February 18, 2021

“This episode was deeply offensive to Wales and to the people of Wales”; “Your writers have run out of ideas and should all be sacked”; “I’d like to see that Alma Baldwin wielding a truncheon in a patent leather greatcoat”; and every time, without fail, and with no exceptions, “I’m never watching Coronation Street again”.

Opening, reading and sorting the fan mail postbag for Coronation Street at Granada Television was part of my fairly lowly first job in television back in 1997. A novice, I was taken aback at the consistently boiling tone and curious preoccupations of our correspondents. “Have we got a problem?” I asked my boss, wafting a particularly choice collection of scrawled rage under her nose, after the show had recently taken a tumble in the ratings. But she, an old hand, just laughed.

“If a viewer has gone to all the trouble of sitting down to write a letter, buying a stamp and an envelope, and popping it in the pillar box, all for the pleasure of telling you they’re going to stop watching your show — well, then they’re so highly motivated they will never stop watching your show,” she chuckled. “They are fandom. They are the last people we should be paying attention to!”

Back then the internet was in its nascency, only beginning to transition from a hobby into an integrated part of everyday life. It is now a medium so ubiquitous we hardly even think about it, and those born under its shadow probably almost never do. And so my boss’s valuable insight has been lost.

Everything, thanks to the internet, now has a fandom; not just TV shows and pop stars but public institutions, political parties, nations. The fan clubs of old where you sent off for a sticker and a poster are no more. Fandoms are mini-communities, groups of people who don’t just like or enjoy something but who love it, and love it hard.

And in some cases, love in a way so obsessive it’s barely distinguishable from hate. So while almost everybody loves the Beatles, Beatles fandom can tell you exactly where the Beatles went wrong, why, and how they should actually have gone about things.

Fandoms are often very, very mad and sometimes very, very bad. Taking them seriously is ill-advised. Pandering to them is almost always disastrous. And as common culture has fragmented — thanks to audience shrinkage and ever more niche content — the noisy obsessives of fandom have become louder, with some serious consequences, and not just for pop culture. Look at the Labour Party — a mass working-class unionised movement that has been turned upside down by catering to a loud rump of headbangers. It’s not a political party, it’s fandom.

How has this happened? Back to Granada, and those falling ratings. I’ll always remember the long faces and numb horror in the office when Coronation Street dipped below 13 million viewers one night. A significant rung had been slipped, and ITV executives and advertisers were not happy.

Today Coronation Street is still ITV’s big strong ratings grabber. Last Monday it got 5.1 million viewers.

What has happened is that the media landscape has expanded, and then — in the late 2010s — exploded. Far fewer people are watching the same things, and fewer still are watching them at the same time. And yet paradoxically this dwindling has seen a massive increase in the attention paid to the unrepresentative complainers.

The immediacy of the medium of complaint can blind us to these tiny numbers. Your heart will often sink, and you may feel a “what is the world coming to?” twinge in the soul, when you see, for example, a particularly stupid tweet with 30,000 likes. It’s easy to forget that this is a hugely unrepresentative global platform, and that those 30,000 — the size of the population of Chichester — might well be the only people in the world who agree with it.

But in today’s public sphere even smaller numbers have a disproportionate effect. Almost every day in the tabloids you’ll see how “eagle eyed fans took to Twitter” about a TV show. Often all it takes is a couple salty tweets to confect a news story. Ofcom can be “deluged” by “fury” after about 40 complaints.

Over the 20th century we lost a community-based folk culture; the folk songs and myths blasted away by mass technology, religious observance in sharp decline — but at least we had a kind of substitute. We were more often on the same page. Now, we consume in silos — and silos have therefore become fashionable.

Even the megastars of the recent past, Bowie or Elton John, are retooled to appear boutique. The movie Bohemian Rhapsody eulogises the band Queen — who have sold 300 million albums worldwide — as “misfits and outcasts” who “don’t belong”, playing to an audience of the same. At Wembley Stadium.

Queen were like an institution, attracting — like Coronation Street — a huge cross-section of the population. Few things can claim that today, and the smaller that audiences become, the more that those audiences become a febrile mob that can go from obsessive love to hate and back again in seconds.

These are communities that are formed ad hoc around shared, often eccentric, interests; without the scrutiny and self-doubt that leaven most shared endeavours they quickly, inevitably, become little fiefdoms of the ultra-committed. So the loudest, most intemperate, most present voices are amplified and now, crucially, are catered to, as if they were important. Huge corporations quake in fear from tiny numbers of tweets, again sometimes just one — witness Innocent smoothies and Kiva recently jumping like scalded cats after solitary tweets from activists complaining about them for merely following a pensioner labelled as “transphobic”.

Back to the 90s again. The first internet communities — the social media of their day — were the “rec.arts” news groups that formed around shared hobbies and fixations. Looking back, they served as an early warning system, with spats, threats, temper tantrums, sendings to Coventry and castings out into the wilderness. But then at least there was a real world to judge this against, to escape back to.

Today the world is one big newsgroup — rec.arts-reality.com. The real-world social tics that stop polarised factions forming just aren’t present in these mediums. Most people, in the flesh, will want to agree around some kind of careful thought and politeness simply to make any dialogue possible. Remove niceties and things get nasty.

Only the loudest screams are heard and so now the strangest and most extreme views held by tiny numbers of people — that biological sex is not real, that the police should be abolished, that a person’s skin colour makes them irredeemably wicked — are rewarded, reinforced, even protected from being questioned or mocked.

This politics-as-fandom has inevitably started to spill out into the real world. Antifa and the storming of the Capitol are cosplay gone wild in the streets. The Twitter-popular fandoming of the Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn had predictably ruinous results as it slammed into the real world of the British electorate. The zealotry of the EU’s Twitter “FBPE” fandom led the Remainer faction in Parliament to overestimate their hand and blow their chance of a softer Brexit.

In a strange reversal, as politics becomes more like fandom, the fandoms of old have started to behave like political actors. Star Wars fans lobby Disney as if they were a campaign group, as we saw with the recent dismissal of the actor Gina Carano. Fans of K-pop outfit BTS buy out a Trump rally to protest in support of Black Lives Matter. The poor folk band Hanson are forced into making a statement on the issue of which everyone must have an opinion (and the correct opinion) by their demented fans. Ditto with actor Chris Pratt.

And, of course, there is J.K. Rowling.

Arthur Miller famously described the ideal of a good newspaper as “a nation talking to itself”. A common culture, a still centre, should be the cardinal purpose of the BBC. Instead the BBC, like many of its commercial rivals, has run scared, adopting and amplifying the craziest voices because those people are most likely to generate the small number of clicks that seem big in a microcosm.

We desperately need to reaffirm a shared order of meaning. The nerds and noisy complainers have to be put back in their box — I can confirm, as a member of the nerd community, that we were happier there. The special discipline of producing mass popular culture that freely and genuinely reflects its whole audience is being lost, and without it we are obsessing about the oddest things. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Let’s think in big numbers, in commonality, and forget fandom. Thirteen million cheers for the lowest common denominator.