What Creators Owe Their Fans

This article is from Issue 1 of HUBRIS: The Journal of Cultural Horror, December 2017.

On 1 January 2010, a woman named Melodi Dushane pulled up to a McDonald’s drive-thru in Toledo, Ohio. She wanted chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, it was early morning and the restaurant was only serving breakfast. In a video that went viral at the time, Dushane can be seen getting out of her car and attacking the drive-thru worker, pissed off because she couldn’t get what she wanted.

On 15 November 2015, 22-year-old Bernard Robinson III was strangled by a customer while working his overnight shift in the drive-thru in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The customer was upset that the car in front of him had taken longer than he thought it should have. The food order totaled around $3.

On 31 May 2017, Freddy Hormazabal shot the manager of a McDonald’s in Altamonte Springs, Florida in the neck. He had entered the store after discovering a problem with the frappe drink he had ordered in the drive-thru. Apparently he had demanded a refund for the drink first, before escalating the situation.

On 11 November 2017, at 3:30 in the morning, two women climbed through the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s in Indianapolis, Indiana and assaulted a worker. They felt “disrespected” because they hadn’t received their chicken nuggets. According to the manager, their receipt didn’t reflect that they had ordered or paid for nuggets. My wife Katie’s response, upon looking up which location in Indianapolis it was, was shock. “That’s my McDonald’s,” she said, because it’s in the neighborhood she lived in while attending the Herron School of Art and Design.

The specific incident that I was looking for, but could not find, involved a woman who went to a McDonald’s drive-thru, ordered McNuggets, and was told that they were out. If my admittedly faulty memory serves, their order had been delayed for some reason. The woman was irate, sped off, but returned a while later with a gun. It may be apocryphal, or my mind may have created some amalgam of incidents like the one above, but it certainly rings true and seems plausible.

If you dig around on the internet for a while, you can find dozens of similar incidents. They don’t all involve McDonald’s, but they’re all gross overreactions to situations that don’t warrant violent behavior. There is a sense of entitlement, that people are somehow owed something. Certainly people should get what they paid for, and receive what they have been promised. My question is, what actually constitutes such a promise, and how much is a manufactured sense of self-importance predicated on the old saw that the customer is always right?

With every passing year that George R. R. Martin doesn’t release a new Song of Ice and Fire novel, some of his fans get more irate. Every time they hear that he’s making a convention appearance, or working on another project, they get increasingly pissed. He started a series of novels, and they have become addicted to those novels. J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and other popular authors managed to release books in their respective series on a regular basis. These fans feel that he has a duty to appease them.

Some friends who are tabletop roleplaying game publishers experience the same phenomena every time they announce that something is in development. Within a few weeks, people begin asking if it’s out yet. The original announcement might have stated that the release was a year or two off, because things take time to create. It’s the reason that I don’t announce what I’m working on until I’m no more than a couple of weeks from release, because people will regularly ask if it’s coming out this week. I don’t play video games or follow that industry, but I’m told that fan anticipation and expectations are even worse there.

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms seem to attract people with similar behaviors. I backed your project, so I want it now. The reason I backed away from the notion of crowdfunding some larger projects was because there were people who chipped in as little as a dollar that thought they were now my co-creators, and should get to approve every creative decision I made and tell me how to run the project.

Capitalist-consumerist society tends to turn everything into a transaction. It’s the outgrowth of a system, and a culture, that places a greater emphasis on property rights than it does on human rights. If they backed your project, they don’t care that your mother has cancer, you need to produce what they donated money for you to produce. If you announced a game, they don’t care that two people close to you died within a week, and that you’ve been spending your time flying around the country attending funerals. That’s not their problem; get your ass back to work. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, or maybe have personal issues that you haven’t disclosed publicly, who cares? GIMME! When you run ads 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, saying that you have chicken nuggets and a drive-thru that never closes, you had better produce their goddamned nuggets on demand or there will be hell to pay.

One of the reasons I’m trying to diversify away from just doing roleplaying game work is because of that contingent of fandom that feels as if they not only own the creator’s work but own the creator. They turn on writers, designers, and publishers quickly and often unexpectedly. Continuing to use McDonald’s as metaphor, they are perfectly, happy to give you their business. They sought out your drive-thru and want what you sell. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to murder you if they’re unhappy, or at least throw a random death threat your way as a casual expression of their displeasure.

My experiments with Patreon, including this zine, are an attempt to manage expectations. I am promising that I will put out a new issue of HUBRIS every month, with a target of the last Wednesday of each month. If I miss that target, however, I haven’t harmed you, or stolen from you, or deprived you of anything. It’s not a Kickstarter where you gave me money two years ago and I’ve delivered nothing. It’s not a drive-thru where you paid only to discover items missing from the bag. You get charged when I have something to sell you. If I get sick, or something happens, and I miss a month… I miss a month, and it costs you nothing.

George R.R. Martin hasn’t sold you his next book. He owes you nothing. McDonald’s doesn’t owe you items you haven’t paid for. It’s nice to have a fan base. I’m sure that in an uncertain world, having a novel from your favorite author to look forward to, or the assurance that chicken nuggets will be there when you want them, is comforting. That still doesn’t justify verbal abuse or physical violence.

The problem is that fans do have a sense of ownership over the works they love. They feel that they have some right to be the gatekeepers of the work. The toxic culture of the customer being king, infallible somehow in all of their demands, leads many creators to believe that they need to please those fans in order to continue making a living. It becomes a hostage situation. Give them what they want, or they’ll turn on you. They’ll stop buying your books. They might leave one-star reviews out of spite. You could find yourself being confronted in an elevator at a con, or even having some irate person show up at your home. Or your place of employment, at your drive-thru window.

You shouldn’t have to please fans out of fear. I say that any fan that’s willing to engage in that sort of behavior isn’t really a fan. They’re a low-level terrorists. The best way to please fans, ultimately, is to do good work. Every creator has the right to find their own way to do that work. Fans should be more understanding that the person writing their books, creating their games, and cooking their chicken nuggets are human beings. They are fallible, but they are also deserving of dignity and respect. Understand that things go wrong sometimes, but let them do their job. It will work out. They owe you nothing.

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