When I was younger, I used to be a huge fan of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise.
I played the original games to death on the Sonic Mega Collection for the Nintendo Gamecube, I saved up for a Sega Genesis and Sega Dreamcast in middle school, I watched all the fan-made Sonic Shorts compilations, and I still have the lyrics to this song memorized by heart to this day:
I quoted this song while playing Mario Kart with a ministry I helped run and then everyone started singing along. (Video by DeoxysPrime)
Around the time my childhood obsession with Sonic the Hedgehog peaked, “viral media” was a popular metaphor to describe videos and memes that seemed to skyrocket in popularity overnight.
However, Henry Jenkins, Joshua Benjamin Green, and Sam Ford of New York University argue in their 2013 book Spreadable Media that the viral metaphor is problematic.
They said this because it depicts people as “duped into passing a hidden agenda while circulating compelling content ” (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 16–20); in other words, popular web media hijacks users into passively sharing it.
To clarify how popular media on the internet truly works, Jenkins and his fellow authors propose that spreadable media should be used as a better metaphor instead since spreading is a more active metaphor that needs a wider community instead of a virus and its host (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 21).
That leads us back to Sonic the Hedgehog. While my interest in the franchise has faded over time, in some ways it has not due to one aspect: the interesting fan base that it has.
Many mock the Sonic fandom because there are many people within the fandom who create off-putting fan art or become devastated if minor details about the character are changed in a new iteration of the franchise (as well as the unstable quality of the franchise’s games over the past several years).
However, these individuals are only a fraction of the fan base. Much of the fandom is actually made up of creative and well-informed individuals sharing their opinions and knowledge of the franchise.
The fandom of Sonic the Hedgehog is well-known for constantly redefining the value of older media from the franchise. This makes them a significant example of how spreadable media is a better metaphor for popular online content than viral media.
The Sonic the Hedgehog fandom is a highly diverse and storied one, so this post will only cover the search for the lost Sonic statue and fan hacking communities.
The Hidden Sonic Statue in the Mountains
One of the most notable traits of the Sonic fandom is how it searches for lost media and landmarks so it can frame their place in the history of the franchise.
These pieces of lost media could be considered residual media by the company that created them (Sega), media that “may have lost much of its economic value and cultural centrality but still carries enormous sentimental value for some enthusiasts” (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 85–86). Spreadable Media argues that residual media is the bedrock of many online communities because of this.
From the discovery of lost songs to dumping ROMs of obscure Sonic the Hedgehog children’s car rides as documented on Sonic Retro, Sonic fans have created an online gift economy based on reappraising residual media.
Gift economies are described in Spreadable Media as ones where “digital goods can be shared under a variety of contexts simultaneously, and access to the item can be sold or offered as a gift without the content ever leaving one’s possession” (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 90–91) and are common in fandoms.
Instead of accepting whatever Sonic media Sega gives them without thinking about it, the Sonic fandom constantly reappraises the historical and cultural value of everything from the franchise and spread their appraisals of anything they have discovered to support its preservation.
Case and point: the case of the mysterious Sonic statue in Japan’s Mie prefecture mountains.
Fun fact: Sonic rode a snowboard in Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s Ice Cap Zone. Also, Ice Cap Zone’s theme is almost a 1:1 16-bit remix of the Jetzon’s “Hard Times” (Information and video from Badnik Mechanic)
As explained in this video by Badnik Mechanic, many members of the Sonic community looked at a forgotten piece of Sonic’s history and formed a group of gatekeepers to prevent people from vandalizing the statue.
This is reminiscent of Spreadable Media’s gift economy argument and how the book says that people akin to Badnik Mechanic share content communally “because they have access to something that they think others may find valuable and that might fuel personal or community exchange” (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 93).
None of the fans involved were taken hostage and forced to do this after finding the statue in a biker’s video in 2015 like the viral media metaphor would suggest. British YouTuber Badnik Mechanic and others chose to reappraise a statue from Sega World Kodama they saw in the background of a video filmed thousands of miles away by a cyclist as a piece of history worth saving.
The Sonic fandom’s attempts to save the Sonic statue are better described as spreadable media because they thought about what the residual artifact meant to their community and then chose to act on it. If this was not the case, they would have just acknowledged there was a Sonic statue in the biker’s video and left it alone.
The community eventually found out who owned the statue and Sega reached out to the people who own it. Badnik Mechanic made several update videos on that and if you are interested in this sort of content, I highly recommend you subscribe to him. He’s made tons of in-depth videos on the history of defunct Sega arcades, Sonic events, and of course, Sonic statues.
Sonic Fan Hacking Community
Arguably the most significant part of the Sonic fandom’s culture of reappraisal are the fan hackers who take code from older Sonic games and modify them to create new experiences that re-contextualize their mechanics and settings.
In the early-to-mid 2000’s, it was a common sentiment that fans of the original 2D Sonic games (including the fan hackers) saw themselves as what Spreadable Media would call a surplus audience, people outside of Sega’s target demographic for these games and thus were not a priority to please (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 113–114).
Spreadable Media argues that piracy such as that which takes place in the Sonic fan hacking community results from market failures akin to a lack of 2D classic style Sonic games that are exacerbated by companies akin to Sega who might not understand who their main engaged audience is (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 117–119).
A debate Jenkins and his fellow authors wrestle with in the book is whether the free labor of fans is either taken advantage by companies profiting off of imitating popular spreadable media made by fans or if this benefits fandoms (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 175–176).
With Sonic fan hackers, both the fan community and Sega benefit from learning and making money from each other.
Most notably, venerated Sonic fan hacker Christian Whitehead got hired by Sega to help port Sonic CD after he tweeted them a prototype of a Sonic CD port running on an iPhone that used his custom RETRO engine according to DidYouKnowGaming?.
The port was eventually released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and smartphones in 2011. After this, DidYouKnowGaming? says that Sega then had him port Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2 with another fan hacker (Headcannon) shortly after the success of the Sonic CD port. I have played these ports myself and many of them include extra features that reference the series past to reward loyal fans.
For example, the Sonic CD port includes both the American and the (in my opinion, superior) Japanese soundtracks for the game. The Sonic the Hedgehog 2 port even includes a redesigned missing level from the game (Hidden Palace Zone) that Sonic Retro says was notorious for how broadly publicized it was despite not making it into the final game.
Whitehhead then pitched a new 2D Sonic game in the style of the 16-bit games for the 25th anniversary of the franchise along with Headcannon and PagodaWest Games (a company made by two fans who had ran the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog 2 HD fan project) to Sonic Team studio head Takashi Iizuka according to DidYouKnowGaming?.
That game turned out to be Sonic Mania, a game that news outlets similar to Kotaku have praised the title as the best Sonic game in years. From my experience playing it, the game takes the fan service from the ports the fan hackers had previously worked on and took it quite further.
I remember being amazed when Sonic Mania’s Studiopolis Zone had sections where you got launched out of an obscure Sonic popcorn machine that fans rediscovered years ago.
I was also thrilled when Sega announced that Ray the Flying Squirrel and Mighty the Armadillo (the former not appearing in a game since 1993’s SegaSonic the Hedgehog and the latter not being seen since 1995’s Knuckles Chaotix) would be added in as extra content in the 2018 expansion Sonic Mania Plus.
With this in mind, both Sonic Mania and the ports can be compared to the example of the residual economy of retro fan’s influence on media companies in Spreadable Media where the WWE where the wrestling league decided to make more wrestling matches available and mostly allowing the spreading of fans’ videos after seeing how popular trading tapes was among them (Jenkins et al, 2013, p. 105-111).
In that scenario, Jenkins and his fellow authors argue that the retro fan’s taping habits, though concerning to the league at first, were eventually rewarded by the league with special re-releases of older matches that mad these matches easier to watch and reappraised them as “classics”; this fits the meaning of spreadable media in how a large community formed to spread favorite matches among themselves (Jenkins er al, 2013, p. 110–111).
With the Sonic Fan Hacking community, Sega rewarded Sonic fans’ dedication in a similar way by letting experienced fan hackers port Sonic games while making new ones packed with Easter eggs for fans who had payed attention to the Sonic franchise for years.
There is no way that one can unintentionally make a game, especially with the games being deliberately designed to reward the consumption of residual Sonic the Hedgehog media, thus spreadable media is the only accurate metaphor for the Sonic fan hacking community.
Overall, spreadable media is a more accurate metaphor for how contemporary online media is shared and becomes popular than viral media ever was not just because it gives users agency over how the analyze media and choose what to spread, but also because it reflects the reality that the internet runs on communities.
As the Sonic the Hedgehog fandom demonstrates, no media can spread unless there are people constantly assessing its value and thinking about the impact it can have on the community.
For as infamous as the community can be at times, it has been able to do a lot of great things because the internet gave Sonic fans a space to connect with anyone in the world about anything to do with one of their favorite game franchises. Infection metaphors could never do that justice.