Nearly a decade ago now, Lord of the Rings revolutionized the way filmmakers and Hollywood in general interacted with potential moviegoers. They did it by letting fans inside the process, letting us see how the making of the movie happened. The results were stupendous, with eager Hobbiteers frantically clicking on the internet for the latest from New Zealand, their anticipation and excitement building as they were allowed along for the ride as something magical happened.

In the years since, Hollywood has all but abandoned this way of thinking, replacing it with something else entirely. Gone is the legitimate interaction between franchises and their supporters. In its place is something evil, something insidious, something called Viral Marketing.

What is it? Rather than inviting fans into the worlds they support with their money, Hollywood now uses fans as free marketing placards who wander around their cities and the internet spreading the word about whatever it is they care about, usually for absolutely no real reward. People who participate in it, people who make their living off of pushing it, and bloggers using it as a way to position themselves as “fan friendly” will tell you it’s the ultimate way to prove you you’re a real fan. They pitch it to you under the guise of “being a part of something”, but all you’re really a part of is another big, corporate marketing push. It’s all artifice.

Don’t be fooled. Viral marketing doesn’t let you be a part of anything. It’s designed specifically to keep you at arm’s length. With Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson let us be a part of the process. We were there as he made his movie, geeking out along with him as cool stuff happened. Viral marketing doesn’t let you inside the movie. When The Dark Knight or Lost sends fans scrabbling around city streets looking for bowling balls… what does that really have to do with Batman or Lost? Nothing. It’s a fake, utterly unrelated game invented by some highly paid marketing team to keep you busy. They aren’t letting you inside their world or inviting you to participate in or be a part of the movie. They’re giving you something simply to keep you thinking in vague, general terms about their movie while shoving you out of the way and investing the absolute minimum amount of effort possible. It’s fan busywork. They don’t have to do anything, you’re doing all the work for them. You’re a mouse, in a cage, running on an exercise wheel. To be nice, they’ve stuck a Batman picture up in front of you, so that you can pretend you’re running towards your favorite superhero.

And that folks, is now what passes for passionate fandom. Somehow caring about Batman or whatever it is, is supposed to translate into you wasting your time doing something which has absolutely nothing to do with whatever it is that you care about. Look, if you’re having fun running around the web or your city participating in these viral marketing campaigns, then ok, go for it. But don’t tell me that it means you’re a passionate fan. Passionate fans are those like the fans of Jericho, who kept their television show on through sheer force of will. Passionate fans are fans of Serenity, who (for better or worse) on their own got organized to go out and drag people kicking and screaming to the movie they loved. Passionate fans are Star Wars fans, lining up outside theaters days, weeks, and months in advance of a movie that may not even be any good, not because some Viral told them to but because they can’t live another second without seeing it. A passionate fan is the guy who dresses up as three-hole-punch Jim for Halloween, even though none of his friends watch The Office, and he’ll probably be the only person at the party who finds it funny.

Passionate fandom happens naturally, organically, out of the love people have for whatever it is they are into. Passionate fandom happens when people get together to geek out about whatever it is they love. Passionate fandom happens at conventions and in basements and in front of computer screens all across this country. Passionate fandom happened ten years ago when Peter Jackson invited us onto his set, let us see his movie happen, and then we all got together to talk about how awesome seeing Gandalf on screen for the first time was going to be.

Passionate fandom does not happen when some big corporation’s business division puts together a scavenger hunt or a lame, fake novelty website in an effort to fool fans into thinking they’re a part of something, when they absolutely are not. Passionate fandom is something that happens on its own, springing from the sheer energy people generate by loving something. Filmmakers like Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer, and Kevin Smith, once gave us a conduit for letting that sort of passionate fandom happen, by talking to us on our level, and giving us something incredible to be excited about.

Viral Marketing is paint by numbers fandom designed to generate excitement over nothing. It’s not real. It’s a game, but you’re not the one controlling it. You’re a pawn, being pushed around a board by companies with money to burn and a message to shove down people’s throats. The Dark Knight, Cloverfield and all the other viral marketing offenders like them are shutting us out, making us scrabble for whatever meager scraps they deem throw us from their table, and keeping us too busy to notice that we aren’t really a part of anything. Viral marketing is a cardboard cut out of what real fandom is supposed to be. Enjoy the games, but don’t believe for a second that they’re anything but empty games.

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