Tyranny of the Fanboys

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

It’s official: The fanboys win. For proof, look at this week’s Comic-Con in San Diego—an event that started 41 years ago as a forum for nerds to flip through back issues and is now an essential launching pad for movies (Angelina Jolie made an appearance), video games, toys, and TV shows. Or consider that Lost was last season’s most-talked-about show and Inception is the buzz movie of this summer, so much so that Roger Ebert and A. O. Scott have both written responses to the responses to Inception’s hype. Yes, all the favorite obsessions of nerds and fanboys (or fangirls)—vampires, superheroes, manga, and sci-fi—have now been successfully incepted into our collective pop-culture dreams.

As a (semi-) reformed fanboy myself, you’d think I’d be celebrating. Take that, jocks and assorted oppressors! You now consume and enjoy exactly what we always championed! Yet I find this rise to dominance both confusing and ironic—no more so than when fanboys shout down opposition to something they collectively adore. Most recently, bad reviews for Inception sparked an angry outcry (with our own critic David Edelstein in the crosshairs), as if the earmark of a truly great film is that it’s embraced by everyone, everywhere, without exception. (As Ebert tried to reassure us on Twitter, “You are allowed to criticize Inception.”) Not only is this wrongheaded, it’s the exact opposite of the fanboy ethos.

Once, a fanboy was defined by isolation: a taste for films, or comic books, or pulp novels, or TV shows that flourished in the shadowed cracks of the culture, ignored or dismissed by the mainstream. You loved what you loved, in part, because it spoke directly to you, and in part because most other people didn’t feel the same way. That was the whole point. And while you enjoyed your Sandman comics or episodes of Red Dwarf, you imagined—you hoped—there were like-minded people out there. You might occasionally meet one at a local convention (perhaps while both in costume) or behind the counter of the local comic store.

Now, of course, fanboys all hang out on the Internet, and they are legion. And if there is one thing the Internet is good for, it’s bringing together like-minded people, then convincing them that their opinion is the only valid one in existence. Psychologists call this “group polarization,” a tendency for people who agree to gather and prod each other toward further extremism. This has long been evident on political blogs, but it’s true in cultural criticism as well. If you are wild about Christopher Nolan films, you can easily find others who are nuts about Nolan, and soon you will wonder how anyone else could possibly feel any different. To use a fanboy-approved metaphor, the Internet is like the Tree of Souls in Avatar: a place to plug in and feel as one. But this polarization—along with the fanboy’s newfound cultural clout—has led to a kind of groupthink. Once the outcast underdogs, fanboys have become the new bullies.

Way back in 1994, the band Weezer released the song “In the Garage,” a ballad about being a nerd sitting alone, with only your Dungeon Master’s Guide and your Kitty Pryde poster to console you. (She’s an X-Man—but you know that from the movies.) The song was a precise and melancholy ode to passionate fandom and how it can lead to an almost monkish retreat from the culture at large. But these days, fanboys are never excluded because they run the culture. They may still sit in rooms alone, but they commune endlessly with other fanboys online, praising what they already like and shouting down anyone who won’t join in. And somewhere, these days, there’s a teen alone in his garage, wondering if it’s safe to tell anyone that he’s not particularly psyched for a Kick-Ass sequel and that he fell asleep in Inception halfway through.

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Tyranny of the Fanboys