Perspective Header Haters

At the Edges: How Polarization Has Infiltrated Today’s Fandoms

by Eli Williams

Spend any time online today, and you’d be hard-pressed to escape an overwhelming atmosphere of negativity in your feed regarding the state of culture. One argument is narrow in its framing and demographic, coming from largely Gen X blue checks (nothing wrong with that!) who’ve written widely-circulated think pieces asserting that nothing is cool anymore. Thanks in large part to platforms like TikTok, which push trends into a never ending spin cycle set to warp speed, culture moves so fast today that it’s not even moving at all. Keeping up with what’s new and next has more often than not proven to be an exercise in futility, leaving brands with the only option to remix and reimagine the classics of yesterday, leading us into a place of cultural complacency, or so the argument goes.

If this camp takes a limited, more surgical approach to airing out their cultural grievances, another group’s new form of cultural critique feels more like a buckshot—louder, more diffuse, and sparing no one within range. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact demographic makeup of this group because it almost feels as though we’ve all become guilty of it in one respect. Anyone from an innocuous tweeter to a rogue meme admin can see their perspective not only go viral, but chart the “discourse.”

We have more access to news, TV, movies, music and celebrity than at any point in human history. Ed Zitron ponders whether or not we have “too much internet,” and he’s probably right. More access and more choices is not inherently a bad thing, but the daily deluge of headlines, breaking news, -cores, microtrends and faux controversies has led to an online feeding frenzy—an era dominated by “take” culture. Everything is a thing, and no thing can just be, it must be criticized, dissected, memed and dunked on.

So why does it feel like negativity is the prevailing sentiment across today’s fandoms, from indie film fanatics to upstart musicians? Today, our cultural tastes seem to be defined not by what, nor whom, we’re avidly drawn to, but by what we’re actively against. We’re quicker—and more eager—to rail against things we have disdain for (or at least what we want others to think we dislike) than we are to hype up what we actually like.

This shift is most evident in the political arena, where hyperpolarization has widened Americans' relationship with national leadership and political institutions. The most glaring data point for general unpopularity has been in the Oval Office. None of the last four presidents have notched approval ratings above 50%, and in the previous two presidential election cycles, the biggest factor drawing voters to the polls was animosity towards the opposing candidate rather than a firm belief in the vision of their party’s nominee. For example, in a poll conducted by Pew for the 2020 election, 56% of Biden voters cited their opposition to Trump as the main reason for voting for him.

The increase in negative sentiment towards political leaders coincides with the fading lines between politics and entertainment. Writing about the rise of “Dark Brandon” fanfiction, which seeks to co-opt the “Let’s Go Brandon” (code for “F Joe Biden”) meme popular among right wing circles, internet writer Max Read notes that, “American politics is treated by politicians, journalists, and news consumers as an entertainment product, consumed and discussed online.”

It’s no surprise then, that the age of reality TV politics has fostered immense disdain and distrust for politicians and politics in general. Reality TV has taught us that the path of least resistance to fame—to more likes, views, clicks and shares—is to be openly antagonistic and provocative: After all, 1.5 million people tuned in to watch divisive YouTuber Jake Paul fight former MMA star Tyron Woodley in the hopes that Paul would get knocked out (he did not).

American politics are defined at the edges, and the same thing is happening to fandom as in culture at large. What are the factors at play that have made scrolling through your Twitter timeline feel like navigating a minefield? Coinciding with declining trust in institutions, there’s also been a democratization of the power traditionally held by critics, once lauded for their expertise and cultural capital. Platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Discord, etc. have changed how culture is consumed, and therefore decentralized the fundamental nature of expertise and placed it in the hands of niche communities. As Klein writes, “when truth is decentralized, no one voice can change anything until the community first confirms it’s true.” Now we’re all critics, and the pace at which we broadcast our takes has reached a fever pitch.

If cable TV dramatically altered how we view politicians, took a wrecking ball to “middle of the road” politics and ushered in an era of unbridled polarization, the internet has changed how we engage with culture, making fandom an equally divisive undertaking. Tech writer Ed Zitron notes that “it is not simply enough to have watched something and liked it/hated it. What one likes and dislikes becomes a kind of political allegiance and makes up a significant part of your identity depending on the type of person you are… The things that you like are not simply for enjoyment anymore, but make up who you are to your core—and you must fight for them, or against forces that you perceive as harming them.”

This phenomenon is most visible in “standom” culture: the Swifties, Barbz, BTS Army and Stylers who are known less for their fervent support of a certain celebrity or artist than they are for the lengths to which they’ll go to disparage anyone who dares question the talent of the individuals they have deified. After cultural critic Kimberly Nicole Foster tweeted that rapper Nicki Minaj was a “horrible person,” she was doxxed and bombarded with hate-filled DMs. Equally dangerous: Johnny Depp stans pored over the courtroom footage of his defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard like they were hanging chads, broadcasting QAnon caliber-theories of substance abuse and flooding TikTok with long-winded, speculative analysis of Depp and Heard’s relationship.

Perhaps it’s the decline of religion, the rise of brands as cults and ungodly amounts of screentime, but there’s an aura of unavoidable negativity in our feeds. The middle class has contracted as the gulf between extreme wealth and extreme poverty widens, the middle-of-the-road politician has proven ill-suited for today’s negativity-fueled newscycle and fandom has succumbed to the same fate.

But there’s also an argument to be made that the dominance in negative views on work, politics, the economy and entertainment are far more overblown than headlines make them out to be.

A new study from Populace found that we’re actually in an era of “false polarization,” and that “people are often more moderate than they'll readily admit when ‘being pulled toward a vocal fringe,’ whether left or right.” But even if polarization isn’t as loud or pervasive as it appears in headlines, Twitter threads and mini TikTok theses, the perception of polarization is all that matters. In other words, it doesn’t matter if it actually exists, the fact that we think it does will inevitably push us further towards the edges.

As we have to build our entire identities with the building blocks of what we like—TV series, podcasts, books, songs—it becomes a Pavlovian response to defend your choices when they’re called into question, or even actively seek out conflict.

As culture becomes weirder, faster and more diffuse, icons, status symbols and conventions no longer translate unless you’re “in the know.” As trend forecasting agency K-HOLE put it in their seminal “YOUTH MODE” report, “you’re so special nobody knows what you’re talking about…some real Tower of Babel shit.” Absent a shared language, we’re left with insider/outsider dynamics, which in turn makes it easier to resort to antagonizing those who are outside of the group. So does the future of fandom look like a toxic wasteland dominated by cynicism and Twitter roasts? Perhaps not. If cultural trends rebel against those that came before, it’s possible that the same could be true for the current state of fandom. “Normcore,” the phrase coined by K-HOLE to describe embracing sameness rather than distinction, might provide a hint: “In Normcore, one does not pretend to be above the indignity of belonging. Normcore moves away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts into sameness.” In other words, if mainstream fandom right now is characterized by being outwardly antagonistic, the coolest, most niche thing to do is a full-fledged, unabashed, no-shame embrace of culture.