Bronies: Online Community and Why Some Grown Men Love My Little Pony
The really fun part of teaching my graduate class Design of Online Communities is that I learn incredible things from the students’ empirical studies of online sites. In Spring 2013, one team of students (Patrick Mize, Michael Roberts, and Aditya Tirodkar) chose to study Equestria Daily, a site for bronies. Bronies are adult, male fans of the children’s television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This raises two questions: First, why would adult men become fans of television show aimed at young girls? Second, what interesting issues does the design of Equestria Daily raise? I’ll tackle the second issue in another post. Here I want to talk about bronies.
When I first heard about bronies, I was fascinated. More fascinated because I have a friend (a fellow CS faculty member) who is a brony. The question of why someone would be a brony has two parts: First, why does anyone join any group? Second, why are some people attracted to brony culture in particular?
After reading my students’ paper (I hope they’ll polish and publish it) and all their interview transcripts, I also watched the documentary Bronies, The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (available on Netflix streaming). And the more I learn, the less surprising it all becomes.
Why do people join any group? Sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes about how people need a third place, neither work nor home. The full title of his book is “The Great Good Place, Cafés, coffee shops, community centers, beauty parlors, general stores, bars, hangouts and how they get you through the day.” Oldenburg bemoans the fact that the invention of suburbia has made it harder to find places to casually socialize. In a more quantitative vein, Robert Putnam notes that we are increasingly bowling alone—fewer people are joining voluntary associations where they can meet others.
My neighbors recently joined a fancy golf club. At the club, they meet others who share their interests, values and worldview. Adult club members have an opportunity to talk with friends while playing golf, and their kids meet one another while splashing in the pool. Then they all go to the clubhouse for lunch, and there are more opportunities to build and maintain social ties. Three factors help bring together people with things in common. First, the price of membership means members have a common socio-economic status. Second, a membership application is required, and current members choose to admit those who they feel will fit in. Finally, self selection is probably the dominant filter—most people have a sense of whether this is the sort of place for them.
I’m not a golf club sort of person. I wish there were a place like that for me. The golf club is a classic example of Oldenburg’s third place. Because it’s a physical place, members can drop by on a casual basis and meet others informally. But what do you do if there is no such place nearby that suits you?
Most people, like me, have few third places readily available. Could something like a third place be mediated electronically? Putnam dismisses that possibility, but he was writing a long time ago, and also doesn’t have empirical data on online communities and the value they bring to their members. It’s important to note that most online communities are not solely online. As Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia point out, people who initially meet online often go to extraordinary lengths to meet in person, and face-to-face encounters help to strengthen ties.
All of this brings me back to the world of bronies. At brony conventions, pony fans get to meet other like-minded individuals. They meet electronically, enhance their ties in person, and then maintain them electronically until the next opportunity to meet in person arises. It’s not as nice as a golf club where you see your friends every weekend, but it serves a similar function in their lives. I’m sure if they had the financial means and geographic density of bronies to create a pony club, they’d love it. Like all fandoms I’ve observed, brony culture is creative. Bronies work in every possible creative medium, and especially make their own art and music inspired by the show. A pony club would be a sort of maker space with a sound studio, 3D printers, digital and analog art tools, and a space for parties and dancing. It’s a shame it’s not a more practical idea.
I hope I have given you some insights into why people might want to join a community of like-minded individuals. One mystery remains: Why My Little Pony? In my students’ interviews and in the documentary, bronies talk about embracing values of kindness and friendship. It is an explicit rejection of the cultural norm of competitive and aggressive masculinity. If NASCAR and American football repel you, what are you to embrace? Ponies are the opposite.
There are indeed female bronies (often called “pegasisters”), but they’re less common because the values of the show are more in line with traditional femininity. If joining a subculture is an act of identity construction that says “I am different,” being a fan of My Little Pony is a more defining statement for men.
Now that brony culture emerged, it’s easy to see why it would appeal to a certain class of incredibly nice guys. An open question is: why this particular show? I would love to see a cultural history of the origins of bronydom, and how the subculture initially took off.
My next post will be about what my students learned from studying the design of Equestria Daily.