By Jason Lim
I like Star Wars as much as the next guy, but it’s time to face the hard truth that the Star Wars fandom is undermining our democracy.
There isn’t anything overtly antidemocratic about George Lucas’s classic space opera, but the online organization of superfans exhibits patterns shared with more sinister communities. Internet conspiracy groups (most famously, QAnon) erode democracy by spreading misinformation and incubating extreme political partisanship. QAnon and fandoms have clear parallels: both attend conventions, assign god-like status to their idols, and propagate a rich lore through fan-contributed stories. For groups that feel disenfranchised, conspiracies provide a false sense of power and autonomy—the feeling of deciphering the “tricks” used by your oppressors. These groups make average people feel like heros: a 30-year-old megafan pretends to be a Jedi the same way QAnon members see themselves as investigative journalists uncovering scandal.
Fandoms and conspiracy groups are communities formed online around a hyper-specific interest. These communities are dangerous because they offer easy social connections with little depth. Communicating over the internet, members leave the majority of their personality offline and connect exclusively on a specific interest. But our communities become our identities and online groups amplify the hyper-specific fandom-esque interest until it eclipses our shared humanity. These hyper-specific online communities rob individuals of control over their group and pave the road to extremism. Traditional communities based on our geographies and the shared human experience can fulfill our need for community and abate America’s concerning descent into partisanship.
People need communities. Research by UCLA psychologist Mathew Lieberman demonstrates that the human brain is hardwired to be social—the need for communities is built-in. Every person can connect with others through our shared experiences: standard experiences like love, parenthood, and confronting loss. Before the advent of the internet, we found groups of like-minded individuals through public institutions, mutual connections, and even newspaper ads. Today, it is easier than ever to find groups for our particular interests and connect with individuals all over the world. Online connections in fandom-esque communities are easy to build on the groundwork laid by a shared niche interest. With our “old-fashioned” purely person-to-person groups, we weren’t as likely to share the exact same interests or beliefs. What would we talk about? It is easy to forget that before the Internet, we just talked to whoever was around.
But the “easier option” to get our social fix, our online communities, fails to deliver genuine human connection. A New York Times investigation into a QAnon chatroom revealed that QAnon members discuss conspiracies less than one might assume. Rather, members share mundane events in their daily life and wish each other “happy birthday.” QAnon members are looking for friendship and human connection in their online group. This desire increases when members’ theories drive away their family and friends. But since QAnon membership is based around conspiracy theories, members connect through increasingly extreme beliefs to strengthen their connection to the community. Bonding in this way creates the dangerous “echo chamber,” a positive feedback loop careening towards extremism. Extreme beliefs are a substitute for human connection in a community that bonds over a hyper-specific aspect of its members.
Compare this to a typical non-online community. Any group that meets in-person gives members the opportunity to casually converse about their lives without relation to the group’s purpose. A hiking club, for example, will naturally spawn interactions that go beyond discussions of trails and hiking boots. The diversity of beliefs in such a group are almost certainly sufficient to avoid extremism. Without the hyper-specificity of an online format, hiding members’ humanity behind their screens, human connection can emerge without breeding extremism.
Even benign online communities, like the Star Wars fandom, threaten members. The object of a fandom’s adoration is controlled by a third party, in this case, the Walt Disney corporation. Like QAnon, membership in the Star Wars fandom is based on a preference for a handful of movies, a minuscule fraction of one’s total experiences. Attempting to grow connection to this community involves expanding this fraction, making a member’s love of Star Wars more essential to their identity. This allows Disney’s decisions to have undue impact on fandom members. When an announcement by Disney ordered the removal of all extended universe content (hundreds of additional novels and comics) from the canon of the original movies, the Star Wars fandom was outraged. Star Wars fandom members crowdfunded a billboard near LucasFilm headquarters reading “Please continue the original expanded universe” in an unsuccessful appeal to Disney.
A threat to a fandom’s subject is a threat to the community, and thus a threat to the identities of the group’s most dedicated. The online environment compels members to build identities around a group’s hyper-specific focus. In the case of fandoms, identities built around externally produced media are vulnerable to the whims of the producer. In-person communities tend to employ a form of casual self-government which puts members’ needs first. More importantly, in-person communities never absorb members’ entire personalities in service of one specific interest (that’s a cult), avoiding identity crises of this form entirely.
There are, of course, limitations to the benefits of traditional groups. For example, partisanship can’t be completely solved by communities of neighbors because we tend to live grouped by socioeconomic status. However, any group that highlights everything we have in common over one hyper-specific interest is subverting extremism and building connections between coalitions. In-person communities can generate opportunities to empathize with people different from ourselves, people that might otherwise become “others.” Our ability to recognize the legitimacy of our fellow citizen’s struggles will reduce America’s NIMBY-ism and tendency for majorities to exploit minorities to the fullest possible extent.
It is now commonly said that while humans in the Internet Age are more connected than ever, we are more alone. Modern communication technology allows us to find a wealth of easy-to-join interest-based communities that appear to satisfy our fundamental need for social connection. However, these communities substitute narrow, shared-interest bonds for a connection based on the shared human experience. Traditional communities inject an in-person element of humanity into the connection, building shared experiences and combatting partisanship. And that’s something we can come together on.