Geeking In: How online fans are the future of media and media marketing

 

Once dismissed as socially inept nerds, fans are taking the lead as this generation’s most successful creators. While there has always been the odd story of fans who end up taking the helm of favorite TV shows or adapting their favorite work into a movie, many new faces in the entertainment industry are using their knowledge from years of participating in online communities to market to the global internet audience, as well as keeping their own fandoms somewhat in line.

Recent years have seen a boom in the acceptance of “fandom,” that is, a community of fans. Comic conventions have gone from a punchline to mega-events that require a lottery just to get in, there are countless articles on sites like Buzzfeed about “How wrecked were you during the Game of Thrones finale?” and “Seven ways to tell you’re a Cumberbitch.” Even something once as obscure as “fanfiction” has practically become a household term.

So how did we get to this point? Where in the scope of the past decade has it become acceptable to “geek out”? The main answer to this is, naturally, the internet. When the world wide web was still the great unknown to the general public, many fans saw it as a way to gather, creating their own websites or posting their fanwork on sites like Livejournal and DeviantArt. As the internet became more and more accessible, so too did joining in the fun of fandom. That leads us to today: now, many fans who have more or less grown up in these online spaces and seen the shifts in fan communities and interaction, are coming of age and producing their own content with a keen sense of how these communities work.

Perhaps the most public example of this comes in the form of best-seller book Fifty Shades of Grey. Regardless of what your opinion on the raunchy romance is, London-based author E.L. James has been completely upfront with the fact that it began as a Twilight fanfiction. While it is already rare for a fanfiction writer to “make it big,” much less into a novel that has sold over 100 million copies worldwide[1] and spawned a movie series and sex toy line, it’s even rarer for them to actually admit that it began as a fanfic. And yet James has no qualms mentioning it.

“Well, it all started way back in the day when I saw ‘Twilight,’ the film, and I loved those books — I could not put [them] down, absolutely avidly read the books,” E.L. James said in an interview on “Katie,” Katie Couric’s talk show. “This switch was flipped. I had to write — started writing, wrote a novel, then I discovered fan fiction…[I] wrote about Edward and Bella and then decided to write about Christian and Anastasia. I took the fan [fiction], and a friend of mine re-wrote it and I thought — if he could do it, so could I, and now I am here.”[2]

James even goes so far as to put this backstory up on her personal website. Regardless of individual opinions of the book, her success and openness about her past in writing has opened up a new wave of potential writers (and agents) who can see their fanfiction transforming into original works.

In addition to Fifty Shades and other books such as Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, the once heavily maligned group of fanfiction writers are shaping up to be the popular, original novelists of the next ten years rather than merely running fan magazines or writing something for a company-approved spin-off novel.

However, while the internet is just beginning to be seen as a source for new talent, it’s more importantly become a place to take seriously when it comes to marketing. Many fans who grew up in the age of internet fandoms have a keen sense of the international aspect of the web; it’s now nothing special to discuss the latest Star Wars movie with someone in Bangladesh from your home in Seattle with a dissenter from Norway. As a result of this global recognition, they are able to market their work for the internet community at large rather than simply the demographic of a set area.

With entertainment and media becoming more and more global rather than regional, this is an invaluable skill to have.  It’s not enough to appeal to a target audience, but to instead be ready to market it, however indirectly, to the world. One of the most notable, recent examples of this comes from the show “Gravity Falls,” created by Alex Hirsch. While intended for an American audience of 8-12 year olds, “Gravity Falls” has reached worldwide audiences—its series finale, aired earlier this month, clocked in 2.9 million views in the US alone, and the series as a whole has become number one in total views on record for a children’s show[3]. While the show itself was enjoyable to fans, what gave it the extra punch into worldwide success comes from its use of “easter eggs” (special nods to previous episodes as well as other shows) and secret codes hidden in the show.

“I’ve always been a fan of shows that gave little hints to regular watchers, and I wanted to do the same thing with Gravity Falls,” Hirsch said. “But I never expected [the fans] to go so far with it! So I made things harder, and within an hour, they would find the answers to what I’d hidden.”

This mutual understanding of the fans wanting to find things and the creator wanting fans to work hard made it possible for fans to connect even more with Gravity Falls, as well as helped to create a tighter community. With these interactive elements, online communities began to form around the show, and soon enough people from all over the world were discussing and, more importantly, watching the show.

As if this wasn’t enough, Hirsch took his involvement with fan communities a step farther. He has done two Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions on the message board site, Reddit: one as himself and another surprise visit as the main antagonist of Gravity Falls, Bill Cipher. Both of these AMAs gave more dedicated viewers a deeper look into the world of Gravity Falls as well as behind the scenes information straight from the source. Additionally, Hirsh regularly held contests related to “Gravity Falls” on Twitter, offering prizes of personalized messages from the characters (of whom he voices four of the mains) and often displaying all entries on his page, ushering in a sense of community with the creator of the show himself.

As lines begin to blur between social media and entertainment media, online fans are becoming a more crucial demographic than ever to reach out to. And as their numbers increase, more and more communities can spot the difference between pandering and “hype”. As we can see, fame can pop up merely because of involvement with a fandom or because of deliberate marketing based on understanding the current “fandom” market. An example of this comes from game developing newcomer Toby Fox, whose game UNDERTALE became an overnight success. Before UNDERTALE, he was very active in a few different online fandoms. In an interview with The Existential Gamer, he discusses the importance of the Nintendo game Earthbound in his past, because he “was part of an Earthbound fan community and it was a cornerstone of my life.”[4]  In addition to being in the Earthbound community, Fox was well-known in the fandom for the webcomic “Homestuck,” going so far as to have his music included in the series. With the knowledge of fandom mentality and what people look for in independent media, he was able to successfully fund a Kickstarter and produce the game, which itself is full of online and fandom in-jokes, endearing it to those “in the know”. And, given the fact that it’s sold over 1.2 million copies[5] and won “Best PC game” from both IGN and Destructoid—two prominent gaming magazines/sites—as well as numerous other awards during the 2015 gaming award season, the amount of those “in the know” is much more than most would assume.

With the acceptance of fandoms and sheer amount of people participating in these types of fan communities, it’s more important than ever for businesses and entertainment networks to begin studying the trends of these demographics and seeing fans as potential employees as well. The latter particularly seems to be the direction entertainment-focused businesses should consider; not only are fans notoriously creative and attentive to detail, but they know precisely what online audiences will be looking for in way of content as well as advertising. And, as was shown by “Gravity Falls”, a show with a savvy team can create a feeling of community with the fans of their product, letting them know that yes, they’re also fans! They understand the frustration of waiting through hiatuses and know what kind of in-jokes to make for those who look for deeper meaning in their media.

I would say that now, we’re living in the time of the super-fan, and that should be something that is embraced in media circles, from a marketing and hiring standpoint. The more media legitimizes their super-fans, particularly the large number of those online, the more they can begin a symbiotic relationship to gain both views and profits.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/27/fifty-shades-of-grey-book-100m-sales

[2] http://www.examiner.com/article/e-l-james-discusses-twilight-influence-fifty-shades-of-grey

[3] http://variety.com/2016/tv/news/gravity-falls-series-finale-disney-xd-ratings-records-1201711939/

[4] http://existentialgamer.com/interview-toby-fox-undertale

[5] http://steamspy.com/app/391540

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