Anything can be a fandom if you're online enough
On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for every online community drops to zero.
This is not a story about Doctor Who. This is a story about how the internet has broken our brains.
Image: Figure8/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0.
The fandoms of big, sprawling, franchises like Doctor Who or Star Trek have canon debates. The word “canon” was taken from Biblical scholarship via Sherlock Holmes and it means, roughly, which of the franchise’s many hundreds of instalments of varying ontological status actually “happened”. The urge to draw a line between texts that do count and those that don’t is a perfectly understandable human urge but it is also, if you actually think about it for half a second, deeply weird. Some stories are more real than other stories? What?
I hadn’t thought about any of this when I first encountered Doctor Who fandom online some time in the dying days of the 1990s, but I did want to know whether people thought my beloved New Adventures novels – which had continued the story of the 7th Doctor and Ace after the cancellation, and done as much to build my brain as the 26 previous years of the TV show combined – counted. So, I asked.
Some of the responses consisted of people (let’s be honest: men) gleefully shitting on something that meant a lot to me for no obvious reason. Others swiftly began referring to me by the baffling label of “pro-McCoy troll” as if enjoying something was trouble-making in and of itself. Others still made world-weary attempts to find clever or original ways of saying “here we go again”, because the debate was already so old and so predictable by then that everyone was already sick of it. As early as 1996, one Who book had made a joke of the whole thing by arming spaceships with massively destructive “cannon threads”.
Anyway: I showed up all enthusiastic about an opportunity to talk to people who loved the same thing I loved, and within minutes had a bunch of total strangers being dicks to me for no reason. It was rubbish.
After a while, someone spotted my discomfort and sent me a message saying, basically, hey, there’s a place for us: a mailing list concerned specifically with the books. No one there would delight in telling you they didn’t count. And some of the authors are there, including the cannon threads guy! It would be better.
I spent years on that list – the presence of the second “n” in my first name is a reflection of the fact there were already at least three Jons there when I arrived – and for a while I was even a moderator. (I have vague memories of using my new found power to dress down the Jon who had invited me in the first place.) It was there that vague preferences for certain authors and styles of story hardened into something closer to a political identity. The stuff I liked was rad, not trad; frock, not gun. When a company came along that made Doctor Who audios, I hated it, partly because they weren’t very good, but mostly because it seemed more interested in nostalgia than innovation and also, let’s be honest, because it wasn’t asking my mates to write them.
Eventually that mailing list turned into a hellhole too – my moderation must have sucked – with its own repetitive arguments and pile ons and one particular poster who was lovely in person but had no sense of humour and could derail any conversation, and whose very name at the top of an email was enough to make you groan. So a cabal of us decided to start a new, more private mailing list whose membership we could select, a sort of Ancient & Mystical Society of No Homers, on the grounds that if it was only people we liked it would be entirely different.
You’ll never guess what happened to that.
There’s loads more I could say. There was the argument about whether something was a dragon or a wyvern, and whether it mattered, which went on for days and cost people friends and seems particularly hilarious in retrospect because there aren’t any dragons in Doctor Who. There was another private mailing list containing no more than a dozen people, sharing gossip and darkly plotting about nothing, which, about once a quarter, would suddenly shut down because its owners were panicking about a “security breach”. The baffling thing about this was that the same guys would immediately set up another private mailing list containing the exact same dozen people.
But the details don’t matter. What matters is that so much of this is recognisable in online discourse today. The bitter, endlessly splintering factionalism. The way matters of slight inclination or personal taste harden into identities. The way communities develop in-jokes and codes that newcomers may find off putting, or may swiftly and ostentatiously adopt as a way of showing they’re part of the in group. The ease with which online radicalisation seems to happen made a lot more sense to me after I’d re-examined the period of my life in which I viciously hated a company whose only crime was to make Doctor Who audios that I didn’t think were very good.
In the early 2000s, though, relatively few people were Extremely Online. Now, loads of us are, and what happens on the internet bleeds worryingly easily into real politics and real life.
I’m still on a small, private, Who-related mailing list with a few people I’d consider friends. One of them is Lance Parkin, the author who made the cannon threads joke, and who, when I talked about some of this, replied thus:
“The underlying framework of all these things, at heart, was designed to argue whether Kirk was better than Picard. In the most corrosive possible way, a way that makes you take it incredibly personally when some random human disagrees with you.”
Twenty years ago, these dynamics were only messing with the heads of a few nerds. Now, they could mess up the entire planet.
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