The core argument in this well-written piece in the Washington Post that rails against the online bullying of media creators – writers, artists, actors and others – that’s now common place is this passage:
The idea that fans should be able to get their art made to order has always felt odd to me, because on a fundamental level, art is about trust. When we open a book, put on an album, start a new television show, or settle in as the lights go down in a movie theater, we’re preparing ourselves for what is fundamentally an act of submission. We’re giving ourselves over to a world of someone else’s making, a piece of music that emanated from someone else’s brain, a story where we have no ability to control the outcome, or, at minimum, someone else’s interpretation of a familiar narrative.
Now let me be clear that I largely agree with the idea that art is meant to be dominant, putting the audience in a place of submission. But that attitude is no longer as pervasive as it once was. Core Art – the TV show, comic book, movie or other media that’s been produced by an individual or group of professionals – is simply the jumping off point for fan expression. That can take the form of cosplay, original artwork shared on Tumblr or a dozen other forms of self-expression. Fans are using someone else’s output as a means of self-expression, creating ancillary iterations of that Core Art that reflects them and their own takes.
It’s that attitude that leads to this kind of behavior. It’s abhorrent, yes, and certainly a departure from the past. But TV viewers decades ago didn’t have the tools at their disposal to write their fan fic that ships Lucy Ricardo and Fred Mertz and then be mad at the writers who didn’t agree that a passionate affair in the past tinged all their current interactions. Now they do.
Let me be clear that I’m not condoning the kind of bullying and harassment that goes on. No creator deserves that. But we need to all admit that the fundamental contract between creator and audience – that the former will provide the latter with a product that is solely meant for consumption – has been altered, perhaps irrevocably. That may be for good or it may be for ill, but it’s where we are right now.
In some ways, this is the original faulty assumption of social media marketing, that promotion by companies of any sort would be consumed passively, with the audience thanking the company for the privilege of receiving those promotions and promising not to provide any feedback. We thought we could blast news to everyone on Facebook and Twitter through not just corporate accounts but also those of individuals like CEOs or, in this case writers and artists, with no repercussions. That was never going to be true, but it’s the line that was too-often used. We told all the talent to get on Twitter but didn’t give them the tools or support necessary to sustain them when the commentary turned negative. That was a fundamental failure.
The people who harass writers, artists, actors, directors, musicians, painters and others because their vision doesn’t match the singular view of that individual, that it doesn’t conform in every way possible with the worldview of a niche segment of the audience at the expense of all others, are misguided. But we let this happen in many and various ways. Unfortunately there’s almost no way to put the toothpaste back in the tube.