. Whether it’s opinions on favourite characters, opinions on shipping, or opinions on who is allowed to be a part of the fandom; some people really seem to believe that opinions can be classed as right and wrong, good or bad, acceptable and unacceptable.
True, some concepts and opinions are hard to justify (sexualising child characters, poor treatment of characters of colour, homophobic or transphobic content, etc.). But even then, no one ever changed their ways because they were insulted enough. And take a moment to think about the context; is the person posting sexual content with teenage characters (which, for the pedantic among you, comes under the ‘ephebophilia’ label, not ‘paedophilia’) a mature adult who should know better, or still a teenager themselves exploring personal fantasies? Is the story with a depiction of rape actually fetishising it, or is it exploring the ramifications and the impact on the characters?
Calling out inappropriate behaviour, when it counts, is commendable. But calling out every troll and bully you meet on the Internet, or everyone who posts things you don’t like, will only lead to you becoming exhausted and them giving back as good as they get.
Think about the last time someone insulted you and meant it. Did you think, ‘hey, they’re right, I should change my ways’, or did you think they were a jerk for being mean? You will not change everyone’s mind, and it is not your responsibility to police fandom. Yes, it’s frustrating when people post disturbing or morally reprehensible content, but you will not achieve anything by arguing with them.
Learn to pick your battles. Report; block; walk away. Save yourself a heap of mental anguish, and accept that some people don’t share your opinions.
4. Fandom does not owe you anything
I fully understand the sense of ownership that comes with discovering a band or a character or a series and becoming immersed in it. The stories we love absolutely affect our lives, whether it’s challenging our perceptions or providing us with comfort and reassurance. There are series that I turn to when I’m feeling down because they cheer me up, and there are fic authors I admire, and online content I eagerly await updates on.
But I have no right to any of this content. I can only appreciate it and be grateful to the creators for what they provide.
This is especially true for content that is free to access: the fanfiction, the art shared on Tumblr, the cosplay photos shared on Instagram. No fan gets to demand content from anyone else, or demand that content caters to their desires.
If a fic you’ve been following stops updating, tough luck. You don’t like a video a favourite YouTuber posts: tough luck. An artist draws a ship you don’t care for: tough luck. It’s their content, their work, and they don’t owe you anything.
If it’s problematic, then you report, block and walk away. If it’s not to your tastes, then you don’t respond. Voicing your opinion is not required, and demanding anything of fan creators is not the same as appreciating their work; it only serves to annoy or upset the creator, and it makes you look like a jerk in the process.
Likewise, official content does not owe you anything. Creators get to decide how their stories go. Your Netflix subscription does not entitle you to personally tailored content; only to access the content Netflix chooses to host.
You want to influence creators? Praise the stuff you do like. Share and buy and celebrate the good stuff, and you’ll probably get more of it. Positive reinforcement works far better than heckling and threats. Or maybe think about creating the stuff you want yourself, or sharing prompts for other creators.
If nothing else, think back to those early fandom pioneers: those women meeting in their own homes to talk about ‘Star Trek’ and share their thoughts and hopes for the series and the characters, and those brave women covertly sharing their Kirk/Spock stories, facing serious consequences if the wrong people found out. How would they feel to see you bickering and squabbling and sending threatening messages because someone else’s story wasn’t to your tastes?
5. Fandom is for fun
We’re here for the same reasons. We might not ship the same ships or stan the same characters, but we are here because our love of certain stories goes beyond the everyday ‘watch and move on’ approach that non-geeks have. We came to fandom to make friends, to share our love for these stories, to get creative, to make and seek out transformative works, because we enjoy doing these things.
If one particular fandom makes you feel bad, stop. If fandom makes you make others feel bad, also stop.
If it affects your mental health. If it makes you wary of visiting certain online spaces. If you can’t finish the fic. If the fan art triggers bad memories. If your fandom friends don’t respect you. If fandom is not fun anymore, then stop. Move on.
There will be other fandoms. Other spaces. Other ways of being a fan.
And if your idea of fandom fun is getting blocked and reported by other fans, maybe question what that says about you.
Fandom is for fun. Keep your experiences fun, and let other people have their fun.
Fandom does not owe you anything, and you don’t owe it any more than you choose to give.
Learn to pick your battles, and walk away from the ones you can’t win.
Remember that your actions will affect others, and sometimes so will your lack of action.
And remember that no one else is responsible for your fandom experience.
Wow. So, apologies to anyone who came here expecting a fun Tuesday listicle! But I’ve spent too many days lately skimming over my Twitter feed or unfollowing people on Tumblr because I couldn’t take the negativity anymore.