Madness descended upon the internet earlier this week when the Westworld showrunners stormed into a the /r/westworld subreddit for what proved to be one of the larger online pranks in recent history.
The gist of the prank was simple: the Westworld team announced that they would be spoiling the entirety of the show for the Westworld superfans. Their logic was that the fans of Westworld seem to love guessing spoilers, so they might as well have them all revealed in advance.
In reality, they had crafted a beautiful new Rickroll. You can view it here:
This was a clever stunt, a well-executed, but most importantly: the Westworld team had created a genius act of public shaming that should bring into focus the absurdity of many aspects of internet fan culture.
The real message here is this: The very concept of fan theories needs major examination.
The supposed definition of “fan theory”
While the phrase “fan theory” does not appear anywhere within their post, they do mention “theories” once:
…I greatly enjoyed watching the friendly folks at this subreddit guess the twists and turns of the season.
It creates a larger problem for us, though, in terms of the way your guesswork is reported online. ‘Theories’ can actually be spoilers, and the line between the two is confusing. It’s something we’ve been thinking about since last season…
The solution, as referenced above, was to spoil the entirety of Westworld for its redditing fans before the new season came out. The bigger problem here, however, is the idea that guessing plot points should be considered a form of “theorizing”.
It’s the same problem we’ve seen with Mr. Robot, the later seasons of Game of Thrones (once it surpassed its source material), and even Rick and Morty. Viewers watch the show. They get excited about it. They pick up hints, clues, ideas, and begin to guess what will happen next.
In many cases, they guess correctly. Sometimes, these guesses are less guesses and more accurate interpretations of what they are seeing. As in Westworld, the idea that Jeffrey Wright’s character is a “host” was so one of those universal, internet-wide predictions that, of course, turned out to be right.
This trend is not unique to Westworld. In Game of Thrones, one of the most prominent of these educated guesses was the idea—for both book readers and show watchers—was the idea that Jon Snow was the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
The tendency is to label these “fan theories”. Or “conspiracy theories”. Or just plain theories. But this is unfair and inaccurate.
To explore how, let’s consider what a fan theory really is.
The true definition of a fan theory
In 2016, I became frustrated with the lack of a consistent definition of “fan theory.” I noticed this particularly in both fan communities (i.e. subreddits dedicated to television shows, fanatical tweeters, and some bloggers) and the websites and news source dedicated to both feeding and covering such communities. The websites of varying degrees of legitimacy that rely on clicks earned through posting articles like “This Westworld Fan Theory Might Explain What the Hosts Really Are” or “This Superfan Just Came Up with the Craziest Fan Theory Yet”.
Here is the definition of fan theory I provided:
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.
Most importantly, this means that many of the supposed fan theories being both written and recapped on the internet are, indeed, not fan theories.
A fan theory is not something that says: Here’s what’s going to happen next.
If you are simply predicting what is to come next, then you are doing exactly that: making a prediction. Or, in some cases—including the many incensed fans who felt as if future Luke Skywalker wasn’t the man of their expectations—that’s nothing more than fan fiction.
In defense of fan theories
At this point, I would like to make one thing clear: I think fan theories are great. I really do. I think a good fan theory is just like any other form of criticism, in that it can find deeper meanings and truths.
I also enjoy writing fan theories. If it weren’t for fan theories, this blog might have not have anywhere near the readership it does, as my theories on Ross Geller and James Bond and Rick and Morty have all earned me readers and press.
This is also why I have such a distaste for most of the “fan theories” I encounter, whether on Twitter or reddit or in the headlines of articles.
It’s worth noting, again, why so many articles use “fan theory” and “fan theories” in their headlines and stories. “Fan theory” has become a search term with high value over the last several years. With Westworld about to start up again, it’s no doubt that “westworld fan theories” will trend high again.
Consider this trend (from Google Trends) for a suggestion at where it’s going:
So the news sources and bloggers will continue to write about fan theories, for the clicks. (A further explanation of trends related to fan theories can be found in this blog post.) But could we maybe, just maybe, be more careful about how we use this concept?
You aren’t good at writing fan theories. You’re good at watching television.
I don’t mean you, of course, unless your specialty is watching a show like Mr. Robot or Westworld and guessing what will happen in the next episode.
Because that’s really all you are doing, when guessing what the next reveal will be. You are being an attentive audience, yes. You are paying attention. You are just a talented watcher of television. Picking up clues intentionally left by the creators of something and then acting as if you’ve created something yourself is not the same as creating a fan theory.
What this often reminds me of is when, a few summers ago, I finally read the Harry Potter books. I’d read the first few as they came out but then got bored with them. In 2016, I returned to them and really enjoyed them.
As I read one of them—either the sixth or the seventh—the concept of horcruxes was introduced. A horcrux, in short, is some object that an evil wizard has put a piece of his soul into.
At one point I put the book down and wondered if Harry might be one of Voldemort’s horcruxes. A piece of the narrative involved finding all the horcruxes. If Harry was one of them, it would both complicate the story and make the mission of destroying the horcruxes far more difficult. It would also make a lot of sense, considering his background (parents’ deaths at the hand of Voldemort, somehow defeating him as a baby, lighting scar, etc).
If I had put the book down, walked over to my computer, and wrote up a blog post that said:
Harry is Voldemort’s Horcrux: a Harry Potter Fan Theory
I would have looked like a crazy person, as it’s revealed in a later chapter that, of course, Harry is totally a horcrux.
This is what many of these ostensible fan theories are. Sure, the book of many shows is written an episode at a time, week by week, but to try to piece together what it is that you’re seeing is not a “fan theory”.
What this means for all your Westworld fan theories
I have never read a Westworld fan theory. As far as I know, there aren’t any. The show – despite the internet’s buzzing and feeding – does not lend itself well to fan theories. All its mysteries and turns are intentional, intricate, plotted, with eventual reveals and developments.
Fan theories are better suited for stories that have questions left unanswered at the end. Sometimes these take the form of plot holes. Other times, they are quiet plot points that did not require or receive an explanation in their original form.
The overflowing but continually contradictory universe of James Bond, for example. The disappearance of Ben Geller, the death of Brian LeFevre, the true nature of R2D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi, or many of the details of the Harry Potter universe that were left unexplained at the end of the book series.
In the case of the world of Westworld and its continual unveiling, such fan theories are needless. Perhaps there will be room for them, once we know the whole story. For now, sure, it’s fun to predict what will happen next.
Consider, again, the definition of fan theory I’ve suggested (which does line up very closely with the pedantic definitions held by many others, along with the accepted idea in the /r/FanTheories subreddit). This is the truth held within the statement by the Westworld team when they rolled the /r/westworld subreddit: fan theories cannot contain spoilers, for a real theory and a real spoiler should be mutually exclusive from one another.
The creators of Westworld already wrote the story. They know the answers. One can argue that there is something disrespectful in attempting to claim their work as your “fan theory”. They already told the story. You’re just watching it.