When Fans Attack: The Perils of an Internet-Enabled Audience

Pop culture consumers may be devoted, but all that adulation can turn to outrage with the slightest of provocations

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Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images

British singer-songwriter Adele performs on stage at the BRIT Awards 2012 in London on Feb. 21.

Fame, it is said, is a fickle mistress. But fans can be more like a crazy person who boils your kid’s rabbit on the stove when you piss her off.

Creative endeavors are tricky things, not always governed by the economic rules of supply and demand that hold true in other industries. But in most fields, including entertainment, consumers have come to expect a superior, consistent product from those they’ve given their business to. And when that doesn’t happen, whatever the reason, they can get a little ugly. Consider a few recent events in the entertainment world:

Feb. 10: Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace opens in theaters in 3-D, nearly 13 years after its initial release.

Feb. 13: Vogue posts an interview with Adele in which the singer announces her plans to take a four- to five-year hiatus, the day after she wins six Grammy Awards.

Feb. 15: The Colbert Report goes dark for two days, with no public explanation given at the time.

Feb. 19: The Simpsons airs its 500th episode, an unheard-of achievement for a prime-time comedy.

Most of these developments sent the Internet into one form of tizzy or another. The Star Wars rerelease was widely regarded as a cynical move to wring yet more profit out of an unstoppable franchise in its fourth decade, and some of the annoyance was probably due to the fact that it worked. Despite a dark, muddy, and largely flat transfer to 3-D, the worst film in the series was rewarded with a $23 million box office take during its opening weekend.

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Adele’s announcement was met with shock, especially coming so soon after she was already forced to take several months off due to throat surgery. Would her fans wait for five years? Adele later revealed (or claimed) that she was only joking, but the initial reaction, in which supportive Internet comments were mixed with some calling her a one-hit wonder and predicting she would become irrelevant in that time, is no less telling.

Stephen Colbert, already something of a lighting rod, faced some skepticism after the sudden announcement that there would be no taping of his show Wednesday and Thursday of last week. Given the punishing schedule required in the production of a daily half-hour television show, the surprising thing is that Colbert doesn’t take more time off as it is. Fans of the show, some of whom posted wild speculation that it had been suspended for political reasons, later learned that Colbert was spending time with his ailing 91-year-old mother.

The Simpsons, which dates back to the earliest days of the Fox Network, is widely thought to have gone downhill in quality in recent years, if not the entire past decade. The show has addressed this with fans directly by making self-deprecating jabs to that effect for years, with Comic Book Guy’s “Worst. Episode. Ever” threatening to surpass the show’s numerous other catchphrases. At the end of the episode, a title card on the screen invited viewers to go out and get some fresh air before going onto the Internet and saying how much the episode sucked.

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All this goes to show that the relationship between those who create art and those who consume it can be a fraught one, liable to turn on a dime at the slightest misstep but difficult to reverse once it starts moving in the wrong direction. A dynamic can emerge in which fans’ love for a product turns not to indifference as the result of that product’s decline or sudden denial, but outrage. Star Wars fans still love the original movies but increasingly despise George Lucas for his persistent failure to understand what made his original trilogy so popular, so they’re stuck together like a dysfunctional couple staying married for the sake of the kids. One can’t help wondering if The Simpsons would be in its 23rd season if Fox could afford to cancel it. And to a certain extent, when Colbert and Adele announced their hiatuses, fans behaved like a capricious utility company had cut off their political satire and heartfelt soul music like the water or electricity, despite the bill being up to date.

In what can sometimes seem like an obsessive codependent relationship between artists and fans, even the smallest event can create a huge uproar. Developing a devoted fan base may seem like the endgame for any producer of pop culture, but one false move can make it seem like having a tiger by the tail.

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