“You guessed that?” my sister asked incredulously after I revealed I wasn’t too surprised by a particularly complex bit of character backstory on Game Of Thrones. “How?”
In fact, I’m not particularly good at guessing plot twists. But I do pay attention to some smart people who spend quite a bit of time publicly analyzing the series. Last week, some of their educated guesses turned out to be true. Welcome to being a fan in the digital age.
As a pop culture writer, I’m probably a little more engaged with online fan culture than most. But few people watch media in a complete vacuum anymore. Recaps, reviews, think pieces, Reddit threads, live tweets, Tumblr posts, fan sites, and analytical podcasts—not to mention the comments sections for each of those platforms—provide a practically infinite platform for fans to discuss their favorite scenes and characters. The traditional “water cooler talk” has moved online and expanded tenfold. By accessing this collective brain trust, I was able to foresee major events in Game Of Thrones, Captain America: Civil War, Jane The Virgin, and The Walking Dead well before they happened. I wasn’t spoiled, per say, but fellow fans pointed out clues that I likely wouldn’t have picked up on my own.
It’s become easy to spend more time engaging with a franchise’s fandom than the franchise proper. Just look at BBC’s cult hit Sherlock, which enjoys an enormously passionate fan base despite only airing 10 episodes over the course of six years. The Game Of Thrones TV series offers only about 10 hours of television each year. The Game Of Owns fan podcast, meanwhile, offers two 60- to 90-minute podcasts per episode. That’s roughly 25 hours of podcast content just during the HBO show’s season, plus the book-related podcasts Zack Luye, Hannah Panek, Eric Scull, and Micah Tannenbaum release during the show’s hiatus.
Game Of Thrones isn’t alone. There are now podcasts about shows that have been off the air for years, from Gilmore Girls to Friends to The West Wing. There’s a video series dedicated to explaining how all those Marvel movies fit together. Franchise-specific fan sites like MuggleNet (Harry Potter) and The Winchester Family Business (Supernatural) offer even more outlets for amateur commentary and analysis. You could likely spend every day from now until the release of Star Wars VIII reading a different theory about Rey’s parentage.
Fandom is no longer just a companion to the media it celebrates; it’s become a form of entertainment in its own right. This is partially organic—the internet has always been good at community-building. But there’s another, more practical reason that fandom has taken on a life of its own. As franchises become more and more complicated, casual fans are struggling keep up. I listen to Game Of Owns not only to hear the hosts dissect each episode, but also to remind myself which small council members belong to which ruling family. Even loyal fans of the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe likely need a guide to all those Infinity Stones. And on my own Doctor Who podcast, we frequently try to sort out the show’s complex time travel mechanics as well as, yes, engage in a whole lot of speculation.
Studios and networks are naturally trying to figure out how to capitalize on the rabid fanbases their genre properties organically amass. With its post-Walking Dead “fan show,” The Talking Dead, AMC managed to turn one highly rated series into two with relatively little effort. Now Orphan Black, Game Of Thrones, Fear The Walking Dead, and the new series Preacher have all followed suit. These officially sanctioned “aftershows” move online fan discussions into the traditional TV space while, of course, heaping nothing but praise onto the series they promote.
Marvel, meanwhile, took advantage of the extent to which fans are willing to invest in the franchises they love with their concept of a “shared cinematic universe.” Now every franchise from Star Wars to Transformers to DC superheroes is hopping on the bandwagon. At its best, these shared universes are a win-win. Fans enjoy the interconnectivity, while studios entice audiences to come back for film after film with tantalizing groundwork (Spider-Man’s Civil War cameo is the best trailer his upcoming solo film could ask for). At its worst, however, these franchise teases can turn fans against a property, like the extended Justice League cameos in Batman V. Superman, which left most audience members frustrated and confused rather than yearning for more.
And much like online fan discussions, these official after-shows and franchise teases blur the line between “spoilers” and “theories.” One of the big reasons fans assumed a Walking Dead character wasn’t actually dead last season is because his name didn’t appear on the jokey “in memoriam” section of The Talking Dead. In a vacuum, that character’s return might have felt like a surprise. Thanks to The Talking Dead, it felt inevitable.
As critic Myles McNutt explains, “fan theory” and “storytelling inevitability” are starting to merge in unprecedented ways in our social media age. And while I have no doubt that big corporations like Disney and HBO love that their franchises are earning more free buzz, creators must feel under increased pressure to please an organized, educated fan community as well as viewers who may not be quite so involved. For instance, the Game Of Thrones’ online forums are currently clamoring to learn more about Jon Snow’s parentage. Meanwhile, there are plenty of fans who don’t even know that’s a question they can or should be asking. How can the show possibly satisfy both extremes?
It may prove an impossible tightrope to walk, but perhaps the best way to approach it is with good humor. After fans picked up on subtle clues far sooner than he expected, Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould told Vanity Fair, “I guess we really underestimated the genius and hard work of our fans… [But] it’s hard to complain about people paying attention to every aspect of the show.”