Thursday, May 28, 2009

Maybe you like it because it's bad?

Among the "hundreds" of blogs I read are sister sites Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong, whose taglines are, respectively, "on honesty, signaling, disagreement, forecasting, and the far future" and "a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality." Funnily enough, these bloggers and their followers tend to display deep, unexamined sexism, but when nothing too flagrant is going on, I quite get off on this brand of cold hard rationalism.

Today at Less Wrong, the question: "Do Fandoms Need Awfulness?" I.e., does a thing only inspire truly rabid fandom if it's in some way or from some angle grandly bad? The examples given include Star Wars and Tolkien (crazy fans) and Shakespeare and The Well-Tempered Clavier (generally accepted as excellent, no insane fan base). The idea being that if the art work or artist in question has virtues but also serious flaws, fans must be highly defensive and fiercely loyal to deflect criticism.

I like this question for the same reason Eliezer Yudkowsky does: It gives one pause by virtue of being both plausible and unpleasant. But, he says, "Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean it's true."

Are there major holes in the argument? Probably. For one thing I'm not even sure that there aren't Shakespeare conventions. Maybe they're just not a subject of popular ridicule like Star Trek conventions are. In which case it wouldn't be true that only baddish things attract a fandom, just that only baddish things have fans who become mainstream jokes. (I thought of Tori Amos right away.)

But there are a couple of other ways to look at the question, both brought up in the comments on the post. One is that more obscure or esoteric things garner more intense fan bases. It's not that they're bad, just that fewer people see the virtues. This would explain why so many things sci-fi are fan-tastic. Science fiction has a narrower appeal than, you know, action movies. If being a fan is a kind of signaling, you have to signal louder to find the other, fewer and farther between fans. So Shakespeare wouldn't need crazy fans, since Shakespeare lovers are more widespread. I like this argument ... but again ... I'm not sure I don't know more Star Trek fans than Shakespeare lovers. And that's not self-selecting either, because I kind of hate sci fi, and I'm a poet.

The other idea is that the theory gets it backwards. It's not that people are more likely to go wacko for things that are kind of bad, but that fans are annoying, so when anything has a wacko fanbase, people are spurred to be extra-critical of the object of their fandom. The example here is Apple. I admit to being wildly annoyed by Apple/Mac people, who seem like the worst kind of image-conscious suckers for marketing to me, and I admit to looking for flaws in Apple's products to further justify my opting out. Luckily, one really need look no further than "overpriced."

Another counterexample in the comments was sports teams, which tend to have more fans the better they perform, of course. But I sort of feel like sports fans are a different animal entirely than fans of a book trilogy or band or what have you.

More on the pervasive, unpleasant-but-true nature of signaling to come.


  1. Intriguing, so I will comment without investing much thought.

    Basic question, do fans need awfulness? Gut-feeling: no. None of Star Trek, Tori, Shakespeare, Bach, Red Sox, Macs seem particularly awful. Certainly there are cultural/social connotations to the various groups but the things themselves seem by and large awesome, or normal, depending on your natural level of enthusiasm.

    Only baddish things have fans who become mainstream jokes. This seems truish. I don't think Star Trek fans are really more fanatical than Red Sox fans, or bridge players who travel from tourney to tourney, or Phishheads. However, there is some social stigma attached to Trekkies, probably due more to the fact that Trekkies are intellectual/geeky etc etc than anything else.

    More obscure/esoteric things garner more intense fan bases: seems mostly untrue. Religious, national, ethnic, cultural, and sporting affiliations are the most fanatical (Christianity, Islam, Jihadist-Islam, Communist, Red Sox, Brazilian soccer, etc).

    Fans are annoying: Truish, similar to social stigma of Trekkies.

  2. Oh yeah, and I don't think sports fans are all that different from other fans, and also their fanaticism does not depend on team success (Red Sox, Chi Cubs, lots of minor league sports teams etc etc)

  3. You wouldn't say that certain teams have big peaks of fandom when they have star players/a particularly great run? I didn't mean to imply a binary (fans or no fans) but rather sheer number of fans. e.g., The Chicago Bulls when I was in jr high.

    Religion is another interesting example but again, I think belief in a system is fundamentally different than just (extreme) appreciation of a work of art or an artist. Evangelical Christians are not just really big "fans" of Christ ... in my opinion.

  4. No you're right, big winning teams certainly end up with more fans in terms of sheer numbers. Perhaps the smaller "loser teams" fan bases are indeed more cohesive as a protective stance against the big bad outside world. Maybe I just contradicted something I said earlier, the complexities are blowing my mind.

    I don't see religious, national, political et al affiliations as that different from trekkies. I see the primary motivations as mostly related to group identity and affiliation, us vs them, perhaps mixed in with some geeking-out (mastering trivia etc) in the particular domain. I guess the discussion has branched somewhat however from your original propositions regarding Trek -- but once "Mac" got thrown in the mix I feel like you are at a broad cultural level.

  5. Ah ha, so what you're basically saying is, "It's all signaling." Which I agree with. My quibble is that fandom is a subset of group-identity signaling, not equivalent to it.

    In any case, whether or not it's essentially all the same, for the purposes of this argument, I'm more interested in fans of specific objects or artists/celebrities than I am in "fans" or more general abstractions like a sport or a religion. I think it differs in scale and manifestation, if not on some fundamental level.

  6. In sort of related territory, Wil Wheaton has some intriguing thoughts about geek culture:

  7. Whoa, what the ... I would totally not qualify as a geek in an "exclusionary geek elitist" world because I didn't even know Wil Wheaton had a blog. Anyway, thanks much for the link, that is really interesting and probably warrants a post of its own. I have close personal ties to real-life geeks (e.g. my brother) so I'm invested in geek culture and its purity ...

  8. elisa,

    your blog is hilarious! just a note to say that if you haven't encountered shakespeare fans, you're just looking in the wrong places. many of them found they could get paid to be fans of shakespeare, and are lodged in english departments around the country. they do have conventions (more commonly referred to as conferences). : ) i'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course (some of my best friends are fans of shakespeare!), but there really are folks out there who exhibit the worst symptoms of fan-hood, e.g., dressing up as "the bard" or his characters and holding forth at great length (or even feuding with others) over the "true" identity of the author of "shakespeare's" plays...

    ploughshares' loss . . .


  9. Ha! Thanks, Evie -- excellent point about word choice, "conference" = much more respectable/academic. I can absolutely imagine regular people secretly dressing up as the Bard on their personal time.