A Social Theory of Fandom

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been musing about this the past week or so. I mean, I always muse about fandom, but usually I try to keep it in my brain.

You may remember I discussed the political climate as opposing fandoms not so long ago (although it feels like forever, doesn’t it?).

This is still interesting to me because we treat fandom like a conscious thing, with one will and one set of behaviors. We refer to it, in fact, in the singular, as one entity. But of course it isn’t. Fandoms are made up of thousands–or sometimes millions–of individuals, all of whom express fandom in different ways. Fandom is in fact a variety of social grouping, and I would argue all fandoms behave in more or less comparable ways.

Now, I don’t think the social grouping itself is really that new. It certainly predates the Internet, if we think about all the people who wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle angry letters because he killed off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem” (spoilers?). However, the web has had a significant impact on how fandom interacts and expresses itself.

I don’t have to write you letters about our mutual dismay at the ending to Great Expectations. Instead, we can talk about countless shared interests instantaneously online. We can both react quickly to news–probably too quickly for us to make good, sociable choices.

Interestingly, although fandom is a voluntary social grouping (insofar as we can control what media/personalities/teams we do and do not like) and participation is both voluntary and individual, fandom itself is far beyond our control. Not only is it an extraordinarily difficult thing to regulate a fandom, even for creators (see: Dan Aykroyd and the members of Ghostbusters who reject the reboot; Bernie Sanders trying to convince his diehard followers to support Hillary Clinton; the Italian soccer players I once saw trying to calm an incipient riot), but we have no control whatsoever over who our community members are.

For example: It’s well established I am an actively participating member of the Baltimore Orioles fandom. They’re my team; I love them; I go to lots of games every year. It’s also well established that I hate it when fans boo their own players. But if I’m at the stadium and the audience around me begins to boo, what can I do? Well, I can yell at the people around me or try to get a positive chant going. But there’s very little I can do to impact people not in my immediate vicinity. I am a participating member of a fandom, but that fandom’s current expression doesn’t reflect my feelings or personal behavior.

Moreover, I know for a fact that there are racist, sexist, and homophobic members of my fandom. Nonetheless, I share a community with them. We share a category–voluntarily. It’s not like when Italian people say racist things and I wince, because there’s nothing I can do about being Italian. (I can, again, yell at the people in my vicinity but that’s a different conversation and one we’ve had before. Say it with me: “That’s not okay.”) But in a way, it feels the same, because fandoms are inherently open communities. You can evict people from spaces, but not from fandom itself.

Now, that makes community members sound pretty powerless. In fact, we’re not. It is characteristic of every fandom to have a mouthy minority of assholes. These are loud people who enjoy being angry and feasting on the flesh of the innocent. They are my least favorite people. If you don’t want such trolls to characterize your community, it is your job to speak up as loudly as you can and encourage others to do the same. More than one creative has said that it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by the negativity online because people who like things are less likely to speak up than people who hate them. Let folks know you like what they do. It doesn’t take much time and it improves your community. Don’t expect anything in return–just say the nice thing. You are benefitting from more positive interactions between fans and creators. You’re also modeling good behavior. A lot of fandoms are majority young people; if you can, don’t let toxic behavior online poison them. And if you can, become a leader or moderator in your fandom. It’s thankless work, but it does affect the culture.



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