Creators, Fans, and Social Media Relationships

Earlier this year, Rob Thomas broke all kinds of records with a Kickstarter campaign to make a Veronica Mars movie. When I first saw the campaign and the ambitious goals, I wasn’t sure if he could do it. He ended up meeting his goal within the first day, blowing far past the amount of money he’d originally requested. The studio must have been delighted; here it was getting a movie for free, with tons of great publicity, and an aggressive fan base ready to back it.

A few weeks after the Kickstarter campaign, I noticed Shonda Rhimes Tweeting a sharp comment to her fans: ‘I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR WHEN SHOWS AIR. I do not have anything to do with the fact that we are not on for 3 weeks.’

Both creators were showcasing the fact that more and more, people who create and work on pieces of pop culture are active on social media, and are to some extent expected to be by the public. Not only that, but fans expect interaction, and expect to be able to exert some degree of ownership. Suddenly it’s not enough to just watch someone’s television, read an author’s books, or enjoy an actor’s movies. Now, fans want the full immersive experience, blending the line between fiction and reality, and sometimes not seeming to understand that the persona presented online isn’t the whole picture either; people are not actually baring their entire lives for followings but carefully curating to present a particular version of themselves for fans.

On the one hand, the increased social media engagement is amazing. I love being able to interact directly with the people who produce the things I love; it’s delightful to be able to talk with authors about what they’re thinking, for example, and to probe into the specifics of a given episode of television with one of the people who wrote it. In some of these cases, I also love the glimpses of personal lives I get; giving advice to an editor on how to sleep on planes, swapping recipes with an actress, looking at pictures of an author’s cats. But I’m also aware that this is a window, not a glass house, and that I don’t own someone simply by virtue of having interacted on Twitter.

Many creators seem to be having trouble with this balance too. There are the people who lash out at bad reviews, who arrive with fanfare on a journal or small personal website to berate a blogger for not liking a given project; in some cases, those who actively encourage their large following to attack someone who gives them bad reviews or has legitimate critiques of projects they’re working on. There are the people who go on Twitter tirades that make me want to stick my head in a paper bag with embarrassment because they’re so unprofessional and awkward, making me feel like I’ve walked into the middle of an argument when I’m staying at someone’s house.

As everyone struggles with this teetering balance, it’s interesting to see how things shift. Creators are expected to participate in promotion involving social media, for example, to interact directly with fans not just on tours and at special events, which has long been a part of promotion, but also through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other campaigns. They’re hosting video chats and handing out swag provided by production companies and publishers and marketing firms, and while they aren’t always required to do this, there’s a heavy burden of expectation, and people who don’t do it may be viewed as cold by fans, or more difficult to work with than their counterparts.

Some people genuinely enjoy this level of engagement. They love reaching out to fans, they love showing off their personalities, they love providing information about who they are beyond page, screen, and stage. They want people to see that they are whole human beings and they love establishing relationships with their fans. Other people genuinely do not; recluses are present now just as much as they were before, and it makes me wonder what an author like Harper Lee would do in the modern era. Would To Kill A Mockingbird get as huge without the author there to talk it up on Twitter and answer questions about Boo Radley on Tumblr?

Among fans, I also see a disturbing trend when it comes to attitudes about creators, social media, and a sense of ownership. One of my concerns about Veronica Mars, shared with others, was the fact that because the project was crowdfunded, the fans would feel a sense of ownership, especially those who contributed large amounts. Such fans might want to exert creative force on the project, or might be angry if it’s not produced the way they want it to be. Aside from the issue of having too many voices in a project at once, these fans also lack the experience and skills to know what works for film, how to tell stories in that medium, and how to work with the limitations of funding, locations, actors, and more.

This close personal interaction can give people a false sense that they’re not only friends but collaborators with creators, and thus that they have the right to dictate content; to be ‘disappointed’ in creators who don’t do what they want, to profess confusion and upset when creators move on to other projects or make decisions that conflict with the desires of fans, to be angry at creators who don’t perfectly match their political and social ideals, to be upset when creators don’t read a given event/scene/character the same way they do.

At the same time that we participate on social media to prove we’re people, social media sometimes seems to have the opposite effect, stripping away out humanity and turning us into commodities for fans to devour.