There’s being a fan of something and there’s being in its fandom. Being in the fandom of any particular property means a person identifies with their love for that thing and seeks out a community of others who love what they love. Fandom is engaging with fanfiction, coming up with headcanons, and fancasting characters for adaptations that might never exist. Fandom’s homeland is Tumblr.
Tumblr blogs are a social media Swiss army knife that allow users to post text, images, video, links, and gifs individually or combined in posts that at this point have covered the entirety of the human experience and then some. That versatility, combined with the ability to tag posts for searching, lends itself to fostering online fandom in all of its multimedia glory. Tag searching the top posts about Leigh Bardugo’s book Shadow and Bone a year ago would have pulled up thousands of entries ranging from roleplaying blogs to detailed fanart, but searching it today pulls up thousands more about Shadow and Bone — the Netflix series.
Shadow and Bone and Bardugo’s associated Grishaverse series of books have been Tumblr mainstays for years, and when it comes to TV or film adaptations of fan favorite properties, playing with fandom often means playing with fire. Netflix has a decent track record when it comes to adapting books as original series (see The Witcher and The Queen’s Gambit), but Shadow and Bone has lived for so long in the minds of its fans that anyone creating a new “definitive” version had to tread lightly.
Good news for fandom: Shadow and Bone whips! Even though the first season deviates from Bardugo’s novel in a few key ways and incorporates characters from another Grishaverse book series entirely, the changes added up to a final product that made fans happy. As of writing, Shadow and Bone holds a 94% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is 9% higher than the critical score of 85% and speaks to the average fan’s opinion of the adaptation. Nailing a universe that millions of readers have envisioned on their own is no easy feat, and Tumblr’s data shows that the Grishaverse fandom was primed to pay attention to every detail.
Tumblr provided Mashable with data regarding the Grishaverse fandom’s anticipation for the series to supplement a conversation with Cates Holderness, Tumblr’s Community and Trend Curator. According to Holderness and Tumblr’s own fandometrics, Leigh Bardugo as an author has appeared on Tumblr’s end of year roundups of the most tagged authors (she was #15 in 2019 and #24 in 2020) and Six of Crows, the more recent Grishaverse book that is incorporated into Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, has been one of the top ten most tagged books for years (#7 in 2019 and #10 in 2020). However, the past few months have seen a palpable change in tags and searches for Shadow and Bone–related tags that point to a sea change in Tumblr’s hype for the series.
“From what we’ve seen over the weekend, users are just thrilled. The Tumblr community could not be happier, loves the casting, all of the stars.”
“The fandom was primed, people love these books,” Holderness said, “and we’ve seen a steady increase in engagement and interest and outpouring of excitement from the Tumblr community over the last six months, ever since the casting was announced.”
That interest is quantifiable by seeing how drastically the numbers have jumped every month leading up to Shadow and Bone‘s premiere. From February 2021 to March 2021, people’s interactions with the Shadow and Bone tag increased by 594%, and from March leading up to the show’s premiere at the end of April they rose again by 141%. Similarly, the tag for Alina Starkov, Shadow and Bone‘s protagonist, jumped 706% from February to March and another 140% leading up to the premiere.
After Shadow and Bone premiered on April 24, Tumblr responded to the tune of a 315% increase in posts using the Shadow and Bone tag (and not everyone tags their posts) from the days before to the day after the show dropped on Netflix. Holderness interprets those increases, as well as massive jumps in tags and searches for the actors in the series, as the fandom’s seal of approval: “From what we’ve seen over the weekend, users are just thrilled. The Tumblr community could not be happier, loves the casting, all of the stars.”
On the topic of casting, one specific actor in Shadow and Bone is a Tumblr favorite whose role is a literal dream come true. Ben Barnes, the 39-year-old British actor who plays General Kirigan/The Darkling, has been Tumblr’s go-to fancast for…pretty much every dark-haired YA hottie for close to a decade. He’s perhaps best known in fandom for being a common choice for fancasting Sirius Black from Harry Potter, but users have absolutely imagined him as The Darkling for years as well. The fact that Shadow and Bone had the gumption to actually cast the lad was a great choice that feels like a secret handshake to Tumblr in particular.
For what it’s worth, Shadow and Bone‘s creator Eric Heisserer told Polygon that he wasn’t aware of Barnes’ fancasting when he first considered him for the role, but both Leigh Bardugo and Ben Barnes showed Heisserer a post Bardugo had reblogged on her personal Tumblr seven years ago in which Ben Barnes was fancast as the Darkling. So even if it only moved the needle a little bit, Tumblr did its part to make Barnes their villain.
Giving Tumblr what it wants may have contributed to the statistical leap in the “Darklina” tag (that ship name signifies the romance between the Darkling and Alina), considering Darklina skyrocketed to the number two slot in Tumblr’s fandometrics list of tagged ships the weekend after Shadow and Bone‘s premiere.
Gaining Tumblr’s loyalty is a win for any property because of the site’s association with online fandom and the enthusiasm of its users, which skew younger than most social media platforms especially as it continues to grow (48% of current users are Gen Z and 60% of new users are Gen Z as well). Another reason is the sheer depth of its fandom post history, which is easily searchable and structured so a single reblog can resurrect any post at any time. According to Holderness, that depth is what makes Tumblr a great home for fandom.
“One of the wonderful things about Tumblr is that unlike other social media platforms, there is a long tail and there is sustained interest in the things that the community is passionate about,” she said. “So it doesn’t matter if it’s an older property. You know, we saw Shrek was the number one movie last week because it was an anniversary of its release date. So it truly does not matter what or when the content is produced.”
In a social media environment where Twitter memes are created and done to death in the same day and staying current is the key to success on other platforms, Tumblr stands as a place where fandom is both constant and ever growing. In response to a question about why Tumblr fandom is so strong, Holderness explained that it’s “a community driven website. We talk about the Tumblr users or Tumblr as a whole, but it truly is made up of countless micro communities…you can find like minded people who are passionate about the things that you’re passionate about, and they’re producing so much content, and then you can interact with that in a meaningful way.”
Not everyone who enjoys a TV show or movie considers themselves part of the fandom, but everyone who participates in fandom enjoys the hell out of their entertainment. Shadow and Bone‘s success on the platform is a perfect storm of historical fan interest, good artistic choices, and — let’s be real — Ben Barnes, and it’s reaping the rewards that come from putting fandom first.