Once upon a time, way back in the dark ages, I was a very small blogger who would excitedly check my stats every day to see if anyone other than me and three friends had landed on my home page. Those were giddy times, when I still had email notifications turned on for new comments because I just wouldn’t wait to see them, and I got deliriously excited whenever I saw a trackback1.
That all changed when I wrote something about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Remember: tiny, tiny blogger here. Handful of hits a day.
Suddenly, my traffic skyrocketed. And I don’t mean “went from 5 hits to 15 hits,” I mean “went from 5 hits to 5,000 hits,” which was a pretty big deal for me. And comments started flooding in. And so did emails. And while you’d think this would be the point where a newbie blogger starts dancing around the room with joy and triggering the confetti machine, it was actually one of the worst moments of my life (up until that point).
Because a lot of those emails and comments were really, really mean. And I’m not talking about “I disagree with some of the points you are making and wish to articulate my own points in response.” I mean mean. People shredded me for being a shit writer, mocked my cognitive and critical thinking skills, told me I was a horrible human being, and said lots of unsavory things about me just because I’d dared to write something that wasn’t 100 percent positive about St. Joss.
And that didn’t even include the things people said about me elsewhere. In forums, on websites dedicated to All Things Whedon, on Twitter, where someone memorably used a URL shortener to make a link to the article and chose the custom option to make it into shortened.url/stupidcunt. Not the last time someone came up with a witty way of shortening a URL to a link of mine, let me tell you.
It was like being thrown naked into a shark-filled ocean during a storm after I’d been wading in a kiddie pool with those little inflatable arm things on, and it was a valuable experience. For one thing, I gained a bunch of readers. For another, I started developing the first underlayer of a thickened hide.
But I didn’t stop writing about pop culture; about Joss Whedon, about "Glee," about all manner of other things, and over time, as my audience grew larger, the fanboys got meaner. A lot meaner. It escalated from saying nasty things about me to threatening nasty things against me; from saying I was a fat ugly dyke to saying I was a fat ugly dyke who needed some cock, which they were happy to provide. To suggesting that someone needed to beat some sense into me. And many of those threats crossed the line from idle fantasies or general nastiness to actual credible threats.
In my experience on the Internet, as someone who writes, among many other things, about pop culture from a social justice perspective, fanboys can be some of the most unimaginably horrific people on earth. Fandom in general can also be one of the greatest places on earth. Being a fan doesn’t make you evil, but evil fans can be truly despicable human beings. They’re the kind of people who make video games where you get to beat up feminist bloggers, and they’re the kind of people who send death threats to film critics who aren’t 100 percent positive about "The Dark Knight Rises."
Now, you and me, we see a bad review of something we like, I hope we go “There’s no accounting for taste.” Or maybe we read through it and pick apart the critic’s logic, or we think the critic isn’t reading the piece in the same way we are. We might even be moved to write the critic and open up a discussion2. We’re probably less likely (I hope) to send a death threat.
But that’s what happened to Marshall Fine, who had the audacity to break "The Dark Knight Rises"’ winning streak on Rotten Tomatoes:
On the cleverer end, some commenters quoted lines that Bane spoke to Batman in the trailer: Fine’s punishment “must be more severe.” And then there are the scary threats. One comment that has since been removed told Fine to “die in a fire.” Another commenter said he would like to beat Fine “with a thick rubber hose into a comma [sic].”
I’m not gonna lie: I love interacting with fans. I love talking about pop culture. I love getting into nuanced conversations about pop culture, and disagreeing about readings of popular works.
But devout fanboys terrify me. As in, give me panic attacks and make me fear for my safety. It’s something that I have trouble articulating to people who haven’t experienced prolonged hateful vitriol and abuse, because it’s not just the comments on one article, it’s a span of comments, and emails, and threats, than run across the Internet.
It’s the narrowing vise, like when people start sending you your home address and identifying information, that makes you feel like you aren’t safe anywhere. It’s the heart-pounding terror you feel when a stranger recognizes you on a train and you’re not sure if that person is going to be friendly, or is going to assault you.
People forget that the people they’re subjecting to threats of assault, rape, and death are real human beings, and that getting those kinds of comments actually feels really shitty. They also forget that when you are getting hundreds or thousands of them and it occurs over an extended period of time, it can actually cause real harm. And sometimes they don't. Sometimes that is precisely their goal, because they want you to shut up that badly.
And I think a lot of people have a sense of ownership over critics, over public figures, over commentators; they think they “know” us because they read our writing. It doesn’t occur to them that approaching us in our downtime could be threatening or unwanted because of the kinds of speech directed at us when we’re “on,” so to speak. Because, thanks to aggressive fanboys, each time we put up negative reviews or commentary, at least some of us have to take a long hard minute to think about whether we really want to do this.
1. Remember trackbacks? Those were all the rage for a while. Ah, trackbacks. Return
2. I’ve actually had some great discussions with fans that started from them emailing me about a negative review. Return