Exploring the shifting dynamics of fan culture

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Is this the Year of the Fan?

Introducing her new column on fan culture for the NS, Elizabeth Minkel explains why 2014 feels like a turning point in the appreciation of how people who love something interact.

Fans waiting for the Beatles in Paris in 1965. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Who is a “fan”? A One-Directioner, or, half a century ago, someone caught in the throes of Beatlemania? Photo: AFP/Getty Images

When I say “fan”, what springs to mind? A football supporter, bellowing a team’s anthem? A Harry Potter lover, decked out in full house colours, waiting for the new book at midnight? A One-Directioner – or, half a century ago, someone caught in the throes of Beatlemania – fainting when the boys first grace the stage? People dressed as superheroes down to the tiniest detail, swarming a convention centre? A culture – maybe online, maybe in person – that frightens you, that seems dangerously fixated or depressingly antisocial, living in basements, playing with action figures, rolling twenty-sided dice? Or a culture – maybe online, maybe in person – that defines you: a place where you’ve found community, a way to live deeply within the space of a person or a thing that you admire, the purest distillation of a world ordered by taste?

Perhaps it’s because in the past year I’ve written a number of pieces about fan culture, both for this site and The Millions, where I’m a staff writer. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling more and more emboldened to discuss a big part of my life that I’ve kept under wraps for the past two decades. But all over recently, at parties, standing outside pubs after work, on various social media platforms, people are asking me about fans – or, more specifically, about fandom. “Is this a new thing?” many wonder. These are not self-identified fans or members of (a) fandom (and I’d argue that one of the only real requirements for either of these things is self-identification). But they’ve seen a whole lot of talk about it – about how Fifty Shades of Grey was Twilight fanfic, or how every media outlet in the world had a reporter at San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, or how fan activity can revive a television show from the dead, or how fannish types dominate certain corners of the web. “It’s not new,” I always tell these curious people. “It’s just that these days, for a whole host of reasons, it’s a hell of a lot easier for everyone to see.”

How old is fandom exactly? Certainly people obsessed – and obsessed collectively – long before we had a term for it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “fan” dates all the way back to 1682, with a definition that begins simply, “a fanatic”. (Fanatic, 150 years older: “Such as might result from possession by a deity or demon; frantic, furious. Of a person: Frenzied, mad.”) The shortened “fan” rose to prominence in America in the nineteenth century, mostly referring to baseball. But don’t worry: if you don’t love the slightly crazed connotation of fan(atic), you’ve got The Dickson Baseball Dictionary’s assertion that fan actually derives from “fancy”, an older English term for boxing supporters that migrated across the Atlantic. (That same dictionary then gives yet another alternative suggestion, that “fan” comes from baseball spectators using programmes to fan themselves at games. Hey, why not – though this one feels a whole lot more improbable.)

By the early twentieth century, “fan” was no longer largely the exclusive province of baseball. The term became attached to theatre, then film. Other sports had fans just as ardent as baseball devotees. We begin to see fan used to refer to any old enthusiasm. (My favorite in the OED entry, from 1928: “What about...your League of Nations and disarmament fans?” Great fandom.) The OED dates fandom back to 1903 – fan plus the “abstract suffix of state”. Fans always collected; now there was a term for it. In the middle of the century, science fiction enthusiasts embraced the term and brought us the first “fan fiction”, original sci-fi penned by amateur writers and published in fan magazines. Soon – and notably with the rise of media fandom, the biggest spark being the premiere of Star Trek in 1966 – fanfic became what we see today, fan-authored works derived from original source material. Until the advent of the web, most collective fan activity was done in person or by mail, fan zines compiled and distributed, and conventions and parties to bring people together. Unsurprisingly, with the advent and spread of access of the web, fan activity has exploded. Early message boards, mailing lists, and dedicated fan sites gave way to fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, then YouTube, Tumblr, AO3 or Wattpad or a host of other platforms. Today there are an endless number of spaces online to find people who love something as much as you do.

What are the key moments in the history of the fan? The day the TARDIS first materialised onscreen? The Saturday Night Life monologue during which William Shatner told Trekkies to “get a life”? When Rainbow Rowell’s novel about a fanfic writer became an international bestseller? Pinpointing moments in the history of fandom is a tricky prospect. The way we love and obsess over things, and the way we express that love, is culturally specific, shaped by time and place and the medium in which we can air those obsessions. And if you consider yourself a fan, you likely have your own constellation of historical markers. For me, it might be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saying to a man who wanted to adapt Sherlock Holmes for the stage: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” It might be J K Rowling, on a train from Manchester to London with a flash of inspiration and without a working pen. It might be the mere existence of Joss Whedon. It might be the first book I read without stopping and then immediately began to spin new stories about. It might be the most recent one, or the next one.

Fresh off wall-to-wall coverage of San Diego Comic-Con this past weekend, we can see a media landscape surrounding the world’s biggest fan gathering that would have looked alien half a decade ago. For every baffled and gawking reporter (and, infuriatingly, still, for every reporter asking the cast of a popular TV show to read – and mock – their fans’ work), there are a few more who get it. A lot has changed recently; a lot stubbornly remains the same. So where are we now, in 2014? With pull-to-publish fanfic-to-traditional book publishing deals seen as notable trends rather than outlier phenomena? With MTV hosting the first ever “Fandom Awards” at SDCC – and with fans equal parts embracing and railing against this corporatisation move? With grumbling commenters on various television and film reviews claiming that “fanservice” ruined whatever they were watching? With millions of fans feeling exposed by the relatively recent attention; with millions more excited to talk about their passions openly?

A few months back, I saw a post on Fyeahcopyright, a tumblr about fanworks and legal issues written and edited by lawyers Heidi Tandy and Hannah Lowe. The post chronicled a few positive instances of fan/creator interactions – particularly Sleepy Hollow, with its knowing and gentle embrace of its fans – and posited that all of this increased attention of and respect for fans could signal “The Year of the Fan”. The phrase really struck me. Can we label this “The Year of the Fan?” A quick google search revealed that there have been a few somewhat feeble-seeming attempts at years of fans in the past – a season-long promotion for an American baseball team, or a series of South Park full of winking in-jokes – but this is more about a collective feeling, some positive momentum, something that’s been gathering steam at an exponential rate recently.

I’m well aware that five years ago – maybe even just two or three years ago – I wouldn’t have been asked to write a column about fan culture. I wouldn’t have pitched it, either. But the world has changed – is changing, and quickly. Many fans have spent years, decades, even, shielding themselves from mainstream scrutiny – but it’s impossible to deny that the scrutiny is here, butting up against things a lot of people have held cloistered for a long time (and, given the misunderstanding and mockery, with good reason). As technology advances, the shapes of our conversations change, as does the way we consume media – and even the way that media is created is shifting. We’re watching the world of entertainment and the way we engage with it reshape itself in real time. And it’s easier than ever to see the other people who love our thing, or the people who make our thing, or the people who want to monetise our love of the thing.

Clashes are inevitable, and it’s those clashes that I want to explore. Some of them are very new; some of them are probably as old as the word “fan” itself. I’ve got a few things lined up in the coming months. I’m going to explore the so-called Young Adult literature “boom”, and try to tackle the various controversies around YA in the news in recent months. I want to explore the demographics of fan communities, particularly gender discrepancies. I’ll be checking out new platforms – corporate and organic alike – for fan engagement, and how the increasing visibility of fans is shaping the way books, TV, and films are made. I’ll try to figure out why sports fans get a pass for the same sorts of behaviours for which other fans are mocked. I’ll be looking at the newest generation of fans, born on the web, shifting fan conventions for non-digital natives. Since I started writing about fandom, I’ve got into dozens of wonderful conversations with people who obsess over people who obsess; if this sounds like you, please get in touch.

Is this the Year of the Fan? Perhaps. Or maybe that’ll be next year, or the year after that, or a decade from now, when all this culture-shifting reaches some sort of equilibrium. Perhaps I’ll conclude with Fyeahcopyright’s final sentence as well, one that I’m incapable of hearing as anything but the final song of the Buffy musical episode: “Where do we go from here?”