If you’re looking forward to watching the final season of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” when it premieres on Aug. 12, you have online fandom to thank. The popular television comedy about a snarky but lovable squad of Brooklyn cops was canceled by Fox in 2018, then picked up by NBC in less than two days, thanks to a massive outpouring of love from the show’s fans on Twitter.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is hardly the first show to be saved by fans; many others have been brought back by fan campaigns, including the offbeat sitcom “Arrested Development.” Back in the 1980s, a letter-writing campaign by fans restored “Designing Women” to a prime time slot. And fans of “Star Trek” arguably set the standard for fan activism with a 1960s letter campaign that persuaded NBC to air a second season, saving the sci-fi show from being a one-season dud.
But online fandom in 2021 isn’t content to occasionally resurrect a beloved series. It’s a force that seeks control over everything, from characters’ romantic choices to producers’ casting decisions. Studios watch fandom to figure out which franchise characters should get spinoffs, too. That’s why a meme-worthy character such as Loki — originally a sidekick to his brother, Thor, in the Marvel cinematic universe — was resurrected this year for a Disney+ series. It’s also why Hollywood marketing teams do outreach to fans to suss out whether, say, the new “Dune” movie will run afoul of the millions who devoured the original books.
Call it the age of fan service. Pop culture will never be the same, but maybe that’s a good thing. As online fandom transforms storytelling, it is also revealing a fundamental truth: The lone writer in a garret, disconnected from the world, was always a myth. No one creates in a vacuum, untouched by the demands of the marketplace and the cultural conversation of the moment. From tales told and retold around fires to those filmed, spun off and rebooted in Hollywood, storytelling has always been a communal process.
The first time I noticed a fan-driven story line, I was deep into the soapy teen horror show “Vampire Diaries,” which ran from 2009 to 2017. Our sparky hero, Elena, was torn between two vampire brothers, the broody but honorable Stefan and the sociopathic bad boy Damon. I couldn’t understand why Elena kept going back to Damon, given his penchant for murdering Elena’s friends and family. It turned out that fandom was at least partly to blame: Adherents of the “Delena” (Damon and Elena) romance took to Twitter and kept pushing for more, no matter how evil Damon got. This made the plotline “really hard,” the show’s co-creators, Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson, said on a Comic-Con panel in 2019. Though the writers tried repeatedly to turn fans against Damon by emphasizing his misdeeds, ultimately they allowed the Delena relationship to sail along until Elena was put into an enchanted sleep and Nina Dobrev, the actress who played her, left the show.
Other creators have embraced the feedback from their online fans. Jonathan Nolan, a co-creator of the futuristic HBO show “Westworld,” said he frequented fan communities on Reddit and even admitted to changing the show’s plot in 2017 when fans got too close to figuring out key twists in season two. This may have backfired: Critics and fans alike complained that Mr. Nolan and the show’s other creator, Lisa Joy, went too far in the direction of fan service, creating a second-season plot that was incomprehensible and a mess.
The online aspects of fandom are new, but fan campaigns themselves go back more than a century. When Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his famous detective Sherlock Holmes in 1893, fans were outraged. Thousands of people canceled their subscriptions to The Strand, the magazine in which the Sherlock short stories appeared. Others launched a letter-writing campaign to bring the brilliant detective back. Under intense public pressure, Doyle published a Sherlock prequel in 1901, the novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which The Strand serialized, and he finally rewrote literary history in 1903, resurrecting Sherlock with a plot twist: He didn’t actually die in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”
Fan service isn’t always about unwelcome plot twists or favorite fictional couples. The term comes from anime, in which creators added thirsty scenes with scantily clad characters to reel in fans. And today’s online fandom is often entangled with culture wars — for example, when far-right provocateurs dug up offensive tweets from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film director James Gunn after he criticized President Donald Trump, prompting his quick firing by Disney. (After another round of fan backlash, he was rehired to direct the third film in that franchise.)
There has been “an external influx” into fandom of people with other motives, explained Flourish Klink, a co-host of the podcast “Fansplaining” and a frequent consultant on fan outreach campaigns for Hollywood. They are in it to advance “political footballs” rather than stories, Mx. Klink told me, and such culture warriors are largely to blame for the many Twitter blowups over “Star Wars” movies. (These got ugly at times, including attacks on the director of “The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson, and racism directed at the Vietnamese American actress Kelly Tran.) The problem, as Mx. Klink sees it, is that “it’s hard for the entertainment industry to distinguish” between loving but critical fans and activists with murkier motives.
Another blurring of the lines can be found in the ascension of fan fiction to the mainstream. Fans make a distinction between canon (the original story) and “fanon” (the embellishments created by fans). But fanfic communities online have nurtured real-life careers, including those of writers of color, as well as women and queer creators, Mx. Klink pointed out — and some fanon writers have broken through to mainstream popularity, challenging the white-dude dominance of some genres.
Tracy Deonn, the author of the best-selling young-adult fantasy novel “Legendborn,” grew up participating in online communities, such as Archive of Our Own, that were devoted to fan fiction, and she told me fanon can offer a more inclusive and diverse fictional landscape. In her novel, which plays with the canon of Arthurian legends, a Black teen named Bree must infiltrate an all-white society of monster hunters to stop a demonic invasion.
“I don’t know how many fandoms I’ve been in where the fanon life of a character was far more robust than what we saw in canon,” Ms. Deonn told me. It came full circle, she said, when people started creating fanfic and art of Bree and other characters from “Legendborn.” She was thrilled.
Whether it’s destructive or restorative, fan culture is helping to shape the most popular stories of our time. It’s asking important questions about who gets to tell stories and adding transparency to the process. Through fandom’s lens, we can see the audience remaking our pop culture in real time, even as we consume it.
Annalee Newitz (@Annaleen) is a science journalist who writes science fiction. Their latest books include “The Future of Another Timeline” and “Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age.”
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