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NBC's Community and Cancellation: It's Personal

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NBC's Community is loved by a passionate cult of fan who tweet #sixseasonsandamovie and dare to propose that the show is a post-modern masterpiece. But despite the intense fandom, the show has been dismissed by both the low-brow public and largely by the high-brow Emmy Awards, and has forever been teetering on the edge of cancellation, likely to end as a half season this year. So why do Community fans have such zeal when America in general simply shrugs off the Greendale Seven?

One possibility is that this is just another case of "reactance" -- the fundamental human tendency to defend and inflate the value of an item a person likes (e.g. a TV show) when other people threaten to take it away. If so, then we've seen this countless times before with shows like Roswell, The Cape, and The Tick.

However, with Community the fandom seems almost deeper and more personal. Community may not be just another show people like, but also a show they identify with. The niche humor, meta-post-modern philosophy, characters, actors, and continuous references to things nerds love (e.g. Firefly) may lead fans to feel an overlap between their own identity and Community.

Fans of Community may regularly watch other shows like Modern Family. Yet if Modern Family were to be cancelled, viewers might be sad but nothing more. If Community were to be cancelled the viewers might feel personally insulted. Community being cancelled is like the world saying to Community fans "We don't like your style of humor, social commentary, and all those nerdy shows that Abed keeps referencing. In short, we don't like you."

Research shows the people who most fiercely defend the content they use or watch are the people who identify most with the content. It's not just whether someone watches or uses some content that determines passionate defense, it's when someone feels their identity is wrapped up in the content. This is especially true for insecure people, and nerds tend to be a little insecure and often defensive of their content (I would know, I am one of them).

Many Community fans may feel their identities are wrapped up in the characters, cast, and episodic plots. Nerds may see themselves in the socially awkward Abed character. Aspiring comics may see themselves in the off-beat actor-musician-writer-comic Donald Glover. Female comics may see themselves in and appreciate Gillian Jacobs' ability to break with tradition and play both hot girl and sophisticated comic. And the "First Lady of Nerdist" Alison Brie may earn the respect, love, and even lust of the viewers. Furthermore, every reference on the show may feel like an inside joke specifically aimed at the audience members who can keep up. And Community's ability to strongly include fans and recruit them to defend the show may only solidify this "ingroup identification." Viewing Community may make nerdy viewers feel like they are part of a special nerd community.

So, if you are not part of this nerd community and you are wondering why people care so much about a seemingly silly show: know that these nerds care because it's not just a show, it's their show, it's their desires, personalities, and nerdiness reflected back at them. When you dismiss Community you dismiss them and that can hurt. And your dismissal only fuels their desire to reaffirm the show's merits even more.

However, your dismissal may also do some good. When outsiders don't "get it," it allows Community fans to experience the psychological phenomena of "optimal distinctiveness" and intellectual "downward social comparison" or to use After Hour's simple explanation, it makes fans feel like "elitist cultural snobs out of touch with the common man"--in a good way. It makes Community fans feel that their tastes may be "ahead of the curve." So while Community fans wish you liked the show, they may also be happy you don't, because it bolsters their nerd identities.

This is important because the nerd identity is more threatened today than ever before. Nerds are facing a modern dilemma: over the last decade many of the things that use to set nerds apart (e.g. comic books and sci-fi) are now embraced by the least nerdy people. Community may be a place where nerds can come together and joyfully feel oppressed by society again.

In sum, there's a lot of psychology behind why Community fans love their meta, self-aware show. It thus seems only fitting that the fans should be (and most likely already are to some degree) self-aware about where their own love is coming from. It wouldn't stop Abed from liking the show, and it won't stop Community fans either. #sixseasonsandamovie

P.S. As a psychological researcher, I feel I just need to note something to Community fans. Britta's character is a terrible psychologist, don't trust anything she says. Most of the things she says are dead wrong. Seriously, she's the worst.