Fandom, Mob Mentality, and Outsourced Identities
Fandom is a funny thing. We bond over our love of fictional characters, distant universes, meticulous lore, and the way these things inspire and excite us. They bring people of all kinds of disparate backgrounds together. People who have never met and know nothing else about each other have an instant connection on common ground when they find out that they both love Star Wars, DC comics, or whatever fictional property comes to your mind. Meeting someone that loves a character you love, whether it’s Luke Skywalker or Roland Deschain, is like meeting a friend of a very good friend. You automatically share a history. Fans have an awesome ability to come together over just about anything, instantly forming a bond because you both think that even though Picard is awesome, no one beats Kirk (it’s true).
Fandom can bring people together in a great way, because people who otherwise wouldn’t interact have an instant connection and can become close friends or part of a community.
But fandom isn’t limited to just having the same tastes. Fandom opens the door to forge lasting friendships and communities. Fictional properties facilitate lasting human relationships, the sharing of life, and a sense of genuine belonging and being valued by others. We come together as fans, and we can become friends, learning about each other and becoming part of each other’s lives. People meet their spouses this way. Love of science fiction characters can be the start of a closely-knit group that trusts each other in everything. My best friends and I spent countless hours of our formative years driving warthogs and sticking each other with plasma grenades, and when I needed them to drive through four states in the snow and rain to be in my wedding, they didn’t hesitate for a second. People better themselves and their lives because of these shared interests. It is a marvel of human nature, one that fans and creators of these properties should be quite proud of.
The need to belong and to be valued is basic for humans. We can’t thrive without having these needs met. We are communal, we are meant to be in groups. Fandom and shared interests are a great way to facilitate this.
Life is relationships. Whatever we are, whatever our current state, we can trace it back to our relationships. Relationships are a huge part of our identity. We love, and we are loved by, other people. Fandom is often a way to meet and get to know these people that become so important in our lives.
But it goes badly when we let it take too prominent a place.
The value of fandom is that we can make connections with others and meet our basic needs of belonging and being valued within those groups. But sometimes we try to fill these voids with fandom itself. Instead of making connections and valuing and being valued by others, we try to root our value in things we cheer for. We deeply identify as a fan of something, instead of being an important member of a group that shares that fandom in common. Our identity is outsourced to what we like, and it rises and falls with it.
Sharing fandom can be the first step in making real connections with others. But what happens when that next step never comes? What happens when fandom never leads to real connections with other human beings in real life? Humans have a need for community, a need to belong and to be valued by each other. What happens when, instead of letting our shared interests lead to that kind of belonging, we use them as a substitute for that belonging?
We say things like “The Last Jedi ruined my life!”
If you ever come to a place of believing that a fictional property ruined your life, consider the possibility that your life should be on firmer ground. No one’s life should be so fragile that a bit of fiction could send them into hysterics.
I remember turning to my brother in the theater right before the lights went down for our opening-night viewing of The Last Jedi. We’d had some fun in the weeks leading up asking questions and trying to make predictions about what the movie had in store: who was Rey, and was she related to anyone we’d seen before? Where did Snoke come from, and how was he so powerful? As the previews began, I turned to my brother and said “One last prediction: do you think we see Luke’s green lightsaber at some point in this movie?” In hindsight it seems pretty silly. Especially when you consider where Rian Johnson wanted to take Luke’s character, and the main story of Star Wars in general. But I went to see it opening night with my dad and my brother, because loving Star Wars has been part of our family for years, something we can do together. I talk about it with my friends for the same reasons. I really liked The Last Jedi, even though I thought some of Johnson’s narrative choices undercut the themes he wanted to capture. But Star Wars is something me, along with my family and close friends, enjoy, not a determiner of who we are.
If who you are is a function of what you cheer for, you’ll always be a reboot away from an existential crisis.
Mob mentality is the result of this outsourcing.
Once we’ve outsourced our identity to the things that entertain us, we let whatever happens to them affect us much more deeply than it should. Once we’ve invested our identities into our fandom, the stakes are personal and our behavior can easily devolve into something ugly.
We do this for a couple of reasons. One being, since we are communal, we like to belong to something, even if it’s something centered around being terrible to a person or another group of people. It’s easy to get swept up in something that everyone else is doing, even when we know better. But there’s another deeper reason at work. When we outsource our identity to fandom, often our beliefs and moral reasoning go with it. We give up our moral reasoning, because our tribal identity takes over.
A few months ago, when Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director James Gunn was fired from Disney because of his obscene past online behavior, this phenomenon played out predictably. Both Gunn and those that brought his past behavior to light were guilty of morally depraved behavior. And when both sides in a public dispute are transparently guilty, people take sides more easily. Many people thought carefully about the dispute and applied moral principles to the situation in good faith, eventually siding with one side. But many more took sides based on the group with which they most identified. How many people yelling at each other online do you think had really considered all the factors in the controversy and had arrived at a reasoned conclusion for the moral position they took?
In addition to bringing a unique vibe to the MCU, Gunn was (and is) a fierce critic of President Trump and conservative politics. Many of his defenders combined these factors in their praise of him. They were so invested in what he had been saying and the movies he had made, a danger to him felt like a danger to them personally. And while he had plenty of critics operating in good faith, many of his critics simply felt personally attacked when he criticized the President, including those that brought his past obscene behavior to light in the first place. What we saw was an intersection of powerful identities and the lengths people would go to defend them. The most extreme actors on both sides of the controversy don’t represent a clash of moral reasoning. They represent people that lack solid foundations in their own lives, so they seek to form it in things they cheer for, and respond like a mob when the things they cheer for are in danger or might let them down.
What should we do? Make deeper connections via fandom.
This might sound like I’m suggesting we avoid fandom altogether. But that’s not what I mean at all. Like I said at the beginning, fandom can be a great thing that brings people together. But what we need to remember is that we determine our fandom, it doesn’t determine us. Ask yourself: do the fictional things you like add to your life, or are you using them to cope with needs and longings that aren’t being met? Does your fandom help you make connections with others, or do you use it as a substitute for those connections? If your fandom is determining your well-being, then it’s not in its rightful place in your life. Take a step back. Log off, take a break, and have some real face-to-face interactions with someone. Get your friends together, or make new ones. If making new friends is difficult, then this is where your fandom can be put to good use. Find others that share it. Talk to them about it, but don’t stop at discussions of cannon and continuity. Ask them what else they like. Ask them where they’re from, tell them where you’re from. Get to know them as a person, not just as a fellow fan.
Have your opinions, but be others-focused when you share them
There’s nothing wrong with being a passionate fan, even one that has strong opinions. As long as you have good reasons for those opinions and can articulate them in an intelligent way, you’re adding to the conversation. But ask yourself before you jump in to an argument with both feet: who are you doing it for? Does what you’re about to say have any potential to connect you with someone else in a positive way? If not, what is the point? Say what you mean, and mean what you say. But don’t expect any kind of fulfillment from sharing opinions online, even controversial ones about things you love. But if loving those things and talking about them with others helps you form a community of friends, then you know your fandom is in the right place.