The Internet, Fan Culture, and Creators: A Blessing We Shouldn’t Turn Into a Curse
Steven Moffat enrages a lot of people. It’s simple fact. When you take over one of the most popular sci-fi franchises of all time and replace a beloved showrunner, the change is bound to stir up some feelings no matter what you do. This is made double true when among the changes to the show are issues that lend themselves easily to Internet ranting (read: most things, but most particularly those involving female companions and the like). This is made triple true when you are the type of showrunner who likes to interact—some would say tease, some would say torture—your fans on said Internets, metaphorically poking them with a long stick and frequently reminding them how often you are going to make them cry.
Moffat stirs up a lot of emotions in people, it’s true. Some people probably prickled at the first mention of his name in this article. It’s just his general presence. But Moffat also deleted his Twitter account recently. And that has a lot more behind it than the man himself, a lot more that I’d like to explore.
In Commentary! The Musical, a memorable extra feature on the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog DVD, Joss Whedon sings “Heart (Broken),” a song of lament from the point of view of the modern showrunner:
A caveman painted on a cave
It was a bison, was a fave
The other cave-people would rave—
They didn’t ask “why”
Why pain a bison if it’s dead
When did you choose the color red
What was the process in your head
He told their story
What came before he didn’t show
We’re not supposed to
Homer’s Odyssey was swell
A bunch of guys that went through hell
He told the tale but didn’t tell
The audience why
He didn’t say “Here’s what it means”
And “here’s a few deleted scenes”
Charybdis tested well with teens
He’s not the story
He’s just the door we open if
Our lives need lifting
The song is, somewhat melodramatically, a tale of loss: Television writers used to live behind a veil of anonymity, those mole people who’d secretly be controlling all the action while the actors looked pretty in front of the camera and the audience. The old ways hold true for some genres, but crashes and burns when talking about shows with a cult following—so, say, any show ever run by Whedon or Moffat.
This shift into a more visible world of television writers has been both gift and curse. The close relationship many fans feel with Whedon, for one, has elevated him from “Creator of Great Shows” to “King of Modern Fandom” in their eyes. But the very Internet-driven fan world that helped create that close relationship is also very new, and the long-term ramifications of it still very untested.
For those of us who consume our media with the passionate, sharply critical, analytical eyes of a fan, the dialogue opened up with the rise of the Internet age (Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, message boards, the ability to watch things belatedly and over and over again through Netflix) has been a gift bestowed upon us from the media heavens; we get to share our experiences with other members of the audience in a way that has never really existed before, and along with that there are more avenues that ever with which to communicate with the people who create those worlds that we so fervently attach ourselves to.
But for those people, the ones who stay up late editing and re-editing the syntax of a supporting character’s dialogue in hopes that it will foreshadow an upcoming event just enough, the relatively new open dialogue of the Information Age offers new and instantaneous ways through which to gauge audience reaction and interact with the people whose eyes ultimately make their shows possible. This can often lend itself to a very interesting, rich world wherein fans can actually have influence on the shows that they watch. Along with that, however, comes whole new ways for the hordes of angry people on the Internet (of which there are, obviously, and in the understatement of the year, many) to bring you floods of messages detailing everything they hate about your very existence.
Which brings us back to the Moffat Twitter situation. Sue Vertue, Moffat’s wife, insisted after the web took notice of Moffat’s sudden Twitter absence that he had left the social networking site because it was distracting him from the piles of work that comes from running half the shows in Britain (Britain has eight total actors, according to popular myth, and three total shows). This is believable, in that Moffat must lead an incredibly busy daily life. It falls short, however, if you’ve born witness to the tumultuous relationship of Moffat and his fans and critics on Twitter.
It would be an understatement to say that I have heard Moffat called a “troll” a thousand times in the past year. I speak of the Internet troll, of course, and not the bridge-dwelling nuisances of folklore.
Prior to nearly every episode of television he oversaw, Moffat would find it amusing to take to Twitter and poke his fans with a metaphorical feeling stick, often commenting on how emotionally damaging he has ensured these episodes to be. And to be fair, I’m still not over “The Reichenbach Fall,” and with every passing episode of Doctor Who I find myself less and less ready for the Ponds to leave.
Moffat’s tweets often came from what I take to be a place of mischief; the satisfaction that comes from something you write resonating with people emotionally. The man writes dramatic television for a living; you can pretty much guarantee that’s something he’s been working towards his whole life.
But as I learned when my mother brought home a cat when I was five, if you poke something living for long enough it’s going to poke (or bite, or scratch) you back. And fans took to Twitter to respond in kind.
I am staunchly against hate mail. It’s one thing to write an angry tumblr post and send it into the ether; it’s one thing to write a carefully constructed question or point and aim it towards the creator of the thing you’re reacting to. What good does it do–aside from catharsis to those who write it—to send messages containing nothing but hatred? Why send it? Why purposefully say hurtful things to another human, when there are such better avenues for legitimately constructive criticism? Honestly, if you have a good answer, hit the comments and tell me.
As long as the technologies have existed, we as audiences have always watched television. We’ve sat down at a certain time every week, or rushed to find an appropriate link, or talked endlessly with our friends about our hopes for a character. But we have not always had this presence—this privilege—of being able to glimpse into the lives of the people who make these stories a reality. We’ve never been able to pick their brains quite as frequently and in such in-depth ways as we can now. But this place we inhabit now—where you can type in a simple URL and learn what video game Dan Harmon is playing at this very moment—is tenuous, and untested, and dangerous.
There is something that we very easily forget when we are watching television: The people who create it are human. Every single one of them, from Moffat to Whedon, Dan Harmon to Tina Fey, Damon Lindeloff to David Chase. They sit around and whine about annoying things they see on television, their breath smells in the morning, they poop, and they bruise when punched.
They’ve all created memorable television within the last decade, but they all have the ability to be just as wounded or lifted up by what they read on the Internet at the end of the day as we do. The Internet can be an amazing place for criticism and conversation; it can also far too easily morph into a place where people take out their frustrations at the most easily accessible punching bag.
What we say to the people who write our shows may seem like it enters some unknown void, never to be thought of or seen in any real way because to us these people are not real, 3D people, but that is not the case: Tina Fey has an entire chapter in her book calling out people who’ve said rude things about her on the Internet. She’s noticed. She’s read it. She, being human, had an emotional response to people holding negative opinions about her. What she has taken from that experience likely wasn’t “Well, now I must change these things about how I write! Thanks for the advice, Internet Stranger #1!” Writing is a profession that requires a person to be able to take criticism. The way you present that criticism, however, is just as important as what you are saying. Basically: An angry tweet isn’t going to change anything about your favorite show, it’s just going to hurt someone’s feelings.
Steven Moffat, for his part, is an incredibly flawed writer. He’s also a person. Imagining him at home in his boxers scrolling through hate messages just kind of makes me sad.
This piece does not intend to send Moffat up as some martyr to the Internet. It’s just a reminder: No matter how insular it may seem that we are, we live in a world where we can be in contact with the magic mischievous creators of our entertainment. And that is great. Just don’t scare them away.