Recently, I’ve come to the realization that despite calling my blog ‘Fandom Is Awesome’ since 2014, I’ve never actually stopped to explain what ‘fandom’ is.
And now, I’ve given myself the task of explaining this… thing.
First, the bare-bones definition:
“Fan” is short for “fanatic”
“Fandom” is a contraction of “fan” and “kingdom”
Now for the more complicated explanation.
At its most basic, a fandom is a community of people who enjoy and/or engage with a certain thing, including sports, movies, literature, comics and video games, among a wide variety of other things – if there is something you’re into, there is a solid chance there’s a community of people out there who are also into that thing.
Depending on who you ask, fandom is limited to sports and pop culture, things like science, technology and history are usually left out in the cold when it comes to the official definition of the word, though it should be argued that they also have fandoms, given the nature of ‘liking things’ and ‘groups of people who like the same things’.
Perhaps the most important aspect of fandom is the engagement. Before mass media, stories were far more engaging, despite the printing press having existed for quite some time, it was only in the last century or so that mass production really became a thing, stories were told orally, your listeners would ask questions and you would discuss with them – it was an active experience.
Then came mass media; watch the movie, read the book and then just carry on with your life, maybe you’ll watch that movie again, or reread that book when you find the time, but unless you’re a professional critic, you probably won’t give it much thought after you’ve consumed it engaging with something became unengaging, it became a passive experience.
But what if you have a question? What if you just want to discuss the story with someone?
Well, for a long time, many directors, actors and authors were basically unreachable (though there are exceptions), the only people you could actively engage with over the chosen topic were other people, people who wanted to engage over the same topic.
This idea finally found it’s space to exist when conventions started becoming a thing. We know science fiction conventions have been around since at least 1937, and this is where fandom really got its start – with people meeting up to discuss their favourite science fiction books, and though science fiction conventions were initially dedicated to sci-fi literature, comic books, video games and animation soon fell under their purview as well.
In 1964, comic books got their own convention in the form of “New York Comicon”, said to have attracted ‘over one hundred attendees’, while anime conventions would lag behind a little, only really becoming a thing in the 70s, with the original “Comiket” in Tokyo in 1975, drawing in around 700 people, “Project A-Kon” is widely considered to be the first anime convention in the United States, and its first edition took place in 1990, since then, the niche has exploded in the West.
Growing alongside the comic book, science fiction and anime fandoms was a far smaller fandom, much like anime this one only really found its footing in the 90s – the furry fandom.
Discovering itself in the late 80s, with the first ‘Furry Party’ taking place in 1986, the budding fandom got its first convention in “Confurence 0” in 1989.
The whole point of a convention is to meet with other people, people who identify with you, who love the same characters as you, people who have the same hobbies and interests as you.
Picture a book club, but instead of just a few people its thousands upon thousands of people, a couple hundred of which are vendors (mostly independent businesses) – oh, and instead of just reading the books, at least half the people in attendance either wrote the books or wrote about the books; remember that engagement thing I mentioned earlier?
It’s not limited to just talking about the movie/book/game/show.
Fan-created content is what really drives a fandom – H.P. Lovecraft only wrote so many stories in his lifetime, even a new fan could burn through all of them in a fairly short span of time; talking about it, while it certainly extends the ‘lifespan’ of Lovecraft’s writing, is only one part of the equation – the only reason people still care about cosmic horror, the genre Lovecraft created, is because fans of his work, be they pre-established authors or unpublished writers, have kept the genre alive.
This fan-created content has many facets, art, fiction (as in written stories), games, comics, manga, even series and films – the fans create it all, there isn’t a fanbase out there that isn’t capable of stuff like this, as a longtime member of numerous fandoms, it still surprises me what these communities can do.
But the really impressive part is how we’re able to mash it all together – Harry Potter is a Western literary property; manga is a distinctly Japanese medium, while basically a comic book, the Japanese tell a story very differently to how the Western world would tell that same story, manga even has its own genres that don’t show up in Western literature; yet I’ve read fan fiction featuring the characters and setting of Harry Potter, only it was written as a romance, specifically a homosexual romance… among men – in manga this is called ‘yaoi’.
That aside, another example of mixing mediums is the years-long project to recreate the entirety of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, in 1:1 scale, in Minecraft.
Now, as with everything, there is a dark side to fandom.
Geeks were once something of a marginalised group, the Hollywood image of a socially awkward nerd left us, to a degree, as societal outcasts, our hobbies were niche and ‘weird’ – unless you were among fellow geeks, it wasn’t cool to be a geek, in fact, if you were among non-geeky people it was specifically uncool.
Today, this image has softened somewhat, geeks and nerds come in all shapes, sizes, colours and persuasions, and we’re everywhere, not only that, but many of us are happily flaunting it, it’s somewhat normal to be a geek or nerd now – but now we’ve got a new problem: gatekeeping.
In journalism, gatekeeping is the omission of a fact or statement for whatever reason; it could be that the article/piece is already overlong, maybe the statement has little to do with the topic at hand, there are a variety of reasons for gatekeeping, some are even malicious, such as omitting facts in an attempt to steer the story in a specific direction.
But amongst people, gatekeeping is a different thing, it is no longer limiting the flow of information, it is instead limiting the flow of people – specifically, into a community.
Some of the more ‘hardcore’ fans might call you out as a ‘fake fan’ because you’ve don’t know the name of Aragog’s wife (Mosag, by the way, she’s mentioned once in the books, and nonce in the films), or maybe you’ve forgotten that [insert character here] is actually related to [insert other character here] and was born in [insert city name here] on [insert date here], and that they killed [insert villain here] using [insert weapon name here].
They won’t let someone into the community because of their gender.
While the gaming community was once predominantly male, the split is somewhat even these days, but for some reason, women within the gaming community are still treated like they don’t belong there. Alternately – they’re treated like shit simply because they’re women.
Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism are as much problems within fandom as they elsewhere, and toxicity is nothing new to any part of the world, unfortunately, the internet has a habit of creating echo-chambers – while an elitist’s thoughts might not actually be bouncing back at them, many manage to find themselves in a space that agrees with them and their opinions, however harsh and cruel those may be.
I won’t pretend we’ve solved these problems but it seems fandom might actually be something of a solution, if not, at the very least, a step in the right direction.
These communities are shared amongst a variety of people, and the creators in these communities are often more than willing to represent where the mass media won’t – giving women different roles in their stories, putting people of colour front and centre, giving lead roles to queer characters, the mere portrayal of disabled people, I could go on and on, but arguably the best part about all this, outside of the fact that content like this is being created, is that people are enjoying it, they’re responding to it with enthusiasm and tears of joy because finally someone created a lead character they can identify with.
On top of all this, breaking down barriers between people often starts with finding common ground between those involved – and what better ground than something both enjoy.