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The toxic world of fandom Whether its pop music or politics, fan clubs can easily turn into a febrile mob

Pandering to fandom is almost always disastrous (Photo by Harry Durrant/Getty Images)

Pandering to fandom is almost always disastrous (Photo by Harry Durrant/Getty Images)


February 18, 2021   5 mins

“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.


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

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Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

I have given up on the BBC of late. Sad as there was a time when I listened to R4 all day whilst working and could tell time of day and day from the voice alone.

Then a few years ago I felt an agenda begin to show itself. The BBC is now actively promoting various minority agandas to fit in withnthe way it sees the world. They celebrate “queer art”, minority ethnic groups and everyone but the majority of the population who come from what can loosely be called British.

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Well, queers can be British too, surely. But I had a look at the Radio Times on BBC Genome yesterday, to see the schedules on a particular day in April 1981 (a friend’s birthday). It looked like the BBC has been doing this identity politics programming for a long time. BBC London even had a “Black Londoners” slot. But the BBC have certainly upped the ante on R4 of late. It’s identity politics daily in their schedules.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

What about toxic brands like Disney star wars?
Managing to turn a 40 year love affair with fans into a toxic brand that bangs on about female empowerment but fires a strong female for supposed bad tweets but keeps on writers and promoters who tweet racism against white people?
The hypocrisy is so blatant that they are destroying their own fan base?
Then there is the BBC and Dr who but it’s the BBC and they have been destroying their own brand for years.
It’s not always toxic fans

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago

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.

… yeah. As a huge freaking dork, I can second that. The worst kind of nerds are the kind who take themselves seriously. The fact that the world at large has started taking us seriously has not done anything good to us.

Alex Hunter
Alex Hunter
3 years ago

Thank you Gareth for a very interesting and entertaining read. It’s true that people become very passionate about these things – whether it’s a football team, Dr Who or Jeremy Corbyn.
Thankfully I am not one of them. There are things I care about (Dr Who being one of them) and if they aren’t great (and that hasn’t been of late!) I don’t get het up about it.
Yet every day we can read The Guardian and still people are banging on about Brexit or Corbyn both of which are, essentially, over. It’s quite sad really.
I think the passions mean people can’t accept losing anymore. Loser’s consent is vital to a functioning democracy and ‘fandom’ of various types is causing untold damage.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Hunter

I’ve got to that “losers consent” point myself with Dr who… Loved it for 40 years, and now given up on it and quite happy not to watch the new ones

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

A common culture, a still centre, should be the cardinal purpose of the BBC.”

I think that ship sailed 20 years ago, what with the adulation for “multi-culturalism” that’s overtaken us in that time.

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Yes indeed, I fear that multiculturalism and hyper-capitalism (multichannel TV for example and a million product choices) have atomised society. I for one mourn the loss of this shared common culture.

Fiona Walker
Fiona Walker
3 years ago

A phrase I heard ages ago that encapsulated the “common culture” was that your fifty year old plus milkman would be whistling the current number one single. Happy days.

Chris Mochan
Chris Mochan
3 years ago

An unwelcome modern phenomenon is when popular TV programmes or movie franchises start to communicate with their fandom through in-jokes and unsubtle nods and winks during the show. It’s a particularly annoying way to break the 4th wall and it instantly pulls you out of it. Game of Thrones and Sherlock were particularly bad for it, you can tell the writers had been reading the obsessive accounts on twitter and were trying to curry favour.
One day a major business is going to respond to twitter obsessives and the buzzfeed ‘journalists’ who thrive off them with a two finger salute. Hopefully when nothing actually happens everyone will see that they are a paper tiger and stop pandering.

Carl Goulding
Carl Goulding
3 years ago

Thank you Mr Robert’s you have hit one of the nails right on the head. However, the only way to get the nerds and noisy complainers back in the box is to cut the head off the social media snake and I cannot see that happening anytime soon.

Daniel Goldstein
Daniel Goldstein
3 years ago

It’s a pity that the age of mass culture seems to have passed on. One of my most hated cliches is “viewers took to Twitter” forming the basis of what is loosely described as ‘journalism’. As you rightly point out, Gareth, this is mistaken for mass opinion by the media. Twitter seems to be a bubble of the important, those who think they are important, and those who think their views are important. I’m increasingly convinced that normal people don’t use social media.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
3 years ago

Nice picture.
Do they actually let non-white people attend Glastonbury these days?

bsema
bsema
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

I’ve never seen so many white people.

peter lucey
peter lucey
3 years ago

Thanks for this! I liked “Antifa and the storming of the Capitol are cosplay gone wild in the streets.”
Regarding “Ofcom can be “deluged” by “fury” after about 40 complaints.” that reminds me of the old cliche “switchboards were jammed…”.
A solution is, as I think the author opines, simply not to take all this stuff too seriously. Newspapers are used to wrap chips “and keep their readers warm at night by filling the slats on park benches”. (Auberon Waugh, I think)

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Great amusing and illuminating article.
I completely agree, lets bring people together with common aims and share some love.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago

An entertaining read, Gareth.

It’s the political party barrackers who are the worst. Sport barrackers and pop culture mavens are lightweights compared to the angry hoards of party followers who eviscerate their betes noires then blithely turn a blind eye or fiercely defend identical faults from their own side.

Last edited 3 years ago by Tony Taylor
William Murphy
William Murphy
3 years ago

I love the line about fans being very, very mad and often very, very bad. You see the same mentality in allegedly more “serious” fields like politics and religion.

Just try questioning the sanctity of Mother Teresa, as I have done a few times, and see the holy venom spewed at you. Nowhere can people be so very, very bad as when they are trying to be very, very good.

As for Boris’ deranged fan club….I had an unforgettable on line exchange with a guy denying that Boris was a serial liar. And there was the lady at Tory conference a few years ago who proclaimed that, with Boris in charge, politics would at least be fun. How did she enjoy 2020?