What's Toxic Fandom, and What Creates It?
Oh, fandom. Sometimes, you are a joyous celebration of Hello Kitties and Pickle Ricks. A cute little online festival in celebration of a beloved fictional universe. Other times, you are an unbelievable inferno of refuse, from which no 'casual', 'normie', or 'Muggle' is safe. Which raises questions like, when does fandom become toxic, negative, even destructive?
What causes this?
What is the line between healthy fandom and toxic fandom?
Is every Sufficiently Popular Thing doomed to toxic fandom out of the sheer numbers of fans?
Do some parts of pop culture tend to breed more toxic fans than others?
How should creators and non-toxic fans respond to toxic fans?
Let's get into first the differences between healthy, appreciative fandom and negative or toxic fandom.
The Ingredients of Toxic Fandom
Possessiveness, entitlement, and a feeling of superiority are the three main ingredients in the toxic fandom stew.
Possessiveness means that the toxic fans feel like they own the content they're fans of, that it belongs to them, and only to them. They see the thing they're fans of as a territory or property they own. The non-toxic or respectful fan instead recognizes that the fact that they appreciate something doesn't entitle them to ownership of it.
A good example of possessiveness is seen in the toxic fans of pop idol girls in Japan. The girls are stalked and harassed by fans who act entitled to control the girls they are fans of. So if a girl makes a decision that displeases the fan, the fan will attack, threaten, and harass the girl. This is bred out of a mentality of possessiveness, control. A good fan will respect, admire, and praise something or someone, without attempting to control the persons behind the thing they like.
Entitlement goes right along with possessiveness. Since in their mind, they have a sense of ownership of the thing they are fans of, the creators of that thing must do whatever they the fans demand. For example, they may demand a particular romantic pairing or 'ship' to happen in a show, and be furious enough to send death threats to the authors if this doesn't happen. A good fan, on the other hand, may request something or think 'it would be nice if they went in this direction', but accepts that sometimes creators won't do what they want. A good fan accepts not only that they don't own the content they're fans of, but also respects the rights of creators to decide the creative direction of their own work.
Then there is the feeling of superiority. Toxic fans feel superior to other fans who are less intense/obsessive, who are often labeled 'casuals'. God help you if you wear a t-shirt of a show and don't really obsess over said show in a really big way. They also feel above non-fans. Calling non-fans 'normies' or 'Muggles', or having some other derogatory fan-speak word for them, is a tactic that makes fans feel like they're part of an exclusive, elite club. Toxic fans often complain about exchanges where they share their passion with non-fans or casual fans, because these people are considered dumb and shallow, unable to "get it", whatever "it" is.
Instead of this, healthy fans accept non-fans and don't mind the fact that different people watch or like different things. The toxic fans' sense of their own superiority to non-fans and casual fans comes from an association by them between fandom of the thing they like and intelligence or depth. The sad thing is that the fans who screech the loudest about how smart liking something makes them are actually the least intelligent of the fans of that thing. But they're also the most likely to get media attention, even if they're a small minority within the fandom.
The Persecution Complex Inside All Toxic Fan Cultures
Toxic fan culture develops in what are known as internet echo chambers. An echo chamber is a space anywhere, often on internet forums or social media groups, where dissenting opinions are not tolerated. This means the group has a conformist, herd-like mentality. Everything they do and say feeds their in-group preference and out-group bias. When an outsider comes in and accidentally makes a faux pas in one of these groups, they are usually rudely 'educated' or just simply banned. This feeds the cultish fanaticism of the toxic fans. It empowers them and emboldens them because they feel like a large group of people agree with their views. And however small of a viewpoint within a fandom, you will find sizeable niches of people who hold that viewpoint.
Many people also come from a place of being bullied or socially excluded due to their fandoms. This makes the fandom for them an important central part of their identity. Their self-concept is shaped by the fact that their fandom makes them an outcast. To rationalize this exclusion, some people get it in their heads that it was caused by the jealousy of inferior intellects. Unable to grasp the Cool Intellectual Thing the fan is into, these inferior 'normies' lash out at fans out of jealousy or ignorant misunderstanding. Rick and Morty's more toxic fans see it this way.
But they're not the only fans who think:
- The Thing I Like makes me Special.
- I am being bullied because of being Special.
But in some cases, they are the ones who hate on others for things they like. They might be a girl who hates other girls for liking makeup, or a self-professed 'nerd' who makes fun of sports fans. I used to be like this, because all teens are assholes, just in different ways.
The problem is that, when bullying occurs, the fear of it reoccurring makes the victim hyper-vigilant. That fear can drive people to do some crazy things, and to develop a paranoid outlook, making them overreact to all criticism of themselves or the things they like. Out of fear of being bullied, some people end up preemptively bullying others. Or doing disproportionate things in retaliation.
The conflict creates a sense of self and community that is tied to the in-group, the 'safe haven' of the fan community. Online, these groups pat each other on the back for liking The Thing, and not only that, but having the group's particular orthodox opinions on it, and for participating in conventions, contributing art and fan fiction, and so on. People get addicted to the attention and validation these online niches can give them, especially if the outside world is less friendly. That leads them to extreme in-group loyalty and extreme out-group hatred. They can get so caught up in their fandom that they stop caring about people outside of it.
What Should We Do About Toxic Fandom?
It can be very difficult for a normal, rational member of a fandom known to the outside world for its toxic behaviors. It's hard to confront toxic fan behavior or toxic fans, easier to just ignore them.
One problem is that attempting to confront toxic fans results in further withdrawal into echo chambers, and further alienates them from society. This fuels their persecution complex and accompanying false sense of superiority.
Sometimes, ignoring them might be the best policy, to save your sanity. Confrontation may result in a nightmarish, circular argument, or them wrongfully calling you the bully or harasser. It could lead to them bullying or harassing you. If you ignore them, you're exercising positive reinforcement. Attention is a reward, and you show that only people who meet standards of decency deserve your attention. Also, you don't have to respond to everyone on the internet who has a different opinion than you about a work of fiction. You can let them think what they want to think. You can block, delete, or ignore negative people on most social media networks. If it's a group, report that person to the group's admins.
When should you confront someone? If they're going beyond simply having an opinion on the internet, into the world of death threats, harassment, and stalking. This website, Privacy Rights, has some good information about how to deal with those issues. Check to see if the person is in violation of the site's terms of service. Usually, stalking, harassment, cyber bullying, and doxing (making private information about a targeted individual public) are against most website's policies. You don't have to put up with that, it may be illegal in some cases, and at the very least it should get them banned.
Similarly, always call out toxic fans in the world outside the internet. Conventions are a great place to speak out about the conduct that you find unacceptable regarding fandom. Conventions aim to be safe for all participants to have fun. If someone is being very rude or negative, they're likely to be kicked out. You don't have to fight them, simply tell convention staff or security about the person's behavior. When going to a convention, it helps to read their policy on harassment online. That way, if an incident occurs, you will be able to point to how the person's conduct is a violation of the convention's policy. Conventions usually have rules against sexual harassment, threats, and any aggressive or unruly behavior, and staff take misconduct very seriously.
The bigger issue is how do you separate yourself, a rational fan of The Thing, from the toxic people the fandom is known for? Fandoms only ever seem to get negative publicity. Maybe that's because 'sex and violence sells' applies to news as well as fiction. Should you hide the fact that you like a thing because some people who also like it did something shitty? I don't think so. You can simply say, yes, I'm a fan of that too, not all of us are like that. And in most fandoms, the majority of fans are actually really great people. They just don't get any attention from the media and on social media for being nice. But the more you advocate for yourself, the more you will help other people see the positive side of your fandom.
Fandom is simply when a community forms around shared liking of something. Toxic fandom is when this becomes a bad thing, which can happen in a myriad of ways. Usually, toxic fandom involves not just obsessiveness, but becoming a danger to others in some way, or just really mean and intolerant toward people the toxic fans disagree with.
Everything that has fans, has toxic fans. But some things seem to have more toxic fans, or more cases where toxic fans acted out, than others. This has to do with the kinds of people the fictional work in question attracts. Harry Potter attracts misfits who want to feel special, different from society. Rick & Morty attracts people who think they're smarter than everyone else. These aren't bad fictional works, and the fiction's creator isn't to blame for how fans act. But certain works of fiction can have characteristics that ignite toxic fandom flames. Having a likeable asshole character, for example, makes certain fans identify with that character as an excuse for their own asshole behavior.
Sometimes, it takes realizing that jerks are everywhere, and you might as well try to get good at ignoring them.