A surplus of fan fiction, cosplay, memes and other obsessions

April 12, 2012 § 1 Comment

Television in its current shape, like newspapers, is crumbling and it is the kids who are chipping away at it. It is as Clay Shirky predicted and the evidence can be found studying The Hunger Games, in the multitude of online forums, cosplay videos and images, parody videos, photo-shopped memes and web pages of user generated fan fiction.

Shirky’s big idea is that the Internet is a ubiquitous, participatory medium that is having an unprecedented impact on human society and behaviour. One of its side effects is to usher in the end of television as we have known it. Everyone over the age of 25 grew up watching television as the dominant entertainment and information medium. It was our default time suck of choice – or no choice because the Internet had yet to exist.

By contrast, the world depicted in The Hunger Games is one without an Internet and where information is controlled and flows from a central point. There’s one government television channel that everyone is compelled to watch. It could be a metaphor for our pre-Internet world where television was the king of media.

In the post war era, when people had more hours of leisure to burn, incredibly, we spent more and more of it watching television. We passively consumed televised broadcast content because it was entertainment, a surrogate friend, a way to feel connected to everyone else by being able to join the water cooler conversations at work and also because, as Shirky describes in his book Cognitive Surplus, the threshold for doing it was very low. It took no effort to turn on a television and collapse on a couch.

Apparently, Americans cumulatively watch up to 200 billion hours of television every year. But that’s changing. Those hours are increasingly going online. The shift wrought by the Internet, mobile communications and faster broadband speeds means that young people under 25 are not satisfied with passively consuming media. They expect to be active and contributory participants. They expect the immediacy and interactivity of the World Wide Web because that is what they’ve grown up with. This burgeoning participatory ethos is what Shirky calls the cognitive surplus – the hours spent tuning out have become about turning on.

“Several population studies – of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users – have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same; young populations with fast interactive media are shifting their behaviour away from media that presupposes pure consumption. Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analogue to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate or rank it, and of course to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

Shirky says the cumulative effect is revolutionary.

“The choices leading to reduced TV consumption are at once tiny and enormous. The tiny choices are individual; someone simply decides to spend the next hour talking to friends or playing a game or creating something instead of just watching. The enormous choices are collective ones, an accumulation of those tiny choices by the millions; the cumulative shift toward participation across a whole population enables the creation of a Wikipedia.”

Armed with the theory, I went looking for the cognitive surplus as it might apply to The Hunger Games. Others had observed that the all this extra brain cell activity not wasted on watching TV, had been disappearing into a morass of Angry Birds but we can guess that it flows on to what ever the next big Internet thing is. Right now, the next big thing to millions of kids is The Hunger Games. Warning: if you haven’t seen the film or read the book there are spoilers ahead.

Take for example, fan fiction, a sub culture where fans are so into a story, series or book, that they make up their own plots, subplots and parallel narratives. They fill in where they see gaps in the authorised narrative or characters. The Hunger Games fans who write fan fiction (called fanfic for short) are extremely dedicated and motivated. They have gone beyond consuming the books and the film and they’ve ‘occupied’ The Hunger Games world, bringing with them their own spin.

Many have run with the romantic intrigue between the main character Katniss Everdeen and the other two points of her love triangle – Peeta and Gale. They’ve been extrapolated by fans in love with the book but dissatisfied with its chasteness. Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale for Katniss?

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Foxface illustration by CarlyFriendsRock

Fans also love Katniss’ mysterious redheaded rival, Foxface. She’s even become the focal point of a fascinating controversy. Did Foxface commit suicide by deliberately eating nightlock berries or was her death accidental? This is hotly debated online by fans who feel passionate one way or the other. As much as I like the idea that Foxface decided to subvert the game, I am on the side of the ‘accidentalists’.

Check out also the Hunger Games wiki where fans write and edit a definitive resource on the books (and the film) according to the principles of Wikipedia.

There are also cosplay videos and images of fans dressing and acting out their favourite character roles. These kids script, video, edit and publish their own tributes to the books. The results are not always pretty but it’s kind of touching that fans do this out of love for the story.

Some recreate scenes from the book. And others make parodies, like this one of The Hipster Games. Some get the braids, bows, arrows and a flinty stare.

Needless to say, there are also photoshopped memes!

This explosion of fan love creativity is what the cognitive surplus looks like. There was a debate about race because some fans were outraged two of the game candidates, Thresh and Rue, are played by black actors in the film. The racist fans were quickly shot down – one, for making it an issue of having black actors and two, for their poor reading comprehension. The book clearly says:

“And most hauntingly, a twelve year old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanour.”

Someone appalled at the racism displayed towards the idea of having black characters started a Tumblr that aggregated the racist tweets and reactions to them. It became a rallying point for the anti-racist backlash.

Truth be told, I felt like objecting a little because the two Asian kids didn’t get much screen time. One dies in a highlights reel of an earlier games and the other kid doesn’t even get going, just one of those immediately slaughtered at the Cornucopia. But hey, at least Asians got represented, even if they were arrow and spear fodder.

I am just scratching the surplus here. This obsessive mania over The Hunger Games may seem frivolous and trivial but to me, it represents something much bigger – a rowdy, clamouring, gorgeous din of voices, all busy creating, sharing, debating, trolling and celebrating with a zeal that goes with being a true fan. That noise you hear is the sound of an accumulation of surplus creativity finding its outlet on the World Wide Web. That has got to be more interesting than watching people watch television.

What’s your cognitive surplus doing?


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§ One Response to A surplus of fan fiction, cosplay, memes and other obsessions

  • Very cool discussion Charles, I love learning about things like this. I find the whole world of constructing your own part in whatever it is you’re a fan of – whether it’s fanfic, debates online with like-minded strangers, etc – completely fascinating. I’m a bit on the fringe of this, but have definitely participated at various times – finding a community that is as fervent as you about something can be super rewarding.

    And thanks for highlighting again the awful ignorance of some people regarding the race of characters.

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