The news that "Sonic the Hedgehog" had to undergo a substantial CGI redesign after its core audience panned it in the trailers inevitably has reminded me of the fate of the movie version of "Cats," which also had to go back to the digital drawing board in the wake of a disastrous YouTube premier. But while it appears that the humanoid hedgehog's re-vamp has been more successful than that of the fluffy felines, the semiotic significance of the viewer-compelled re-workings of these two movies is very much worth exploring.
I'd like to begin that exploration with Jean Baudrillard's thesis that in the age of the "sign" (his term for postmodern capitalism), signification is a one-way street, with corporate elites broadcasting their signals (which include everything from billboards to feature-length movies) to a passively receptive audience whose only possible resistance (and a futile one of that) is to vandalize the signal (Baudrillard's example is scrawling a mustache on the "Mona Lisa"). While I've never been a fan of Baudrillard's often unsupported pronouncements, his fundamental point about the top-down vectors of the mass media is a valid one (more or less)—or was when he formulated it. But the fully interactive Internet, with the accompanying rise of social media to worldwide eminence, has changed all that. For now, the mass media aren't one-way streets at all: they are multi-lane superhighways on which the signals are flying in every direction. The medium is no longer the massage (yes, that was McLuhan's actual phrase); it's a democratic free-for-all.
That's probably the fundamental takeaway from the "Sonic/Cats" fiascos, but there is a second, rather less inspiring, signification to consider. For the often vitriolic piling-on evident during such eruptions of fan outrage is all-too-reminiscent of social media "shaming" campaigns, of online bullying and "cancel culture." Certainly the slings and arrows of outrageous Twitter attacks are not going to do any real harm to the well-heeled captains of the entertainment industry (just look at the way that the creators and cast of "Game of Thrones" essentially shrugged off fan demand for a major reset of the blockbuster series' final season), but there appears to be something habit forming in the generation of social media mobs. Denouncing movies is, in the larger scheme of things, pretty trivial stuff, but the online trials and executions of offending films have to be taken in the context of the vastly more serious campaigns undertaken against vulnerable individuals, who can very definitely be harmed by such outbursts (consider, for example, the recent case of Gayle King).
So, as is so often the case with the new media, we are looking at a mixed message here, one that combines a populist liberation of the masses from corporate (and other forms of elite) control, with a dark vision of mob rule. And that's no trifle.