I started getting into anime in the mid to early 2000's. Back then, the internet was slow and everybody wasn't making it super easy to pirate everything. I only experienced anime through either cable TV or DVDs. Both were limited. I remember when Best Buy and Barnes and Noble had woefully small anime DVD sections, when it was extremely rare to find anime at those video rental places that used to be a thing, and that meant that most of my anime-viewing was dictated by just Cartoon Network, and they tended to cancel old shows, change the scheduling, and make new shows at a pace that could give you whiplash. I had to endure changes that made their anime blocks later and later, then anime was taken away altogether and pushed to just Saturday. Then it was given back, but you'd have to endure so much goddamn Family Guy to see your favorite shows, what was the point?
So yeah, the experience of consuming and liking anime used to be a lot more frustrating. I owe a lot of this blog's success to both pirated and legal streaming sites, simply for making anime available on MY schedule and allowing me to see anime I otherwise might not have even heard of, let alone been able to see on TV or get at Family Video in the bad old days. But streaming did change the experience of being an anime fan in a number of ways, not all of them good.
It Makes Collecting DVDs Less Special
Being an anime fan around 2005 or earlier meant being a collector of physical copies of tapes, DVDs, CDs, video games, and manga. Having non-physical copies of these things isn't exactly the same; I don't get to show off my stuff on a proud bookshelf or sexy little CD rack. I can't just use my Steam library of games or my list of purchased TV episodes on Amazon Video as a social conversation starter as easily, and it's harder to lend stuff I like to others as well. I can't just hand my imaginary friend Shirley a DVD and be like "hey, go watch this movie and tell me what you think", not just because Shirley isn't real but also because, while DVDs and Blu-Ray discs still exist, they aren't my go-to medium for viewing stuff anymore.
Us collectors are like librarians or curators; we like not only owning stuff, but organizing it, taking good care of it, and sharing the experience of it with visitors and friends. But my impulse to collect games, videos, manga, and so on has diminished in the age of streaming. Oh sure, I still treat myself to DVDs, especially when I know it's something I'll want to watch over and over again. But there was something more special about anime DVDs back when they meant:
- You could get stuff through them you couldn't get on TV.
- Your collection would express your tastes and let you share your passions with other fans.
- You had a bulwark against network cancellations or schedule changes (like when CN put Inuyasha on at like 4am).
It used to be a lot more special to have DVDs. Now it just feels like paying too much for an environmentally-unfriendly bit of plastic. Although they still have a feeling of permanence and stability you're unlikely to get from digital files, in the future, it's likely that most of my media will be in digital files. My books and music already are. Confusingly though, I still like to buy DVDs. I like having the choice, rather than having it forced upon me (either buy a DVD or don't see this new show at all). But, it does kind of mean that "fandom" is no longer synonymous with collecting physical things, to the extent that it once was.
In some ways this might be a good thing. It takes the focus off of consumerism and puts it on love, creativity, and the collecting and sharing of information, rather than physical things. But it does mean that my experience is not quite the same.
It Makes it Harder to Keep Up With Anime
I had big ambitions to follow this summer's anime. I had done a cursory peek at all the new shows, watched the first episodes of about 10 of them, and... nothing happened. Well, not nothing. What happened was I got preoccupied with work, then with Game of Thrones, then with Bojack Horseman. Now, I can work on my back log for summer, and it's already fall. And I have no clue what's out as far as fall anime right now. None.
Is this streaming's fault, anime's fault for not being as good as it was in the golden age when YuYu Hakushos walked the Earth, or my fault for having lost touch?
Well, I would say streaming definitely adds to the problem. I have so much anime available to me from various streaming sites, and we're seeing more and more simulcasts, so that whatever's hot in Japan gets to the U.S. nearly instantly. And that's exhausting.
See, back around 2005 (I keep using this year because that was around when I went from casual anime watcher to hardcore anime fan, and multiples of '5' are fun) like I've said before, it was all dictated by what was on Adult Swim or Toonami and what was available on DVD and that was it. So all I had to do to keep up with anime was watch Toonami, watch Adult Swim, and regularly check stores for new DVDs. Easy.
Now, new anime could end up on Amazon Video, Netflix, Crunchyroll, Funimation, or even the dark place, Hulu. There are many shows coming out each season, and many sources of new anime to watch, many of them exclusive to one site or the other. Sure, it's neat to see so much new anime happening all the time, and it's cool that I can watch it whenever I want to, instead of being beholden to some mentally unstable TV network, but damn. Appreciate for a moment how much harder it is to keep up with everything and miss nothing in this brave new era. Thank you.
It Makes the Anime Fandom More Fragmented
One thing that was surprising when I got into anime fandom was learning that not all anime fans like the same shows. Sometimes that's frustrating, even sad. I can go out of my way to make a killer costume and go to a convention where no one gets my costume, and likewise I could see hundreds of costumes at conventions from animes I don't watch or fandoms I'm not part of.
But when I think back to the years I was in high school, it was much simpler. Since like I said, the supply for anime was so limited and controlled largely by Cartoon Network, conversations about anime were usually conversations about whatever was on Adult Swim or Toonami last night. And those were great conversations, that you could relatively assume that anyone with any interest in anime, however casual, would also take part in.
But now, people are insulated in their online communities built up around specific shows, making anime fandom less of one community and more like a loosely allied federation of hundreds of smaller fandoms.
You Can Feel Punished For Doing the Right Thing
Back before this epic height of online streaming, you pretty much had to buy, rent, or borrow DVDs. Then internet piracy took off, and in response to it, the anime industry made streaming anime available through legal platforms like Crunchyroll. But the fact remains that the piracy, while illegal and immoral, remains for some people their only way to access certain shows. Streaming is also expensive. It used to be that, as a community, we could share the DVDs among ourselves, or trade DVDs for other DVDs, art, or small amounts of cash. This gave poor people more access to anime, and built a collectivist community mindset among fan groups.
With streaming, it's more of an "every individual for his or her self" thing. You don't trade your Xena for their Inuyasha anymore, it's all digital, what's yours is yours and what's theirs is theirs, and if you want something, you buy it or pay for access to the site that's hosting it. This hurts people who lack resources the most. I'm not saying people are forced to stream or download illegal copies of content, but there are many people who can't shell out 7.99 a month whenever a new site, channel or service pops up.
When I paid for a DVD back in "the day", it felt like a joy and privilege. I was adding to my anime collection. I was giving myself a treat. Now, paying for anime on streaming sites feels like a chore, like I'm being punished for being honorable. It's less fun to pay for anime, even if you know it's good to support the creators, when you know you could easily get whatever you want for free, any time. It feels like a chore and an obligation, when it used to feel more like treating yourself to something fun, like a good beer or new clothes. Now, it's basically donating to charity; something that we do because we want to do the right thing, and be seen doing it, but not because it gives us any real benefit or pleasure in return, other than kind of intangibly feeling like a good person.
It Made Anime Less Niche
I'm not sure if streaming made anime more mainstream, or if anime becoming more and more popular made companies realize they could make money by offering it to stream. Probably the latter. But one thing I know is that anime streaming makes more anime available to more people, and that's awesome. But, it also means being an anime fan takes less work, because of this new accessibility.
Since it takes less work, doing it is less special. You're simply choosing to consume something readily available to you. There's no chase in it anymore, no thrill of the hunt. People have been saying the same thing about comic book fandom of the 80's and 90's compared with today. When hidden gems become abundant fruits, it kind of becomes less fun to chase after them. And being a treasure hunter loses meaning as a marker of one's personal identity.
It's not bad that anime has gotten so popular. But it does make identifying as an anime fan seem less cool, because it's no longer a small, misunderstood, cool little niche. Anime is the public now. Anime is everywhere, it is mainstream, and it's only getting more popular each year. This has been beneficial. It makes fans less likely to be misunderstood, outcast, belittled, teased, and bullied. It means anime fans no longer have to deal with harmful stereotyping, because so many people now watch anime who are far removed from Otaku nerd stereotypes. But, like I said, it makes it seem less cool to be an anime fan, because it's cool to be different from the mainstream herd. It used to be like you were in on a little secret, and now the secret is pretty damn open.
But There Are Benefits
But, even given all of what I just said, I still love anime streaming. I wouldn't want to go back to the days when my library only had Fruits Basket manga, or when I had to shell out $39 for what Best Buy considers a "sale" just to see a show in order and all the way to the end after Cartoon Network dropped it in favor of some asinine stoner comedy cartoon. Streaming is technologically head and shoulders above using DVDs, and it's clearly not going anywhere.
We tend to think the ways media are transmitted to audiences are inconsequential, neutral, and technical. But the specific methods by which people experience an art form have a profound impact on how it's viewed. It changes the way people who view it form communities with each other and emotional attachments to the works.
Going forward, what I really miss about DVDs is how easy they are to share with friends. The act of lending or trading for DVDs used to be a big part of my life as a fan, and it helped me connect with other fans in a way that's not really as easy in a more digital era. The good news is, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are still an option. I just hope that technological visionaries in the future understand that technical improvement is important, but so is keeping alive that spirit of community that is shared by fandoms.