What Is Fandom, Anyway?

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Tree Surgeon’s Fandom. I don’t know if that’s a thing. That’s just supposedly what my personal craft beer is called according to a tweet I saw the other day that said my craft beer is [my grandfather’s profession]’s [word I’m not sure I understand the meaning of]. I didn’t know what word to choose for that last part when I first saw that Tree Surgeon’s [Something] would be a great name for a craft beer, but then Corrina posted the Introduction to Fandom Stories and I remembered. What does “fandom” even mean?

It shouldn’t be that hard to understand. According to Dictionary.com, it has just one, short definition: “fans collectively, as of a motion-picture star or a professional game or sport.” So, if you are a fan of something, you are part of that something’s fandom. Boom.

So then what does it mean to participate in a fandom? Why do people say they’re “not involved in THAT fandom anymore” or that they “like the show but not the fandom”? Why is it assumed that, if you’re in a fandom, you’re aware of what all the other fans are doing?

Say you, like me, innocently took The Wee Free Men out of your library once, fell in love with it, and decided to read every other Terry Pratchett book you could get your hands on. That matches my idea of being a Pratchett fan. So, by definition, you’re part of the fandom. But then you joined a Discworld community on LiveJournal, and were suddenly aware of FANDOM, people discussing and theorizing, people making fan art and fanfic, people wearing lilacs on the 25th of May. Are you more of a part of fandom now than you were on your own?

But say you, five-ish years before, read the first Harry Potter (which at that point was just some middle grade fantasy book and middle grade fantasy was Your Favorite even though you were in college and “supposed” to be reading grownup books), fell in love, grabbed the only other book that was out yet at the time and started waiting impatiently for each additional one. And you made all your friends who’d ever had the slightest interest in middle grade fantasy read it, and you changed the name on your email to “Hermione Granger,” and insisted to your new Dungeonmaster-soon-to-be-boyfriend that you had to play a wizard even though you’d never played D&D before and should probably have started with a fighter. BUT there were no LiveJournal communities—email was pretty much the only thing you did online—which is maybe why you had to force all your friends to read it, so you had someone to talk about it with. When you started library school a couple of years later, the first friend you made was a girl with Hogwarts buttons all over her backpack, because obviously you had that in common.

Years later, you discovered there HAD been a massive Harry Potter community online that whole time. But since you weren’t a part of that, were you still a part of Harry Potter fandom? Is it a fandom even if you’re the only member you know?

According to that Dictionary.com page, “fandom” is “an Americanism dating back to 1900–05.” So, way before LiveJournal communities. Fans did have other ways to participate in a community, with official fan clubs that would send you newsletters in the mail, letters pages in magazines and fanfiction exchanged in homemade ‘zines, but still, the chances that you might be completely isolated from other people who loved whatever it was you loved were a lot higher. It required a bit more effort (and postage) to participate in a fandomwhatever that means.

If all you do is watch and love every episode of a show, but never do anything with it outside of that half-hour-to-an-hour a week, does that count as participating? Do you have to be seeking out more than that? As I wrote a few weeks ago, I can sometimes get so overwhelmed with love for a new thing that I can’t make myself seek anything extra out. That can’t mean I’m less of a fan, but does it mean I’m less a part of fandom? Are you only participating in fandom if you’re interacting with other fans?

And if you are seeking out more than just the canon story of a thing, does it make a difference if you’re just reading behind-the-scenes articles and other official extras but not having anything to do with creative fanworks? And if you do get into fanworks, is “participating” about enjoying other people’s fanworks or is it about making your own? I love seeing gifsets and quotes and other people’s fanart scroll by on my Tumblr, but I don’t make any myself. I write fanficion, but I tend not to read any myself. Is one way more participating than the other?

What if you’re writing loads of fanfic and making loads of art, but you’re keeping it to yourself, or sharing it with just a few close friends? Does it count as participating if you don’t share? I’ve always been puzzled by authors who don’t want people writing fanfic of their work, and equally puzzled by fans who complain about authors who don’t want people writing fanfic of their work. Can’t you just write whatever fanfic is in your heart and not put it online for the world to see? I’ve got 24 pages of pure delightful fanfic that only a few people have read, because it’s real person fic that posits that lots of perfectly innocent famous folks are involved in organized crime, and that just never seemed right for me to post online even if it is obviously silly. But it still exists. I still poured my love and knowledge about Tolkien/C.S. Lewis/the-cast-of-all-Peter-Jackson’s-Middle-Earth-movies into it, creating something new out of my fannishness. But is participating in one’s fannishness the same as participating in ones fandom?

I guess what I really want to know is how to respond when someone asks, “What are your fandoms?” Do they mean the things I really love and like to see more about? Or do they only mean the communities I’m actively involved in? In the process of writing this, I have developed more of an understanding that fandom does refer to a community of fans, but I’m still not sure how to answer the question. What if you put your fannishness out there in the hope that some like-minded person will see, but no one ever responds? Can you BE a fandom of one?

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