(Guest Post) My Little Bronies: Why the Internet is Magic

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.

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16 Comments

  1. Nice article. It’s pretty unusual to see a net community emerge that is very determined to be nice to each other and even people who hate them. I would argue that it may be a totally new phenomenon online, at least among young male geeks. Indeed, much of my attraction to the show as a humor geek has been fueled by a sense that we may be turning a corner on the tear-down-everything style of humor that’s become pervasive the last couple decades. Perhaps the next wave of shows will feature fairly honest characters (by contrast to the saccharine shows of the 80’s) but also start to become emotionally aspirational again.

    What I will add, as an newly minted avowed fan of the show (I still dislike the term “brony” but I guess I’m stuck with it) is that while I’ll tell anyone I know that I love a geeky animated show like Futurama or a kids’ movie like Toy Story 3 I find I am being very, very careful with who I tell about MLP. If I manage to find out that they love both G-rated animation and Harry Potter, or loved shows by the same creators like Powerpuff Girls, then I’ll mention it. But if not, and they’re unlikely to really like the show or even give it a chance, then I keep quiet, because they’re going to think I’m weird as hell. Much of this has to do with gender stigma, but it’s also true that the earlier entries in the franchise were largely terrible.

    Because of this fact, only online could word have mouth spread like this. This would be an unremarkable kids show heading for syndication on one of the smallest channels on cable, with perhaps a handful of adult men who watched it with their daughters feeling
    shame over their inexplicable enjoyment. Now it’s exploded all over the place and is spreading to the tune of ~25k new viewers checking out the show on Youtube every day.

    I could go on about Hasbro’s fantastic decision to leave up every episode and fan video and how it’s helped shape and encourage the community (and I can give you links to some interesting talks and articles by professionals about it) but I’ll just leave it there for now.

  2. Three anecdotal thoughts of my own:

    a) I don’t think the brony fandom is entirely unique or innovative as an online place to verbalise one’s intimate thoughts and fears and even personal troubles. I’ve been on both fairly small and fairly large message boards with the occasional personal thread (the most personal one I can remember off-hand concerned “my girlfriend’s family abuses her, what should I do?”). You can probably find stuff like that in any tight-knit community where people largely behave respectfully towards each other. It’s more of a general online phenomenon, thanks to the relative anonymity that the internet provides without sacrificing that very important sense of shared interests.

    b) Ponies have taken over my life! I became a fan of the show in April, but was busy with university until recently. Since the beginning of this month, I’ve had more free time to allocate. And curiously, a lot of that free time has been going into sating my appetite for pony. I look at fanart. I read fanfiction. I help with the wiki. I follow the news. I write comments and participate in discussions about aspects of the show, both on brony sites and elsewhere (like here). I (carefully) approach and convert skeptics in my offline life.
    I’ve not had this strong a positive reaction to a show and its fandom since I was a teenager.

    c) You may be understating the reasons the show appeals to adults, and especially young men 16-35. Based on what I have heard from others and experienced myself, many people were/are drawn in when they watch an episode in order to be able to better mock it and the weirdos who like it. That is also something the internet is very good at: exposing “the weirdos” one can utilise as virtual punching bags in order to vent one’s frustrations at the world. The world has made my generation cynical, and most of the entertainment that we watch is cynical and/or dark and grim and brooding. I like South Park and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but even though both shows are ostensibly comedies, they are extremely cynical about the world we live in. And while I won’t go so far as to praise the Transformers movies (which are loud, obnoxious, disorienting, and stupid, with a recent infusion of – yes – a touch of darkness to please the fanboys), I do watch and enjoy movies like them, which are purely escapist in nature. I tell myself and others I only enjoy them “ironically” (another thing that is popular on the internet). Because God forbid a young male stressing the “joy” part of “enjoying”. Men appreciate good things quietly and without much emotion, not like those screeching females obsessing over Edward’s chest or Justin Bieber’s haircut. Right?
    My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is a strange beast in this regard. It doesn’t have even a whiff of cynicism about it. It’s somewhat escapist in nature, being, in essence, a magical fantasy world inhabited by fantastical creatures. But it doesn’t pander to teenage boys (nor, for that matter, does it pander to 5-year-old girls). It’s not a series of 20-minute toy commercials (or if it is, it does an excellent job of hiding any commercial appeals). It’s not excessively girly once you actually sit down and watch it (there is a telling chart floating around online that I can’t find right now — “what you think we watch != what we actually watch”). It doesn’t have the repetitiveness of toddler television nor the blandness of so many kids’ cartoons. In fact, many of the trappings of modern cartoons are entirely absent — the obnoxious, unlikeable characters, the violence, the “edgy” (= ugly) character design, pop culture references, absurdity for absurdity’s sake, “risqué” double entendres for any adults or teenagers who may be watching. My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is completely sincere. That does not mean it isn’t fun: it relies on humour a lot, sometimes groan-worthy humour (e.g. pony puns). But the laughs evolve organically from the characters, and they mean something because the characters mean something to the audience. They aren’t stereotypes (beyond a certain point), they’re relatable and well-fleshed out, faults and all. There’s a certain heft to the characters and to the world they live in. There actually is a mythology that is dealt with fairly consistently, which, as we all know, is like catnip for geeks (cf. the reaction to Lost and Fringe).
    In short, MLPFIM is superficially in many ways the opposite of what “people like me” ought to enjoy, and it’s the complete opposite of what everybody expected it to be. Maybe that’s what is so appealing: it’s refreshingly different relative to expectations.

  3. Prison

     /  July 29, 2011

    I’ve read many a dissertation on the brony community, but never have I seen one that actually treats us as respectable human beings. So, on behalf of love, friendship, and cartoon ponies, I thank you.

  4. It’s not such a new phenomenon as you may think, but it does seem to occur in odd places, usually where obscure bits of popular culture have gained a “cult” following. I remember seeing threads like the one the author discusses on the Acorn Cafe as far back as 2001. The Acorn Cafe is a fan forum dedicated to “Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers”, a Disney cartoon that originally aired from 1989-90. What is notable about “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” is the difference between the show’s target demographic, and the audience they actually wound up with.

    And I would also like to counter the author’s thoughts about people being reluctant to share on social networking sites like Facebook. On Facebook, you will find a number of pages dedicated to the main characters of the show, with over 1,000 likes apiece. Fan pages “Bronies” and “Real Men Watch My Little Pony” have over 3,000 likes each, and there are many more with titles like “Bronyism”, “Brohooves”, and “Bronies United for Friendship”. So there is definitely a presence on Facebook, and a budding presence on Google+.

    But it’s a very good article regardless. I would like to read the end notes and bibliography for it sometime.

    • Orion

       /  July 29, 2011

      That number of likes though actually supports the authors argument as that number is absolutely paling in comparison to even conservative estimates of the total number of only the hardcore bronies.

      Which indicates a high reluctance to make public ones’ pony love.

      I’m reluctant. If people ask me, or it comes up, I make no attempt to deny it, but otherwise I conceal it.

      • musicssound

         /  July 29, 2011

        Or they could just not be on Facebook. Facebook is never as expansive as most people think.

  5. This is a really good read on the culture of the net and sociability of the Brony community. Far too long young men have had to suffer under premiss that showing emotion and sharing experiences or interests outside what is considered normal was to be met by denigration of character and questioning of manhood and even sexuality. Which could and does accelerate into feelings of isolation, anger, and low self worth. As with the rise of cyber bullying gaining all the news articles almost no attention is paid to a growing community all to willing to be accepting and supportive simply because it’s not normal for young men to like ponies.

  6. Lori

     /  July 29, 2011

    That was an interesting read, but I see love and support like this in the Hetalia fandom as well.

    Either way I still kinda dislike how people assume that the term Brony is used for guys. Nowadays the word is gender neutral, and I’d appreciate it if people treated it as such XD; *is a girl who hated MLP until FiM came along*

    • Sotha

       /  July 29, 2011

      I agree. The male group may be the one most shockingly outside the target demographic (of what, 5 to 8 year old girls?), and thus may be the one to garner the most attention, but there are plenty of females in similar older age ranges who are fans of the show.

      Brony is gender neutral, used for any fan of the MLP: FiM, though especially those outside the target demographic.

      I too have read many dissertations on the brony phenomenon, and I appreciate the more unique point of view yours takes when analysing our community. It is well-regarded.

  7. Rex

     /  July 29, 2011

    You assume all the posts on Ponychan are legit.. I’ve made a lot of posts there similar to the step-dace abuse one… it’s a joke. The whole point of it is to have fun and make it over the top. Stop taking it seriously, you’re ruining it.

    • kriss1989

       /  July 29, 2011

      Dude, don’t joke like that. Most of the people on that site are serious about this stuff. Please refrain from making up problems just for attention. It’s rude and quite frankly shows an unimpressive lack of maturity on your part. Please try to be more responsible in the future.

  8. kriss1989

     /  July 29, 2011

    I must say, it’s refreshing to read an article where we aren’t treated as a joke. I didn’t think I’d see that again so soon; after all it’s only been a month since that article from that Australian newspaper.

    As for the ‘target audience’ idea, remember that Faust herself said she wanted to make a show that ANYONE could watch. She wrote a good series of stories about a group of friends in a slice of life comedy and then put it out for others to see. Some adult males saw it, thought it was neat, and spread the word.

    In fact, I wouldn’t even be a fan if not for ‘word of net’, as I don’t even the The HUB channel, and had to hunt them down online to see what it was all about. If it weren’t for fans making high-quality uploads, something I doubt a little kid would have the time and patience to do, I highly doubt I would have even watched one whole episode.

    A few interesting avenues of study come to mind regarding Bronydom.

    1) Why does the show appeal on such a wide scale?

    2) Why are people more comfortable expressing their love for the show on the internet in front of millions of strangers, but are afraid to tell their best friends? Even anonymity can’t completely cover that.

    3) Why is the community built on love and tolerance? Even other fandoms of kids shows tend to be very aggressive, especially when attacked. While most fandoms would get into a flame war, Bronies just say ‘love and tolerate’ and move on. What makes them so peaceful, especially considering how aggressively they are mocked?

    4) Why do, like, 80%+ of Bronies dislike furries? (Personally, I find them creepy. I may be an adult male who watches little ponies, but at least I don’t want to BE one. Still, to each their own.)

    • waffle911

       /  August 3, 2011

      @ #4: It does indeed seem a bit hypocritical for Bronies to have such a strong general dislike for furries, despite Furries being amongst the strongest contributors to the fandom in terms of artwork and fanfiction, seemingly without many others even realizing it. Despite the striking similarities between the two fandoms, and the substantial overlap in participating members, the pre-existing stigma against Furries is too well-established for most to accept or get around; so even in a fandom founded on the principles of love and tolerance, the unfortunate (and largely erroneous) stereotypes of Furries became aspects the Brony community now strives to avoid.

      Case in point: a fair number of “furries” (admittedly not a majority by any means) are adamant that they have no desire to actually *be* an anthropomorphic animal, nor do they have an actual “fursona” they identify themselves with; but they do enjoy the artwork and stories surrounding such anthropomorphic characters…much like the Brony community.

      It should be noted that as a nerd with a side interest in social psychology myself, Furries attracted my attention due to the general disdain for their existance on the internet and the amount of drama that gets created around them…almost always at the hands of non-furries. Years of online encounters with such situations and relevant data/statistics have left me to believe that the anti-furry stigma is unwarranted.

      It’s actually astounding (given the stereotypes) how relatively little interest into the salacious side of their fandom there seems to be in general, though given some of their specialty sites, there is clearly strong support for it amongst those that are interested; but proportionally, this is really no different from fans of anime and manga. Even the types and content volume of the weird “stuff” that is typically attributed to Furries are actually proportionally equivalent to their anime/manga loving counterparts. An admin on FurAffinity was once quoted as saying that salacious material actually only makes up a fairly small percentage of their upload traffic.

  9. Jordan McCloskey

     /  May 13, 2013

    I am an under-graduate at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in the sociology program. As my sociological research topic, I have chosen to study bronies and their online community. I find the whole fan base completely fascinating, even though I consider myself a brony. Throughout my research, I make almost the same points that you are making, and that is; entire groups of people primarily exist online. Whenever I would share my research findings with anyone, they would question what a brony is and why it matters to “the real world.” What I think some people miss, whether they are within or without the fandom, is that bronies are such a large up-and-coming group that they are changing the internet. Also, what makes it even more fascinating is that young adults are doing this by celebrating, not ironically, love, tolerance, and friendship which does not reflect masculinity norms. I have been approved by the IRB to conduct semi-structured interviews and record field notes. I’d be very interested in sharing some of these things with you if you would ever want to a more longitudinal study on the topic.

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