The rise of the internet anti-fan

The anti-fan is often misdiagnosed as a “hater” or “troll” (video contains strong language).

In the old days, there were fans. They listened to albums, read books, went to films. Every so often one of them went mad and started stalking the object of their devotion, or got a tattoo of their face on their face, or shot them in a hotel corridor while holding a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. But basically, fans were fans. People who deliberately sought out the work of a particular musician, author, actor or whatever tended to be the people who actually enjoyed the work of that musician, author or actor.

But in the last few years, we have seen the rise of the anti-fan. They are everywhere. They hate the person they’re reading or listening to, but can’t seem to stop. They obsessively hang around on the YouTube channels or blogs of their anti-idol, anxious for a hate-fix to satisfy their anger craving, feverishly waiting to explain just how filled with contempt for the work and the author they are.

You can see this under any widely read blog post, anywhere on the political spectrum and regardless of topic – James Delingpole has anti-fans; George Monbiot has anti-fans; Ben Goldacre, Damian Thompson, Polly Toynbee, whoever. “Another POINTLESS article by [insert name here]; why does [publication] continue to publish [his/her] DRIVEL?”

I thought, for a while, that this strange sociological specimen was a subspecies of troll. But they’re not. Nor are they just someone who disagrees with the author of a post. A troll is there to cause trouble or offence or annoyance. People who disagree simply disagree, sometimes vociferously. The anti-fan is there because they can’t help themselves: their hatred is addictive. Their anti-idol is like the little scratch on the roof of their mouth that would heal, if only they would just stop tonguing it.

We all know, a bit, what this feels like. We all have some writer at some publication who sends a shiver of delicious anger down our spine: “This person is so wrong … I can’t … take my eyes … off the idiocy …” It’s seductive, but it’s dangerous. As with drugs at university, most people dabble, but they have the sense not to let it become a problem. For some, though, it spirals out of control. They sit at their computer, presumably alone, presumably wearing yesterday’s pants and presumably with bits of Dominos pizza clinging to their facial hair, waiting for that sweet, sweet poison to ping onto the RSS feed. And when it comes, like a junkie grabbing at the needle, they spring into action. For some, they can’t even wait to read it: they just have to leap to the bottom of the page and write, sight unseen, why the piece they haven’t read is so wrong. Others have just enough self-control to scan through it until they find a sentence they can disagree with, and will focus their rage on it, as though all the evil in the world is contained in that one little juicy nugget of wrong, and if they can destroy it with their truth-bombs, the universe’s balance will be restored.

My own experience of the anti-fan is limited, admittedly. As befits a lowly footsoldier in the great internet shouty-battle, I only have one or two, whose main contribution is to call me gay and/or smug. But even to me it’s obvious that anti-fandom is spreading.  The trouble is that we, the purveyors of the anti-fan’s digital opium, encourage it. We can’t help ourselves: we, in our own way, are addicted to comments (I certainly am), and while a negative comment isn’t as good as a positive one, it’s much better than no comment at all. So we usher people towards anti-fan addiction, like pushers outside the schoolyard. The Guardian’s Comment Is Free has even put a button at the top of each page saying “jump to comments”. It’s the online equivalent of a filterless cigarette, and we are the tobacco companies of the internet.

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