What fandom has taught me about popularity, Pt. 2

Part one was about how a fan’s popularity in a fandom is usually tied to how much they invest themselves into the community, without expecting a return on that outside of their own enjoyment of being a fan. Here in part two, I’m going to talk about why that is so effective, and what authors of original fiction can learn from it.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that people are being genuine in their interactions with others.

Even if a BNF is arrogant or a hypocrite, if the majority of their interactions with other fans are supportive and sincere they will have a following. True, there is a segment of people who will follow a BNF no matter how abusive they become, and yes, there are some unpleasant people who are BNFs by dint of their creative work alone, although in my experience they tend to have repeated cycles of wank where they flounce out of a fandom just to wind up repeating their performance in another. Their fanworks might stand forever as a testament to those fandoms, but other fans will gladly move on and not actually miss the creator that much.

Because what matters, and what sticks with people long after a fandom’s heyday, is how someone behaved. Their attitude might be applauded or derided but what they did, and how they did it, is what is remembered.

Don’t take this to mean that the goal is to please all of the people, all of the time. Some of the most respected and well-loved BNFs I know of have prickly personalities and simply don’t get along with (or even want to interact with) everyone, and more importantly, they don’t even try. But it works for them because they usually manage to steer clear of the behavior that turns fans against creators.

There are really only three basic sins that will turn your own fans against you:

  1. Plagiarism. Don’t do it. More than the legal/ethical issues (which are very serious), fans will look at this as a form of betrayal. Absolutely no BNF who was caught out in plagiarism has ever been forgiven, and most of the time their name is gleefully tossed around with caustic vitriol. No one likes being made a fool, and that’s how fans feel when their fave author turns out to be a thief.
  2. Hostility. Whether it is directed toward other authors or their own fans, a bad attitude directed at others reflects really poorly on an author. BNFs who have gotten into major wanks with other fans and acted like assholes have sometimes managed to salvage their reputations, but it always requires more work than initial establishment does. Take note: it’s not the fight itself that matters, it is how the BNF handled it. Getting angry is acceptable, whereas viciously attacking opponents is not.
  3. Hypocrisy. This one is a bit more contextual, but in the end, it chips away at a good reputation. Whether it is about politics or an OTP or anything in between, hypocrisy will eventually call an author’s good character into question. Personally, I have a real issue with any fanfic author who aggressively protects their own work from transformative use — it is a betrayal against everything fanworks are about, and any author who defends their rights on the basis that it is “my work” is immediately crossed off my list of trustworthy people. There are a million similar issues that people can get upset about, and it is hopeless to try and track them all. The better path is to live your principles and don’t get into a “do as I say, not as I do” groove.

If you go on fandomwank and scroll around, you’ll find that most of the major wanks boil down to one of these three issues. There are exceptions, mainly being ship wars (although I’d pin those under the “hostility” heading, as usually the disagreements become wanks because one or both factions start getting nasty) or cases of mental unbalance causing a BNF to spectacularly crash and burn. Even the infamous LJ Race Fail ’09 became a morass of anger and betrayal simply because some white people did not want to accept criticism, and turned the whole matter into a battlefield. (Pro-tip: If your reaction to criticism is to entrench and lash out, then chances are you already know you’re in the wrong.)

You’ll note I don’t mention “politics” and “religion”, the two major issues that most marketing firms will tell you to avoid at all costs. I’ll come back to this in an upcoming post, but it’s important to mention here because these are not reasons that will turn fans against you. Individually, yes of course; if you are pro-choice and very outspoken, then it is highly unlikely that a anti-choice supporter is going to want anything to do with you.

Maybe.

The thing is, go into any fandom and look around at the profiles. There is a high probability that there is some homogenization — most slash fans are going to be supporters of queer civil rights, it stands to reason. Someone who is against “gay” marriage (aka “marriage” — you know my opinion) will not find a warm welcome in most fandoms and will either leave or go to lengths to not talk about their opinions. But that is not a certainty. Looking outside of fandom at someone like Chuck Wendig or John Scalzi, you see writers who are very opinionated about their politics and yet are followed by a number of people who have opposing views. Not the extreme trolls, who usually get chased off/blocked, but the average person who might not agree still follows on social media and reads their stories.

Because BNFs and pro writers follow the “no hostility” rule, people are willing to engage with them despite differences. What you rarely see (outside of Barry Eisler) are writers who are name-calling and insulting their own fanbase. It’s one thing to be a passionate supporter of an issue, it’s another to go to war with anyone who disagrees with you (again, how ship wars are born). Some can get away with it (Eisler) but they seem to do so with a level of antagonism that rates highly on the entertainment factor. If you can insult people intelligently, support your argument critically, don’t give a flying fuck what people think of you, and write fiction that people eat like candy no matter what you say, then this is a valid path to take. Otherwise, avoid it.

There are more minor things that might turn people off, of course. False modesty, for instance, doesn’t ring very true, and falls under the hypocrisy banner. I cringe whenever a BNF with, say, over 100,000 hits on a story blogs about how talentless they are and how shocked they are that anyone follows them. That’s just fishing for compliments, or worse, an attempt to make people question their own tastes. It’s one thing to be surprised and flattered by people enjoying your work, it’s another to insist that they shouldn’t.

Inconsistency is also problematic, and a fault I’m particularly prone to. I am not that author who updates a WIP every Thursday at 7pm EST without fail. Those who can keep to a schedule like that automatically have 1000 fan-points in their favor; if, like me, doing so is just impossible, then you need to counterbalance with either amazing, awe-inspiring talent (not me) or with a dogged commitment to finish what you start even if it is not done in a specific time frame (me). If you want proof of how this can damage your reputation, think about how accursed the name is of authors who abandoned WIPs years ago. There are a couple of infamous Due South WIPs written in the early 2000s that will never, ever be finished and are known by name by fans because of their disappointment. Most older fandoms have at least one such beast, and if the authors ever show up again, they will spend most of their time explaining why they didn’t finish it, and probably also trying to justify not ever doing so. Most fans will not be impressed, and won’t invest in any new work the writer puts out because of the lingering concern that stories will be abandoned.

Back to the original point, the key is to be genuine in all interactions — do this, and you don’t have to worry about the 3 Sins of stealing, hostility and hypocrisy. People often feel pushed into corners and make desperate choices due to a pathological need to be popular, so step away from obsessing about the end goal and focus on being yourself, being compassionate and kind, and being creative.

 

 

 

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