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Archive for June, 2014

In the wake of this week’s absolutely ridiculous IKEA fandom misstep, I feel moved to get down on screen once and for all how to properly handle a disagreement with your fans. Here it is, folks, what to do when your fans are engaging in activity you’re not sure about.  Without looking like a complete idiot.

Lets say you are the owner of a fan object, and your legal department tells you a superfan is using your brand name in a way you can’t control. Maybe you find out your fans have created a “Squishable Trading Post” to swap your after-market plush designs. Or let’s say a fan has started “World Nutella Day“, a celebration of your dessert-turned breakfast chocolate spread. Or perhaps they’ve started a website called “Ikea Hackers” showing the universe how to rework your terrible terrible furniture to be useful.  Do you have the right to be concerned? Yes! Its scary to know you’re outsourcing your brand identity. And hey, you employ all those shmancy lawyers (or in Squishable’s case, a dude named Charles who sometimes does lawyer stuff after lunch). You gotta keep them busy somehow.

So how can you disentangle your brand from your fans’ acts of love with finesse? Without looking like that idiot who loves kicking puppies? Puppies who incidentally make you a lot of money? Before you make a move, stop.  Just stop.  Think for a second.  I know it feels exciting and proactive to send that cease-and-desist, but many a brand meltdown could have been avoided by a deep breath and 5 minutes of introspection.  Your fans have a vast communication platform at their disposal, potentially a much wider one than you do. The second you react they’ll put the gears into motion spreading the word about your actions. When that happens you’re no longer in control, and throwing good intentions after bad won’t help if you change your mind. You can stop your fans from doing what they’re doing, but you can’t stop them from letting the world know you’ve stopped them from doing what they’re doing.

Put aside the legal ramifications for just a minute.  Put aside your corporate policies, not to mention your ego, and think.

1)  Is the activity your fans are engaging in actually harmful?   Or is it just scary?  Is it actively hurting your brand, or are you just nervous it might at some point? What are the benefits you’re receiving from their activity?  Is it giving the product free publicity, like World Nutella Day? Giving your brand a new platform, like the webcomic ‘Miss Officer and Mr. Truffles‘ – which came from a simple news photo? Is it providing your brand with a sexy new context, like when hipsters decided to rebrand PBR on their own (“PBR is authentic American that shows solidarity with the working class” beats “It’s cheap” as advertising any day).

If your only answer is free publicity, you might have some ground to stand on.  “But we’re giving them free publicity!!” is the excuse used for all sorts of blatantly criminal behavior, from pirating movies to plagiarizing writing.  But if your answer starts edging into context creation, you might want to think again.  Ikea Hackers isn’t just bringing the joys of awful furniture to a wider audience, it’s showing the existing audience new ways to desire it. That’s the equivalent of discovering that not only are your teddy bears comforting, they’re edible as well! This sort of activity makes the brand itself more valuable. If you move against them they’ll be seen as victims who understand your own brand better than you do, and rightly so.

2) Are the actions you’re about to take consistent with the philosophy your brand claims to embody? The cult TV program Firefly is about a renegade starship crew and their fight for freedom against an uncaring bureaucracy. In 2013, Firefly’s owner Fox began sending out cease-and-desist letters to designers of Firefly hats on the grass-roots crafting website Etsy. What ensued was an uproar which might seem out of proportion to what, with an audience of consumers, might be a straightforward matter of defending copyright. But that neglects the deeper truth: fandom is the result of a tenuous compromise. No matter the level of loyalty to a brand, the true loyalty is, not to the fan object, but to the concepts which it represents. When a gap opens up between the values a fan object claims to embody, and the values of the fan object as commercial entity, this delicate balance is upset.

Are you really ready to force your fans to remember that you’re just a soulless corporate entity?  I mean,  fans do know it somewhere deep inside, but do you really want to shove it in their faces?  If you’re a brand like Abercrombie & Fitch, where warm fuzzies play no part in their brand context, then fire away!  But for most of us it’s not that simple.

3)  Do your actions respect your fandom’s social hierarchy? Modders who update their XBoxes so that they can play any game they want are considered the creme-de-la-creme of the Xbox gaming community.  It’s a tricky skill, one that takes time to learn.  So when Microsoft decided to ask the Department of Homeland Security to start arresting XBox modders, the community was rightfully taken aback. As a dog owner, the only metaphor I can think of is the turmoil that ensues when you accidentally feed the Alpha second. Superfans have their peers’ respect, they have a platform, and they have a lot of people who owe them favors. Your general population is going to react negatively if you start insulting their role models, the people they themselves have chosen as leaders. The superfans have their hearts. You only have their money.  Guess which one is stronger.  (Also, apparently Microsoft controls the Department of Homeland Security? Is anyone else really creeped out by this?)

4)  Is this an issue that could be solved through some kind of partnership?  Instead of fighting this situation, can you perhaps absorb it?  Bringing fan activity in-house is almost always a win.  For the fan it gives them the status they deserve.  For you, there’s the twin benefits of ready-made context development, and also control over the activity in the future.  So many fan kerfuffles could have been solved by partnering with the offending organization, as Nutella eventually, grudgingly, decided to do with World Nutella day.  XBox lost a chance to pick the minds of the best modders in the business.  Ikea has lost a born organizer and leader in the coveted community of do-it-yourselfers.  Don’t fight your fans, hire them!  Miley Cyrus did.

5) How about…just asking the fans to add a disclaimer?  You remember disclaimers, right?  The default method of explaining that a fan’s activity isn’t representative of the official brand?  That little snippet of text that used to be the answer to this problem for hundreds of years before lawyers got bored? “This thing is not affiliated with, funded, or in any way associated with that thing”?  You know, that really really easy solution that makes everyone happy? Ask them to add a disclaimer. Jeez.

6) If you truly decide that you despise the activity going on, you can ask them to modify content. Not their business practices, not their ownership, the content.  That way the fans can continue being fans, you don’t lose the extra context, and neither of you has to, say, go to court.  Is a fan-made forum for World of Warcraft suddenly full of racial slurs?  Before asking them to shut down their huge platform with thousands of completely innocent users, how about asking them to…stop using racial slurs?   Yes, there are many mentally unbalanced folks out there, people with no middle gears, people who love to play at being an outraged martyr every time there’s a suggestion to show just a little respect. But believe me when I say they’re few and far between.  And if the choice is between a little  modification and complete obliteration, very few will pick the latter.

7) Only once you’ve tried every single one of the above, and tried them truly, in good faith, should you unleash that cease-and-desist. The moment you hit send, be ready for that fan backlash. Start monitoring all your channels, and not just your own but every arena where you know your fans congregate. Get your whole team online and start answering questions. Every single one – every facebook comment, ever tweet, and at least read every blog and tumblr post even though commenting on them might be stalkerish. Do it with compassion.  Do it with humility. Do it with embarrassment.  Explain you’re only acting this way as a final resort.

It’s no hyperbole to say you are messing with your fangroup’s very core and self image – the way they spend their time – so don’t be a dick about it. Your fans have the right to be outraged, and any hint of high-handedness or disconnection will pour gasoline on the flames. Black Milk recently made itself a laughingstock by igniting a fan-war over a completely trivial post on their facebook page.  Instead of explaining themselves, or even asking for fan input, they chose the “no, you’re wrong and incidentally you’re banned for disagreeing with us” approach.  It went over great.

Show your fans that you’re there for them, you’re listening to what they have to say, and that you understand how they feel even if it won’t change your mind.  Tell them why you had to do it. Tell them how much they still mean to you.  Handle this like a breakup where you know its your own fault: It’s not them, its you, and you’re really really sorry. Because if you’re not, believe me…you will be.

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When My Little Pony was relaunched in 2010, most everyone in the know (granted, a small group) suspected it would be a success.  A bunch of recent studies had shown that young girls preferred ‘social play’, play that mimicked the emotions of interacting with others in a group.  For a toy industry with desperately low profit margins this was pure gold.  Girls had been heavily targeted  in the past – often by coloring boy’s toys pink – but rarely captured for long. The impact of the study was fast and friendly: Dora and Friends. Lego FriendsDisney Fairies. Franchise after franchise scrambled to re-imagine themselves as a community of characters.

My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic had an advantage right out of the gate – their legacy already included themes of loyalty, morality, and friendship.  Animation icon Lauren Foust developed a group of characters with complex personalities and quirks. It was a serious improvement over the “prissy blond princess/earnest red-haired nerd/sassy sporty ethnic person” trinity most shows settled for.  Her “flash” style of animation provided the visuals, audio came from an exceptionally, almost unnecessarily talented cast of voice actors. The results were good. Really really really good.

We really shouldn’t be surprised that unexpected groups immediately started noticing just how good My Little Pony was. Social Play might be intended to match the learning styles of a 5 year-old girl, but it’s catnip for other folks as well.  Like lonely 20-something men.  MLP has a writing and animation style that’s more than sophisticated enough for older age-groups, and a theme of caring, understanding, and belonging that’s pure wish fulfillment for the socially awkward.

Even saying the word “Bronies” out loud in the right company can be enough to get a laugh. Really! Try dropping it into conversation tonight when you’re at the bar.  If your friends don’t know what a Brony is, explain that these are adult dudes who are really super into a show aimed at little girls.  Then watch their noses wrinkle in disgust and their fingers curl . There will be nervous giggling. Ewwwww.

Now, there will never be a great romance movie about zombies. Real zombies, the kind with organs hanging out. But there will always be room for another romance movie about vampires! That’s because, weird though blood sucking might be (mosquitoes aren’t especially debonaire), there’s something very human about using another person’s body to fulfill our appetites. Not so for zombies, based off of humanity’s deep-seated stigmas against rotting corpses and disease!  Nothing tips off our “Argh argh argh” response like a sick person touching us, and nothing in the world freaks out our primeval lizard brains like a dead body. After all, whether the cause was berries or a saber-toothed tiger, you might be next!

Like Zombies, Bronies hit at two of our very core taboos as a society: fear of being non-age appropriate, and fear of violating gender norms. It is wired, actually wired into our primeval mammal brains to distrust an adult who behaves “childishly”. Our subconscious asks, what else might be immature about them? When a child behaves inappropriately they can be disciplined (or at worst, out-run), but that same behavior from a full-grown adult might be dangerous. Our brain protects us by providing that creepy feeling. Danger. Get away.  Ewww.

It is not hard-wired into our heads to fear gender fluidity – lots of cultures have no stigma attached to it at all.  But, at least in the U.S., where My Little Pony originates, the cultural norm of “Guys do guy stuff, ladies do lady stuff, mix the two only for laughs” is still going strong.

These are the wrong reasons to hate Bronies.  While fear of age-inappropriate behavior is hardwired into our heads, and rightly so, what constitutes age-inappropriate behavior is a cultural construct.  There’s no reason that a well-written show, with edgy animation and catchy songs (just try to get “Winter Wrap Up” out of your head) should ring any alarms. And fear of non-traditional gender activities is just plain old dumb.  You listen to NPR.  You should know better.

So should we all go out and hug a Brony? Well… that’s where it gets a little bit complicated.

Ask any member of a fan group why they do what they do, and you’ll almost always get a canned response.  In fact, one of the main purposes of fangroups is to club together against the potential stigmatization of their activities, and find a socially-acceptable face to show the world. Star Trek fan talk about the egalitarian vision and hopefulness embodied in the show.  Sexy aliens and shirtless dudes will not come up. Teenage fans of the Twilight novels are likely to go on about the story’s themes of outsider-ism and innocent love. They are less likely to mention the eroticism of the central plot device: two sexy guys fighting it out over a shy wallflower.

Ask Bronies why they love MLP and there are a couple standard responses. “It helps me understand life and relationships better. It makes me a better person.” “The community embodies the values of the show.  I have friends now that I couldn’t have otherwise. It’s a safe, accepting place to be me.” And sometimes even, “I really connect with the characters/writing/animation.”

These are the standard self-explanations in most stigmatized fangroups, from Star Wars to 50 Shades of Grey. They’re socially acceptable and, more importantly, logical.  And there’s no reason not to believe them! The show certainly encourages this view. It routinely incorporates fan-service into its scripts, from the inclusion of in-jokes, to the creation of entire new fan-generated characters. Sly nods to its more adult audience that the 20-somethings will treasure and the little girls won’t catch.

This is what used to be called “Fandom as utopia“. Insiders think of their fangroups as a refuge away from the cruelty of the world, a place where higher ideals prevail and everyone is free to be themselves. When Bronies talk about the love and kindness in the show, they mean it in earnest.  But as Bongwater pointed out in their 1991 Folk Song, “…it’s a lot easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior when he looks like Willem DaFoe.”  Acting from baser instincts is always simpler when there’s an acceptable veneer on it.  By the 1970’s  “Fandom as Utopia” had fallen out of academic favor; too much discrepancy had been observed between the idealistic self-explanations fangroups used to defend themselves against ridicule, and the actual behaviors observed within them.

My preferred framework is called “Fandom as societal reconstruction“.  The concept goes like this: “I don’t fit into mainstream society.  I’m sick of being picked on by the jocks, and I’m never going to date a cheerleader.  So I’m going to make a subculture where my differences are prized, and then it will be ME doing the picking on people who don’t fit in!  Maybe I’ll even be allowed to date this group’s equivalent of a cheerleader.”  Fandom as societal reconstruction means the creation of spaces where there’s a chance to re-align the pecking order around a more accessible set of criteria.  It means redefining the caste system, but few would ever consider abolishing it.

Bronies do tend to be socially awkward, something that they often freely admit when you talk to them. The whole purpose of Social Play is to teach those with no experience how to interact in a group, whether you’re 6 or 26.  And while the Brony fan object is decidedly feminine, the fanlike activities aren’t always – a meetup might just as easily include a spontaneous game of Magic the Gathering, D&D, or swapping porn (equine). These are dudes.  Manly nerdy dudes hanging out with the boys, enjoying a rare feeling of belonging and membership, and that is completely absolutely fine. It should be encouraged.

The problems arise from a different source: even though we all need a place where we can feel like an insider, it’s really easy to project that feeling into finding outsiders to exclude.  Brony machismo may be coming from a highly unusual source, but it can turn into the same thing, which is to say that ladyfolks aren’t always welcomed here.

That’s not to say that female fans of MLP don’t exist – there are some girlfriends involved, and there are crafters who create merchandise like stickers and hats and T-shirts.  And there are a few really gung-ho fanatics. But these are exceptions to the rule – in the 2014 “State of the Herd” Report less than 18% of fans identified as female. A higher percentage show up at conventions (with its safety in numbers and cosplay competitions, which are still female-dominated), a much lower percentage attend local meets,  but on average 18% sounds about right.  It’s almost exactly the same percentage to the amount of ladies in gaming.

And yes, there’s the usual litany of harassment, rape jokes, threats of violence against whistle-blowers,  and all the other stuff we’re used to hearing from, say, the tech community, but not from a fan object that is still technically aimed at prepubescent girls.  As one fan put it, it’s tough to remember this is a show about friendship when you’re getting death threats for asking not to be groped.

The issue can best be summed up by a tumblr post, put out after a large-scale bullying, hacking, and threat campaign Bronies carried out last January against a 17-year-old girl who was critical of MLP porn.  The post, by user officialsaionji, read:

“why bronies think people hate them: they watch a TV show marketed at little girls

why people actually hate bronies: they sexualize technicolor horses, they’re misogynistic despite the show’s feminist messages, they harass people, they think “coming out of the stable” is a big deal, rape jokes, they make everything about them, do i even need to go on”

Is this all just a self-defense mechanism from a subculture that’s used to being stigmatized?  A wise dude (…my dad) once said we should never read malice where stupidity might suffice. The equivalent to that might be: we shouldn’t assume that Bronies set out to create an uncomfortable environment.  It’s just that when people get together with poor social skills and that first intoxicating taste of belonging, the results are often the same.

Don’t hate Bronies because they’re bucking (hur hur) gender and age norms. If anything we should be proud that someone is doing it!  And the show truly is worth all the fuss. But feel free to judge away when it comes to the real tension in this, and lots of other herterogenious fandoms. There’s absolutely no reason Bronies should make our lizard hind-brain go “Ewwwww”, but that doesn’t mean it’s always nice

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