On Feeding the Holmies

July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments

This afternoon, Ryan Broderick stumbled upon a (small, though he didn’t specify the exact size) group of Tumblr users who identify as “Holmies,” professed superfans of Aurora spree shooter James Holmes. Shocked and disgusted, Broderick posted a collection of these images –which include hand-drawn cartoons, weird self-portraits and weirder fanfic– onto Buzzfeed. A few hours later, Adrian Chen published a longer piece on Gawker attempting to make sense of the Holmie phenomenon, specifically by placing these behaviors in the context of internet fandom. Just like “normal” online fans, Chen explains, the Holmies have developed their own language and art and meme-scape, with which they are able to fortify the burgeoning subcultural borders. The stronger and stranger these borders, the more resistance from outsiders; and the more resistance from outsiders, the more likely the fans will band together, not just as fans of a specific thing but also as anti-fans of their detractors. As Chen explains, “Nothing brings a fandom together better than their weird passion being mocked by outsiders.” After all, the very existence of “outsiders” implies that there is a group of insiders who must weather that storm together. Given that the Holmies fandom revolves around a mentally unstable mass murderer, this storm has proven to be particularly acute. And will continue to be so, thanks to the resulting (and immediate) media blitz, including articles from The Daily Mail, The Inquisitor, and Mashable.

Because it’s not just that mockery brings a fandom –and this sort of fandom in particular– together. Media coverage also brings these sorts of fandoms together. In fact, media is a necessary catalyst to the process. In the coming days, and as a direct result of these articles, an increasing number of people will know about Holmies. And the more people who know about Holmies, the more people will go on the offensive against Holmies. The end result may be greater awareness of the issue, and a greater sense of righteous indignation, but also — and this is important — more Holmies. Way more Holmies than would have existed otherwise, Holmies who will happily give the people what they came to see. Troll Holmies, in other words (whether or not the original batch of Holmies were trolling isn’t entirely clear, though certainly speaks to a trollish aesthetic). And the cycle will begin again, starting with additional coverage and additional pushback and additional trollish engagement. This will all be very upsetting for some people, particularly if and when further coverage includes the kinds of sensationalist images Broderick insisted on reprinting in full. But it will be very exciting for the participating trolls –all the better to troll you with– and even more exciting for those in the business of chronicling and commoditizing audience distress. As usual, trollbait and linkbait will be indistinguishable.

This is not to let the Holmies (all 6-10 of them) off the hook, nor is it to say that members of the media shouldn’t report the day’s news, however nasty it may be. It is however a reminder that these sorts of stories involve and in fact require a certain degree of symbiosis between the “bad guys,” troll or otherwise, and the media who amplifies and therefore exacerbates whatever problem. If we are –if we hope– to reduce the frequency of such behaviors, particularly when there exists a clear trollish element, it isn’t enough to merely condemn the participants as horrible monsters (all while reposting their horrible fan art). It’s also important to think carefully and critically about the sensationalist systems in and through which these behaviors emerge — systems that, just like those individuals they purport to condemn, court the greatest spectacle possible, stir up controversy in order to court strong emotional response, and, most critically, benefit from audience distress. The types of benefits are of course very different between groups; trolls and other forms of troublemakers are in the business of personal amusement (“lulz” in the trolls’ parlance) and the media is in the business of, well, business. But the strategies by which these goals are achieved are often quite similar, if not identical — immediately challenging the clear demarcation between those who transgress online and those who capitalize on those transgressions.


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