As web platforms make creators more accessible than ever, fans are confronting the power structures that dictate how influence is distributed and wielded.
In lots of ways, there’s never been a better time to be a fan. Thanks to social media platforms, it’s now easier than ever to directly interact with and influence the creators and stories we admire. Despite this, most fandoms still subscribe to a kind of auteur theory – that a singular creator (group of creators, or gatekeeping organisation) have ultimate ownership over the work. The gates between fan and creator are still locked from the inside. But in one small corner of the internet, a few people are breaking down these barriers. And they’re doing it through very silly content about video games.
Polygon – a web publisher operating under the Vox Media umbrella – produce written, audio and video content covering the video games industry. They write reviews, produce podcasts and publish playthroughs of upcoming games. But alongside all this, they produce a number of highly experimental video series, which blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, between criticism and appropriation, questioning the barriers between critic, fan and gatekeeper. Through these surreal, often humorous videos, Polygon tells stories both uniquely designed for communities online and which provide layered commentary on the role these communities play.
When I started writing this essay, I was excited to write about the growth of respectful, nurturing online communities, where people from different tiers of traditional power structures can operate alongside each other. I didn’t want it to be about the very real and often dangerous ways that hierarchies can operate in online communities, or about the ways that power can be used to manipulate and abuse. But within 24 hours of submitting the first draft of this piece, allegations emerged regarding one of the people in this essay; allegations about him abusing the influence he holds within these communities. So this isn’t the same essay it was when I started.
Polygon’s series Please Retweet investigates fan communities from within. Each week, video producer Patrick Gill (playing a naïve, exaggerated version of himself) tries to get the official Twitter account for Nintendo of America to retweet a single image – a picture he has made of Mario character Toad wearing an adult diaper, his bread-roll feet replaced with the sturdy, hairy thighs of a man. In each episode, Gill composes a tweet, drawing on the expertise of the broader Polygon team to secure the elusive retweet.
As Gill’s schemes become more elaborate, the absurdity of the premise unspools. He uses humour, emotion and memes; he conducts a ‘Toad Talk,’ espousing the business benefits of retweeting his Toad. After Nintendo posts a particularly antagonistic subtweet – taking one of Gill’s tweets and reposting it almost verbatim – he demands they retweet him, lest he sue for copyright violation.
Some weeks following the series feels like a treasure hunt, as you fossick through social media timelines to find every relevant tweet. As the series has progressed, fans have begun creating increasingly obscure tributes to Toad, including a slew of songs remixing The Mountain Goats. Artists have sent Gill their own renderings of Toad and his powerful thighs, asking him, in turn, to please retweet. The fan response to Gill’s simple concept has been strong enough to earn it an entry on Know Your Meme.
Some weeks following the series feels like a treasure hunt, as you fossick through social media timelines.
Through Please Retweet, Gill has created a community who value and appreciate his work. But despite receiving ample validation – the most popular tweet has been shared almost 2,500 times and he has gained 15,000 followers since the series began – Gill, the character, is unhappy. ‘I feel like you’re trying to get Nintendo to retweet it for your own personal validation,’ Polygon’s social media manager Ashley Oh says in a recent episode. ‘Everyone else loves the Toad.’
The power of Please Retweet lies in this willingness to blur reality and fiction, playing with very real questions about the nature of social media and fandom in an absurd, semi-fictionalised universe. While Gill has expressed trepidation about some aspects of the show and its implications (‘[it] kind of…encourages harassing a brand online’), he also seems to have a stubborn desire to see the project through to its conclusion. ‘It started out as a dumb joke,’ he told the podcast Woodland Secrets. ‘Subconsciously, I [made it] about validation and the absurd need of someone to get validation from one specific person. Which is also a thing that I struggle with.’
In the series, Gill is essentially a fan, who has made a piece of fanart and seeks validation from an officially sanctioned gatekeeper. But he is also a critic at Polygon, and the cultural capital this gives him amplifies his voice online. Please Retweet questions who has power in fan communities and how online spaces like Twitter are changing these hierarchies. Gill’s quest sparks endless questions about where the locked gates in fandom lie and who has the keys. In light of recent events, though, many of these issues take on harsher aspects; in reality, these hierarchies are too often much less funny.
Please Retweet questions who has power in fan communities and how online spaces like Twitter are changing these hierarchies.
Car Boys is a series that ran weekly on Polygon’s YouTube channel from August 2016 until March 2017. Polygon video producers Nick Robinson and Griffin McElroy play beamNG.drive, a ‘soft body vehicle simulation’ which allows you to take realistic renderings of vehicles and destroy them in endlessly satisfying ways – slamming cars into cinderblock walls and throwing trucks off cliffs.
Robinson and McElroy quickly discover that glitches in the game cause objects to obliterate beyond regular crumple zones – crash something the right way and beams of metal explode into the sky; a car becomes an unrecognisable starburst that trembles like it’s alive; a crash test dummy morphs into a malevolent destroyer of worlds. At some point, Car Boys stops being a ‘let’s play’ and becomes an eldritch, existential musing on the meaning we can draw from chaos. ‘I’m like a physics glitch tornado chaser,’ Robinson exclaims, plunging them into a metaphorical hurricane.
‘I feel like everybody who watches Car Boys was misled – including me and Griffin,’ Robinson told New York magazine, ‘…it was going to be a thing about cars crashing in slow motion, and that is not at all what it is anymore.’ The reason for its evolving lies partly with the creative vision of Robinson and McElroy, but it can also be attributed to the fan community which quickly built up around the show.
Car Boys stops being a ‘let’s play’ and becomes an eldritch, existential musing on the meaning we can draw from chaos.
Fanart for Car Boys usually depicts Robinson and McElroy within the universe – sitting in a car as it plunges into an ocean or standing on the surface of the world as the universe unravels. Despite recording episodes via Skype, from opposite ends of the United States, the pair begin to speak as though they’re together in the game. ‘Don’t you get out of this car Nick, we’re going to hold hands and we’re going to go down together,’ McElroy says in one episode, as their car slips through an aquatic hole between dimensions.
From a tangled web of references and call-backs, fans constructed an elaborate lore around Car Boys, placing Robinson and McElroy as characters at the heart of an epic saga. Before long, fan-made content began to weave into the ‘official’ narrative. The show started using fanart as opening credits. Some kind of digital heaven, an animation made by YouTube user Annue, was inserted into the series’ YouTube playlist – a comment from Polygon pinned underneath the video decreeing, ‘this is canon’.
The joy of fandom lies in that ability it gives you to spin out a story – to create art and narrative and elaborate theories from the loose ends. But you are always aware that the world you’re playing in is not the canon. That’s why canon exists – to section off parts of the story, to fence in and legitimise them. It is remarkable that Car Boys has a canon at all; watching two guys try to break a video game has no right to be as narratively complex as it is. Fans built the Car Boys universe, just as much as its creators did – this is canon as inclusion, not exclusion.
Fans built the Car Boys universe, just as much as its creators did – this is canon as inclusion, not exclusion.
But while there are many ways in which Car Boys breaks down hierarchies between fan and creator, there is also a degree to which it enforces them. In other fan communities where creators are inaccessible, validation from on high is unlikely, and largely unexpected. In these contexts, fans tend to rely on their peers, building communities that support each other. By stepping into this space and making their validation accessible, creators like Robinson and McElroy also realign these small universes to have them at the centre.
There are many reasons that people create fan content – to hone creative skills, to participate in communities, to celebrate work they love. But for many fans, there is also a part of them that seeks validation from these creators that they admire. As I wrote the first version of this essay, I thought a lot about whether people at Polygon would read it and like it. Intellectually I want to place praise from my peers on a higher tier than praise from a creator – but emotionally, practically, that’s more difficult thing to achieve.
I’ve had this fantasy where I meet Nick Robinson at a party (I wish I could tell you why, of all people, it was him that I ended up with a weird crush on). We drink wine and we talk, I tell him how much I admire the things he creates. The snag I always hit with this largely benign fantasy is that he ends up flirting with me, and I find it creepy. Certain people still wield societal and historical power in these spaces, something it’s almost impossible for them to forfeit. Even in this frivolous fangirl daydream, I’m on a lower rung of the ladder than he is. Robinson having the power in this interaction makes it all too easy for any advances to stray into worrying territory.
Certain people still wield societal and historical power in these spaces, something it’s almost impossible for them to forfeit.
The recent allegations against Robinson come from multiple women in the gaming and fan communities, revealing that he has messaged them privately online, often to sexually solicit them. It is also suggested that his influential position has discouraged people from coming forward until now. Immediately following the allegations, Robinson was suspended, pending an investigation; subsequently, Chris Grant, Polygon’s Editor in Chief, said, ‘we’re parting ways with Nick Robinson, effective immediately.’
In a statement, Robinson himself acknowledged the structural imbalance at play: ‘I’m now…in a position of power and I’m ashamed to admit that until the past few days, I hadn’t appreciated the responsibility that brings… What I always thought of as ‘flirting’ can quickly become something far more insidious when one of the people is in a position of power.’
The hardest thing about the actions of Robinson is how familiar they feel. I’ve been here before – I’ve watched communities that I love be torn apart because the men in them used their influence to manipulate those below them. I am reminded again that many men don’t even confront these issues that for others represent ever present and very real fears.
As a fan, I am genuinely heartbroken. Robinson was a person who, for various reasons, I wanted to believe was better than this. It is confronting to wonder if there is anyone I can trust with my admiration, or if I will ever be safe from the fear that they will use that power for ill. I don’t want to believe that this is an inevitable byproduct of being part of communities online, of being a fan.
It is confronting to wonder if there is anyone I can trust with my admiration, or if I will ever be safe from the fear that they will use that power for ill.
Outside the fiction of Please Retweet, Gill has expressed a strong affection for the community which has built up around Polygon’s work. ‘These people are all absurdly nice to us,’ he said on Woodland Secrets. ‘And… if [they] were there for each other the way they’re there for us, there would be a lot of people with good support networks.’ I hope that in the coming weeks this community bands together. I hope these fans (many creators in their own right) are able to fill this power vacuum for each other. When something has been built collaboratively, it is hard to see it threatened by a single person. But fandoms don’t belong to their creators.
Through their experiments in video, Polygon are also conducting experiments in fandom, building gates that open from both sides – for better and for worse. Welcoming fans into the creation process is vital in creating meaningful, dynamic storytelling in digital spaces. As Car Boys and Please Retweet demonstrate, fan content and ‘official’ content can work together to become something far greater than the sum of their parts.
But for creators and fans to exist together as something like equals, we need to reevaluate the dynamics of traditional power structures. Validation is a form of cultural capital within fandoms. And when creators have a disproportionate ability to dispense that capital, it is difficult for fans to have true agency. There is no easy answer to these questions – breaking down deeply ingrained heirarchies doesn’t happen overnight. But the work of Polygon (and the communities surrounding it) have given us a glimpse of a genuine way forward. I hope, after this, that’s still the case.