LEGO Fandom, Cyber Feudalism, and Convergence Culture in

Curator's Note

The LEGO Group (TLG) experiences unparalleled market growth in recent years partly due to recession-crippled retail chains like K*B toys and the meteoric rises in attention to (formerly) niche spaces within the culture industry. Combine generational nostalgic interest in LEGO’s ambiguously creative and thus less alienating commodity with TLG’s license-heavy sellout centrifuge with fandom-focused properties like Star Wars, Hollywood tent poles series (Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, etc.) and now transmedia comic properties like Marvel and DC [these two “always already” competing rivals for market space]. Such an unprecedented cultural-capital boon generates cross-branding fan interest amidst the company’s breakthrough success in Warner Bros. meta-contradictory blockbuster The LEGO Movie.

Prior to such loftly market conquests, TLG produces cultish followings that mirror the communal, interactive, and playful spirits of first wave fan studies (Gray, Sandvoss, & Harrington, Fandom (2007)). posits a unique fan site that specializes in LEGO’s “classic” sub-category, Castle. But while the site operates independently, forum users are intensely policed when it comes to posting or even gossiping about early photos of sets or getting off topic beyond Castle-centric topic threads. This kind of “cyber freedom” echoes feudalism in a medieval-historical sense and issues of hierarchy in a theoretical-Kenneth Burkean sense (talk about "symbol-using and symbol-used.").

Despite these limitations, Classic-Castle benefits creatively from nonlinear convergence technologies that allow geographically and temporally dispersed LEGO Castle fans to generate and share interests and information through a number of convenient social media avenues. Hyperlinks accompany posts and connect alternative LEGO-focused websites like Eurobricks or BrickLink where forums and auctions allow fans to expand and negotiate their literal/figurative LEGO caches. Joe Meno, editor of LEGO fanzine BrickJournal pinpoints commercially how, "The adult Lego users have been a steadily growing group since the late-1990s, with the internet playing a major role" (see Biachtal & Meno, The Cult of Lego (2011)). Adult fans embed original photos and videos using off-site album accounts to avoid crashing Classic-Castle’s server. What transpires in C-C's online forum is a kind of LEGO Master Builder mimesis that simulates physical medieval role-play, showcases exhaustive creative labor that usurps LEGO's own models in size and scale, but also communicates an expense-heavy endorsement of LEGO collectivity where time (physical labor), money (political economy), and creativity (“Play Well” as LEGO’s slogan goes) "freely" promote further consumption.


Thanks for a fascinating post on LEGO fan communities, Garret. I don't know much about these highly specialized LEGO subgroups, so I was wondering if you could expand on a couple of things. Do groups like Classic-Castle work to differentiate themselves from more recently-developed fan communities? In other words, do they make claims to be "more real fans" than the pop culture nostalgia-based fandom of the "Hollywood" LEGO sets (STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS, etc.)? Does this feudal structure, as you put it, function as a type of gate keeping to keep out other groups of LEGO fans?

Drew, thank you for your inquisitive extensions that really open up key ideas that drew me to the sub-category topic and Classic-Castle website. I would not contend that the heavy users of Classic-Castle's forum work to differentiate themselves from other fan groups as much as they labor toward complete Castle-related immersion within the confines of this particular website. The board creates "rules" that almost suggest a kind of 'staying in character' dictum for users. In this way, the fandom remains relatively centered. That said, users (serfs?) appear more than welcome to comply by creating Castle-LEGO inspired avatars, staying within guidelines in discussion threads, and contributing to the growing number of forum-hosted "competitions" for original LEGO creations (always related to pre-determined medieval/fantasy/Castle themes). Based upon C-C observations that date back to 2008, I would not suggest users are in "competition" for fan legitimacy so much as they revel in the communal online experience. As for LEGO's foray into brand merchandizing, only themes that come close to Castle receive sanctioned discussion (again, users best abide by the King's law). In addition, whenever the Castle theme cycles into a dormant phase (after a three-year cycle or so with each new Castle line), something must fill the "new" void. As a result, there is a lot of traffic generated around reactions, reviews, and critiques of LEGO's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sets. There are interesting trends that I've observed in how users collectively accept/reject certain product lines or individual sets. With many users often following the lead set by high posters or mods (lords?), which is a typical trend on forums. I generate the impression of fandom feudalism that could also be read as a "hive mind" mentality at times. To this degree, C-C constitutes a kind of cyber fortress, a mediated medieval stronghold where anyone is welcomed and long as they speak the [LEGO] King's English. In this way, the lords of Classic-Castle definitely serve as discourse gatekeepers through methods that inevitably communicate endorsement of LEGO and thus protect the brand legacy as a kind of sacred relic.

Garret, I'm glad that Drew asked you to expand. I find it particularly interesting that the group finds other related topics to discuss between releases. I would think that many communities would fall apart over a long period of inactivity. Very impressive. Thanks for sharing!

Catherine, it's great to read your feedback and see how our discussion gains momentum (not unlike those policed at Classic-Castle). I would directly relate to Drew Ayers' curation from Wednesday in an effort to communicate what sustains LEGO Castle momentum on the C-C forums. There is a quantifiable combination of repetition, nostalgia (good stuff, Drew!) and what genre theorists identify as tensions between imitation and innovation. If you spend any time in their forums, most of the traffic breaks into a couple of areas: reviews of old/new Castle lines/sets (repetition + nostalgia) and original creations often inspired by familiar ideas (innovation + imitation). These combinations seem to yield the most popular results online and since the historical concept of "medieval" is always/already situated in a kind of timeless material past, the topic never worn for worse.

Truly fantastic post, Garret--and such nice symmetry between your name and object of study. Several things immediately stuck out to me in your post and response: 1) fan-made media is organized around a kind of hierarchy ultimately mediated by "discourse gatekeepers" or C-C hosts, 2) the website and forums act as a social space generating creativity but also acts as a recursive cultural system profitable to LEGO, and 3) users and uploaders of LEGO content act as a hive mind. In mentally juggling these three considerations, my first thought was what happens to all the content that doesn't quite make it through the official (and unofficial) filters? What happens to a user generated video like the one you curate--and which is so well done--turns to the shadier portions of European medieval warfare? Does C-C have a policy against LEGO depictions of pestilence, famine, rape, genocide, infanticide, etc? From my own anecdotal experiences playing with older cousins and friends, historical reenactments tend to turn horribly dark. User-generated content, especially on imageboards like 4chan and other social media sites often take these impulses to its extreme conclusion. Is there a space for subversive or perverse videos to exist or are they stricken from official participation? FInally, what is your response to C-C's gatekeeping policy?

Alan, you hit the nail on the head with your summarization of my critical inspection, and you steer this conversation into a vital direction bringing up suggestions [and limitations] of creative control. I note how C-C police their forum space quite consistently and correct conversations that veer off (Castle) topic. I do believe from observed experience that organizers promote a relatively "sanitary" website in coordinating with what we might situate as the ideology of LEGO. In other words, "tasteful violence" (if such a term exists) would be acceptable whereas uglier depictions that dance outside LEGO's homogenized values are excessive and discouraged. This is definitely a fine line that I believe the moderators deploy with equal parts subjectivity and adherence to a qualitative code of conduct. Like LEGO, C-C wants an inviting space for shared culture, particularly since users span from children to adults. Most significantly, direct brand association would lead to cease-and-desist orders if not lawsuits and website termination notices if the organizers allowed space for overtly offensive materials. Thus, there is a clear risk factor at play [and a 'burning at the stake' pun somewhere not far behind] that forms an additional unofficial layer of hierarchical policing from The LEGO Group. Following this line of thought, I argue that riding the fine line between dark medieval representations and the sanitized world of LEGO constitutes one of the unnamed goals that motivates original content among users. And fine line toggling once again reinforces a quality that 'always already' exists. In fact, its the modus operandi that LEGO Castle suggests with each new series of sets. There is a space for extreme and perverse LEGO creation and manipulation, but it is not on this website. More tolerant sites like Deviant Art (if "tolerant" is the right word choice?) allot freedoms for such visual expression. But I personally find it both appropriate and welcoming that C-C abstains from this slippery slope.

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