Modern Media Consumption (I) – Fandom, Obsession and Community

The concept of fandom (as opposed to simply liking something) is a difficult one to grasp for someone not familiar with it; genre fiction expert Damien Walter claimed that it is a kind of transcending of simple media consumption and creation of a rapport of sorts with authors or creators. To begin defining it, it is first important to understand precisely how this new relationship between creator and consumer exists; the creators of something are now held to a higher level of accountability by their audience than before. This manifests in two ways – constructively, in that audience feedback as a whole informs the production of future works, and more destructively as more vocal and allegedly “dedicated” fans declare their views more worthy than those of the less vocal ones. This latter can lead to the changing of focus of series or franchises to appeal more to those minorities of fans who pay more and shout louder – and arguably then it is that subset of fans who are the true “fandom”.

This dedicated core of fans places the creators of fiction in a problematic situation; angering them leads to bad press and lost sales, but appeasing them over others leads to genres and franchises becoming increasingly insular and obsessed with continuity. Any medium or series needs new audiences to survive and this cannot be achieved if the voices of the grognards define its development. An example of this is DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch of its core series; the resetting of all the storylines to “issue 1” was intended to provide a neat introductory point for new comic readers to get into long-running characters and stories. However, the resulting comics were still heavily based on the demands of long-term fans which arguably lessened their usefulness to new ones and left neither party happy.

However, the concept of “fandom” is not merely destructive in terms of creating content, it is equally unhelpful when the matter of consuming it arises. Entrenched fandoms – groups of diehard fans convinced their way of doing something is the right one – can be actively offputting to newcomers who they consider insufficiently dedicated to their chosen obsession. What fandom has become is a kind of obsession with a single franchise which is happy to remain insular and elitist; as part of a fandom, one no longer simply enjoys something but defines oneself by it. This sounds extreme, but it is a simple extension of the tribalism of modern hobbies which is almost legitimised by self-defined “geeks.” It is linked to the focus on transmedia and merchandising that accompanies many “geek-friendly” franchises, where one IP can be not only a film or game but both, and then be accompanied by tie-in novels and physical merchandise to create what is considered something worth investing significant time and effort in. To someone in a fandom, it is not enough for someone to simply be a fan of something – this is especially true in computer gaming, where simply having a hobbyist’s interest is seen as a bad thing.

Discourse about the subject of a fandom thus becomes less about the constructive rapport or sense of community that is the natural benefit of a closeknit and dedicated group, but more dogmatic and entrenched; it is this that leads to much of the bad press about subcultures for it often leads to a closing down of debate about issues. If a fandom feels its focus is being attacked, it may close ranks and accuse “haters” of not being sufficiently invested in it to criticise properly; knowledge of the franchise in question is valued the most highly in any criticism of it and used to deflect criticism. While this again is based in theory on sound reasoning (that one should not argue from ignorance) it arguably overvalues specialist over general knowledge and uses trivia of a franchise to claim criticism are unwarranted. This is most clearly shown in gaming, when criticisms of the medium are brushed off as coming from people who simply don’t understand it. Any medium or franchise can be as usefully criticised or evaluated by outsiders as well as dedicated followers for as I have mentioned in previous articles, it is quite possible to make something accessible to new audiences without compromising what makes it enjoyable or notable. Indeed, it is new perspectives that are vital for the longevity of anything without stagnation.

“Fandom” as a concept then appears to me to embody the corruption of the good aspects of community that can build around a common interest in a way which stifles debate, creates hostility and conflict between creator and audience and discourages new audiences from taking something up by the encouragement of a closed-circle attitude. This I think comes from the sense that a common interest is not a means of beginning a genuine community but instead in itself a community of sorts; that there is some inherent fellowship in being interested in – and defining oneself by one’s interest in – some particular medium, genre or even simply a single franchise or series. What is more, the ubiquity of merchandising allows for an easy way to quantify dedication to a fandom. This can almost be seen as a kind of insecurity; it is not enough to simply like something for what it is, instead it must be made into something more than that to legitimise it.

I myself buy merchandise of things I like; model kits of science-fiction designs I find impressive or interesting, games like Super Robot Wars that reward enthusiasm for their source material, and so on. However, I would not say I am particularly engaged in being part of a “fandom” around these things; I am certainly a fan of, say, the Gundam franchise – I have watched many series within it, have some interest in the supplementary worldbuilding materials put out by the creators and so on – but I do not see this as placing me within an artificially created community. A common interest in military SF or similar would certainly be a good basis for a friendship, but it is not in itself friendship and it is this conflation of common interest and actual community that is my main issue with the concept of “fandom.”

This, however, is not to say that the concept is hopeless; it simply requires redefining. Dedicated interest in something can be hugely rewarding and even constructive. Fans can fix problems with a product to help new people get into it quicker, as happens with modifications and user-patches for video games. They can often provide useful introductions to complex franchises and continuities, as happens with some comic communities. As I began this article by saying, it is far too big and complex an issue to simply boil down – yet its negative aspects to me seem more visible at times and far more harmful to hobbies I enjoy than its positive ones are useful.

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