Why it's so hard to distinguish between hype and real fan excitement

This past week at San Diego Comic Con, we've seen a lot of fans expressing their passion for their favorite stories. But we also got bombarded with manufactured hype. Why is it so hard to tell the difference between two?

If you're honest, you'll admit that you've had times where it was almost impossible to tell if someone was expressing genuine, heartfelt excitement about a new movie or comic book, or just parroting the hype. The worst is when you hear words coming out of your own mouth, and you don't know if you're really expressing what you feel about something — or just buying into the hype you've been fed. The truth is, there's a thin line between love and hype.

Why is this the case? We were talking about it, and here are four closely related reasons we came up with:

1. Hype does turn into fannish enthusiasm.

There's a reason why people spend so much time hyping stuff — people not only believe the hype, but they convert it into real love and enthusiasm for geek pop culture. Part of the way we know that something is going to be mega and super-major is because we see lots of banners and posters for it, and they impress upon us that the companies making this thing are serious about it. And they are invested in making it mega. And so we internalize that it will be mega, and we start talking about how super-major it will be. It's not that we're gullible — it's more that we buy into things partly when we see that they have serious juice behind them, which may translate into good VFX budgets and someone having taken the time to come up with an actual story. (Or it may not.)

And then there's the fact that marketing and hype-generation, when done well, consist of showing us stuff that does actually rock. Like cool photos, awesome concept art and carefully chosen footage. And if someone gives you a really nice T-shirt or other bit of schwag, you're going to feel a bit more like you have ownership over the property they're marketing — which, again, translates to real enthusiasm.

Why it's so hard to distinguish between hype and real fan excitement

2. Marketers are really good at using the language of fans.

People in the world of geek marketing are often fans themselves, and they're able to speak the fan language — that's one reason why they get those jobs in the first place. A really good marketing person, ideally, will be genuinely enthusiastic about the new Captain America movie, and will really believe in his/her deepest heart that it's super-major. The hype machine often specializes in hitting the right notes to create associations in the fan's mind, and saying the right words and phrases to spark meme recognition in the minds of audiences. "Meme recognition" being the first step towards "meme creation," of course — it's much easier to create a meme by piggy-backing on an already recognized meme.

3. Marketing has gone gonzo.

And the line between creation and marketing has gotten ever blurrier, especially in the case of alternate reality games
(ARGs) which are used to promote movies and other big blockbuster entertainments. Some of the best science fiction writers on Earth are now working for ARG companies and devising huge, complex storylines that are often just as interesting as the movies they're promoting. (And in some cases, they're actually more interesting.) For Tron Legacy, Disney brought in Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan to Wondercon, portraying their Tron characters, and then had a guy skydive out of a helicopter. There's plenty of hype that feels empty and deadens your enthusiasm even for stuff you already were interested in, but there's also hype that goes beyond just trying to push your buttons and actually engages your brain. In a decade, ARGs will probably be even bigger, and the line between ARGs and the stories they are promoting will become even blurrier than it already is. (And it's already darn blurry. You can't understand crucial plot points in Lost unless you followed the Hanso Foundation ARG, and Cloverfield basically only made sense to people who followed all of its viral marketing.) Is it still hype if it's part of the story?

Why it's so hard to distinguish between hype and real fan excitement

4. Fans run out of ways to express genuine enthusiasm

How many ways can you say that something is awesome? Or that it rocked your world? (I have now decided that "super-major" is my new substitute for "awesome," actually.) You run out of synonyms for "cool." I run into this problem a lot — when you're genuinely pumped up about something, it can sound to your own ears as though you're just repeating the hype. (Or generating hype, which you actually are doing.) Because the geek marketers are so good at using our own language, and because of the limitations of language, pretty much the only way to make sure you don't sound like you're echoing or re-transmitting canned hype is to use lots of curse words.

So if there really isn't any foolproof way to tell hype from real fan appreciation, what do we do? Probably just accept that there's no easy distinction between the two things — that it's a sort of continuum, with stuff flowing back and forth all the time — and maybe keep just an ounce of skepticism in mind for the things we're feeling pumped up about.

Images: Snakes On A Plane graffiti wall, and a guy asks a question at the Snakes On A Plane panel at Comic Con 2006. A fan asks a question at the Spider-Man 3 panel dressed as the Scarlet Spider. Photos by PopCultureGeek.com on Flickr.