I want to make a quick post about “true fans”, the people who insist they’re the real fans of a franchise or character to the point where they will smear and abuse anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Most of us already know how awful this is. The people who do it are trying to become the ones who have total control over fandom. They want everyone to adhere to whatever they decide is best, and they want everyone to admire them.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. Toxic fandom is toxic not only because it hurts people, but because it hurts the very things people insist they’re fans of. With every person that gets driven out of the fandom because they don’t want to deal with abuse, the object of fandom has fewer people to support it. The object of fandom gets fewer pieces of fanart, fanfiction, cosplay, and fewer reasons for the company that actually owns the rights to care. Once the fandom has lost so many fans that hardly anyone’s talking about it, the fandom becomes much much less than it can be. It’s a direct attack on a much loved dream.

There’s another element, though, that’s extremely important to bear in mind.

“True fans” don’t flock to things that are worthless. They don’t abuse people over things that have no value. Abusive fans are horrible to have and everyone would be better off if they stopped being abusive… but they also demonstrate that what they’re being abusive around is meaningful in its own right, and that a LOT of other people can see its worth too.

No matter what happens, how horrible it gets, it’s important to remember that. Past the vile behavior, there’s a wonderful franchise or character that has so much to offer. If that was not the case, abusive types would focus on a different franchise or character with a much bigger following.

This is what really keeps me going in spite of smears and attacks: knowing that the thing I’m getting abused for supporting has a lot to offer.

I’m finding I increasingly need to defend the basic right of fans to disagree with each other without being accused of not being a “true fan”, and I just find that really sad.

It’s one thing to think differently and not like what someone else has to say and think, it’s another to try to restrict who’s accepted as a fan and try to make fandom too toxic and abusive for anyone new to get involved.

“True Fans,” Fandom, and Gatekeeping

If you’ve been active on social media at all, or even taken part in something that would get a lot of spread on social media, you know how volatile people have become.

A lot of people are getting their names and reputations dragged through the mud, receiving harassment and death threats online, and some have even been SWATted (where a fake threat is called to police to get a SWAT team to raid someone’s house – which can result in actual physical harm and threats) and essentially chased out of their homes.

All of this activity can ultimately be traced back to one thing: the concept of a “true fan”, and attempts to dominate fandom and control who is or isn’t considered a fan.

As much as I’ve been active on Twitter, I haven’t been nearly active enough about this on Tumblr, and it’s time for me to say something here.

There is a lot of loaded language wrapped up in this concept, so there’s no perfect place to begin. We have to just jump right in and elaborate from there.

We’ve seen a lot of volatility as of late in fandom everywhere. There’s GamerGate, full of people who insist they’re fighting for ethics in games journalism – when really, the language of most GGers is stilted in things like “fighting the SJW menace” and “exposing <insert female critic, developer, research, etc>’s lies.” Many GGers insist the people they target are “not real gamers.”

When the Batgirl cover referencing the Killing Joke came out, and many people complained and criticized it (I believe rightfully so), many people insisted demands to pull the cover amounted to censorship… and some of the people who demanded the cover be pulled received harassment and death threats, and calls that they weren’t “true comic book fans” or “true Batman fans.”

I’ve experienced this first-hand, of course. Nowhere near to the same degree as so many others have received it. But practically any time where I’ve criticized a company or product or shown concern that something bad might happen to something I love, there will be someone who comes along with this insistence they’re a “true fan,” and that I’m not because I said something they didn’t like.

So here’s the critical question in all of this: what makes someone a “true fan”?

If I buy absolutely anything and everything a company makes, even if they openly insult me as a consumer and all the things I care about – am I a true fan?

If I buy absolutely nothing, never have and never will, and say something needs to radically change into something else before I’ll buy it – am I a true fan?

We know the dictionary definition of a fan, but there are so many individual, personal semantic definitions. One person thinks you’re not a fan unless you defend a company and what it does to the death, no matter how bad it is. Another person thinks you’re not a fan unless you mercilessly criticize everything and show no appreciation. Still another person thinks neither route is correct, that you need a mix.

Or is it something else? Are you a true fan if you play X number of games or read X number of comics featuring something? Are you a true fan if you paid to commission fanart, or write fanfiction?

Depending on your definition, who counts as a “true fan” changes.

Suddenly, a person who’s read comic books about their favorite character for years and bought countless comics and art commissions isn’t a “true fan” because they’re willing to complain about the company that owns that character’s rights.

Suddenly, a woman who makes experimental video games or cares about better representation for women in video games isn’t a “true gamer”, while a man who’s never played a game before and has regularly insulted gaming as a whole is an “honorary gamer” for supporting certain people and playing a little bit of one video game.

Suddenly, people who deeply love and respect something “don’t count” as “true fans.” And here’s the reason: power.

Fiction has cultural power, and whoever has the loudest voice gets the most say in its shape. Whether explicitly or implicitly, most people are starting to realize this.

Want a character to get raped? Silence all dissenting voices, and it might happen.

Want a certain person to quit the video game industry? Send him or her enough death threats, make up things like “she has sex with dogs” or “she’s a rapist”, hack his or her bank account, all sorts of nastiness, and it might happen.

That is the shape “fandom” is increasingly taking right now: smear jobs, character assassination, real life harassment even to friends and family just for being associated with the intended target.

It’s all gatekeeping. It’s all an attempt to take possession of the keys, and then dictate who’s allowed to have them. “You’re not a true gamer unless you accept games as they are.” “You’re not a true Batgirl fan unless you accept her being presented first and foremost as Joker’s victim.” “You’re not a true Polaris fan unless you never complain about Marvel and never worry they might do something bad to her.”

And while it looks recent, this has actually been going on for years. Probably far longer than I’m even consciously aware.

When Anita Sarkeesian launched her Tropes vs Video Games Kickstarter in 2012, she received a wave of harassment and threats simply for the IDEA of criticizing video games through a feminist perspective, suggesting that as great as they are, they can be better.

When a woman working for Bioware said video games should permit a “skip gameplay” option to be able to enjoy only the story, also back in 2012, she received a swarm of harassment for daring to suggest games don’t need gameplay.

This behavior looks new, but it’s not. It’s been a very gradual escalation across several years. It only looks new because most people weren’t watching the horizon and what was slowly spilling over it.

The more people who think this is the right approach to fandom, the more extreme people will become when they get desperate. Right now, GamerGate laughs off the idea that any of the people they target will ever get killed. But is it really so laughable? In the span of 3 years, we’ve gone from internet harassment and some online death threats to women like Anita Sarkeesian, to people getting SWATted, and smeared as supposedly being rapists or fucking dogs or selling their kids for drug money.

All in an attempt to become the gatekeepers of fandom, and terrorize and chase out anyone who disagrees with them. If 3 years is enough for people to turn out like that and think it’s perfectly acceptable, what will 3 more years bring us?

Any time you see the words “true fan”, always, ALWAYS ask: who’s using them, how, and why. We can’t afford to not ask those questions when lives are on the line – right now, professional lives, the ability to actually get a job. But perhaps some day, the ability to continue living at all.