John Bailey is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Michigan. His current research focuses on gender, online identity, and cyberbullying. This post is part of a series about why and how sociologists should study the internet.
Recent sociological work on the internet treats the online as a simple extension of the offline. The (justified) focus on social networking sites exemplifies this; danah boyd’s work on teens and “networked publics,” for example, defines the internet’s primary social role as allowing users new ways to communicate and interact with their friends from school, work, and church. Similarly, studies of “the digital divide” investigate the determinants of users’ differing abilities to access information in order to serve their material (read “offline”) needs. The internet enhances and complicates, but does not replace, the offline social world.
Bronies, I think, present a decent complement, or perhaps rebuttal, to this perspective.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (FiM), the newest cartoon iteration of Hasbro’s long-running toy franchise, debuted in October 2010. Over the next few months, the show accumulated a confusing fanbase: teenage and adult males, dubbed “bronies.” By way of popular imageboard 4chan, aided by YouTube remix culture, and coalescing around community news blog Equestria Daily, bronies quickly developed thousands of fan-fiction stories, pieces of original music, weekly news podcasts, pony-themed modifications to video games, and many guides to perming your toy pony’s hair.
On its face, maybe the brony community isn’t that fascinating or unprecedented. Harry Potter, Twilight, Dr. Who, and countless anime shows have similarly vigorous fanbases, and theirs are probably much larger and more visible offline. More generally, as Henry Jenkins tells us, fans have been around forever. What makes bronies interesting, and more specifically, how do bronies demonstrate the independent social significance of the internet?
First, no such community of men has developed around such a dramatically gender-typed show. FiM’s six “mane” characters are female. Every conflict in the show is relational – the ponies don’t battle orcs or fight criminals, but instead chat, hug, and laugh their way through Aesop-esque lessons in friendship and caring. Multiple episodes focus on the production and wearing of fancy dresses. More generally, the decades-old My Little Pony franchise could go on the first PowerPoint slide for “femininity and the media” in an undergraduate gender course.
More important, though, are the ways in which these young men accept and promulgate these stereotypically feminine – or at least non-hegemonically masculine – values. A thread on Ponychan, a popular brony discussion board, exemplifies this. The thread begins with one person’s story about standing up to his abusive stepfather, and how Rainbow Dash, an FiM toy pony, helped give him confidence. Then, amazingly, hundreds of replies commend the poster’s courage, share their own stories, offer hugs, and even say the l-word. And I know it’s a long thread, so you can just ctrl-F it, but several significant words do not appear: “gay,” “fag,” or “homo.” And there are many threads similar to this one.
Bronies, in short, have established a space on the internet where young men (which most bronies are; look at the viewer statistics for any episode of FiM on YouTube) can disclose their most intimately emotional stories – family abuse, depression and thoughts of suicide, relationship trauma – and be uncharacteristically validated, supported, and loved by other young men. Could male teens – strangers, no less – come together this way among school peers, or with their sports team? Can bronies be located anywhere on Michael Kimmel’s painstaking map of Guyland?
For that matter, could bronies come together this way on Facebook? How many college men are willing to admit to their Twitter followers that their favorite new show stars a pony named Pinkie Pie? Sociologists have effectively documented how offline worlds are extended and penetrated by online social networks, but have demonstrated comparatively little understanding of how online spaces let users elude dominant offline cultural prescriptions. While the internet cannot be separated dualistically from our offline lives, what sociologists should recognize is that, in digital ethnographer Christine Hine’s words, “culturally significant things might be happening online and that they might not be fully reflected in things [found] offline.”
Furthermore, the brony community demonstrates the internet’s powerful facilitation of community building. Bronies aren’t defined by any meaningful offline criteria – they simply share a love for the show. The internet turns an aesthetic preference into a significant community with recognizable figureheads, cultural tropes, history and identity in a matter of months. The brony community, like many other internet fan communities, has meeting-places, playplaces (see: My Little Pony Team Fortress 2 and Minecraft servers, My Little Pony World of Warcraft guilds), and regular news outlets which anyone with an online connection can visit every day. As the internet creates “constant copresence” among school and work peers, it can do the same among strangers.
Finally, of course, something many sociologists may not grasp (and that isn’t clear regardless) is the sheer volume of “growing up” that happens in communities like these. While the Pew Center statistics measure the enormous increases in social network site, cell phone, text message and other new media usage, no metrics effectively measure the amount of time that teenagers and young adults spend with their clan in Team Fortress, their fan-fiction writing peers, their guild in World of Warcraft, their bronies. One Wall Street Journal article estimates (albeit sloppily) that over 5.93 million years of person-time have been spent playing World of Warcraft, and popular image board 4chan.org boasts nearly 11 million monthly users. What percentage of teens and young adults’ social lives plays out within digital worlds – not social networks where offline ties creep inward, but rather online communities where teens can bring themselves as they are?
Speaking anecdotally, online communities like these were integral to my teenage development. Many Ponychan posters provide stirring accounts of the community as a force for positive change in their lives. Whether they take those accounts at face value or not, sociologists need to recognize that independent internet communities represent powerful a social force, one that doesn’t stem from the implacable penetration of social networks. These communities need to be understood as part of the increasingly hybrid online/offline culture, rather than as an irrelevant or vanishing vestige of it.