The Driving Forces of Negative Fandom

At a party I went to this summer, I found myself in a conversation with another Star Wars fan, and he suddenly asked me how much I disliked, or even hated the Star Wars film The Last Jedi. A bit taken aback, I answered that I didn’t hate or even dislike the film. I actually found it quite enjoyable, with some amazing scenes and storytelling. My answer clearly upset him, and his expression didn’t hide his irritation with me.

The discussion didn’t last long. After researching fandom academically for a thesis in 2018, I tend to avoid discussions with hard core fans, as their own strong feelings on the subject tends to make such discussions very subjective, aggressive even. This is not really strange, as fandoms are always based on strong feelings, but it’s just not very constructive for such discussions. So, politely, I ended the conversation. Or rather, I was “saved” by a friend nearby, who noticed that I was beset by a somewhat zealous Star Wars fan with a love/hate relationship to the franchise.

But the encounter got me thinking about negative fandom, which is what this article is about. Negative fandom, then, is when the fans works to discredit, break up, harm or otherwise hinder their own fan objects or fan texts. This should not be confused with toxic fandom, which is different, but related. Toxic fandom is when the fandom works as a vehicle for attacking or excluding a person or group of people. The reasons for toxic fandom can be that other fans are different in some way, or that they are not considered authentic fans, or not the right kind of fans, and it comes to an “us vs them” situation. Where negative fandom can, in cases, be constructive, toxic fandom is often very harmful, and should be considered the dark side of fandom (and be avoided!).

So let’s not get tempted into the morass of toxic fandom. As mentioned, negative fandom, then, is when fan activities within a fandom are detrimental to fan objects, fan texts and often those who distribute them. Negative is often the result of a lack of communication between distributor and fandom, or the lack of effective marketing research and activities, and can often seem to spread quickly throughout a fandom, much to the chagrin and even confusion of the distributor of the brand in question.

But things are rarely as they seem. Although negativity in fandom can often seem to have spread to every corner of it, it is rarely the case. There are certain driving forces behind negativity in fandom. Here are three of them.

Negativity Bias

Take a look at just about any newspaper front page or news web site. What do you see? Death and despair. Politicians going of the hinges. War, famine, natural disasters. It is not so har to understand why, generation after generation, people seem to say something like “when I was young, everything was much better”. But most likely, it wasn’t. Or at least, it was always a combination of the good and the bad. The news organizations knows how to get your attention to sell newspapers, or get you to visit their web sites.

Despite millions of years of evolution, we are still creatures of instinct, and as such, we are hard wired to see the negative before the positive. We call this the negativitiy bias. To survive, we need to be able to see any potential dangers in a situation before we can see the positive. And if we can’t find them, we tend to look for them. After all, back in the Stone Age, what good were those tasty blueberries if you could see the sabertooth tiger that were stalking you from behind the bushes?

Of course, most people aren’t afraid of being stalked by sabertooth tigers anymore. And those blueberries? You can buy those at the local supermarket. But the instinct to see the negative remain, even though it plays out differently these days.

Being a fan is all about strong emotions. A fan relies on not just his or her fandom to strengthen the connection to fan objects and fan texts. Being a fan becomes an important part of the person’s identity, and when the object of a fandom changes, for example as a result of business considerations on the part of the distributor, it can be difficult to see the positives, especially when your instincts always has you looking for the negatives.

The Majority Illusion

Whenever a fandom reacts to something, be it an outside or internal influence, it can often seem to outsiders that the reactions comes from most, if not all, fans in the fandom. This is often also felt by those within the fandom who doesn’t share the same reaction. But more often than not, the spread of such reactions are often blown out of proportions.

A fandom is, by definition, a social network of like minded fans centered around their fan activities. These days, much of the communication between fans in a fandom happen over the internet, quickening the spread of information, and some fans take on the roles of opinion leaders within these networks, with followers listenting to their every word.

Whenever opinion leaders communicates their views to their followes, these fans will not only take these words as the truth, but also quickly believe that these views are shared by most fans within the fandom. It is, after all, easier to listen to what other people say and then parrot these opinions than to use time and resources to find your own, independent opinion.

Herd Mentality

The herd provides safety and protection in a world that can at times feel threating and downright dangerous. For many fans, then fandom gives them that same feeling of belonging.

But the herd can quickly become a congregation, and in some cases, even a religion. And in this congregation, you must have the proper opinions and follow the words of certain prophets to be welcomed.

Fans can react quite harshly to those who do not share their views while still calling themselves a part of the fandom. This is, of course, the road to toxic fandom, where bullying, harassment and even threats is all too common.

The herd may split up over their opinions, of course. Maybe strong opinions leaders disagree over certain details? This may result in a fan schism, which can play itself out more or less painfully, or go over into a full blown fan war. I will write more about fan schisms and fan wars later, but for now, let us just say that a fan schism can be both blessing or a curse, but a fan war, well, nothing good comes out of that.

Can negative fandom be positive?

So, can negative fandom be seen as a positive thing? In some cases. Negative fandom can pressure companies into taking a different course that might be good for the brand. In such cases, it is vitally important to understand the three driving forces behind negative fandom before any action is taken to adjust the brand’s course.

For fans, sometimes negative fandom can bring to light certain aspects of a fandom before it becomes toxic. Adjustments can be made from the fans’ side of things, to turn the fandom onto a positive path before it becomes a problem. Self-reflection and constructive criticism should is always important, and should be a part of any fandom.

So, there it is. The interplay between the three driving forces of negative fandom is something any creator of fandom generating brands should be aware of. Understanding the specific fandom and how it creates and shapes identity is of course critical.

As for toxic fandom, I highly recommend this video by Kyle Sullivan and his youtube channel Trekspertise. It is spot on. Also, I highly recommend Trekspertise’s other videos. Check them out.