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5 Things I Learned Studying Fandom

By Elizabeth Minkel, co-host of Fansplaining, and writer on fan culture for New Statesman, The Millions, The Guardian, and The New Yorker.

By Pat Loika (Comic-Con 2013) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At parties, I start by telling people I’m a writer, or an editor, or that I work in media. Inevitably this leads to what I write about — and that’s where the conversation really begins. “Fan culture,” I tell them, as they squint in confusion. “I write about fandom.”

“Fandom” is a big, messy catch-all term that encompasses all sorts of ways of engaging with the world. There are mainstream perceptions, of course, and broad definitions — groups of people, brought together by shared passions. But even within fan communities, the next person on your Tumblr dashboard might have wildly different ideas about “fandom” — from who fans are, to what they do, to whether they define it as a singular, collective noun.

Telling people you study fandom is a bit of a Rorschach test — the conversation that follows often reveals a lot more about the person I’m speaking with than about me. I learn how they define the boundaries of the term, and whether they feel that they fall inside or outside those boundaries. Rarely do I actually get to talk about my own boundaries — I’m too busy disabusing assumptions (“…no, that doesn’t mean that I write about vampires”) or prodding at rigid definitions (“It’s a whole lot more than guys on a forum who know every fact from a show”).

I was a fan long before I knew fandom. As a child, I got over-invested in fictional worlds, and spun stories about my favorite characters. When I got online as a teenager, I learned other people also wrote these stories, as well as plot theories, and angry rants about the things they loved. I came to understand “fandom” was an old concept — over half a century by our modern usage, though it’s been around for millennia if you think about the way humans have engaged with captivating narratives. I found a term for my stories about other peoples’ characters: fanfiction. Fandom was wonderful, but fanfiction was miraculous.

For more than a decade, my fannishness was a solitary practice: I was a longtime lurker, occupying the paradoxical space of being simultaneously within a community and without, before I finally started speaking up. I came to see fandom as patterns of behavior, not isolated emotional and intellectual responses to media. I was regularly blown away by the collective brilliance of fans. I also marveled at how quickly things could turn ugly, the way people tore apart those who liked a different thing, or liked the same thing the wrong way.

Five years ago I started writing about fandom publicly. I was already a journalist, covering books, and in 2012, book journalists were competing for the absolute worst take on 50 Shades of Grey, which had its origins in Twilight fanfiction. I was a fanfic expert by that point, determined by the sheer number of hours clocked: I’d been reading it, constantly, for close to 15 years. There were plenty of fans who’d read just as much, of course, but I decided to use my platform. I joined a handful of other journalists trying to force the media away from derision, and towards respectful coverage of fans.

The past half-decade has seen fandom go mainstream: fan practices are being exposed, mocked, celebrated, and wildly misunderstood. Movie studios and publishing houses are trying to understand fans; media organizations are hiring people to write about fandom, or to write about pop culture from a fannish perspective. Celebrities are talking to — and, sometimes, fighting with — their fans on social media.

Two years ago, I met my future podcast co-host, Flourish Klink, on a panel on fandom at San Diego Comic-Con. More than 50 episodes of Fansplaining later, my ideas about fandom — and how to talk about it with curious people at parties — have evolved a great deal. These ideas can (and will!) fill up another 50 episodes, but for now, here are a few of the biggest ones I spend time explaining to people outside fandom:

1) Being “in fandom” is about self-definition

Fandom is full of gatekeeping: drawing boundaries between “true fans” and “casual fans,” deriding women as “fake geek girls” for the way they engage with source material (often that’s just “the same way as you, but as a woman”), or self-imposed exile, saying things like, “I feel like I’m not a real fan because I can’t afford to attend that convention.” Even the most confident among us can falter — we’re not in fandom when we feel like we don’t love something enough.

In an early episode of “Fansplaining,” Flourish and I tried to tackle these boundaries. When I was writing fanfiction before I had access to the internet and learned it was a thing other people did, was I still part of fandom? If someone hates the source material but loves the worlds fans have created from it, are they a part of fandom, too? The episode got heated — we wound up fighting for a good portion, and I had to cut out half an hour in the editing process. In the end, we made a little matrix to map out where we situated ourselves.

The biggest takeaway from that episode was the idea that you are “in fandom” if you say you are — it’s as simple as that. Similarly, if you want to describe your affinity group, or the way you engage with something, as “fandom,” go forth. There are no benchmarks you have to hit — time engaged, money spent, facts acquired, number of feelings felt.

2) Fandom isn’t about what you love — it’s about how you love it

I love San Diego Comic-Con, a hilarious place where it feels like nothing matters. But as a fan, big cons like SDCC perpetually disappoint. It feels like four days of people saying, “You will love this new thing!” without understanding why I love any thing in the first place. Content creators (especially big studios) often present things without understanding that being a fan is about how you engage with the material as much as the material itself.

Somewhere along the way, “fandom” has been conflated with “geek” or “nerd” culture for a lot of people. Both are umbrella terms that have similarly indistinct boundaries, but they usually encompass genres like science fiction and fantasy, or media like comics or collectables. So “fandom” winds up as a shorthand for the nerdier side of pop culture, and people assume I write about Star Wars, or Game of Thrones.

It’s undeniable that fans are more likely to coalesce around genre proprieties; it’s a bit chicken-and-egg, whether fandom springs up because of something inherent in them, or they collect fandoms because fans seek out patterns and have collective preferences. But fans and fannish behavior can spring up everywhere — whether a group defines themselves as “fandom” or not.

3) Fandom is a powerful critical tool

One of the biggest misconceptions I battle with on a regular basis is the idea that a fan is a “slavish devotee” of the source material. So many people I discuss this with are sports fans, a good portion of whom complain about their team more than they praise them. Fandom is massive, and attitudes vary widely within it — there are definitely slavish devotees, just as there are sports fans who think their favorite player can do no wrong.

But this world is a deeply critical one. It sometimes can feel paradoxical: we’re all drawn together by loving a thing, but once we’re together, why do we tear it apart? Fandom allows people from different backgrounds and perspectives to form opinions collectively: we all bring our specific lens to whatever world we love, and the resulting dialogues are far more rigorous than any critic could come up with alone.

4) Fans create the spaces they need

The history of online fandom is the history of platforms, from Usenet lists to Yahoo groups to LiveJournal to Tumblr to the Archive of Our Own. Over the years, the relationships between fans and these platforms has often been tenuous at best, at the whims of commercial pressures, censorship, and legal threats. Fans work with — and around — the platforms, unless they get pulled out from under them.

One of my favorite talks about fandom, “Fan is A Tool-Using Animal,” comes from an “outsider” to the fan world, Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski. Previously somewhat derisive of fans, he watched them create the taxonomy and archival structures they needed to find and share things. “Fandom teaches us that communities are not about consumption, and they’re not something you can engineer,” he said. “If you want people to get involved in your site, you have to treat them with respect and give them room to do it on their own terms.”

This lesson extends beyond platforms: content creators looking to “generate fandom” often try to control and dictate the spaces in which fans gather and talk to each other. Sure, some people might submit their fanfiction or fanart to your official site — some fans put a lot of stock in the creators’ seal of approval. But most fans create those spaces for themselves.

5) Fandom isn’t inherently good or bad — and you can’t control it

Just as fannish activity isn’t something you can engineer, fandom isn’t something you can control. Over the past decade, particularly with social media, we’ve seen the barriers between creators and fans start to crack, even crumble. Many creators seem driven by the idea that all publicity is good publicity, and try to tap into fannish conversations and enthusiasm. And sometimes, it backfires. It might be as basic as a bad plot-line that fans hate. Or it might be something worthy of critique and censure — a racist casting decision, or an actor’s homophobic comment.

Creators often seem taken aback: “But you loved me yesterday!” Fandom is more holistic than that — it will never be solely about praise. There is plenty of fandom behavior that deserves critique as well. Threats against creators, for instance, should never be tolerated. But as I said recently, it often feels like people trying to tap into fandom are trying to harness a massive weather event, and then get surprised when it blows their house down.

The fan/creator relationship is a complicated one, and one with an inherent (and often massive) power imbalance. We’re watching that relationship shift in real time, as both sides are more exposed to each other. Many fans long for the days when a firm wall stood between creators and fans — but that wall is impossible to reconstruct. It’s easy to think of fan communities as positive when it loves you and negative when it’s critiquing you, but in reality, it just…is. And understanding this is key to understanding fandom.