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.