New fandoms are different spaces from older fandoms. Customs have yet to be codified; big name fans have yet to become prominent. In-jokes and norms take time to become established. This week in fandom, Patrick and I took a look at the fandom for Westworld to analyze the techniques to form a group and create group cohesion.
Westworld is an interesting example, in that it’s both a brand new fandom– the first episode aired only on Sunday (October 2)– and a natural offshoot of older fandoms. It’s a new HBO show that is produced by J.J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, who both have sizeable fandoms of their own. J.J. Abrams is known for directing the new Star Wars, the Star Trek reboots, and other films, as well as producing cult TV Shows like Lost and Fringe. Jonathan Nolan– though not as well known as his older brother, director Christopher Nolan– is well known for his collaborations with Christopher on screenplays like Interstellar, and being the showrunner for Person of Interest.
It’s also based on a movie written and directed by the author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton. Plot-wise, it’s very similar to Jurassic Park: Westworld also revolves around a theme park wherein its captive attractions go rogue. This time, though, it’s a science fiction story about a Western theme park filled with robots that become sentient.
Because of this extensive pedigree, Westworld had a lot of hype and a lot of high expectations– at a budget of $100 million for its first season, HBO needed it to be a success. So far, it seems to have connected with its audience: the first episode had 3.3 million viewers, the best premiere for HBO in the last three years.
Who tuned into Westworld? Based on just its pedigree, we can make a few assumptions about its fans. It’s an HBO show, so they’ll be accustomed to seeing nudity and on-screen violence (including sexual violence). Because Abrams and Nolan are involved, the fans will be very speculative and will come up with tons of explanations. If you remember Lost, that show caused fans to come up with tons of theories on the nature of the show, the significance of the numbers, and more. For Nolan, even mentioning the spinning top of Inception might make your eyes roll. Additionally, fans of both pride themselves on attention to detail and will point out little things (often in aid of elaborate theories.) It’s easy to extend these qualities to fans of Westworld: speculation and digging for secrets will be a huge part of this fan community, and apparently already is.
Additionally, the fans should have the same qualities as most fans of science fiction and westerns. However, it’s tough to say for sure if this is representative of the whole audience: although the most vocal audience members of Game of Thrones are pre-existing fans of fantasy, the whole viewing audience is surprisingly diverse.
Although some cohesion activities were harder to find– no debates have been ritualized yet, and people were not quite jostling for hierarchy yet (beyond just getting upvotes and reblogs)– others were extremely easy. Exchanging knowledge or gifts was the bulk of fan activity surrounding Westworld, with the predicted theories emerging and details being pointed out to each other.
When a theory was particularly good, or a rare piece of fan creation appeared, acknowledgement and flattery appeared in spades.
Although for the most part, social norms have not been established, there are some holdover norms from other fandoms that have applied to Westworld. With time, we’ll see if these cultural norms apply to Westworld fans or were just a one-time event. For now though, fans enforce the same cultural norms as other HBO shows– namely Game of Thrones– and other science fiction properties: to criticize those who might analyze the show with a feminist lens.
Finally, fans do punish infractions, though infractions largely haven’t been established either. One thing is certain though: you don’t post in the Westworld subreddit if you dont like the show. The two following posts have a reasonable tone and don’t make any untrue points, but they were still downvoted and hidden by Westworld fans.
Although this only counts a day or two of activity, we can already see how the Westworld fan group is forming and what its fans might look like in the future. Lots of speculation is key to its cohesion, and encouraging this fan behaviour and discouraging others will define Westworld fans as more episodes air.
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