Fandom for all

A few weeks ago, JST, a student at the University of Pennsylvania wrote in the comments here:

I’m interested in how you write about fandom as a fairly common process, not just limited to the hardcore folks making filk music and writing fan-fic.

It’s a piece of feedback that’s been percolating in my head since I read it and I wanted to say something about that, especially since writing this blog has made me more aware of the fanfic and flik and “hardcore folks” fandoms.

I think the term “fandom” has to an extent been appropriated by those communities. They’re the ones who use the word “fandom” to describe their own activities (so for instance, I get hits to this blog because people are searching “Torchwood fandom”). In one comment about “rare fandoms,” makesmewannadie even referred to fanfic for people that are a “fandom of one.” Now, there’s a ton of really interesting stuff that goes on in this kind of fandom, and in some sense it’s a model or archetype of what online fandom can be, but JST is right about my take on it.

Fandom IS an everyday very common practice. It’s happening whenever people are using some element of pop culture as a locus for their own social organizing, whenever they’re taking something from pop culture and making it a piece of their own social identity. So, yeah, it’s much broader than sci fi, it’s much broader than fanfic, it’s much broader than the stuff that usually gets covered when people talk about “fandom.”

I’d like to see the term claimed by all of us who practice it, because then we’d realize that most of us are engaging in some form of fandom to some extent. We’d stop stigmatizing it as a symptom of having no life (never mind the rich lives of those who are ‘the hardcore folks’), and we might even recognize that what goes on in fandom is a mix of appreciation, consumption, and creativity that is interesting in its own right and that has tremendous power as a model for many practices outside of fandom. That’s why I think the social devotion to Trader Joe’s and matter, because it shows us that more and more the leisure-based socializing that happens online means that anything that can be consumed socially can spawn fandoms. It’s not simple to resolve the challenges of intellectual property, communication, and so on that online fandom raises, but anyone trying to develop an identity that people will feel loyal to and buy, whether they’re an entertainment purveyor, sporting franchise, or a brand of any another kind, needs to be paying attention.

Update: Jason Tocci picks the discussion back up on his blog here.

Comments (6) to “Fandom for all”

  1. I’m sure you have read Sandvoss’s _Fans_, but if you haven’t, I think your position might be quite close to his:

    It should be noted that what has formed as a field of academic study of ‘fandom’ does not necessarily include all fans and their activities, but rather focuses on specific siocial and cultural interactions, institutions and communities that have formed through the close interaction off committed groups of fans in a subcultural context. In a broader unerstanding of ‘fandom’, as on a most basic level the state of being a fan, this focus on communities and tightly networked fans fails to conceptualize important aspects of the relationship between the modern self, identity and popular culture which forms my particular concern here. Some of the different, on occasion conflicting, conclusions I draw in comparison to earlier studies of fandom thus follow from a different and broader scope of analysis. Rather than challenging such studies on their own terms, I have thus, one may argue, changed the subject of study. [5-6]

    I define fandom as the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text [8]

    Now, I tend to disagree with his and, I guess, your approach insofar as I believe there *are* differences between the emotional investment and actual social payoff that develops in what I’d call “fandom” and casual media engagements.

    On the other hand, I agree with your focus on drawing connections and comparing patterns of behavior, because, you’re right, many online engagements do resemble what, traditionally, has been describes as “fandom.”

    I’m just not sure, ultimately, how useful it is to conflate different modes of behavior at different levels of intensity. And it may be simply a rhetorical issue, because I could totally agree that fannish practices are everyday and common; I’d like to keep the differentiation, however, we gain by reserving “fandom” for specific communities (which may very well include active and engaged Trader Joe’s fans but might not happen every time people employ pop cultural references in everyday engagements).

    [an LJ friend linked me here, btw, in response to a draft I just posted that addresses this very issue]

  2. Loads of great points in there, Kristina (and with references no less!). Thanks.

    I see you’re point about conflating different modes of behavior, though in that sense, even across clearly defined fan communities there seem to be some pretty varied modes of behavior (see the comments in the Secondhand Fandom post). At the same time you lose some granularity of analytic power by broadening the concept, you also gain new ways of seeing other things, and I think there’s a lot of power there.

    As a point of clarification, I don’t think that casual media engagements, or employing pop culture references, are “fandom” as I’d define it. I see “fandom” as inherently involving emotional investment, social connection with other fans, and, most importantly, social identity (i.e. the sense of who I am vis-a-vis others). Which is to say that a fan can be a fan in secret. A fan can mention “oh I saw Lost last night” to someone with whom he or she is connected. But it’s not fandom to me, until at least two fans say “part of the basis of our connection to each other is that we are both fans of Lost.” When people are forming social relationships because they are emotionally invested in consuming the same pop culture phenomenon (or where a pop culture phenomenon becomes an important shared part of an existing relationship), that’s where I see fandom happening. And I see that happening around a wide breadth of things.

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, can you provide a link to the draft you posted?

  3. I think we actually agree more than we disagree, because for me the “socially connecting via shared fannishness” is central. (Though, again, even that is not generalizable–in a recent discussion, several of my LJ friends disagreed with that definition. In fact, one of the hardest things in doing fan studies as a member of the communities I discuss is that definitions and motivations are so varied that in the end all we can say is that there *is* no consensus–and then proceeed to try to find large occurences of commonalities.)

    I think the reason I reacted so vehemently to your post is that I see this flatttening out of the concept of “fan” at the expense of those for whom it is a *central* part of their identity. In other words, yes, I totally agree that we can learn a lot from looking at similarities, and I even agree that fannish behavior is mainstreaming, especially given recent media convergences; at the same time, I’d still like to retain a level of gradation in differentiating the thing that happens when my student and I bond for a moment over Buffy or when a complete stranger becomes a close friend over our shared love for *insert current fandom*.

    Yes, the former is a shared fannish experience and it adds a small sliver to how I define myself as a Buffy fan (though I really wouldn’t define myself that way any more, because my investment isn’t “enough”). And yet, it doesn’t compare in scope or effect to my sense of identity within my online community of slashers, the moment of recognition of having found the likeminded.

    Maybe it’s a difference in how much part of one’s identity it is. Would my student, even after our shared Buffy encounter, define herself as a FAN? a Buffy fan at least? What importance does that identity have?

    So, I see what can be gained by looking at similarities, the power of new ways of seeing everyday encounters of fannishness and even fandom. What I’m a tad worried about is that we (i.e., the basement crowd :-) get lost in that mainstreaming process.

    [Sadly, I can't link you to my draft, because it is friendslocked (one of the great advantages of LJ). If you have an LJ account, I'll gladly friend you, though (I emailed you the info a couple of weeks ago). It's just a brief response paper to the recent Flow Conference (, and if it doesn't get accepted, I'll probably put it up on Symposium ( or something. It's really just a Work in Progress, trying to help me think through the same issues you're addressing above, because, after all, we ought to be at least clear on what and whom we're talking about in fan studies, right?]

  4. I agree that we agree more than we disagree. I don’t see the student-teacher scenario you describe as doing fandom either. On the other hand, when one of my students and I took to exchanging cds and talking about music a lot — i.e. making our status as fans of similar music a central part of our relationship — then I see us as doing fandom. I agree it has to do with the strength of the identification, and my more general point in the post was to say that there are really strong identifications that are spawning communities amongst those who share them that are forming around all kinds of stuff they didn’t used to (I am so ready to join a Keen footware fan group if I can find one!). I don’t think the basement crowd is going to get lost, I think it’s a paradigm case. But I do think it’s important not to consider the paradigm case the only case worth discussing. I see it as a spectrum, and the hardcore stuff is at one end, and maybe the teacher-student scenario you pose is at the other, and there are a lot of interesting points in between also worth exploring.

    I also think, as you point out, that within fan communities, one of the biggest points of contention is not just “what is fandom” but “what makes a REAL fan” and you can get two people who are absolutely identified with a text/band/whatever going at it because the way one of them does being a fan is different from the way another does. In there’s constant struggle over who merits being listed as a “top fan” (a topic I will cover in another entry one of these days — they have changed the moniker from “top fan” to “top listener” to try to sidestep some of the controversy), and I’ve certainly seen it in music groups where the new fan/old fan breaks people apart (if you weren’t with them from record #1, you’re not a real fan vs. it’s not my fault I hadn’t been born yet, I love them as much as you do) and the love the people/love the music is a big issue where the people who are THRILLED to get autographs get derided by people who think that’s peripheral to the experience of REAL fandom, etc.

    I am loving this conversation, making me think, so thanks. Also I notice a lot of lj people are popping by to read it, so if anyone other than Kristina wants to join in, please do, even if only to say Kristina’s right and I’m wrong :)

  5. Thank you both for this great exchange, and thank you, Nancy, for returning to my comment on your previous post.

    From an academic perspective, it can be politically and analytically useful to define fandom in terms of interest and engagement. “Fandom” is a socially constructed concept, however, and so we should consider what self-identified fans mean when they talk about it. To those fans for whom the term represents a central means of articulating identity/membership, feeling resistant to or outside of the cultural mainstream may be as important to their roles as “fans” as their engagement with media or other interests. Some self-identified fans surely want to do away with such marginalization altogether, many other embrace it, and most that I’ve interviewed seeem to try to strike a balance between these extremes.

    My dissertation is (probably) going to be about how self-identified fans of “geeky” and “nerdy” interests negotiate identity and engage with media even as previously stigmatized fan activities seem more mainstream. I think that terms like these still carry more stigma than “fan,” but that’s precisely why some fans willingly adopt them long after they may have been unwillingly assigned in grade school: it’s a point of social connection even beyond shared interests, though I’d contend that the two are not entirely unrelated. By the same token, I do see “the basement crowd” getting left out in the mainstreaming process right now. Even as video game fans take pride in the growing economic success and popularity of their favorite medium, many still put down live-action roleplayers, cosplayers, and slash writers who are fans of quite similar genres. I haven’t talked to many fans of these types, so this may just be a stab in the dark, but I wonder if marginalization is most tied into the identity of fans who feel like cultural legitimacy is just within reach.

    In other words: fandom means different things to different people, and for those who identify most strongly as such, figuring out what it means to be a fan today is an ongoing and often quite conscious process.


  6. You’d fit in so nicely on LJ, since you’re actually engaging (at length :-) in comments! [I have this entire gendered (and professionalized) blog vs LJ theory, because I find it really interesting how debates/discussions seem to occur much more easily on LJ at the same time as there's less of a sense of ownership of ideas--or maybe it's less of a *public* sense? To use another teacherly example, blogs seem to me very frontal teaching whereas LJ's much more group discussion (among many other differences that I'm trying to articulate at the moment, but this is *your* blog...)]

    And yes, you’re totally correct about the inverse pecking order in which we often seem to engage (in fact, I invoke the geek hierarchy in my title, which does seem this bizarre thing where we ought to want to be at the top and yet perversely pride ourselves to be “deeper”). Having been there first is definitely a sign of being a “better” fan in much of media fandom as well, especially given the phenomenon of secondary fandoms you just discussed: if you watched X from the get-go, you have definitely more cred than if you came later (here as in your music example, there’s a sense of “purity,” as if finding something on your own makes you investment cleaner? better? Which, of course, completely sidesteps the question as to how you “found” the show/band in the first place…..)

    Paradigms are a two-edged sword, however, because exemplarity suggests that there is, indeed, a clear continuum, that the differences may be in degree only, never in kind. I’m still not sure that’s actually the case. I think behavior may even be similar without it creating the same level of affect or having the same level of influence on one’s identity.

    To bring up another question that came up in discussion recently: can (and should) we distinguish between being a FAN OF and being a FAN? I.e., is there a particular sense of identity that marks people as alike without even sharing specific interests? Or, asked differently, is slasher something I DO or something I AM???

    [Btw, I do wonder whether commenting in blogs gives somehow much more exposure than dropping off a quick LJ me, it seems much more weighty; I catch myself editing more, aware of the fact that this is more public (i.e., even if no more people are reading it than they would a public metafandomed post, you probably don't have search engines disabled, you are looking for readers above and beyond the very well-defined intended audience we look for when making an LJ post/comment) and, to a degree, more professional (and that's not just because my real name's attached but, again, because the forum's so much more official, less of a semi-protected,more playful, more fannish space).]