The internet loves a good fan theory. The trouble is, the phrase “fan theory” has started to go the way of words like content or hipster or artisan or any of the other words whose definitions are so vague, so all encompassing, that they have very little meaning at this point.
“Fan theory” is currently used as a descriptor for the following things:
- A prediction for an upcoming storyline
- Analysis of a character’s motivations
- Analysis of a storyline
- Fan fiction
- The dissection of a trailer and conclusions drawn from moments in said trailer
- Explanation of subtext, predicated on the explainer failing to recognize subtext.
- Recognition of dramatic irony or a plot turn before the reveal
None of the above should be considered fan theories, in the opinion of this blogger.
So then, you may ask, what the heck qualifies as a fan theory?
What is a fan theory?
I’ve been seeking to answer this question for a while, and previously dedicated an entire blog post to it: What We Talk About When We Talk About Fan Theories. And while I’m happy with that article and its reception, I find that the term “fan theory” is increasingly bandied about, with increasingly little meaning, especially during Game of Thrones season.
And so, I’ll repeat my answer to the age old question of what is a fan theory:
A fan theory is a form of contemporary critical theory, in which the audience analyzes the text and creates a new interpretation that explains “what really happened,” creating a separate narrative aside from or within the narrative.
For those of you who just read the above and are shaking your head, here’s another way to say it: a fan theory is when someone says “This is what really happened.”
A fan theory is NOT when someone says:
- What if this happens?
- Why didn’t this happen?
- I hope this happens.
All of this said, let’s talk about why a lot of the “Game of Thrones fan theories” floating around are anything but.
The trouble with Game of Thrones fan theories
It is admittedly hard to blame the editors and publishers of content aggregators for cranking out a new listicle or blog post daily and calling everything a “Game of Thrones fan theory.” They want the clicks.”Fan theory” has an average monthly search volume of 5,400. “Game of Thrones theory” has a an average monthly search volume of 33,100. “Game of Thrones” has a monthly search volume of 9 million.
Here is a graph from Google Trends of “Game of Thrones fan theory” for the last 5 years.
And for the last 13 years:
Curious about those yearly spikes? That’s Game of Thrones season, folks.
Meanwhile, here’s the graph for fan theory since 2004:
Perhaps not as dramatically “up-and-to-the-right,” but you can certainly see how the term has gained over the years.
What are these terrible Game of Thrones fan theories?
What am I referring to exactly? Articles with headlines like this:
- A Big Game of Thrones Fan Theory Came True Last Night!
- This Game of Thrones Fan Theory Predicts Jon Snow’s Future!
- Will These Two Westerosians Tie The Knot? This Game of Thrones Fan Theory Says They Will!
I’m resisting linking to any of these, as I don’t feel like driving more clicks their way. But suffice it to say, it’s anything that falls into the category of just predicting how Game of Thrones will end. Which, sure, is a fine thing to do, but let’s avoid calling it a “fan theory.”
However, just because lowbrow news outlets repeatedly mislabel something for the sake of clicks, it doesn’t mean that we should allow that word to lose its meaning.
Wait, even CleganeBowl isn’t a fan theory?
Within this definition – which I really believe we should start widely using – then that is correct. The famous CleganeBowl is not a fan theory. It’s a really cool prediction. It’s some awesome speculation. Or perhaps it’s just a fun piece of fan fiction.
But one thing it is not is a fan theory.
Who are you to tell me what a fan theory is?
Now, I’ve repeatedly advocated what I think a fan theory is and is not. But what gives me that right?
It’s worth clarifying now that I am not the only person who feels this way – however, I may be the only blogger pushing for some clarity surrounding these words.
And so, a brief history of fan theory:
The term was something loosely bandied about for years, but came into closer focus with a few specific events:
- In January of 2010, Cracked.com published one of the original defining texts on fan theories, entitled 6 Insane Fan Theories That Make Great Movies Better. Not only is it a good read, but all 6 of the theories fall squarely within the definitions used for fan theories by me today, and for good reason: this article largely shaped how fan theories are understood and discussed. (It has been viewed, as of today, just shy of 9 million times).
- On May 30th, 2012, a question in AskReddit about “fan theories” hit the top position of reddit: What ‘fan theories’ have blown their mind with their devastating logic?
- In response to the excitement in this thread, the /r/FanTheories subreddit was promptly created.
- The excitement around this Fan Theories conversation also leaked into other sites, including BuzzFeed, who did a listicle recapping the conversation but, interestingly, did not use “fan theory” or “fan theories” anywhere in the listicle.
- From here, the Fan Theories subreddit continued to grow, to the point where it’s now a popular subreddit with over 400k subscribers and tons of daily posts.
All of this occurred over 5 years ago. Since then, we have seen fan theory go from message board corners to the New Yorker and Esquire and Cosmopolitan headlines. And as the popularity of this has grown, so too has its definition eroded.
Like I said, I’m not the only one fighting this battle. Go to any /r/FanTheories post that contains nothing more than a prediction or speculation, and you’ll find those commenters pushing for a certain definition of fan theory.
So now what do we do?
This places me in a very dangerous place: I’m a pedant fighting for a specific definition of a term vaguely used on the internet, allying myself with commenters in a niche subreddit.
The next question is, what do I want people to do from here? I supposed the request is simple, and it comes back to a different idea I’ve pushed for, on my other blog, in a post regarding elegant variation and content: only use a word when it’s the best word.
We currently risk falling down a rabbit hole of semantic satiation for Game of Thrones fan theories. Our culture is so saturated with everything being a fan theory that, soon, nothing will be one. And so my request is that all of us pop culture bloggers can hold ourselves to some higher standards and use the best word, whether that word be content or fan theory or prediction or speculation or pedantry.
Either that, or I can just accept this as a lost battle, and just focus on writing my own fan theories about Ross Geller while ignoring the larger conversation.