McNeill (2013) suggests that “fringe societies… rely on their projected identity, or their messages within, to demonstrate their belonging” (p. 6). An example of a fringe community that has used projected identity to create a sense of belonging is the Bronies, adult male fans of the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The Brony culture is a community born in social media that has transitioned to an in-person experience. Bronies have a broad social media presence, with many online communities formed around Brony culture. To represent the community, I have chosen the website What is a Brony? (http://whatisabrony.com), which gives an overview of Brony culture and links to other Brony communities. For this discussion, I will examine how the Brony community was made possible by the nature of social media, how the community developed and represents its own culture, and how those outside the community contribute to the identity. I suggest that Brony culture is an example of digital symbiosis that is made possible by the nature of communication and identity in social media.
Bronies are born of the Internet and social media. In 2010, the Hub network launched the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The show was aimed at young girls, but the show found an unexpected fan base. An adult fan community of the show formed on the social media platform 4chan (http://4chan.org), “an image-based bulletin board” (4chan, 2014) featuring Japanese animation (anime), photography, and music, where users remain anonymous. This exposure on 4chan led to the growth of the “Brony” community (a portmanteau of the forum designator, /b/, and “Pony”) (Fallon, 2014), and soon other online communities formed, including PonyChan (http://www.ponychan.net/chan/), BronySquare (http://brony.squares.im/), and Everfree Network (http://everfree.net/) (LittleShy, 2014).
The Bronies present themselves online as a community with an established culture. According to the website What is a Brony? (2014):
A brony is a fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that is outside the target demographic of little girls. Most bronies are friendly teenagers and young adults that simply aren’t afraid to admit to enjoying a show that is innocent, colorful, and funny….. Bronies are known for their creative works. Art, music, animation, and fan fictions are just a few things that bronies create based around their favorite characters, or original characters that they create themselves.
Online, Bronies create user personas based on the naming conventions of My Little Pony characters, with names such as “LittleShy,” “CyberSpark,” and “RainbowDash” (LittleShy, 2014). Brony community content ranges from the innocent to the pornographic, and community forums often contain warnings for parents of young Bronies and/or My Little Pony fans (LittleShy, 2014). While Bronies have anonymous online identities, not all community members remain anonymous—Bronies regularly meet in person at “PonyCons,” fan conventions held around the world. Much in the vein of comic book and sci-fi/fantasy fan conventions, Bronies often attend PonyCons in costume.
Brony culture exists and grows, in part, as a response to those outside the community. In the early days of the Brony forum on 4chan, My Little Pony show producers became concerned for the safety of child viewers, and investigated the Brony community. However, producers determined that these fans were indeed fans of the program, and now work with Brony fans in the production of web-based material, even appearing at PonyCon events (Fallon, 2014). Bronies have been the subject of news articles, and a documentary film, A Brony Tale (2014). Additionally, Bronies have been parodied in the animated show Bob’s Burgers, with an entire episode dedicated to “Equesticles,” male fans of the fictionalized animated series “The Equestranauts” (Mintz & Dillihay, 2014). A popular viral video spoofing the show Game of Thrones, Game of Ponies (adecoy95, 2012), started as Brony-generated content and spread to a more mainstream audience. In both news articles and parody, certain questions are raised about Bronies, as illustrated in this article in The Daily Beast:
These adult men call themselves Bronies. And they’re not what you think. They’re not overly effeminate. Many aren’t gay. They aren’t predatory, or even being ironic. They are just guys. Dudes. Dudes who like My Little Pony.” (Fallon, 2014).
Brony websites are transparent about these issues, and often poke fun at these outside questions/criticisms of the community. Many Brony sites include a visual of a My Little Pony character with the phrase: “You watch a show for little girls?” (LittleShy, 2014, Everfree Network, 2014). The Bronies embrace the reaction of those outside the community and use it as another element of community identity.
The Brony community exists as a result of digital symbiosis and the unique attributes of communication in social media platforms. The anonymity of the 4chan community allowed male fans of a cartoon made for little girls to interact entirely as anonymous projected identities. The platform gave these individual identities a means to come together based on a shared interest and form a collective identity. The collective identity of the Bronies was strengthen the changing nature of the categories of film/television medium (McNeill, 2013, p. 83). The convergence of television and the Internet allowed for these community members to share the source material, the My Little Pony series episodes, with those beyond who might not have direct access to a small, cable channel. Additionally, access to the tools of media production allowed the Bronies to create their own art, film, and music and to publish it through the platforms of their online communities. As a result, the individual and projected identities of Bronies became that of both consumers and producers of media content.
Digital symbiosis appears to have worked in “reverse” with the Bronies. Brony identity existed entirely as online encounter-events in the early stages. There was no “real” world manifestation of a Brony—Bronies were fans who posted art inspired by the show. However, at some point, the online projected identity of Brony merged with offline identities of community members to the point where Brony became an offline identity as well. When Bronies decided to meet in-person, in public at conventions, Brony identity moved beyond virtual to being an in-person projected identity. For the members of the Brony community, the virtual is now represented in “physical real-space” (McNeill, 2013, p. 93), bytes have become flesh, and “lived life … [is] an authentic life projection” (p. 93), lived both online and in the real world.
4chan. (2014). In 4chan. Retrieved from http://www.4chan.org/
adecoy95 [Screen name]. (2012, March 29). Game of ponies [intro] [Video file]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMqz_vc22_g
Mintz, D. (Writer), & Dillihay, T. (Director) (2014, April 13). The Equestranauts [Television series epidsode]. In J. Schroeder (Producer), Bob’s Burgers. Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox Television.
Everfree Network. (2014). In Everfree Network. Retrieved from http://everfree.net/
Fallon, K. (2014, May 1). Inside the bizzare world of ‘Bronies,’ adult male fans of ‘My Little Pony’. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/01/inside-the-bizarre-world-of-bronies-adult-male-fans-of-my-little-pony.html
LittleShy [Screen name]. (2014). What is a Brony? Retrieved from http://whatisabrony.com/
McNeill, J. (2013). Concepts in new media: Online communication, culture, and community. Boston, MA: Pearson Learning Solutions.