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controllerI’m not a gamer. I tried Candy Crush a couple times but I couldn’t really figure it out. I once roomed with a guy addicted to Final Fantasy, but it only lasted a couple weeks. I do tend to mention IKEA a lot in my writing – IKEA is kinda like a game, right? It’s sort of a cross between Pinball and Tetris.

Angry teenage hackers can go through all my devices and all they’ll find are complaints to Burts Bees and a couple pictures of my little dog, Oyster. I was born too early for nude pictures, I don’t have any serious financial assets, and I can’t be fired from my job. I live in an apartment building, so there isn’t even a front lawn on which to burn a cross.

Which means that, when it comes to Gamer Gate (the male-supremacist movement focused on driving women from the gaming community) I really don’t have much of a stake. I don’t have an opinion on anything that impacts them, and in return, 4chan hasn’t declared one of their fatwas on Oyster. Do it at your own risk, guys, that puppy is the size of a chicken but he’s a nasty biter, and I haven’t given him his yearly rabies shot yet.

Begun as a revenge campaign by a (male) gamer against his journalist ex-girlfriend, Gamer Gate has spiraled into a bigotry-fest of downright weirdness (they drew themselves a female mascot to prove they weren’t misogynistic, then held discussions about fucking her). Speaking as an outsider, it’s… well, it’s just plain strange. My immediate reaction is to shake my head and thank goodness I have no wish to try any game more complicated than “World of Goo”. It’s like learning about horrific atrocities in Iraq – yes, it’s terrible stuff going on over there, but I had no interest in ever visiting Iraq anyway, and this just reminds me why.

Even in the academic field of fandom, where the tools of the trade are privilege vs. stigma, us non-gamers are used to shrugging over the confusing gyrations of the gaming community. All that vocabulary I don’t understand, the technology that seems so specialized, the members who often represent my worst memories of 7th grade… Incidentally, the same is also true for Sports fandom scandals. Lots of us just want to shake our heads and say, “Honestly, what’s up with that?”

It’s a question much of the non-gaming world may be asking right now. What’s up with that. Does this impact anything real at all, or is it just the usual creeps being creeps?

Well, here’s the thing: bigotry is really bad for business. Appeals to our better nature may or may not have any effect, but as proud Americans, surely we can appreciate a solid appeal to our wallets. The same way the auto industry sure as hell better care about ISIS atrocities lest they impact the flow of oil to American gas stations. The same way the flower and catering industries should be on the front lines of gay marriage advocacy.

It’s a lot easier to take civil rights personally when they might directly affect our paychecks. And the gaming industry is big about passing out paychecks to pretty much every other industry I can think of, from manufacturing to movies. Globally they’re valued at more than $65 billion, the fastest growing segment of the US economy.

What we’re dealing with here is called the taxi driver’s dilemma. A taxi driver sets a threshold for the amount of money they need to make in a day, promising to go home only once they’ve got enough. If fares are scarce, they’ll have to stay out all day and night to reach the quota, but on good days they can go home early! It seems to make sense until you do the math – in actuality, setting a threshold like this makes you less money, for more work. It would be a much better strategy to leave early on days with no fares, and stay out late on days with good ones. Twice the cash, less driving.

Females like gaming, or at least, young females express about the same rate of interest as young males. Unlike football, or trains, or a pathological love of dinosaurs, there doesn’t seem to be any particular gender bias built into the thrill of pushing buttons, (or whatever those young whippersnappers are doing these days, oh my aching back, etc).

So where is the gaming industry’s capitalism-fueled indignation? Where is the accountant in some cubical, staring at a spreadsheet, counting out the numbers again and again, until they finally come to the conclusion: “Shit, maybe if half our potential audience wasn’t worried about getting raped and murdered every time they play, we could double our income?”

It would be like if a bunch of Swedish people decided only Swedes deserve to eat IKEA meatballs. And then dispatched teams of angry, violent Scandinavians to all the international IKEA’s of the world to beat up locals when they tried to order lunch. I’m pretty sure Corporate HQ would notice that drop in sales pretty fast. I shudder to think what a company like IKEA does to folks who impact their bottom line. All those tiny tools…

Anyway, it’s a classic Taxi Driver’s Dilemma. The gaming industry can indeed pander to the creepy vocal minority by staying silent about the treatment of their female audience. And doing so does indeed help them fulfill their quota of skeezy dudes who want to buy their stuff. But there really are only so many skeezy dudes in the world, no matter how loud all the shrieks of offense.

Instead of trying to reach 100% skeez saturation, gaming companies could be working less hard for twice the money if they would just lend a little support to the other half of the world’s population who also wants to buy their stuff. You know, the ones who, right now, have been driven away from their product by creepy dudes. More than half the world’s population, actually, I’m sure there are plenty of guys who are just as creeped out by this kind of awfulness.

So come on, accountant with a spreadsheet, stand up for a lady’s right to give you lots of money! If I was the gaming industry right now, I’d be desperately donating to every women’s rights charity I could find, launching outreach campaigns, and hiring women like mad. I hear there are lady gamers with lots of cash, and maybe, just maybe, if they weren’t constantly afraid for their lives, they would like to give some of it to you. Hell, maybe I’ll even give it a go.

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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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Earlier this week an unexpected blog post was penned by American photographer Sara Rosso, explaining why her website, a collection of recipes, stories, and resources about the celebration of ‘World Nutella Day‘, would shortly be shuttering.  The culprit:  a cease and desist order from Ferrero SpA, the owner of Europe’s favorite breakfast junk food, Nutella.

Now, fans are used to these official-looking documents. They’re sent to music aficionados who remix their favorites, to the writers of fan fiction containing proprietary characters, and sometimes just to people selling hats.  I received one myself back in the late 90’s, and the scary letterhead – and expense implied therein – was enough to make me shutter my very first startup faster than you can say “copyright infringement“. (Hopbooks, you’ll be missed).

But this cease and desist order was different.  For one thing, International Nutella Day was just so darn silly, and so obviously did more to help than hurt  the Nutella brand.  Now, it’s true that this excuse is  trotted out by brand violators to defend a suspiciously long list of crimes, from file-sharing and console-modding to downright design theft. And it’s also true that, at least in the US, companies are required to pursue every instance of infringement on pain of trademark erosion.  But in this situation it really is difficult to imagine what damage might have been done. Full attribution was given, no properties were stolen. It was the most vanilla of crimes, right up there with “assault and makeover” or “breaking and donating“.

But the other reason this cease and desist differs is because Rosso is a superfan.  Superfans are the true believers in a fan object, the multipliers, the ambassadors, the evangelists, the advocates, the brand leaders, the “insert business 2.0 term” of commerce.  They may be drawn in for any number of reasons (the joys of community membership,  a love of fannish activities, or just the status that comes with knowing a lot about something.)  But no matter the reason for their their romance, all superfans should be treated like cherished, beautiful, delicate elfin princesses…who also might rip your arms off and eat your brains at any moment .

By the time a Superfan has attain such exalted status they’ve already found followers who care about their opinion.  They’ve found an existing platform on which to express it, and they have a deep-seated motivation to keep their fan object true to the ideals they’ve already internalized. And when the leadership at the top of any cultural hierarchy is attacked, the sugary chocolate goop hits the fan. Primal instincts, developed long ago on the savannah for tribal defense, swoop into action:  a pack will always rush to the rescue of their alphas. Barely had Russo blogged her note of resignation before a large portion  of the breakfast-eating web rushed to tweet their betrayal and outrage. Nutella’s Facebook page overflowed with comments like “Sorry to hear that you value your attorneys so much more than your customers. This is what happens when you take us all for granted, I guess. Would you prefer a worldwide boycott of Nutella until you give your customers what they want?” and also the more direct “Your spread is tasty, but your lawyers are idiots.”

It’s been noted that all fans make a conscious choice to ignore one fact: that their item of worship is a commodity created for moneymaking purposes. But just because they ignore it doesn’t mean they’re not aware of it. Somewhere, deep inside, every fan acknowledges the make-belive aspect of their love: they feel very strongly, but they could also chose not to. Very few Team Edward fans would truly turn down a date with Jacob if the opportunity presented itself, very few Apple owners truly wish to lay down their life and liberty for a war against Microsoft HQ (although you never know).  To upset this delicate balance – to forcibly remind a fangroup of the corporate entity behind the curtain – is part of the map that should be crossed off with a huge skull and crossbones and ‘here be dragons‘.

Nutella has quickly backpedelled with a Facebook post of full of thankfulness to their fans and an intention to to drop legal charges, but they may have yet to see the big picture.  For one, according to Nutella, the fault lies with a routine lawyer task. Had it been brought to their attention, they say, it would certainly not have happened.  This has prompted many fans to question Nutella’s entire fan philosophy – as one fan put it, “Gratitude, but no apology?”  For this to be treated as PR mistake instead of as a policy mistake is remarkably tone-deaf; many companies might have reacted by requesting the fan enter into a formal agreement, or have the fan place a disclaimer on their site, or in extreme cases, immediately hiring the perpetrator at a huge salary to head their PR team.

Compare this with Beam Inc’s reaction over fan outcry over their plan to reduce the alcohol content in Makers Mark. I haven’t seen that level of groveling since the last time my puppy got too excited on the carpet.

In any case, thus ends a week in which at least some of Nutella’s fanbase realized that sugar mixed with palm oil isn’t the best way to start the day after all (I kid. Nutella tastes lovely, especially on… everything).  But lest we grow too smug in our condemnation, to paraphrase the author Neil Gaiman, “May all your moral decisions be so easy”.  There are times, true times, real times, when the business imperatives of an institution really do outright clash with fan demands, and no satisfaction can be brokered even by participants of goodwill. When that day comes, God help you – there will be no solution except to put on a brave face and hope your company will outlast the outrage.  Fandom is a small tempest in a teacup, but it’s a tea cup that can easily spill over and swamp the whole breakfast table.

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Downton Abbey fandom is knee-deep in Season 3.  My goodness me, every magazine and blog has turned into a smorgasbord of content both official and fan-generated, not to mention the gorgeous influx of new fan text (and more importantly, fellow fans to experience it with).

Is it possible we have that unusual specimen, the perfect fan object? Whatever the reason for an individual’s fandom, this show can provide: for class-conscious identity builders we’ve got a enjoyably upper-class Anglophilia. For those seeking to up their cultural capitol there’s quote-happy text galore, and who-did-what-to-whom trivia to memorize.  And for the merely lonely we’ve got hoards of fellow admirers to idolize, mimic, and impress.

Not so a fan of Regency House Party, a little known 2004 historical recreation reality series.  A few articles, interviews, and fan activity may have trickled out briefly around it’s release, but these days even the most assiduous researcher will find neither a grain of news, nor a fellow fan with whom to commiserate about it.  A couple of the participants have Facebook pages, carefully locked, and one has a twitter account where he talks about advertising. The message boards have long gone dead and the bloggers have moved on.

Both these fan texts have the same titillating veneer of English drama and romance.  The difference? Without a robust fan context the Regency House Party fan finds themselves gasping like a fish in a dry stream bed.

It’s surely the goal of all fan objects to produce such a robust context that it becomes self-fueling long after the text is complete (think Star wars, Jane Austen, or Rosie the Riveter posters).  But at the same time, proclaiming the value of an under-appreciated fan text is one of the purest marks of fan status, or for that matter, regular old boring status too. This illustrates an interesting paradox potential fans might find themselves asking:  how obscure is too obscure?

Depending on an individual’s motivations the answer might be:  never!  This is a familiar cry for many an indie music fan (“I’m a fan of bands so new they don’t even exist yet!”).  But that’s only true when there’s a possibility of spreading the love, engaging in a group, having your personal taste mean something to those about whose opinion you care.

There’s a status to being known as that lady who likes that group that’s still unknown, or better yet, that group who is too innovative to be famous.  Whereas there’s no satisfaction whatsoever to being known as that guy who keeps going on about that random soft drink they only sell in one store in Ireland, a breed of dog that went extinct in the 1100’s, or that board game they don’t make any more and there are no copies but you would have loved it.

The answer is probably a Bell curve – up to a certain level of obscurity, devotion to a fan object allows a user to really pinpont that self-definition.  The more obscure the higher the possibilities (“I’m not just a wine lady, I’m the type of lady who prefers a 1994 vintage of Vino Davvero Oscuro from Luogo Lontano over the 1995, but only if I have enough time to let it breath…”).

After that point it gets more complicated.  How satisfying can it really be to be the last and only fan of Regency House Party?  The answer is probably not very – the possibilities for fan-like activities are simply so limited.  You might watch the show over and over, and perhaps do a little evangelizing to your friends.  You might even go as far as to take a pilgrimage to England to trespass on the Chateau used as its set, but without any fellow fans to report back to, it’s rather unlikely.

Fandom just can’t thrive in a vacuum – at its heart fandom is a performative ritual, and it fast uses up the surrounding oxygen without someone to perform for.  But never fear, oh devotees of Regency House Party, I hear that Downton Abbey has just been signed on for a 2014 season.

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So here we are knee-deep in summer, and I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, there’s just too much relaxation going on right now.  I’m feeling too darn happy with the world.  I need some pretentious reading to sandpaper my nerves so I have something to bitch about.”

Well TOO BAD, cause one look at this summer reading list and you’ll notice that none of us have anything to complain about at all.  This summer’s topic is the economic impacts of fandom in a digital age, and baby is it a delicious one.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky – Obviously every list with any kind of buzzword has to start with Clay Shirky’s tasty musings about all that’s good about heavy connectivity. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the chapter dealing with fan motivations.  Start off your drinking game by taking a shot every time you slap your head and say , “Huh, teenage girls make sense for the first time ever.”  It’s summer, so the shot should be something with watermelon.

Fan Cultures, Matthew Hills – Ever wonder what academics do when few people care about their subject?  They write for each other! Painstakingly plotted out,  most of this is a refutation of the heretical theories espoused by the dozen or so other fan theorists active in the world.  But look a little closer and you’ll see some interesting points about gender and decision-making in pre-digital  fandom. Take a shot of something with iced tea in it every time he claims that someone’s theory didn’t take the X-Files into account

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker – How does what we buy reflect our social affiliations and sense of identity?  Rob wants to tell you! He makes a great case that our commercial motivations are thoroughly tied to the image we build up of ourselves. Take a summery shot of something with cucumber in it every time he uses a euphemism that isn’t quite “fan group” but really means “fan group”.  Don’t worry Rob, we know what you’re talking about.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott , Anthony D. Williams– At two years old this is kind of ancient for a  tome about digital whatsis.  But be not deterred!  This is the classic ‘Origin of Species for crowdsourcing’ – not first and certainly not completely right, but it’s held up remarkably well for a book that relied on examples that, in hindsight weren’t actually the next big thing.  Take a shot of something minty every time you feel a smug sense of superiority.

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray (Editor), Cornel Sandvoss (Editor), C. Lee Harrington – More academia!  This collection of nifty essays spans everything from early proto-music fandom to Korean pop-stars.  Ignore all that and highlight every third word in the introduction where the different stages of fan theorization are spelled out.  Take a shot of something with ginger every time you have a mood swing between “Oh-my-god-I’m-dying-from-bordom” and “oh-my-god-this-just-changed-my-life”

Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Eric Qualman – Any book that adds the phrase “-nomics” to the end of  their title is good by me: freakinomics, wikinomics, MICRO wikinomics…there’s nothing ‘nomics can’t do.  A lot of this book has been said before, but the conversational tone is helpful for beginners and the examples give a great insiders view. Take a shot of something with lemon every time you suspect there’s something intrinsically, horrifically terrifying about all forms of marketing.

Fans Bloggers Gamers, Henry Jenkins – By the dude who wrote the much-touted Convergence Culture, you can believe this is a serious page turner. I’m totally not being sarcastic.  Compared to most other books from this time period, these essays are less dated, and more , what’s the word, AWESOME than its contemporaries.  Spend most of your time in the early chapters about fan fiction and gender.  You’ll never look at man-on-man stories written by middle-aged straight women the same again. Take a shot of Champagne every time you feel the urge to google “Kirk/Spock”.

Now go drink some water.  What were you thinking reading all those at once.

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