How Do We Explain Fandom?

Fans have created and interacted together in self-contained bubbles for many years, discreetly taking sick days from work to attend conventions and—after the explosion of the Internet—clocking in countless hours chatting in online forums. Recently, however, fandoms have become a very popular topic of discussion amongst the masses. Many media outlets have been struggling to explain the fandom phenomenon to “normal people” with varying results. I happened to come across the attached seven minute video that PBS posted on their YouTube channel titled “Can Fandom Change Society?” Unfortunately, it fell woefully short in its attempt to provide an overview of fandom to its uninitiated viewers.

Before I get into specifics, here are some notable facts about the recent upsurge in fandom’s popularity and power:

  • Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestseller that no one seems to shut up about, was originally conceived of as a piece of Twilight fanfiction.
  • The San Diego Comic-Con, created many years ago for fans by fans, is now known for its commercialized booths and star-studded events, with about 130,000 attendees on the showroom floor in 2011 (“Comic Con by the Numbers”).
  • I currently have 12 tabs of fanfiction open on my browser. That’s right, I’m not afraid to admit it anymore. Where else am I going to read about what happens when Harry, Ron, and Hermione are forced to compete in The Hunger Games?

“Can Fandom Change Society?” begins with a very strong introduction. Professor Francesca Coppa from Muhlenberg College explains in the first minute or so that “to self-identify as a fan is to say that you’re interested in engaging culture in this really broad and rich way” by, for example, writing fanfiction or drawing fan art. So far, so good. The video then delves into fandoms that are too niche to adequately convey the growing importance and impact of fandom. I thought it was a fairly disturbing choice on the part of the video production team to include Transformers fanfiction and the trolling fandom of Colorado shooter James Holmes as a primer on the general concept of fandom. I’m pretty sure that casual viewers are not going to be wondering about fandom’s ability to change society; they are going to be wondering if they locked their doors and how they can block their kids from accessing the apparently large amount of robot erotica available on the Internet. I also felt as though the producers did not sufficiently answer their own question. They touched on some of fandom’s impact on social norms and copyright issues, but there was no clear-cut answer at the end of the video.

If I were hired to create a seven minute video explaining fandom to the general public, I would focus on notable examples of the impact that these passionate communities have on their members and, increasingly, the world outside of fandom. Fanfiction would be the first feature because I believe it is the easiest concept to comprehend. Not all fanfiction is smutty (but if you’re into that, there’s plenty out there). It is primarily used as a way for media consumers to continue to play in the world that the creators bestowed upon them. On that note, I would move on to fan art, fan videos, and the increasingly open-ended conversations occurring between creators and fans on various social networks. Fans are meeting future spouses through fandom, making long-lasting friendships, provoking discussions on gender and race, and in one case becoming so vocal that they nearly crashed E!Online’s website during the “TV’s Top Couple” poll. It is not conducive to highlight the “otherness” of fandom while attempting to provide an overview of it to people who already view these communities as strange and foreign.  An introduction to fan communities would be more effective if it showcased the excitement and creativity fandom can inspire in its members. That’s not to say that exploring the Transformers fandom in a separate video about more specific fan contributions is entirely out of the question.

I would not be able to answer PBS’ question about fandom’s impact on society. Fandom is obviously growing in scope and influence, but I think it may be too soon to be able to say with certainty whether fandom has permanently transformed society. It is a topic of discussion that is definitely worth keeping your eye on for the next few years, though.

 

Works Cited

 

Bennett, Alanna. “The Internet, Fan Culture, and Creators: A Blessing We Shouldn’t Turn Into a Curse.” Web log post. The Mary Sue. N.p., 19 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.themarysue.com/the-internet-fan-culture-and-creators-a-blessing-we-shouldnt-turn-into-a-curse/>.

Can Fandom Change Society? Off Book. PBS, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded>.

Ellison, Hannah. “The Book Burning That Wasn’t: Thousands of Works of Fiction Destroyed and No One Pays Attention.” Web log post. The Huffington Post. N.p., 14 June 2012. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/hannah-ellison/fanfiction-the-book-burning-that-was_b_1592689.html>.

Ellison, Hannah. “Shipping News: The Ardent TV Fans You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.” Web log post. The Huffington Post. N.p., 18 Feb. 2012. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/hannah-ellison/shipping-news-tv-fans-_b_1284525.html>.

Hanks, Henry. “Comic-Con by the Numbers.” Web log post. Geek Out. CNN, 11 July 2012. Web. <http://geekout.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/11/comic-con-by-the-numbers/>.

 

Sara Levine

Sara Levine is a Master's candidate in the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University and the Multimedia Director for gnovis. She is currently focusing her studies on media production, fan communities, and contemporary applications of micro-sociological theories. Sara also enjoys cartooning - she posts most of her artwork at http://morphmaker.deviantart.com and http://morphmaker.tumblr.com