Friday, September 5, 2014

Things That I Like: Building a Fandom

This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on August 14th, 2014.

Why bother with a fandom?

This is a follow-up to the previous article, Fandom and Fanfiction.

Karen Hunton of Build a Little Biz describes the members of a fandom as having these qualities:
  • loyal – they want what you have and aren’t interested in competitors
  • avid – they will soak up anything and everything you have to offer
  • ambassadors – they will proudly tell people about you and what you do
  • protective – they are the first to oust a complainer, a copycat, or a troll
  • keen – they are happy to provide feedback, test offerings, do trial runs
Do you want that stuff? Do you want it?

Kevin Kelley explains that you only need 1000 True Fans to make a living. If you have 1,000 people willing to spend $100 on you every year then that comes to an income of $100,000, minus expenses. That is some good stuff right there. And Karen Hunton’s listed qualities are as good a description of True Fans as any you could find.

So how do you develop a fandom?

You need to get them invested

One of the biggest things that you can do is give your audience “feels.” Make them cry. Make them laugh. Make them hang off the edges of their seats. You know this thing.

But the feels, they are important. Let’s take a look at TV Tropes for a moment, shall we? Most works have subpages to catalog: Crowning Moments of Awesome… Tear Jerkers… Nightmare Fuel… Funny Moments… Heartwarming Moments… and more.

As TV Tropes says on the Emotional Torque page, where these are grouped: “The overriding goal of all storytelling is to get a reaction from the audience— a laugh, a tear, a desire to change, or maybe a desire to kill the storyteller.”

And when you deliver feels, the fandom makes so much music about your work that they can make a radio station webpage that plays nothing but that music over and over and over (I must confess that most of my non-story writing is done to Skaianet Radio).

You also need to build a community. Do you see how I bolded that last bit? That’s because it’s important. Fandoms are groups of people. Get them talking with each other. Get them to feel like there’s this super special connection that binds them all together and makes them, in at least that one respect, similar to each other.

(And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll make sure your work is good enough that the super special connection is well-deserved. Your goal is not to con the marks into sacrificing their boondollars for transient things. It is to touch their souls in some way.)

And interact with them. Be approachable. Comment on the forums. Respond to emails. Ask them questions. Be involved. If you are not part of the community then they will not follow you, they will follow the work, and that’s not too good if you want to ever step away and do something else. Or, you know, just plain be supported in your work.

If your fans love you, and not just your work, but at the very least appreciate you because you’re responsible for the work, then you won’t have to worry about living in the gutter because everybody stole your work and nobody passed a penny in your direction for it.

(I mean, there are other reasons, too, but this is a pretty good one too)

You need to get them active

This ties into the community aspect a lot, because when the fans are active they’re usually going to be active with other people, or their activity will spur activity in others. But get them active.

Harry Potter and Lost were very responsible for the creation of the Wild Mass Guessing pages on TV Tropes. Pretty much every detail was an element in somebody’s theory, because both works had proven that it was worthwhile to analyze the little things.

This is how Kate885 described the situation (in a Livejournal post that, unfortunately, I seem unable to find again, a long time later): “Chances are good that we as a fandom have figured out almost every last detail of DH [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows]. We are the infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters. The only thing left to do is discern which pieces are true and which are false. But, after two years— somebody has come up with every theory that is theoretically possible.

“I remember, back between OotP and HBP, someone actually came up with the theory that Voldemort could be keeping himself alive by splitting parts of his soul and putting them in containers for safekeeping. Yes, someone managed to correctly predict Horcruxes before we even knew what they were called. If you shoot enough arrows in the dark, sooner or later you hit the target.”

Think about that for a second. Imagine what this is implying. The amount of activity that is behind this.
If you had one thousand fans who liked to spend any portion of their time figuring out the mysteries or future events of your work, do you think that they could probably be counted on to spend a lousy $100 a year on you? Do you think that they would become your 1,000 True Fans?

“Become” is an important word there. Your True Fans will analyze and theorize and discuss, of course, but it is not that someone becomes a True Fan and then analyzes and theorizes and discusses. Rather, there is something in your work that is worth analyzing, or theorizing about, or discussing, and in process of time the person who does that becomes a True Fan.

But you need to have something worth analyzing, theorizing about, and discussing.

Oh, and fanfiction? Gets people invested. Writers and readers both. In case it wasn’t obvious.

When people get active, they get invested. They don’t spend their time writing a story or making a song or creating a goshdurned video game and then turn around and decide “Meh, I think I’ll stop caring about this.” Once they get active enough you’ve got a feedback loop that’ll generally only terminate if you do something asinine, because it is human nature to justify your involvement in something that you have already invested time and money in. Every book they buy increases the odds that they will buy the book, and if somebody has read two-thirds of the way through Homestuck, then you can be pretty well counted on to finish the last third if for no other reason than that you have read the equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

It’s called effort justification.

But again, and this is where I have to say, “Use your powers for good, and not for evil”— If you decide to try to use Psychology Wizardry to con people into passing over coin for veritable mental poison, then first, it’s probably not going to work out like you want because the Real Good Stuff is common enough that it’ll show your work for the fool’s gold that it is and, second, you’re an asshole and you should feel bad.

You need to give them something to work with

I remember a conversation at Dark Lord Potter that got onto the topic of why the Harry Potter fandom had gotten where it was. It was pointed out that a major factor— not necessarily the biggest, just big— was, paradoxically, that there was so much room for improvement in the series. There were holes, there were things that didn’t make sense, and there were plot decisions that weren’t liked, and so the series straddled this weird place where it was awesome enough to be worth reading but sucky enough that you wanted to go in and fix the stuff you didn’t like.

As evidence, this commenter brought forward the sheer number of Alternate Universe, “Fix,” and worldbuilding fics in the Harry Potter fandom, especially relative to some other fandoms. DLP especially sometimes has a love-hate relationship with JK, lauding her for this quality over here and mercilessly tearing apart the series’ flaws over there. But DLP is also notable for the volume and quality of work that its members produce, and it is in no small part due to this very quality in Harry Potter.

Now, I wouldn’t suggest intentionally sowing flaws in your work so that people can tear it apart. That’s… That’s pretty damn stupid, okay? But it illustrates the concept.

A better example: Some works don’t garner much fanfiction because they’re not well-known, or they’re just not fun. But some are well-known and well-loved, but still pretty sterile. Why is this?

Because everything gets wrapped up. There’s no room to fill in. There’s nothing to explore after the curtain closes. There are no mysteries left.

So leave things open. Keep some threads loose and untied. Give your audience something to chew on.

Want extra homework? Read The Dynamics of Fandom: Exploring Fan Communities in Online Spaces, available here.

Your turn: What else can be done to build a fandom?

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