Disclaimer: This post is not directed at any particular community. All references to specific events and/or subjects are done as a means to highlight an issue, not point the finger. The experience and opinions expressed within this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of LeakyNews as a whole.
At last year’s LeakyCon in Portland, Anthony Rapp said, “If somebody loves something, let them love it, for whatever reason they love it.” And while he’s 100% right, there’s a second part of that equation that sometimes gets lost in translation. One of the things that makes fandom communities so special is the fact that everyone in them is instantly bonded by a deep admiration of a shared subject. And while that appreciation may bring people together, it also has the ability to pit them against each other, primarily when it comes to live settings when someone directly involved with the source is present. Live events, while having the opportunity to be truly wonderful and fulfilling, can quickly turn into not-so-pleasant experiences if those present forget one very important thing: camaraderie and respect are also key ingredients of a successful event recipe.
That spirit of community was something definitely missing at an event I attended last week.
Chaotic. Intense. Overwhelming. Crazy. Dangerous.
Those are just some of the many words I can use to describe the environment I encountered on the courtyard at Dolphin Mall in Miami, FL, on the afternoon of May 6. In the 10+ years I’ve been frequenting stores there, I had never seen anything like this: hundreds, possibly thousands, of people crowding both the areas by a small stage on the ground level and balconies wrapping around the second floor. This was no ordinary Tuesday afternoon; it was the day author John Green and the principal cast of the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars film were making a special appearance at the mall as a result of the #DemandOurStars social media contest.
In theory, the promotional mall tour is a wonderful opportunity for both fans and content creators. But its success is dependent on the execution, and this event had several strikes against it before it even happened. For starters, Florida is hot. Really damn hot. There’s a reason it’s called the “Sunshine State,” and it has nothing to do with people having a bright outlook. South Florida also suffers from extreme humidity. So, the decision to host an event that’s going to draw massive crowds, OUTSIDE, in the middle of the day, is not only poor, but possibly negligent. Furthermore, the Dolphin Mall courtyard is not an otherwise empty space that’s capable of holding that crowd without inadvertently blocking walkways and creating fire hazards.
According to social media, people started arriving for the event in the early morning, well before the mall actually opened. Some even tried camping out the night before but were shooed away from the grounds by security. By the time I actually got there, around five in the afternoon, the courtyard was overflowing. It was so hot that there were people on the stage spraying the crowd inside the enclosed “pit area” with water guns. Paramedics, officers, and security guards were abundant. There was an ambulance at the ready. As I made my way through, I overheard mall personnel calling for water with urgency. Sure enough, it was for a group of girls who were dehydrated and had to be rushed to a storage-type room to take refuge from the heat. Various news stations later reported that several people had to seek medical treatment from the crews on site.
Earlier attempts at crowd control – by means of 600 blue, “pit” access wristbands – had become obsolete. People without wristbands were initially told they had to watch from the upstairs balconies, but they instead corralled around the barricades. The event was already running about an hour late when John Green tweeted that he and the cast were stuck in traffic. This is when things took a turn for the worst. Tempers flared, and those who wanted inside the pit area took it upon themselves to break open the gates and storm inside. Whenever the moderator came on stage to try and raise the morale, people groaned, and a few of the girls around me screamed for him to shut up. People were cranky and antsy, but chanting eventually erupted. When John Green, Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff finally arrived around 6:30 p.m., everyone went wild with excitement.
That collective moment of happiness was short-lived.
One of the first things John did when he took the stage was ask the audience to take three steps back for the safety of those closest to the stage. He warned the crowd multiple times that the event could end prematurely if things got out of control, and at first people listened. But as the night went on, people stopped cooperating. The request for space was repeatedly echoed by security, the moderator, John himself, and even Shailene, who shared a personal story of a girl at another gathering who stopped breathing in the crowd. But the pushing and screaming seemed to overpower everything else, including the beautiful, exclusive footage from the film that was shown. Even the escalators became a high-risk environment as people tried walking down them in order to stay there for as long as possible. To sum it up, the Q&A only lasted about 15 minutes, if that. And only about five questions could be asked before it all became too much of a hazard to keep it going. Security had enough. People had ruined it for themselves.
The point of that story was not to cast blame, but rather to highlight a number of problems many communities experience while attending events where celebrities or content creators are present. These issues are far from exclusive to Miami or movie mall tours. Concerts, for example, are notorious for them. And when it comes to any kind of live appearance, everyone wants the best view possible. We’re all guilty of wanting to be in the front. There’s nothing wrong with showing up early and securing your spot, and if you are able and willing to do so without violating any kind of regulation or causing a problem, more power to you.
A major problem plaguing any type of fan culture, however, is that things have the potential to spiral out of control very quickly. Whether in person or on the Internet, people are quick to jump at things that relate to or directly impact they community they are a part of. The issue here isn’t with the need to defend the integrity of a source or with showing how much it means to you; the issue stems from action without rationalization or consideration. There is absolutely nothing wrong with unapologetically loving something. There is nothing wrong with cheering, chanting, or clapping for those who create and bring those works to life. There is nothing wrong with wanting to support those individuals. There is nothing wrong with finding happiness, wholeness, inspiration, and even a home among fandom communities.
But homes need structures, and so do gatherings. Without organization and boundaries, public events with special guests can’t happen. It would be utter madness and turn into a dangerous atmosphere where the every-man-for-himself-mentality would triumph. And that contradicts everything a fandom community should be. The most important thing to understand when it comes to these types of events is that, because of timing and safety, there has to be limits. Many people see barricades and ropes as something keeping them out, something restricting them. And while that may be true to an extent, they fail to realize that those things have also been set up for the protection of other people, including the ones they showed up to see.
And when it comes to boundaries, the easily identifiable ones aren’t the only ones that matter; personal space is just as important. No one has the right to put their hands or persons on another. Pushing and shoving accomplishes nothing but harm; it won’t make those in front of you magically disappear. It won’t get you up close without a fight. It just causes problems. Because after a while, other people will start pushing back. And then everyone is unhappy, uncomfortable, and at risk for injury. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Another one of these boundaries that is often overlooked is one relating to sound. As mentioned above, applause and cheers are part of the occasion. But this, too, should be executed with a sense of decorum. After all, you came to hear what the people on stage have to say, right? If someone is singing, by all means whoop when they hit that high note. Scream and sing along if they play your favorite song. But if you spend the whole night going “AHHHHH” instead of listening, it kind of defeats the purpose of going in the first place, doesn’t it? You can have a good time while still being respectful to both the people on stage and those around you. You’re all there for the same reason, so allow each other the courtesy of enjoying that experience together.
When Shailene Woodley was asked what she took from her experience with The Fault in Our Stars on Tuesday, her answer was that life is about the moments and what you take from them. So let’s enjoy these special moments together. Let’s be and act like a community rather than a mob. Let’s practice the love our fandoms encourage us to embrace.
*Note: I’d like to add that in spite of the chaos at the Dolphin Mall event, I do want to commend the security personnel for keeping everyone safe, the emergency crews that came to aid those in need, and the people responsible for setting up a special viewing area for people with disability that was never impacted by the crowd.