Outrage Porn and the Commodification of Fan Spaces

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This is great.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do.

There’s a lot to it, not all of which I agree with, and much of it comes from a very different culture than is the river in which I generally swim (to borrow a parlance from Gary Panter).  I don’t put much stock in the idea of queer-baiting, for instance (at least as it relates to properties like Sherlock and Supernatural; which, it seems, have an established interpretation that a small, but vocal subset of fans choose to ignore, and then get mad when the show does not legitimize their reading).

To me, the important point is the degree to which the passion of fandom can and does become commodified.  And not in the usual sense of the people who sell us t-shirts and Enterprise model kits.

What’s different now is the people who profit off passion in the form of controversy: the outrage machine and its click-based profit motive writ large over nerd culture.  Make no mistake, it’s a business to these people.  They need your shares.  Which is why the manufactured controversies are becoming more frequent and less substantial with each new cycle.

Just look at the recent example of Barb and Stranger Things. In all other respects, the recent Netflix prestige series is celebrated as a well-written and even female-friendly show.

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Justice for Barb, I guess?

Not every character can be the hero of the story.  Audiences intuitively understand this.  If the story were about Barb, it would require its own sacrifices, characters cut down before their time, just as unfairly as Barb was.

But it’s not about story, it’s about politics.  And our politics are about our passions.

I have my own theories on this.  I believe it goes way beyond fan culture.  The world is a messed up place.  People have legitimate grievances.  And voicing those grievances in the form of theoretically righteous indignation feels good.  So good we might actually be addicted to it.

Just look at this data, from Weibo, the Chinese social media platform that’s essentially China’s Twitter.  It indicates anger spreads faster than any other emotion in web sharing.

We’re becoming increasingly segmented – victims of the bubble – and the controversy-makers pit our bubbles against each other to drive traffic and ad revenue.

And believe me when I say, they’re counting on your addiction.  Controversy-peddlers don’t care about your issue.  In fact, in many cases, they’re actively opposed to it, or have a vested interest in trivializing it.  That’s how thousands of fans end up going after Nick Spencer for (allegedly) making Captain America a Nazi.  That doesn’t benefit them, however legitimate their grievance might (or might not) be.  It benefits advertising revenue, and possibly Marvel, who keep their product in the public eye and at the center of the conversation.

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Seems legit.

So what do we do about it?  Unlike the author, I don’t believe we can put the genie back in the bottle.  Nor do I think it would be morally or ethically right to return fandom, and its otherwise voiceless groups, to safe spaces only, free from economic exploitation.  I think it might be foolish to even think those spaces exist.  The suits know about Tumblr now and they’re not likely to forget fandom’s home address.

The best thing we can do is talk about it.  We need to be aware of ourselves caught in the gears of the outrage machine.

No one can tell you what issues should or shouldn’t be important to you.  There is injustice in the world, objects worthy of your ire.  But next time, before you click share, it might be worth asking, “Who benefits?”  Because it might not be who you think.

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