Some Thoughts on Fan Culture

by syaffolee

From the recent discussions on fans and fandom I’ve read going around the internet, I’ve been thinking about the topic and how I am a fan (or not) of things I like. I’ve come to the conclusion that being a fan means you like “X”, whatever that is. If you want to call yourself a fan, go knock yourself out. No one has the authority to bestow the title “fan” to anyone. Gatekeeping is for obnoxious clique defenders. Being a fan is NOT the same as getting a Ph.D. Fans don’t need to buy all the merchandise, read or watch all the “classics” (whatever the hell that is), ace a qualifying exam stuffed with trivia like a Jeopardy pro, and/or write several theses worth of fan fiction. What separates the fan from the normal person who likes “X” is degree of obsession. I admit, it’s a blurry line. For instance, I would consider myself someone who simply likes and enjoys “X” if I interact with it because someone’s put it there in front of me or I came across it by accident. Otherwise, I don’t think about “X” much. I am a fan, however, if I go out of my way to engage with “X” even after initial exposure.

What gets confusing is the terms “fan” and “fandom.” They’re not the same thing. You can be a fan and still not be in fandom. But all people in fandom are fans. In other words, fandom is a subset of all fans. When people start yelling at each other about who is a “true fan,” it’s usually because someone’s thinking that “fan” is an exact synonym for the word “fandom.” It’s no longer about liking (or even obsessing) about something but passing all these particular checkpoints (whether or not it’s even relevant to “X”) in order to get into a particular clique labeled as “fandom.”

I think of fandom as a community of fans who are governed by rules, explicit or implicit, which dictate how they behave towards one another and how one must engage with the topic of interest. Depending on the fandom or clique, these rules can be flexible and inclusive or rigid and exclusionary. People are social animals so, of course, they want to join the group which likes the thing that they like. Unfortunately, if you don’t follow the conventions of the fandom in a way that it likes or accepts, you are persona non grata. In any case, there will always be fans because people will always like stuff. The existence of fans is independent of social behavior. But fandoms will rise and fall depending on outside factors like politics, social change, fashion, style, and technology.

As for me, well, I’m a fan of some things. But I don’t consider myself part of fandom. It’s not because I think fandom is inherently bad (or good). Whatever that I am a fan of may have changed me, but I’ve never interacted with any fandom in such a way that fandom itself has significantly influenced the course of my life. Simply put: I like what I like. I’m happy to talk to other people about it, but being a fan is a personal thing that has nothing to do with what other people like or how they think one should engage with it.

(As an aside: This naturally leads into the topic of “fans” and “professionals.” While fandom is a subset of fans, there can only be an intersection of professionals and fans. Certainly, professionals can be fans but they have strict rules for behavior. In fact, they are even more strict than those implicit/explicit rules in “fandom” because money and ethics are involved. I feel that if you are both a pro and a fan, the behavioral rules for being a pro trump those of being a fan.)