Dealing with Episode VII Rumors as a Star Wars Fansite - By Eric Geller

I don’t think there has ever been a crazier time to be a Star Wars fan.

I wasn’t alive in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Star Wars first hit the scene, but I’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories, and by all accounts, it was a crazy time. Massive crowds at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. R2-D2 being mobbed by fans requesting a photo with him. Mark Hamill becoming a global celebrity seemingly overnight. Wild theories about Luke Skywalker’s true parentage spinning out of control until suddenly Boba Fett was Luke’s mother.

I don’t remember much about the early-2000s craze surrounding the prequel trilogy. I saw my first Star Wars movie in 2003, but I didn’t jump into the online fan community until 2005. By that time, the whirlwind of rumors and speculation was losing steam. As midnight showings of Revenge of the Sith let out, fans like me were left wondering what new Star Wars stories would occupy our time and energy now that the movies were over.

And then, seven years later, seemingly out of nowhere, we learned that the movies weren’t over.

By the time the big news hit on October 30, 2012, I had been heavily active in the community for around four and a half years. (I became TheForce.Net’s Social Media Director in early May 2009.) In all that time, I had never seen anything like what happened to my Twitter feed on that day beginning around 3:57 p.m. ET. Before many people had even processed what had happened, fans were speculating about whether Chewbacca would be alive in Episode VII, whether Mara Jade would still be a redhead, and whether we would see Jacen turn to the dark side in the first sequel trilogy or in Episode X.

In the fifteen months since Disney bought Lucasfilm, speculation has turned into rumors. I keep a spreadsheet that tracks every one of those rumors, and I’ll occasionally read through it to remind myself of what unbridled excitement and imagination are capable of producing. Ian McDiarmid will supposedly play a Force ghost of Palpatine in Episode VII. Florence Welch of the rock band Florence + the Machine is in talks to play a lead role. The producers are looking for a young woman of mixed race to play Obi-Wan Kenobi’s daughter or granddaughter. And so on and so forth.

As a writer for what I would like to think of as a major Star Wars news site and the co-host of an affiliated podcast, I get lots of emails from readers pointing me to rumors like these. I read all of them, and I post almost all of them, too. My decisions about what to post reflect my understanding of the Star Wars fan community and the proper place of sites like TFN within it. In keeping with Far, Far Away Radio’s mission, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss my relationship with Star Wars film rumors.

With new movies on the horizon, the staff of TheForce.Net have had to consider what our role should be. We’ve always posted news and rumors about the films; back in the heady prequel days, we also posted a leaked trailer that Lucasfilm asked us to take down. But now that the media environment is even more democratized than it was in the early 2000s, anyone can start a blog, attract a following on Twitter, and anyone can start a rumor. Furthermore, now that expanded access to the Internet has connected more people from disparate countries, backgrounds, and professions, more amateur bloggers are connected to people with inside information. Given all of that, how should a site like TFN –– and the people who write for it –– approach the sequel era?

My view of TFN’s role is that we are a journal of record. That sounds pretentious, I know, but thinking about our site as a source of historical documentation for Internet archeologists helps me answer a recurring question: Is this worth posting? When I’m deciding whether or not a rumor is worth posting, I start by taking the pulse of the fan community. Are people talking about this rumor? Are they arguing about it? Are they enhancing it with their own context? Put more generally, do people care? If the answer is yes, then I generally post the rumor.

When I look back on this exciting time in five or ten years, I want to be able to go to TFN and feel confident that I’m getting a complete picture of what we were debating, dissecting, and second-guessing at the time. A good portion of the rumors we post will turn out to be false, either because they were never true or because something changed in between when the rumor appeared and when we were able to judge its accuracy. I don’t think this is a problem. The things we got wrong can be just as instructive as the things we got right, and an accurate historical record must include our misguided adventures into rumor-land in addition to the press releases from Lucasfilm.

Some people argue that sites like TFN give rumor-mongers too much credibility by giving their claim a wide audience. These critics suggest that the fan community is worse off when anonymous sources peddling tenuous gossip are confident that we’ll pick up their reports, because the resulting tidal wave of rumors whips people into a pointless frenzy. I am not very sympathetic to this argument. Most of us are competent and rational adults, capable of sorting and evaluating these rumors and deciding what we think of them. If a rumor strikes us as ludicrous, we discount it. If a rumor gets us thinking, we can write blog posts about how it might be true. For the most part, the fan community is composed of people who are intellectually capable of sorting through the mess of rumors without losing perspective. This is the audience I’m writing for when I post a rumor on TFN.

Another reason I write about rumors is that they can be fun. I usually post them without much editorializing, but occasionally I’ll add my own thoughts and analysis. I often do this when I see a way for the rumor to connect to something we already know to be true, which in my mind bolsters the rumor’s credibility. One of the roles I see for TFN and its writers is providing context to the daily churn of speculation. While we obviously don’t have the full story, we can try to demystify certain things by casting them in a certain light. We can make rational guesses while trying not to stray too far from what it is reasonable to expect.

I don’t think it is too lofty to draw a parallel between sites like TFN and the business of mainstream journalism. While the stakes are substantially lower in our little slice of the entertainment world than in the political sphere of a democratic country, we still share many characteristics with the broader news environment that professional journalists serve. On the most basic level, we Star Wars fans, like all democratic citizens, have discussions with incomplete sets of facts, where certain truths are kept secret and certain narratives have to be assembled by people with the right experience and intuition.

As we edge closer to December 18, 2015, and the resolution of so many ongoing rumors that it will bring, TFN will keep posting rumors and fans will keep discussing them. I’ll continue to have fun as part of the fan community while applying whatever experience and intuition I possess to the process of demystifying and contextualizing Star Wars speculation. Meanwhile, regardless of what I or anyone else does, the rumor mill will keep churning. I’m okay with that. While there has never been a crazier time to be a Star Wars fan, there has never been a more exciting time to be one, either.

Eric Geller is the social media director for TheForce.Net and the co-host of The ForceCast. He is also a contributor to The Official Star Wars Blog and Suvudu.