It has not only been the Internet and the digital revolution, which have empowered consumers. The originating of fandoms has played a major role as well. Fandom is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a collective of fans who are regarded “as a community or subculture.” Through the building of communities, enthusiastic consumers of a certain piece of media have become much more than a passive audience.
There are content creators who have caught on to their audience wishing to be involved more actively and having an opinion. They actively use platforms like Twitter, which give creators the opportunity to communicate with fans without an intermediary like an agent. For example, one fan on Twitter asked Brian Fuller, show runner of the series Hannibal, if one of the dogs on the show could be called Applesauce. This was a minor suggestion, with no effect on the plot or characters of the show. However, when Fuller did agree that Alana’s dog was now called Applesauce, this small nod at the fandom was seen as a major act of appreciation toward the fan community.
Fans’ enthusiasm is not the same as mindless adoration
Fans are on the forefront of more active consummation of media. Many fans are creatively active themselves. They write fan fiction and songs. They draw fan art. They express their enthusiasm through many different channels. However, they also engage with the medium they enjoy very critically. In fact, one may argue fans are more likely to criticize the medium they are enthusiastic about than casual audiences, especially if their favorite medium lacks diversity. Harry Potter Fans, for example, openly criticized that they should wait until the second film of the upcoming Harry Potter franchise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for a more diverse cast. Meanwhile, since Tom Holland was announced as the new Spider-Man, rather than someone like the half-black, half-Hispanic Miles Morales who currently is Spider-Man in the comics, fans have threatened to boycott the film. They know the most effective manner, as customers, to protest against whitewashing, is to not engage with the franchise at all. However, while fans may criticize the piece of media they’re enthusiastic about, most of the time the criticism is genuine and boycotting is only used as a last resort.
It’s all about community
Active consumption of media and participation is not the only focus of fandom. The second pillar of fandom is the community. Fans often meet and become friends at conventions. (“Conventions”, you read and frown.) Now here’s the point where mainstream stereotypes often clash. Imagine a Star Trek fan in the 1960ies? What does that person look like? Male, unattractive, wearing glasses – the cardboard stereotype of a nerd?
Wrong. Star Trek is often cited as one of the first modern fandoms and the community was mostly built by women. They organized fan fiction, fan zines and essays about the show, engaging critically and adding their own imagination to it in fan-created works.
The power of fandom also reaches beyond the realms of their own community through their involvement with charities, that they often even found on their own. For example, the Harry Potter Alliance focuses on the topics of equality, human rights and literacy, as well as engaging in activism through stories. With one of their on-going campaigns they have collected over 250 000 books for readers in need.
Another example for a fan community’s impact is the Nerdfighter fandom, which was founded around the YouTube videos of self-proclaimed nerds Hank and John Green. Every year they organize the Project 4 Awesome, a 24-hour fundraiser with a live stream on YouTube. Everyone in the community can submit a video about their favourite charity. During the live stream all of these videos are watched and viewers are encouraged to donate money by the different YouTubers hosting the live stream and the perks they offer. Then the videos are voted on in a democratical way, and the donated money is distributed accordingly. In 2015 the Project 4 Awesome collected over $1.5 million in this manner.
The future of fandom
People have considered themselves fans of pieces of media for a very long time, even though they might not have used the word fans. For example, when Arthur Canon Doyle killed his famous detective, many people mourned the death of Sherlock Holmes publicly and urged the author to resurrect him until he eventually gave in. This power of enthusiastic consumers and involvement of fans has only been increased through the digital revolution. It’s exciting to speculate how this trend may develop into interactive narratives, where the audience becomes an active part of the story. There is already a beginning of transmedia narratives and how they can allow audiences to interact in innovative ways.
Header credit Julia Holmes