The answer, Gawker’s Adrian Chen argues, has to do with the recent “explosion of Internet fandom.”
There are fans of everything on the internet. Even James Holmes, the 24-year-old accused of killing 12 and injuring 58 in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. What would drive a bunch of seemingly normal internet geeks to worship a mass murderer? To understand this, you’ll have to journey to the dark heart of internet fandom.
BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick has unearthed a small group of “Holmies,” die-hard James Holmes fans who gush supposed love for the alleged killer on Tumblr like he was a teenage vampire. Not just that: Holmies are fixated on every minute detail of Holmes’, from the plaid shirt Holmes was caught in to his bright-red hair, to the few childhood photos that have surfaced. Holmies post pictures of themselves drinking Slurpees, inspired by a video of an 18-year-old Holmes that shows he’s a Slurpee fan; they pass around instructions for sending letters to Holmes in jail; there is the requisite bad anime-style fan art (“hugs for holmies!”). I’ve yet to see any explicit fiction detailing James Holmes’ romantic tryst with Ryan Gosling, but I’m not looking too hard because I’d like to be able to fall asleep in the foreseeable future.
Even though it appears to be just a handful of Tumblr users, these James Holmes fans are disturbing on a level above the Facebook fan pages that pop up whenever some mass murderer is in the news. (And whichappeared after the Aurora shooting within hours of James Holmes’ being identified as the suspect.) Facebook fan pages can be written off as the inevitable byproduct of celebrity—anyone in the news long enough will be able to rack up a few hundred likes on Facebook. But the Holmies are creating a whole culture around James Holmes, which takes real effort and care and seems to signal a deeper corruption. One might reasonably wonder: Are Holmies aspiring mass murderers? Are they actually celebrating the deaths of 12 innocent people? Or is the whole thing a joke?
Trolls or not, the existence of a James Holmes fandom has less to do with James Holmes himself than with the explosion of internet fandom. “Fandom” for years has been the term used to describe a certain kind of nerdy fan base, often focused on a film, book or video game. Trekkies are a familiar fandom, as are Twihards. But in recent years, fandom has exploded into countless varieties, some of which can be insanely specific: There is a notorious Sonic the Hedgehog fandom, for example. And the “Jewnicorn” fandom is focused on an imagined romance between Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, the stars of the Social Network. (And don’t make the mistake of thinking Jewnicorns are fantasizing a relationship between the characters the actors play in the movie—it’s a romance between the actors themselves.)
These fandoms do all the things the Holmies do: They adopt the symbols of their fixation and come up with slang, they create memes based on tiny details of a character and construct elaborate fantasy worlds and fan art. But as the specificity of fandom has increased, fandom has become less about the cultural product it’s supposedly obsessed with, and more about the very act of being a fan. (How sincerely invested in a fake relationship between two real actors can you really be?)
“Fandom in many ways now spends as much time talking about itself as it does talking about TV shows and movies and comics,” wrote scholar Rebecca Lucy Busker in 2008. Back then, Busker attributed the change to a new awareness among fans of fandoms outside their own, due to the fact that fans were now discussing their passions on Livejournal instead of mailing lists. This threw different fandoms together, allowing a larger dialogue to happen between fandoms around what exactly it means to be a fan.
Today, the platforms used by fandoms—most notably Tumblr and 4chan—have increased this cross-pollination even more. Fandoms have become so porous that they can be seen as forming a single “fandom” subculture, like goths or punks from an earlier time. What fandom a person choses to belong to isn’t so important as the fact they chose to belong at all. Different fandoms are like different outlandish hairdos among punk kids. The hairstyle might have some relationship to their personality, but its real importance is separating him or her from squares—or other punks—attracting the scornful glares that increases solidarity with other punks at the mall.
The Holmies have to be taken in this context of fandom as its own subculture. They’ve attracted a huge amount of attention on Tumblr considering there seems to be at most five or six “real” holmies, and the Fandom subculture is driven by attention. Everyone in every fandom is aware of the multitude of other fandoms, and there is frequent jostling. There are famous fandomrivalries, and fandoms can rise or fall in profile depending on how much attention they attract from the fandom community.
Usually, this attention springs from drama—a huge outcry within the fandom when a character is changed in a series, for example—that spills outside of the fandom and attracts the attention of outsiders. The outsiders will then gripe about how obnoxious and dramatic this fandom is. The fandom then gets super defensive and unites against their enemies in a way that strengthens the fandom.
“Apparently there is a Newsies fandom, and it’s the most dramatic fandom I’ve ever seen,” complained a Tumblr user recently.
To which a Newsie fan responded: “Don’t let a few recent posts fool you. So many real and close friendships have come out of the Tumblr Newsies Community. But yes we are pretty hardcore and we welcome anyone who wants to get involved.”
Which sparked this positive response from another user: “THIS is why I want to be part of the Newsies fandom. You guys are just…wow.”
Nothing brings a fandom together better than their weird passion being mocked by outsiders. Now that fandom is largely about the act of being a fan, this mockery can be the very thing the fandom is after. Fandom has become in part a game of one-upmanship: Who can be into the weirdest thing, with the most abandon? This is a major reason that Bronies, a particularly virulent and strange fandom comprised of mostly 20-something men obsessed with the children’s cartoon My Little Pony, took off. As much as they might claim to be sincerely interested in the antics of ponies named Fluttershy and Derpy, many Bronies are attracted by how bizarre their obsession seems, even to other, more traditional fandoms. Holmies are the natural end-point of this logic.
The case of Bronies makes it hard to say exactly how “real” Holmies are. Bronies started a couple years ago as a joke on 4chan; an ironic love meant to annoy other users. But that was before they were banned from 4chan and began to organize their own blogs and websites. A visit to Bronycon today will show you it’s become a very real thing. I doubt we’ll be seeing a Holmiescon anytime soon. But the fact that I wouldn’t completely rule it out should tell you something about the weird labyrinth that is fandom in the Tumblr era.
Top image via Gawker; Holmies image via BuzzFeed
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