Fans go to great lengths to publically express their love for the cultural products they worship. They turn their houses into de facto museums. Fans name their children after their favorite TV characters. They marry each other while cosplaying as their favorite heroes. They name their charities after fictional characters. Fans love letting the world know that they are fans.
Many of these popular franchises, however, have existed for a long time, and they inevitably produce clunkers: not every Star Trek movie is good (e.g. The Final Frontier); not every Star Wars story has good acting and direction (e.g. The Phantom Menace); not every Sherlock reboot is fantastic (e.g. there are 15 Hound of the Baskervilles films). The making of terrible products is an inevitable and healthy part of the creative process.
Yet some fans refuse to accept that these bad products are, indeed, bad. They will go to great lengths to “prove” that bad works from the franchises they love are actually good, misunderstood, or that the criticism surrounding them is overblown.
Taste is ultimately subjective. People do prefer less popular products, but it would be disingenuous to ignore the tribalism that factors into this defensiveness. A minority of fans defend shitty products to the point of absurdity and sometimes violent extremes, and it has everything to do with identity.
How do we recognize such defensiveness, and how do we move past it? The answer to these questions could help us build healthier, more decent and kind communities on the Internet.
But first, we have to first go over to the Dark Side.
Um Actually, KOTOR II Was Better
The first Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) video game was a breakout success in the fall of 2003. The Star Wars RPG took the most popular elements of the franchise to build a compelling story that still enjoys appreciation from fans to this day ( i.e., a Jedi-in-training teams up with a ragtag group of outcasts to stop an evil Sith from conquering the galaxy).
The game currently holds a “Very Positive” rating on Steam, and it’s not hard to understand why this is the case: the Bioware game not only broke ground by displaying one of the first LGBTQIA+ relationships in video games, but raised the bar for RPGs in terms of mechanics, narrative, and worldbuilding. GamesRadar has placed KOTOR on its list of 100 best video games ever made, and it’s on many, many more lists. As one of their critics, Lorenzo Veloria, wrote retrospectively in 2012:
“Every encounter in KotOR is a thrill, whether it’s a lengthy lightsaber duel between the Jedi and the Sith or a business negotiation with a slimy crime lord. The story and setting keep you immersed in every world you explore and every character you interact with.”
It was with high expectations that fans awaited the sequel to KOTOR, Knight of The Old Republic II — The Sith Lords. Sequels always hold the dubious task of honoring what made their predecessor good while also breaking new ground. Many studios have tried to make highly anticipated sequels only to produce mediocre products that do no stand the test of time (see Duke Nukem Forever, Bioshock 2, and Mass Effect: Andromeda).
The makers of KOTOR II wanted to break the mold of the OG title. While the first game was an escapist fantasy that replicates the “Hero’s Journey” formula of the original Star Wars movies, KOTOR II attempts to deconstruct this formula by questioning our very concepts of good and evil. The main character serves as a tool to challenge core assumptions of the Star Wars mythos such as the goodness of the Force and the necessity of the Jedi Order. These provocative questions could have made for a fascinating game, but KOTOR II did not meet these expectations. The end product was a poorly-made mess, forever overshadowed by its predecessor.
Obsidian Entertainment took over production from Bioware for the sequel, and the company allegedly had to keep up with a demanding release schedule that compromised the overall quality of the game. The end product was released to the public on December 6, 2004, and it had a host of bugs. This reviewer personally played through the original version of the sequel to prep for this article, and it is not a good game. KOTOR II glitches out way more than the original, and it feels rushed with levels that are short and underwhelming to play. As Kevin Saunders (then a senior designer at Obsidian) wrote of the game’s failure in an April 2005 issue of the magazine Game Developer:
“Given the short production period and modest staff for the project, our goals for number and size of areas, quests, and non-player characters were unrealistic, resulting in some aspects of the final product feeling unfinished. Simply put, we were too ambitious in terms of total content, and this was realized much too late.”
The issues Kevin Saunders brings up are not surprising. Rushed development cycles lead to shitty products all the time. It’s perfectly fine to appreciate the ambitious vision Obsidian Entertainment was trying to create, while still recognizing that commercial limitations compromised the playability of the sequel. KOTOR II had exciting ideas that could not be properly executed, and while that’s sad, the lost potential of this creative vision doesn’t make it a great game.
The frustrating thing about fans of KOTOR II is that they point to the fact that “KOTOR II has something to say” as proof of its superiority. As Phil Owen wrote in Kotaku in defense of the sequel:
“KOTOR 2 is the sort of adventure that manages to haunt long after it’s done — the text of this game is likely Obsidian’s greatest achievement in its long history. It’s a rare Star Wars story for the thinking human, and KOTOR 1 with all its mass appeal can never match it.”
KOTOR II is art, man. It says things about life.
Here’s the thing, Owen, all stories have something to say about life. That’s the nature of storytelling.
Anyone who has watched a student film can attest to the fact that not all “art” that brings up big ideas plays with those ideas well. KOTOR II may have wanted to talk about “real” issues, but for many reasons, those ideas don’t come together.
Whenever we talk about KOTOR II, we end up going down this weird rabbit hole where we have to compare the reality of the end product with what fans believe were the creator’s “original” intentions. One of the first things super fans will tell you to do is install the Restored Content Mod, which was a fan-driven attempt to fix bugs as well as to restore axed content. This lost content includes cutscenes and dialogue options that were removed last minute from the game due to time constraints. This mod is a big deal in the KOTOR II community and is currently advertised on the launch portal of the game’s Steam Page.
There is an opinion among a minority of fans that this mod transforms the entire game. As one fan remarked of the mod on Reddit:
“[Played] 27 times without, 3 times with here. It turns the game from a 9/10 to a 10/10.”
This reviewer has lost hours of their life playing the game, both with the mod and without, and it honestly doesn’t change much. While the mod might make the ending go from being incomprehensible to somewhat coherent, the game is still a difficult slog to play through. It still crashes all the time. The NPC’s still spin in circles for minutes on end. The levels still feel incomplete and underwhelming. As another fan wrote on that same Reddit thread:
“To be honest, as someone who’s played through KotoR II at least twelve times before trying [the Restored Content Mod] for the first time, I don’t see what’s the big deal with is.”
KOTOR II is still bad.
Yet here I am combing through the minute differences between the original version and what is effectively a fan cut. There is a problem here when I have to go to such lengths to critique a work. I have nothing against fanmade creations, but this tactic of “fixing” content seems to be a defense mechanism fans use to absolve a product of its flaws. It allows fans to move the debate away from talking about the thing they love, and more towards critiquing a perfect idea that doesn’t exist; a form of revisionist archeology where fans delicately brush away the dust of reality to find the ideal product sitting just below the surface.
This phenomenon of pivoting critique to an idealized cut is not limited solely to KOTOR II and often happens whenever a popular franchise produces a bad work. We saw the same justification used when the superhero movie Justice League bombed in theaters. 300’s Zack Snyder initially directed the film before being handed over to Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon. For a myriad of reasons (e.g., time constraints, worried executives, Zack Snyder mismanaging the DCEU), the movie did not do well.
Rather than try to understand why this film failed, though, devoted fans launched a petition to see Snyder’s “Original Cut.” I do not think this impulse was about the creative process or holding Warner Brothers accountable, but instead about defending the DC Comic’s tribe to which these fans belong. As the author of this over 170,000-signatory petition freely admits in its mission statement:
“We as members of this fandom have supported WB, DC Films, Zack Snyder, and the cast and crew involved in providing us a movie we love. We have supported the movies distributed in the theatres with multiple viewings and defended DC Films in the public domain when others would seek to damage, insult or condescend.”
Ultimately these edits are about defending the franchise from criticism. Whether these fans are aware of it or not, it’s about saving face. The theater release wasn’t the “real” version. Waste 3 hours of your life watching this edit. It will explain everything.
Director’s cuts and mods are the tamer end of this tribal defensiveness. When there isn’t a less popular version to point to, fans will go to intense, dare I say crazy, lengths to explain away the failings of their cultural tribe.
Let’s pull out our pipes, and get to the bottom of this case.
The ‘Lost Special’ Conspiracy Theory
Sherlock (2010–2017) was a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series written in the late 1800's. The BBC show is about a pretentious, often rude, detective Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) solving crimes in modern-day London with the help of his roommate and partner-in-crime-solving John Watson (Martin Freeman). Showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat oversaw the series. Moffat during this time also managed seasons Five through Ten of the time-traveling comedy Doctor Who.
Sherlock was immensely popular when it first aired in October of 2010. The show had episodes over an hour long that resembled the structure of movies more than that of traditional television shows. The high-production value and humor made the franchise an instant success.
Typically, detective shows are structured as whodunnits. We have a crime. We have a detective gathering the clues. We, as the audience, are also given enough details to potentially finger the culprit before everything is revealed in the climax. This formula what makes famous stories such as Murder on The Orient Express work. We are developing theories alongside Poirot, and we might be able to piece together the truth that there is more than one murderer on the train before the detective.
Moffat’s Sherlock does not operate as a traditional whodunnit. His solutions often come out of left field. The culprit turns out to be a secret government program or a puppet master secretly pulling strings (i.e. someone, somewhere is doing something secretly). We, as the audience, usually have no idea these entities exist until three or four minutes before the climax. In many instances, Sherlock uses his brother Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss), who is a high-ranking member of the British government, to obtain details seemingly out of the blue.
In other words, the TV show Sherlock used the cinematic trappings of a classic whodunnit as icing around a sappy soap opera.
We aren’t meant to solve a crime. We are meant to be entertained by the next twist. The audience was along for an exhilarating, simplistic ride while being told they were watching a modern British classic. This expectation came crashing down with the end of season Four wherein, in traditional soap opera fashion, it was revealed that the person behind EVERYTHING was Sherlock’s secret, evil twin sister.
The world suddenly hated the show because the dissonance between what it is (a soap opera) and what the audience thought it was (a highbrow work of art) became too great. In the words of Vox’s Aja Romano:
“There’s ultimately not a lot of substance behind all of the sturm und drang that has led to this final episode, and there’s even less logic. There is, however, a lot of high drama and plot shenanigans, and much of it is confusing. Full of frenzied plot twists, “The Final Problem” closed out the season and maybe the series with an episode that — if it really is the last — feels like a huge anticlimax that substitutes implausible drama and showiness for meaningful character development and any kind of narrative payoff.”
If you were a heavily-invested Sherlock fan, though, this ending was not only unacceptable, but it couldn’t be real. Sherlock was a Good Show that had to be leading up to something more than a slapdash plot twist.
Some fans speculated that Moffat had secretly filmed a fourth episode that would be aired during the timeslot for the pilot of a new miniseries called Apple Tree Yard. This speculation is called the ‘Lost Special’ theory, and it’s named after a short story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s of the same name.
The “proof” fans gave for the theory was previously mentioned plot holes such as weak character development and inconsistent direction. In the words of user LadyThiggy in her piece titled The Lost Special: The Evidence:
“…the decline in quality of production echoes the original “Final Problem” when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purposefully tanked a story just so he wouldn’t have to keep continue [sic] with the Sherlock stories.”
The plot inconsistencies were, under this mindset, signals of a more excellent story down the line. The Lost Special Theory grew from a disbelief that the show fans loved could truly end this badly. As one fan succinctly put it:
“I mean, let’s face it. Today’s episode was not ‘television history’. But hiding a 4th additional episode in ‘plain sight’ by disguising it as an episode of a mini series…plays into the ‘insane wish fullfilment’ we have been promised? That’s genius.”
The Lost Special Theory is not the first conspiracy theory that fans have relied upon to explain away the artistic failings of their favorite franchises. For example, in the wake of criticism of the new Star Wars films, mysognistic and racist fans pointed to a conspiracy theory that Lucas Films Executive Kathleen Kennedy was engaged in a Social Justice Warrior plot to “change” the franchise. These claims were made, even though all reports indicate that Kennedy has been somewhat slow to bring on diverse talent.
Likewise, when Netflix canceled the mind-bending TV show The OA after only two seasons, fans were quick to speculate that this was a publicity stunt. Fans misconstrued posts on Facebook and Instagram as proof that season three was on its way, despite both the network and the show’s creator being very clear about The OA’s end.
Fan history is filled with such rationalizations. When a beloved property is under attack, defensiveness comes in first, and an explanation arrives later. This rationalization is heavily correlated with identity. This gut reaction has everything to do with how we worship and consume cultural products, and it can sometimes get quite vitriolic.
We Stan The Tribalization Of The Internet
In 2000 the American rapper Eminem released a song called Stan. The song is about the titular Stan who is obsessed with the rapper and believes that the two have a close relationship. The lyrics make it pretty clear that this is a form of unhealthy escapism the fan is using to avoid responsibility for his deteriorating, real-life relationships. He ends up drunkenly driving his car off a cliff. Eminem writes a letter too late, which advises Stan to seak counseling and treat the people in his life better.
Stan was a cautionary tale about the dangers of fandom. It was a warning of how one-sided relationships (sometimes referred to as “parasocial relationships”) can lead to unhealthy extremes. When people first started to use the word, they used it the way that Eminem had introduced it: Stan was a noun for an unhealthy, obsessed fan. The rapper Nas, for example, used it in this way in his diss track “Ether”:
“You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan.”
Over the years, an unusual thing started to happen. The word Stan evolved to be a verb. “To Stan something” became the act of obsessing over a cultural product or brand. One of the earliest uses of the verb Stan is an obscure, unliked tweet in 2008 by user @AuraAintGotTime:
“@followfranz I’m going. I stan for santogold. I may even like her more than MIA.”
As we can see, the word here has lost its ironic, cautionary edge to mean a fan’s intense love for a product. The verb Stan has become immensely popular in the modern day, and it’s almost always used this way. We stan Ariana Grande. We stan Hermoine Granger. We stan Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It’s an all-or-nothing kind of love, and it can lead to rampant harassment.
For example, Nicki Minaj’s fans (the Barbz) infamously harrassed pop culture writer Wanna Thompson after she suggested that Nicki should focus on a deeper, more mature direction. Nicki Minaj allegedly DM’d the writer with a particularly pointed message. Wanna Thompson published the reply and soon found herself involved in the middle of an intense public backlash from the Barbz. According to reporting from The New York Times, fans circulated images of her daughter, as well as spammed Wanna’s social media accounts with death threats. As writer Carrie Battan described in The New Yorker:
“…this modern style of adoration takes place chiefly online, where it is driven not only by jubilation but by fierce defensiveness. Followers pounce on anyone — big, small, notorious, anonymous — who criticizes their idols.”
Many words have been typed about this phenomenon. I have written an entire article on the dark side of fandom culture. Anyone who has followed popular culture has read dozens of think pieces lamenting the tribalization of the Internet, politics, and everything in between. Stans have sent death threats to random nobodies, doxxed Internet celebrities and laymen alike, and called in false bomb threats to teach dissenters a lesson.
While this phenomenon is undoubtedly bad, it would be a mistake to label this tribal defensiveness as something new.
Not too long ago everyone used to stan religious deities such as Jesus, and those who refused to #worship his biography were often canceled from life.
Everything from the witch hunts of medieval Europe to the El Paso shooter are reminders of that legacy. This demonization of ‘the other’ has deep psychological roots. In the words of Harvard Psychologist Professor Mina Cikara during a Cambridge TedX talk:
“Simply acting as a member of a group changes how people behave. In other words, people’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings towards others change when the social context shifts from me and you to us and them.”
There are many reasons for this shift. Groups allow for a general diffusion of responsibility that makes punishing outsiders easier. They also can incentivize the punishment of outsiders to affirm your position within that in-group. That’s what makes clapping back online so appealing. You are affirming your position within a group by putting an outsider down, and the sheer enormity of these harassment campaigns makes it hard to feel individually responsible.
Human beings have belonged to tribal groups for a long time, and for thousands of years, hierarchical communities have punished outsiders and “heretics” for these reasons. The heretics of the modern-day are not dissing the sanctity of Jesus (that’s so 200 years ago, looking at you Nietzche). They are calling Nicki Minaj “immature,” and the modern witchfinders are the intense worshippers of her brand — the stans.
A lot has changed with society — empires have fallen and risen, religions have popped in and out of existence — but the defensiveness is the same. Fans are defending the thing they love because they do not want to absorb the criticism and self-introspection that would inevitably follow.
LOL, Don’t You Want To Change?
When we talk about fan culture, it’s very easy to get into a hamfisted conversation about human nature. Armchair philosophers often claim that humans are naturally prone to violence and warfare. We will hear that it’s in our nature to create divisions — and therefore, these toxic incidents from fandom communities are an inevitability. We need to soldier on and ignore these aberrations.
In other words, “don’t feed the stans.”
This viewpoint ignores the role that our environments play in creating and enforcing such divisions. Humans are not destined to send Nicki Minaj haters death threats or burn perceived outsiders at the stake. A lot of anthropological evidence of modern hunter-gathering societies — which are as close to the state of nature as we can study — reveal that many of these tribes operate under more egalitarian principals. As anthropologist Mark Dyble at the University of College London remarked to The Guardian:
“There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”
Fandom-related hostility is not a product of human nature. Humans are surprisingly chill in their state of nature. The issue here is not the innate toxicity of some fans, but the mechanisms fans use to communicate with the world.
It’s the online platforms that are toxic.
A great example of this is online games. Many of us are familiar with the meme that online video games, particularly shooters, are rampant with harassment. This perception is based on reality. Study after study reveals that a high percentage of online gamers have experienced some form of harassment.
If this behavior were about a few bad apples, then the solution would be straightforward. Nearly every major platform has some reporting mechanism. It would be a matter of booting the repeat offenders from the platform and letting all “the good” players continue to shoot up their peers with fictional ammo. Everyone who has surfed the Internet, though, knows that self-reporting mechanisms are woefully inadequate for addressing online harassment.
Riot Games, the maker of the battle arena game League of Legends, famously conducted a study in 2012 to try to understand the online bullying that was leading so many of its players to quit its platform. The company assembled a team of psychologists and neuroscientists to try to understand this abusive behavior, and they found that the common perception of a “troll” stirring up the majority of trouble wasn’t accurate. As Slate reporter Amanda Hess remarked in 2014:
“Persistently bad-behaving players only produced 13 percent of the harassment on the site; the remainder of harassment was lodged by players whose presence, most of the time, seemed to be generally inoffensive or even positive.”
Intuitively, we know that a small group of demonic shit-stirrers doesn’t cause most lousy behavior online. It comes whenever a person feels entitled to enact violence on someone outside of their perceived group. This outsider could be a person dissing your favorite musician, a reviewer ragging on your favorite game, or, for the many misogynistic men out there, a woman violating a space you perceive to be male.
Riot Games found that making environmental changes to its platforms made a massive dent in reducing harassment. The simple change of switching group chats from an automatic opt-in to an automatic opt-out reduced harassment within group chats by almost 35%. The game is still far from perfect, and recent sexual harassment allegations within the company’s workforce indicate how much more there is to go. This setback doesn’t undercut the fact that implementing changes to an environment is proven to have a significant impact on reducing negative behavior.
If we were to focus more dramatically on eliminating the moral hazards of in-group behavior (i.e. the diffusion of responsibility, the incentive to punish outsiders to emphasize your own belonging within your tribe, etc.), then we could start to solve some of these issues. Imagine how much better fandoms would be with perceived criticism if we created platforms that fostered better communication.
What if sites were more likely to hold users accountable for shitty behavior through practices like hands-on moderation?
What if we removed anonymity, and made it more evident to users that their posts would be stored in perpetuity, regardless of whether or not they deleted them?
Would people still be as likely to make hurtful remarks?
When we look at fandoms from this perspective, the defensiveness and entitlement that plagues the Internet is not a feature of online interactions, but a bug. The dissemination of intense rationalizations and conspiracy theories are a problem that can be mitigated, if only we had the strength to do so.
We keep telling people not to feed the trolls. Maybe, though, the nastiness of some fans has less to do with them being trolls, and more to do with the fact that they live under fucking bridges.
It’s time to build nicer bridges. It’s time to build a healthier Internet for fans.