Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Simply Magical: The Internet and the Stunning Rise of "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic"

I wrote this essay to commemorate the 100 millionth page view (and still counting!) on Equestria Daily, but before I go any further I should make clear what this is not. It is not simply another history of how the show’s huge popularity on the internet came to be, tracing from its takeover of 4chan to the present. It is also not a description of the many and varied ways fans of FiM have expressed their love for the show (PMVs, artwork, music, and the like), as truly impressive as the sheer magnitude of these fanworks is. What I wish to discuss incorporates these elements, but they are not the main focus. All I want to impress upon you here is how utterly stupefying and, in my opinion, revolutionary FiM’s huge and sudden ascent has been. To put it simply, this phenomenon we have had the pleasure of witnessing and being a part of would literally have been impossible as recently as 12-15 years ago. That events transpired precisely the way they did, with all parties acting and responding accordingly, is nothing short of miraculous to me, and it is an awesome testament to the power of the internet. As we celebrate having reached such a momentous milestone, it is this fact I hope to convince you (or remind you) of in the next several paragraphs.

By all accounts, October 10, 2010 should have been just another day. A big toy company, out to capitalize on one of its premier toy lines, unveiled a reimagining of a television show based on that line in order to raise consumer awareness and guide little girls to their local Walmart, where they could coerce their parents into buying cute, colorful ponies. Business as usual. It should also be noted that the show premiered alongside the very channel it was airing on, the Hub. This was Hasbro’s own creation (in partnership with Discovery Communications, Inc.), not an established heavyweight like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. In short, the latest iteration of a toy-based television series never noted for its brilliance got to debut with the likes of such universally appealing fare as “Pound Puppies” and “Strawberry Shortcake’s Berry Bitty Adventures,” on a brand new, little known channel with comparatively few subscribers. All told, the circumstances of the show’s beginning seem like they ought to have doomed FiM to permanent obscurity from the start.

The point I want to emphasize is that, had this story taken place several years ago, it would have almost certainly turned out that way. In all likelihood, some young girls (perhaps a very small smattering of young boys) would have discovered the show, maybe enjoyed it, and everyone else would have gone on with their lives without taking notice. I am no expert on the internet or how its influence has changed over time, but I feel confident that even more recently, in the past 8-10 years, users’ affinity and capacity for latching onto the most innocuous things and catapulting them to dizzying prominence was not nearly as pronounced then as it is now. 12-15 years ago, this phenomenon didn’t even exist. That is to say,
the internet as we know it did not exist.

Recall when Pokémon (both the TV show and the original two games) first came out in North America. It is no exaggeration to say it set the world on fire, and as any fan (and quite a few non-fans) can tell you, the franchise is still very strong today. Now imagine what it would have been like if the internet as we know it had existed when the North American release of Pokémon occurred. The world wouldn’t have caught fire, it would have been
completely vaporized by the sheer force of internet amplification and fanworks (think YouTube videos, artwork, dedicated forums, and so on). Granted, all of these things and so much more have manifested in the last decade or so. Nevertheless, it is still the case that Pokémania would have been that much more frenetic and insane if all the right tools had been available at the height of the craze, when the franchise originally debuted.

Consider also that Pokémon’s potential for success, as dubious as it was at the time of its North American release, was never in doubt because of age- or gender-related issues. Ask the average person off the street who the intended audience for “My Little Pony” is, however, and you’re guaranteed to get the same answer every time: young and female. It may be the case that isolated individuals, through chance and happenstance (perhaps by virtue of being an older sibling of someone who watched the show), could have had the opportunity to see for themselves that FiM was much better than initial impressions and preconceptions allowed. Supposing for a moment that the show came out in the late ‘90s, though, where would that knowledge have gone, and how? I admit it would have been theoretically possible for “Friendship is Magic” to spread at a respectable rate via word of mouth and similar means, but I maintain that it would not have come anywhere close to the degree and caliber of propagation it has enjoyed in the past year or so. The internet made an enormous difference to the show’s prospects, as we shall see.

For those who are familiar with 4chan, it is no small irony that a website with such an unsavory reputation is inadvertently responsible for exposing millions to one of the most positive, wholesome shows currently on television. Quite apart from 4chan being the primary source, though, it still boggles the mind how events unfolded. Amid Amidi, an editor for the animation website Cartoon Brew, claimed in an editorial that the mere existence of the Hub (and by implication the new “My Little Pony” show) was nothing less than the “death knell for creator-driven animation” and a depressing victory for both “established properties over original ideas” and a “paint-by-numbers approach” to television programming. (In retrospect, Amidi’s withering assessment is particularly amusing in that, much like many present critics who denigrate the show and refuse to watch it, there is a conspicuous absence of actual discussion of the show’s writing, art style, music, or anything substantive about it at all.) Not too many years ago, the article would have made no waves due to the absence of the kind of exposure the internet offers. Extrapolating an alternate version of events in the oh-so-recent past, Amidi gives his opinion, some people take notice, most do not, and nothing extraordinary happens. In reality, this hypothetical scenario of general apathy is pretty much exactly what occurred, with one major difference: the internet intervened, thanks to the article being posted on 4chan’s /co/ board, a place devoted to comics and cartoons.

Given the hyperbolic tone of the editorial, some people on the board decided to check out the show and see if it was really that bad. Nothing unusual about that, but again, subtract the internet from the equation and the story ends there. They enjoy the show, then what do they do? Tell their friends about it? If they’re brave enough, maybe. Draw their own pictures and write their own stories? Perhaps, but who’s going to see them? In essence, the show as a known quantity remains fundamentally unchanged. The viewership is not significantly altered, and the world goes on, unaware of FiM’s quiet existence.

That didn’t happen, though. Those scattered individuals on 4chan were enthralled with the show, so they took it and did what 4chan members do best: spread it like a virus. Continuing the unflattering analogy, pony-related threads inspired by FiM popped up on /co/ (and /b/, a board for literally anything and everything) like the plague. To reiterate, just a few short years ago it would have been impossible to disseminate anything like that so broadly, quickly, and easily. 4chan, of course, has become infamous for churning out memes, including such memorable gems as lolcats, the Rickroll, and Pedobear. However, this time was different. Apparently the cuteness and innocence on display was too wholesome for the rest of the image board to handle. Whatever the case, pony saturation attracted so much trolling from other members that even the word “pony” and pony-related posts became bannable offenses. But to the surprise and consternation of the trolls, bronies responded not with rage, but with “love and tolerance.” Before long, things calmed down and the pony embargo was lifted, but not before the brony faithful went on a mass exodus and founded their own safe haven for pony discussions, art, and everything else in between: Ponychan. These days, 4chan is the same as it’s always been, but pause for a moment and marvel at how a cute, colorful show for little girls, based on a toy line, came out of nowhere and exploded
instantaneously, driven solely by the power of the internet. This spontaneous growth would have been impressive on its own, but the truly big bang was still to come.

The events on 4chan singlehandedly created a legitimate FiM fandom out of nothing, but it was still fairly small compared to other, better-established ones. The bronies were out there, but they had few fan resources to turn to. Enter Shaun Scotellaro, a young man from Arizona who became a fan of the show while it was dominating 4chan. At the time, new episodes were still coming out, but he grew concerned that the show might get cancelled after Season 1 due to a lack of unified support. To prevent this from happening, on January 24, 2011, Scotellaro founded Equestria Daily, a blog devoted to anything and everything FiM. Combine this with a crop of new fans itching to express their love and appreciation for the show after Season 1’s conclusion and you have the ingredients for a perpetual motion machine of colossal proportions. To attempt anything like an exhaustive list would be an exercise in masochistic futility, but it suffices to say that the variety and quantity of fan output and brony meet-up advertisements posted on the site almost defies comprehension. Even more mind-blowing is how
fast all of this content accrued. (Consider the volume of PMVs, music, comics, etc. and our achievement of 100 million page views in light of the fact that it hasn’t even been a year since Equestria Daily was created.) This is the crux of the matter I’ve been trying to get at. No show, no film, no game, no anything has ever attained such a staggering degree of popularity and fan response in so short a span of time. “Friendship is Magic” unexpectedly vaulted into the hearts and minds of millions the world over, and it did so based entirely on the internet’s capability and influence. This alone has been a wondrous spectacle, but the only thing more amazing than the fan response to the show has been the creators’ response in turn.

As most fans of FiM know, the show’s creators are in tune with the fandom to an uncommon degree. Indeed, the relationship between the two is arguably one of the most organic of its kind ever to exist. The evidence for this is abundant, but I will focus on two standout examples. The first is none other than a certain walleyed, gray background pony.

The story is pretty well known by now. During the “Mare in the Moon” episode, a random background pony with crossed (or “derped”) eyes was spotted. In almost any other fandom, this error or gag, whichever it was, would have attracted
zero attention. Bronies are a strange breed, though, for they jumped on this innocuous blip and dubbed the character Derpy Hooves, then went on to construct a back-story and personality out of whole cloth. These things can happen in a “passionate” fan base, you may say. True, but how often do a show’s creators respond by adopting the fan name around the office and going out of their way to incorporate this unimportant background character purely for the sake of pleasing the fans? You know it’s serious when the character is popping up in places she has no business being (like Fluttershy’s chicken coop), and the fact that the creators have gone to such lengths to acknowledge the fans in this way is just incredible. The takeaway point is that the entire process, from Derpy’s fan characterization to the creators’ response to it, was made possible by the internet’s tremendous powers of magnification and connection. Derpy never would have evolved the way she did without the instant, mutual accessibility the internet offers to fans, and likewise the creators never would have known such a thing was happening if it hadn’t transpired right before their eyes in such a visible, public sphere. There have been many other comparable nods to the fans from the creators, but Derpy is easily the biggest and the most symbolic of the fandom’s power and influence.

My next anecdote is also probably familiar to you hardcore bronies who have actually read this far, but it bears repeating as a crowning example of the creators’ deep relationship with the fan community. Shortly before Season 2 began, enthusiasm and speculation were bubbling over among the community and spirits were high. Jayson Thiessen, supervising director for the show, decided one day to tease the fans with a picture of himself and a screenshot from Season 2. Equestria Daily immediately posted this image, and it didn’t take long for people in the comments to notice that Jayson seemed to be looking at Equestria Daily on his computer. It would have been a big enough deal that the head of the show was visiting such an important fan site, but he didn’t stop there. No, he then proceeded to tweet a second picture of himself and a
different screenshot from Season 2. In this new image, he was again visiting Equestria Daily—only this time he was reading the very post that Equestria Daily had just put up about the original picture. The phrase “they are among us” doesn’t even begin to describe it, and this kind of crazy-tight interaction between the fans and the creators would be inconceivable without the internet. There are so many other examples, like Sibsy the storyboard artist’s occasional appearances at Equestria Daily and Lauren Faust’s frequent (and much appreciated) comments on her deviantArt page, and it all just goes to show how extraordinary the rise of “Friendship is Magic” has been.

There are even more big things ahead for FiM and its fan base, of that I have no doubt. Both will probably continue to grow in the near future, and there’s no telling what kind of surprises are in store for us. At this moment in time, though, I thought it appropriate to reflect on how utterly spectacular the journey has been. Nothing like this phenomenon has ever happened before, and we will probably never see the likes of it again. That such a show could so suddenly achieve this degree of fame and attention, carried only by the wings of the internet—it strikes me as simply magical.