Is Anime Fandom More Dysfunctional Than In The Past?
by Justin Sevakis,
With how everything being divisive and politicized nowadays, how badly has the anime fandom been affected by this? I notice that certain groups among the fandom often clash with others over such hot topics like fansubs, fanservice and even specific shows and characters (if you don't like x show or y character, then you have shit taste). Doesn't this make the anime fandom come off as unwelcoming to outsiders?
I can feel the arthritis set in as I type this very sentence, but this year marks my 20th year in the anime business, and my 25th in anime fandom. And, observing and interacting with anime fans over the years, and trading stories with my friends in the business, I can say without reservation that anime fandom has always had the same problems every other fandom has had. Anime publishers, translators, localizers, licensors, journalists and critics alike have gotten death threats, 30-page-long snail-mailed hate screeds in broken English (angry about subtitle translation choices not matching that of fansubs, natch), and of course, doxxing and all the other modern, terrible wonders the age of communication has visited upon us.
And that's just the professional side of things. Within fan circles, you have nerds gate-keeping ("you're not a real fan if...") and berating people for their tastes. You have the world of shipping, which gets bizarrely toxic sometimes. Cosplay and masquerade events at conventions are petri dishes for unnecessary drama. Basically every faction of anime fandom has its share of in-fighting and problem children, from AMVs to fan fiction. You name it, and fans will find a way to fight about it.
Of course, these interactions are not the majority of the ones we have. If anime fans were really that bad, nobody would still be here. Based on the observations of myself and my peers over the years, the otaku world tends to be the same or better than many other, similar fandoms. Anime fans by and large tend to try and educate themselves, and have informed discussion, if not always civil. But people are passionate, and they come at a topic from different points of view that can't always be squared. It's a tale as old as fandom itself.
If you've been around anime fandom long enough, all of the fighting and acrimony seems pretty old hat. I'm old enough to remember the vicious flame wars on the Usenet newsgroups rec.arts.anime (and later rec.arts.anime.misc) back in the mid-90s, often over the same topics that fans fight about today: subs vs dubs and the denigration of people who like one or the other; fansubs and the relative morality of their production, distribution and consumption; complaints, informed and otherwise, about anime and manga publishers; and, of course, gate-keeping and other ego-based derision. (If you're too young to know about newsgroups, they were basically text-only internet message boards that predated the web.)
Yes, that's right, most of these arguments have raged on for over twenty years. People are still having the same fights, slightly reworded with different vernacular as consumption changes, again and again. You'll forgive an old-timer like me for tuning most of it out. Is it worse now than it was before? It'll always feel that way when you're living in the moment, I think, but if you take the long view, I doubt it. It's impossible to measure how much of it there is, really -- how much you see depends on where you hang out, what sort of social media bubble you've created for yourself. I don't see much of it now, because I'm not particularly interested in fandom noise and have moved on from all that. But back in the 90s, when I was in high school? I can hardly describe the level of acrimony I witnessed and took part in on TAFMAL -- the infamous VHS fansubber's email list. (For those who don't remember, that was basically a closed message board that operated by automatically forwarding every reply to every thread to everybody who subscribed. Yes, that got very old, very fast.)
It's easy to get nostalgic about the old days. Fans used to cooperate more, it's true -- but that's because we HAD to. Anime, manga, information about them and even pictures were rare commodities, and it required a lot of time and resources to get what you wanted. And don't think that we didn't resent the people in a group who didn't seem to pull their weight. I never belonged to a fan group that didn't have its share of fighting and drama. And given that anime has a pretty healthy community and has for decades, I'm not too concerned that it's keeping people out. It takes some time for the newbies to even discover these conversations, after all. It might make people leave the fandom, but I have a suspicion that many others simply learn to control who they interact with.
I am very skeptical that things are any different than they ever were. I was, and stayed, an active member of the community because the good vastly outweighed the bad, because some of the greatest people I've ever known are the ones I've met and bonded with over anime, and that for all the guff I put up with, most fans treat me with incredible respect and kindness. But there are always fights and always bad apples. This is simply how people conduct themselves in fan groups, and on the internet in general, and Western anime fandom grew up attached to the internet. If anything, the rest of the world has become more like us.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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