Toxic Engagement

song in my head — “Still Into You” by Paramore

Generally, if you show up to a comic con or some other sort of fan convention, you won't see many haters in the building. You won't find supposed "fans" that seem upset even to be there. Sure, a person might not get down with everything lining every aisle or hall, but they're at least there looking to have a nice time. That's because the price of admission—and I'm not just talking ticket prices—created value in their minds. There’s a buy-in. You had to drive there, sometimes from great distances. You had to plan ahead or maybe take time off of work. You had to RSVP or purchase tickets. There's an actual investment involved.

In some online spaces, no such investment exists.

I follow many publications, pages, and outlets online that cater to a particular audience, such as horror-related media or comic books/superheroes. And sometimes, a quick perusal of the comment sections on Facebook or otherwise leaves me wondering, "why are these people here?" They've chosen to follow and engage with something for which they seem to have nothing but disdain (if their words are any indication.) I saw it today, in fact, in comments over this poster (which, for my money, is super dope.) Someone else in the comments was as baffled as I was, observing that "85% of the people that 'like' this page never have anything nice to say."

And as a left-turn example, the vitriol is basically just as bad over at my beloved Detroit Lions fan page. It's like... no one is forcing you to follow this page or this team...

So why does this happen?

There are many factors, I'm sure, but I think a lot of it comes back to that comic con example, that presence of "barriers to entry." If you make a thing for everyone (a publication with a social media page), even a thing you think is specific, it means anyone can join in if they feel like they identify with the group. And "Horror" is a broad spectrum, with many subgenres and points of interest; it means many different things to many different people. Jump over to the Shockwaves Horror Movie Club, however, a moderated group run by fans of a specific podcast, and you generally won't find such hate. That's because there are barriers to entry. You have to ask to join, and you probably would have a knowledge of the podcast to hear about the group in the first place. This creates a shared history of experiences, a frame of reference. And it narrows the interest.

When we are more intentional about the type of fan or customer we want to engage with—when we search out that minimum viable audience—we can hope to limit toxic engagement. Some spaces go too far, in my opinion, immediately blocking out any dissenting view (even well-reasoned and well-articulated ones) like a child sticking their fingers in their ears. So I'm not arguing for a removal of disagreement. But there's a big difference between "I'm not feeling this thing because..." and "this thing sucks and anyone who likes it also sucks."

In my opinion, someone coming into the comments with that attitude isn't a "fan" of anything, and is not someone I want around me, the things I love, or the things I make.