The ability to reach and interact with countless like-minded folks at the click of an online link has transformed fandom from a pursuit occasionally enjoyed by small pockets of friends to an endless and instantly accessible worldwide community.
Though obviously convenient, streaming entertainment and box sets don’t offer the shared experience delivered by terrestrial TV, and once the viewing portion’s complete, the online commentary commences.
A London-based journalist responsible for The Guardian’s hugely successful Game of Thrones and Line of Duty blogs, Sarah Hughes has seen enormous audiences drawn to comment on her enthusiastic episode recaps.
“The reason there are so many comments goes beyond the fact that these are hugely popular and very addictive shows,” says Sarah. “I think for any online recap or blog to work there has to be a real sense that you are having a conversation with everyone else watching the show.
“There’s no point in writing the recap and then never reading below the line because the whole point of the recap is to engage with other viewers and find out what they like or, occasionally, hate about a show.
“Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming - there are so many people commenting on Game of Thrones and Line of Duty that it’s hard to keep track of, and respond to, all the comments, but I try to spend a couple of hours over a couple of days keeping up with what everyone has said. The other good thing about reading everything is that a whole load of in-jokes can arise and it’s nice to be able to then reference them in later weeks. This is particularly true of Line of Duty where commenters started referring to Keeley Hawes’ character as Steely Keeley or talking about the Balcony of Judgement.
“I also really enjoy some of the more middle-range blogs - there’s a real sweet spot when a recap gets about 500 to 600 comments a week, where you really feel as though you know all the people commenting. The Last Kingdom has a lovely community with everyone clearly enjoying themselves and no vitriol.
“Taboo was a lot of fun because the show is so crazy and thus there’s so much to say. I tend to be more enthusiastic than snide when writing the recaps - unless the show is really bad - because I’m not sure that there’s anything to be gained in this format from just slagging something off. If I was reviewing a show I would be far more critical, and often am, but I see the recaps as part of fandom. It’s all about starting a conversation and then seeing what comes next.”
Beyond providing a safe central hub for fans to virtually connect with one another, there are times when message boards spark something that extends into the real world. Case in point, the romantic saga of voice actor and Star Wars fan Erika Sanderson.
“In the early days of Facebook, around 2007, everyone used Poke,” recalls Erika. “You’d hit a button and it was a bit like a virtual ‘Hello!’ Other versions popped up, like Throw a Sheep.
“There was a Star Wars app version called Jedi vs Sith, where you could use the Force to push or throw lightning. The app also included a Star Wars trivia quiz, and the more questions you answered you could gain ranks either as a Jedi or a Sith.
“I have no idea how, but several role play discussion groups sprang up on Facebook, and you would interact with other fans based on your Jedi vs Sith character. Having lurked for several weeks, I eventually made my very first post on one of the boards in character. It was a philosophical discussion about the Force and whether it was your actions, innate personality or intent that defined your alignment. I wrote about the Force being like a spectrum and the Grey Jedi. Anyway, later on I received a private message from a guy who basically said ‘I thought what you wrote was interesting’.
“Several weeks later, I was posting in another role play group when I see his name pop up. Eventually we became role-playing partners and created stories together. We were in a group with four others who would regularly write and role-play and gradually we all became friends and would chat for hours on Skype together. About a year later, we confessed that we had begun to have feelings for each other. Cue more dithering as we went back and forth trying to reconcile a possible relationship with the distance - he was in the US, me the UK - plus the fact that we had never met in person.
“In April 2009, I flew out to the US for four days with the sole purpose of meeting him. We had decided that if we never met, we’d never know, and if we ended up remaining friends, well, that was okay too. He met me at the airport with a mutual female friend to help break the ice. I met his friends and his parents. The spark that had been online was definitely there in person - it felt like I had always known him. I came home and immediately started planning when I could next visit, which was at the end of October 2009.
“That trip was for two weeks, and during that time, he proposed. We married in May of 2011. Last year we celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary by spending the weekend at Star Wars Celebration Europe in London. The Force is still with us, and we both cosplay for charitable events.”
From connecting compatible fans to matching loving life-partners, message boards demonstrate how the virtual world has brought us closer together. And these are just two examples - so who knows where that next group chat will lead?