Why Superfans Can Be Super-Scary For Companies

In designing experiences that generate avid audiences, companies should be prepared to lose control, says historian Daniel Cavicchi.

Why Superfans Can Be Super-Scary For Companies
[Top Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images]

Fans have helped define the digital age. User-centered, user-created, user-driven, and user-generated approaches to building online content all recognize the potential of passionate audiences. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media platforms encourage people to “like,” “share,” “comment,” and “follow”—terms that gesture toward fan behaviors and values. While gamers, Deadheads, and other fan groups were early adopters of Internet bulletin boards and discussion lists, in the past twenty years there has been an explosion of fan activity online, from fantasy football to


Yet today’s hyper-connected world has not erased worry about the nature of “fannish” relationships. A new PBS documentary, “Web Junkie,” for example, depicts the clinical rehabilitation of Chinese teens that have become addicted to video games; they are unable to distinguish between game worlds and the real world. Online crowdsourcing has enabled performers like Amanda Palmer to develop incredibly close and productive relationships with fans, which she promotes as part of a punk communal aesthetic, but she has also been accused of hypocritically using the power of technology to manipulate her followers to support her personal gain. Even entertainment companies, like Lucasfilm or Warner Brothers, after explicitly seeking to nurture audience engagement with dedicated fan sites, have ended up backpedalling into defensive positions over intellectual property, when they’ve realized fans’ stories and artwork are not exactly what they bargained for.

Flickr user swimfinfan

Maniacs and Matinée Girls
Interestingly, this hot and cold dynamic of fandom is woven throughout American history. The term “fan,” as a shortened form of “fanatic,” was first used by American sports writers in the 1890s to playfully mock rowdy baseball rooters, but fan-like consumers have been around since the market revolutions of the late 18th century, when entrepreneurs first attempted to sell “amusements” to the public. Proto-fans (known variously as amateurs, beggars, boomers, bugs, connoisseurs, devotees, dilettantes, enthusiasts, fanatics, the fancy, fiends, gluttons, habitués, heads, hounds, kranks, lions, longhairs, lovers, maniacs, matinée girls, nuts, rooters, Lisztians, Wagnerians, and other terms) were those who excitedly embraced commercialized culture as a way to signal that they—often young migrants to cities—had thrown off the old pastimes of church and village and embraced a modern cosmopolitanism.

Early public concerts in the 1840s, for instance, were astonishing to those who had previously experienced music only by having to make it themselves. For the mere purchase of ticket, they could sit and listen to the dizzying feats of a virtuoso in a grand concert hall. The attraction of “just listening” was electric. Music lovers developed new practices of “concert-going,” in which they reserved the best seats in theaters, saw all performances by visiting musicians, and lengthened their enjoyment by recording their feelings in diaries or scrapbooks. Poet Walt Whitman participated, hearing most of the major virtuosos who passed through New York City in the late 1840s and rhapsodizing about his listening experiences in poems and journal entries. Nathan Beekley, a young clerk in 1849 Philadelphia, found himself unable to resist going to musical performances four nights a week or attending Anglican, Episcopalian, and Free church services on Sundays in order to hear more music. Hundreds of thousands of people welcomed opera singer Jenny Lind to America on her 1850 tour, not only by attending her performances, but also hanging lithographs of Lind in their homes, adopting her fashion sense, and purchasing Lind-branded soap, boots, lamps, and hats.

Everett Historical/Shutterstock

At the same time, just as today, there were concerns. In 1850, P.T. Barnum, Jenny Lind’s tour manager, was excoriated in the press for his blatant “humbug” and manipulation of the masses through “puffery” and merchandising; one cartoon depicted the Lind audience as animals guided by a demonic Barnum/Noah into the ark of a concert hall. More ominously, fandom became linked to disease. New York newspaper columnist Donald Grant Mitchell only half-jokingly compared public enthusiasm for Lind to the Plague: “It was really an awful exhibition to see thousands of these sufferers rushing along the streets, regardless of all ordinary proprieties, and sometimes screaming out at the very top of their voices…Some carried huge bouquets of flowers, which they threw into the carriage of Miss Lind, and kissed their hands, and made all kinds of antics; after which they either grew melancholy, and slipped away through the back-streets, or quieted themselves with drink.” Between 1830 and the 1870s, medical dictionaries even listed a disease called “musicomania,” in which “the passion for music is carried to such an extent as to derange the intellectual faculties.”

From Activation to Ecstasy
What does it mean? Time and time again, fans have proven that they are ideal consumers. They have eagerly purchased products and services, and collected every piece of merchandise that may be related to their interests or support their fascinations. This facilitates profits and can be quite attractive. But fans blatantly eschew the basic equation of a single fee for a product or service for deeper kinds of relationship marked by lasting intimacy and heightened feeling. In other words, if they’ve seen a show, they resist leaving the theater. Fans allow their participation in culture to infuse their daily lives, sustaining their feelings as audience members by engaging more books, more games, more concerts; collecting souvenirs, making pilgrimages, contacting stars, trading knowledge with other fans, and performing themselves. Not only does this put enormous pressure on producers to fulfill desires that beyond their capabilities, it rubs against Western industrial society’s expectations for moderation and self-control. Fan ecstasy, like all ecstasy, threatens the ordinary.

Flickr user Kevin Dooley

Some social media startups may be eager to help companies “activate users” and “maximize engagement,” but the truth is that while fans may eagerly buy products and services, they specifically regard that activity as beside the point and even antithetical to what fandom is all about. It may be a contradiction, but trying to resolve it only erases its power. As scholar Matt Hills has explained: “Fans are both commodity-completists and they express anti-commercial beliefs.” In the end, this is why fans are so fascinating: for at least two hundred years, they have helped us to think about the struggle for–and consequences of—loving participation in a market-driven world.


About the author

Daniel Cavicchi is Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences and Dean of Liberal Arts at Rhode Island School of Design. He is author of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum and Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, and co-editor of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life.