Persuasion and Opinion in Pop Culture Fandom – Are We the Cart or the Horse?
The Persuasive Power of Popularity
There is strong pressure in fandom to conform – when your entire group of friends all likes one series, there is commonality, but when part of the group chooses a new interest and you’re left, only caring about the old thing, your group will apply pressure to either get you to conform…or weed you out.
There is equal pressure to be non-conforming. It’s cool in many fandoms to be anti-whatever is most popular. “Facebook sucks.”
And a third kind of pressure exists when the group ages, and everything they liked is now “classic.” They resent the popularity of the new, always lesser media and assert the superiority of the old, while the larger population has moved on, and they become old fogies.
Popularity is almost always a valid measure of relevance. Shingeki no Kyoujin/Attack on Titan is not “popular” in a vacuum. It is a carefully crafted series that hits the viewing audience directly in the middle of the zeitgeist. If you’d never heard of it, but attended a large pop culture event like New York Comic Con, you’d see notable numbers of people cosplaying Survey Corps members. Enough that maybe you’d want to know what that series is, and why so many people are cosplaying it. You’d read or watch some (now free on Crunchyroll or on TV on Cartoon Network) and be drawn into the tense and uncomfortable world it inhabits. You too might be swayed merely by its popularity to give it a try.
In this case, fandom is clearly the cart, being dragged along by waves of media and, of course, it’s attendant marketing.
Representation is Reality
I’m going to stick with Attack on Titan here for a moment. It’s popular here in Japan and in the United States and it does something else rather well, without it being a big deal. Attack on Titan is, perhaps, a surprising place to look for sexual and gender diversity, but it’s there.
In the American comics scene, there has been a lot of discussion around the portrayal of women, ethnic, sexual, gender and religious minorities and the general lack of diversity. Of course there are always comics drawn by minorities for those same minorities, but we’ve hit a saturation point where the female, ethnic, sexual, gender and religious minority readership are no longer willing to be misrepresented, overlooked, or ignored by the mainstream industry. Money speaks clearly, and when fans say “we’re not giving this same old same old our money anymore,” that gives fans the chance to be the horse, pulling a hidebound industry along.
Many people have done research on the power of media to dictate self-image, and the harm it does when popular media images do not reflect reality. Gaming in the USA is undergoing a series of cramps as non-white male gamers are asking for merely occasional representation.
So, when we look at a mainstream action adventure story like Shingeki no Kyoujin, and I see Hange-san portrayed as genderless, and Ymir and Christa developing what to me seems like a relationship, I’m immediately going to mask MY interest in Gender and Sexual minority representation into those characters, just as others will clearly see Levi and Erwin paired and find some kind of real meaning in that.
In terms of representation, fans, gamers, comics readers are asking the companies to allow them to be given opportunities to be represented. Much as when we fill out the questionnaires in a manga magazine letting them know what series we’re enjoying, and what we’d like to see more of, fandom is speaking loudly and clearly about more diverse representation. In this way, we are allowed the opportunity to be the horse, dragging along the cart of industry.
The Least of the Least – Why Fans Get So Angry Over Nothing
My wife and I both watched the original Sailor Moon anime in English before we ever saw it in Japanese. The translation for Hino Rei made her seem nastier in English than in Japanese, and my wife never really forgave her for that. It’s not a major opinion, she still loves Sailor Moon, but she has her opinion and it has not changed. Not after watching the original anime in Japanese, not after reading the manga, not after watching Sailor Moon Crystal…not ever. Her opinion is as valid as anyone else’s opinion of a character and the opinion itself isn’t really the point. The interesting point is how she clings to that opinion, long after other information has come to light that ought to have given her different perspective.
Perhaps we watched Neon Genesis Evangelion and learned instantly to dislike Shinj. Why then, do we feel no pity for him after it becomes clear that his life has been full of neglect to which is added physical and emotional abuse? Why do we have an *opinion* at all?
I have a theory that I call “the least of the least.” We know that fans develop opinions of series and characters within that series…and we know that identifying with those series and characters is exactly the difference between a casual watcher or reader and a fanatic.
My theory (which is unstudied and unsupported, except by my experience) is that the less meaningful and smaller an opinion is, the harder we’ll cling to it. If I like Zorro in One Piece but you like Sanji, this could become a point of contention between us. Online, it could become all-out war.
When we determine that we “love” a pop culture thing – whatever it may be – we need to provide reinforcement, either internally or externally, to stay convinced. In effect we tell ourselves “If this wasn’t important, why would I have bothered coming up with an opinion at all? Since I *have* an opinion, it must be important! Clearly, this opinion is worth having and fighting for. And, of course, the harder we fight, the more entrenched our opinion becomes, and more intractable we are about our position. The smaller and less meaningful the position we take is, the harder it is to change our minds.
The leads to the kind of nonsensical raving over nothing we’re seeing with “Gamergate.” The position these people have taken defies reason, and evidence, and yet, the more the gaming industry, other gamers, game critics and the larger media around the issues they have created insist they are pretty much arguing with no one about nothing, the louder they yell.
In a sense, fans are both the cart and the horse here. Driven by our own biases, desires and by logical fallacies and inconsistencies we rarely acknowledge even to ourselves, we drive ourselves to pay attention to even our most ridiculous opinions about pop culture.
The Cognitive Authority of Pop Culture Taste Makers
So, where do bloggers and journalists come in to all of this? Up to now, we’ve been looking at fandom as a conversation between fans, between fans and companies and inside fan’s heads.
Let’s break up the two kinds of pop culture reporters first. Pop culture “journalists” are first and foremost reporting the news. Here in Japan, you have sites like Anime! Anime! and Comic Natalie, in America we have media sources like Anime News Network and The Comics Beat. These sites tell you what is happening in the industry, with some critical commentary, from writers and industry people mixed into the articles, or as part of an interview. But the key function of such a site is to tell you what is happening, not necessarily why.
While there are quite literally dozens, of popular fan blogs for every fandom, and all of these drive opinion in some ways, there are also a few key sites that tend to have larger reading audiences and have, therefore, proportionately more influence.
In America, we have writers like Deb Aoki and Brigid Alverson, whose expertise has significant impact in manga blogging, and sites like MangaBookshelf, which gathers writers of many kinds, each with their own audience. And of course, there are popular niche blogs, each with a distinct voice and audience. Okazu, my own blog has been around for 12 years. It is the oldest ongoing Yuri blog in the world, beating out the oldest Japanese Yuri blog by a few months.
Although Okazu is the oldest and most comprehensive Yuri blog, even in my small niche, I am not alone. Blogs have come and gone, some more popular than mine with certain sections of the fandom.
My business card now says “LGBTQ Comics Tastemaker.” Let’s talk a bit about what I mean by that.
I’ve just told you that, even in my absurdly small niche, I am not the only blogger. So why and how do I consider myself a “tastemaker?” This is a pretty profound question at it’s core. My opinion is worth the same as any other fan’s, one might presume. But in a few key ways, I have leveraged my influence and my reader’s enthusiasm to create wider reach and greater ability to persuade.
First – I require my reader to work at it.
My posts are liberally sprinkled with references to fine art, dance, literature, history, science and other completely non-pop culture fandom pursuits. To be comfortable reading Okazu, you probably should have paid attention in Art History class. I link to everything I write about, so when I do a review of a popular, yet fairly unexceptional series, a reader might find themselves in a discussion of a famous painting. This is 100% by design. Readers who know the material I refer to feel rewarded for their knowledge, readers who are not are given a chance to level up their knowledge. It is immensely gratifying to see a conversation about Velasquez or Dostoevsky in the comments.
Another tactic I use is to engage the readers as part of the team, with rewards for participation on all levels, as long as the participation is positive. Negative commenters are ignored, positive are rewarded with response. News items sent in garner the reader an Okazu Correspondent Badge, guest reviewers receive solicited and unsolicited praise, subscribers are recognized as Heroes. Reasonably presented disagreement is received with respect and open, frank, but polite, discussion. Above all things, corrections are publicly appreciated and when I am wrong, I say that. This tells readers their time, their engagement – and their criticism – is appreciated. I’ve had fans comment that Okazu is the only blog they’ve ever read where the readers are thanked even when they are disagreeing.
<ask audience to raise hands>
I have no real or figurative power here. But, because I am up here, you presume I have some knowledge you don’t, and I am, therefore, a figure of “authority.” You have to hope so, or why am I even here?
As a result of our relative positions – me lecturing, you listening – you grant me what is called “cognitive authority.” And, so, when I ask you to raise your hands, you do, without question.
Combine a position of authority, with approval, reward and engagement. What do you get?
These behaviors, and a few other marketing tactics give readers tactile, immediate rewards for their engagement. When we feel valued, we value. Okazu is not a fan blog, it is a community, a team, a family. So, when I ask (not tell) my readers to support a book, or write a company, they do it enthusiastically. Like you, they have awarded me cognitive authority.
The power to persuade granted to me is no light matter. When I betray that trust, fans respond with anger, up to and including threats of violence. I’ve received letters of condemnation, and also many letters of thanks for writing, or convincing someone to try a series.
And so, my ability to persuade comes from multiple vectors. Authority I am granted, authority I claim by reading widely, deeply, insisting my audience can keep up with me, and the engagement and rewards that doing so brings.
Like the power journalists of evening news in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, power bloggers have the ability to be the driver of both cart and horse, which is to say, fandom and the industries with which they share an ecosystem.
Presented October 16, 2014 to the “Persuasion and Language” class, taught by Prof. Beverly Curran at International Christian University, Mitaka, Japan.