Life, etc

Concept Corner: Fandom

By Vashthi Nepaul 27 May 2015

Were you minding your own business at the water cooler when someone just up and called you privileged? Have you ever confused yourself arguing about rights on Facebook? Did you accidentally insult a friend by calling them a libertarian? Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Join us every week for a new discussion about common concepts in public discourse. By VASHTHI NEPAUL.

Fandom may or may not be a term with which you are familiar. It may not even be something you’re interested in, but do not let the fact that fandom is a sub culture fool you into dismissing its relative importance. It is an extremely reactive, global mass movement and it pervades the public space more and more. It influences charity, activism, entertainment and the market place. It can sometimes dominate the narrative and it is long past the point of lurking in the shadows.

You might like a book or a movie, a band or television show, a sports team or a celebrity, a video game or comic title. Maybe you even love them. You might know a lot of trivia about it, or collect items, maybe you even queue somewhere for someone’s autograph on a ball, a jersey, a record or an action figure. That’s all part of being a big fan. It’s not fandom though.

Fandom – first part fanatic and second part kingdom – is a term recorded as being over a hundred years old. In the past it was mostly used as either a collective noun for fans or a descriptor for those obsessed with a pass time; usually team sport. Now though, the moment where being a fan of something stops, and being part of its fandom starts, is more defined and requires your active choice. Today, fandom begins at the point where fans get organised.

You cannot be a part of fandom if you love something but do not interact with fellow fans. Fandom is less a kingdom of fanatics and more a kinship of one. If you’ve ever shared a table with enthusiastic rugby or football fans then you have probably witnessed the first act of a fan: they lovingly critique. The beginning of fandom is fans organising just enough to share their views and reviews. Imagine this happening; a group of fans sit down, someone says I really thought x should have been y and almost everyone agrees on the fact. Not that big a deal, right? Now imagine that they do that same thing on the internet. Suddenly the scope of people who are meaningfully discussing and often reach consensus numbers in the thousands, tens of thousands, sometimes much more than that. That alone is a powerful thing; hard for the original creator of a book or TV show to ignore, but it is not the only powerful thing about fandom.

Have you ever fielded a fantasy sports team? Or perhaps considered the personality of a historical figure long lost to time; were they a dreamer or a joker or perhaps pragmatic for their time? The next defining act of fandom is that it creates material for public consumption. It asks what if and then answers its own question. For example, there’s historical fanfiction about King Arthur dating back to the 1100s. The Bronte siblings used to do it as children – write stories about famous personalities. Nowadays, fandom spins tales about everyone from Harry Potter characters to Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s biblical fanfiction, there’s fanfiction about mayors and newscasters, there’s even an anthropomorphic romance between a Mac and a PC. Consider it and it’s out there, a testament in part to the humour and creativity of fandom but also a warning of its oddness.

Beyond fiction there is fan created music, video, clothing, art and craft. It is grouped under catch all terms like fanac (fan activity) or fan labour. Where the item is old enough that no copyright holds, fans can legally sell their labour to other fans, though the overwhelming majority do not. Fans make all of this, just to share with other fans, usually for the super low price of some kindly worded reviews and echoed enthusiasm. Then again, many fans who write fanfiction have followings of thousands themselves.

The popularity of fan created archives launched the free fiction movement online. Free story sites – where anyone can publish or consume – are booming despite the lack of quality control. One such site, the flagship Wattpad, has a high fanfiction content and averages around 100 000 new stories uploaded every day. Multi-fandom archives just for the posting of fanfiction are as big. Behemoth FanFiction.Net did a count this April. Amazingly only 20% of all work submitted is in English – with some English stories being translations of/translated to other languages be multilingual fans. It released a count of the top 20 fandoms published and the numbers of stories in the archive for each of the top 20. I stopped counting early because the first three fandoms had already tipped the number of stories over 1.3 million.

Publishers are now forced to keep a whither eye on the most loved fanfiction stories on such sites. If tens of thousands of people keep coming back for the next chapter of a free story, chances are it’s a viable product. If a publisher changes the names of fandom characters and dusts off anything too recognisable, what once was Twilight fan fiction becomes Fifty Shades of Grey. Keeping an eye on fandom got those publishers 90 million copies sold worldwide.

Occasionally fans will all hit upon a similar idea, or will all endorse the idea of a fellow fan, despite the element not featuring in the material they are fans of. For example, fans on the Internet all adopted a shared name for an unnamed character on the TV show Stargate. Highlander fans named an unnamed city featured in the show. Both shows adopted the fan-chosen names on screen. Some franchises will adopt a good fan narrative wholesale, like Star Wars and The X-Files publishing fan stories as official books.

Some of the things you have consumed on TV or in books, video games or music, may have been shaped thusly by fandom without you even being aware of it. Thanks to the organised nature of fandom and the mass communication allowed by the internet, fans can now endorse, reject, create and embellish on the original material in their hundreds of thousands, forcing increased interaction between creators and fans and sometimes explicitly influencing future material. This is when fandom starts to encroach on your real life.

Fandom first started lobbying about the things close to its fannish heart. In the 1990s fan sites displayed a blue ribbon and petition link in support of free speech on the internet, because proposed American censorship laws would put the fiction archives on the wrong side of the law. The Hawkeye Project still illustrates male heroes in the same poses used on female heroes to display the underlying sexism in canonical comic depictions of women. But then fandom realised that they were many and they were organised. So they started choosing a wider range of charities to support and raising funds for those charities. Instead of paying for a fanfiction story written just for you, you would donate the money to a good cause and still get the story because fan writers were donating their ideas and talent for the cause. Distributers jumped on board, creators joining with fandom to endorse special projects or organisations, holding charity film screenings for the likes of Equality Now or auctioning memorabilia to fundraise.

But it also got political very quickly: many fandom charity drives support initiatives to help LGBT people, gender activism and anti-racism, along with the uncontroversial and ubiquitous disaster relief. Some of them are directly confrontational: fans4writers is the official movement of fandom to support the Writers Guild America in their industry strike. The guild writes the stories for the billion dollar film and TV industries of Hollywood. This endorsement places fandom directly in favour with the people who create the material they love and directly at odds with the people who fund and distribute it. But it’s not just material that fandom consumes, it’s material that everyone consumes, including you. Fandom has a direct lobby power over your sources of entertain. Fandom is also quick to react to fannish controversy. GamerGate spilled over into fandom last year. The Mad Max: Fury Road/feminism propaganda controversy is fuelling similar gender antagonism in fandom right now.

Perhaps some sound advice would be for casual consumers and original creators to ignore the demands and vagaries of fandom. But when all your fans have the technology to organise and decades of experience in organising, you have to listen when they say they are unhappy with a product. Fandom is now wholly scalable to the marketplace. If you are a little niche TV show with a small but dedicated fan base, you have to listen to their demands because you may not see another season if they stop watching. If you have just released a popular video game and your fan base is organising to boycott you, you have to move to address the issue or risk not recouping the high cost of making such a game. Canadian video game studio BioWare found itself in that position when fans hated the ending of Mass Effect 3. They went back, created a better, longer ending that addressed the general critiques and released it free. Of course they moved to quickly fix the problem. Do you know how much Mass Effect 3 made BioWare despite the controversy? $200 million dollars in under 9 months. Mass Effect 3 and Fifty Shades of Grey are good examples of how fandom and the market place are entwined at present.

Fandom has increasingly crossed over into the mainstream: the GamerGate and Mad Max twitter controversies were covered on regular televised news as well as in major newspapers and magazines, prime time sitcom The Big Bang Theory leans heavily on fandom humour and is one the most widely watched things in the world. Because most fan material is not under copyright, talk show hosts like Graham Norton and Jimmy Kimmel have come to rely on using fan commentary or creations as material in their shows. Sometimes even the unthinkable happens: the original creator or focus of a fandom (like Harry Potter’s JK Rowling or Sherlock’s Martin Freeman) will secretly or openly consume fan works about themselves or their characters. Sometimes the focus of the fandom becomes a fan themselves. It’s all very meta, not to mention embarrassing for fans. Intriguingly, some writers and celebrities confess going back to play with their own characters, often under the anonymity of an onscreen fandom handle or openly on their own websites. Writer-director Joss Whedon opined “There’s a time and place for everything, and I believe it’s called ‘fan fiction’.”

So, fandom has reach and clout. It has its own communities, rules, web sites, apps, terminology, archives, galleries, charities, publishing presses, research studies, lobbies and money. It has relationships with those who create the original material that it loves and supports. It has technological know-how and the ability to respond quickly to public events. It can bring 180 million dollars’ worth of economic impact to San Diego over the four days of Comic Con. Since the web site replaced the paper fanzine, fandom has grown into a fascinating modern phenomenon unavoidable across many platforms, with the potential to disrupt dialogues, co-opt narratives, confront imperfections, jumpstart activism and influence marketed products. More benignly; being popular with the young, fandom turns youth in their millions into avid critics, readers and creators who must learn to navigate the shared space of their communities. DM

Main Photo: Fans wait for Canadian singer Justin Bieber in front of Hotel De Russie in Rome, Italy, 08 October 2014. Bieber visited the city with his father. EPA/ANGELO CARCONI

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