Kristen Olson calls herself a “fanthropologist.” The title says it all: she uses the techniques of anthropologists to study fans and fandoms for the Los Angeles ad agency she works for. Olson’s job is to lay bare the inner workings of a given fandom so that studio executives can understand, and communicate with, the people who are passionate about their intellectual properties.
It’s a job made more complicated by the infinite hype chamber that the internet creates around media properties.
“The studios can’t tell the difference between the kind of hype that is economically generated by the need for bloggers to find something to hype,” Olson tells me, “and things that people are generally excited about. Which is one of the things that I do.”
Comic Con in particular has become a thorny issue for the studios over the past few years. As the event has become a giant promotional platform for studio creations, it’s become increasingly hard to tell what is going to be a real hit and what is a kind of summer fling for fans.
“Based on what we’re seeing coming out of it,” Olson says of the excitement generated by Comic Con, “it’s motivated by something more than simple love. [Fans are] looking for something to love.” Unfortunately for studio executives, that kind of enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into big mainstream audiences. The Comic Con audience fell in love with Scott Pilgrim, for example, but the film failed to live up to expectations at the box office.
Olson’s job runs in multiple directions. She likens it to being a plumber, but instead of water it’s information that she making sure flows properly.
“You’re looking at where the information is coming out and what you’re looking at is it traveling to all the places it needs to? What are people getting on the other end? Also another metaphor: telephone. Are people getting the message that you’re putting out? It’s tracing how the information travels and what factors are at play in what the end perception is.”
It’s a strange kind of mental wizardry. Analysts like Olson not only help media executives understand what the fans of their properties want, they help them speak the language of the fandom. To understand at a root level what fans get emotionally out of the property. Because a fandom is more than just a collection of information about a fictional universe, a celebrity, or a sports team. It’s a way of interacting with other people that colors the way fans see the world.