Fandom History Then & Now

By | Thursday, February 25, 2010 4 comments
Laura Hale, founder of, writes this interesting piece on how fandom looks now compared to the late 1990s/early 2000s. While she's not speaking specifically to comic book fandom, it remains perfectly applicable.

She does point out the difficulty in sorting through everything these days. Although she doesn't use the example, back in the day, there were science fiction fans. Then, they splintered into 'hardcore' science fiction fans who were looking for stories based on scientific theories and sci-fi fans who were more interested in Buck Rogers and John Carter. Today, not only do you have groups dedicated exclusively to Star Wars or Firefly, but you've got different factions within the body of Star Trek fandom. (TOS vs. TNG vs. whatever-they're-calling-last-year's-revamp for example.)

Plus, as I've mentioned on this blog repeatedly, things are speeding up, too. Which Hale notes compounds the difficulty of recording everything that's going on.

Not surprisingly, she's expressing a little frustration.

But there's a couple of things I might note to help alleviate some concerns.

First, with the digital technology we're using, much of fandom's actions are being recorded automatically on the fly. These days, if you hit a convention, you can snap pictures with your camera-phone and have them uploaded to Flickr or Facebook or wherever within seconds. Virtually real-time reporting. Plus, it's automatically backed up and archived for retrieval at any later time. When I was writing the portion of Comic Book Fanthropology on the conflicts between comic fans and Twilight fans at Comic-Con International, it was insanely easy to not only dig up one- and two-year-old quotes made at the time, but I was able to find dozens of pictures documenting some of the protesters. The documentation was done at the time, and retrieving it was simply a different process than it would've been a decade or two earlier. (Google-Fu vs. tracking down and sorting through old fanzines.)

Second, the wealth of documentation that's happening means that there's more available to work with. Trying to document fandom's happenings from the 1930s and 40s is NOT an easy task; I speak from first-hand experience here! There simply wasn't much recorded at the time and so we're left having to make assumptions and broad generalizations based on extremely limited examples. The older fans I profiled in my book were chosen, in part, because something had already been written about them! When some of the current fans I wanted to profile decided they were unable to participate, it wasn't difficult at all for me to grab someone else who had plenty of information about themselves readily available online.

I'm not saying that documenting fandom is easy. Trust me, I know it's anything but! But I think the larger issue is that we're living in a new society that's still primarily governed using the thoughts, ideas and mores of the past. One of the reasons I try reading the works of Henry Jenkins, Seth Godin and Clay Shirky is because they're farther along in understanding this new culture we're in. They're still trying to figure out the new rules, too, but they've got a better handle on them than most everyone else, I think. As much as I don't like Iron Man, I do respect the futurist mentality he tries to embrace because, frankly, that's where we have to be if we're going to keep up with where the planet's going!
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Laura Hale said...

I'm babbling. I can't help it. I apologize.

I'm with you on old stuff is really, really hard to document. (I spent about two years trying to track information on the history of early music fan fiction in printzine format. After a while, I found people telling me what they had heard... and when I tracked down the origins of what they heard, it turned out to be me.) The easiest period to document is probably 1998 to 2008. You've got Usenet records. There are enough dead sites still around to get a feel for what was happening on services like Geocities that are gone. You've got those sites that continue to be active and you have a number of people who are writing personal histories of their involvement in fandom during that time. Frequently. As part of a meme process.

Earlier periods tend to require getting access to gatekeepers who have content and individual knowledge that isn't readily accessible. (My music fan fiction clarity came at a convention when I was babbling about the topic to some one who said "I have those stories. I'd love to get rid of them out of my apartment. Give me your address and I will mail them to you.") Some of those people are also beginning to die off. (Some one involved with early Trek fandom past away but did manage to write up their history before that happened.)

My sense of overwhelming might be different from other people because of the scale that I tend to look at things. Fan History has the infrastructure pre-built to include the history of over 100,000 fandoms with various stub articles. We've probably got articles that actually start to get history on over 5,000 specific fandoms, even if it is only to say that these fan communities have a presence on LiveJournal or FanFiction.Net, here are some of the people who belong to the fan community, here is some activity during set periods of the time. Fan History probably has 30 active contributors in any 2 week period who probably edit about 100 pages. This contributor base is really small, especially considering the potential scope of the project. And that's where the feeling of overwhelming come from.

I can sit down and probably write a well researched history of Twilight fandom in a month or two. (Probably closer to two considering how big the fandom is. And I like to have some quantitative date before writing to help support what I think are trends and patterns.) There is a huge amount of material... but one person, or even five people can't document that much. Especially as things are ongoing.

And if you focus on one fandom, it can be hard to see the intersections between other various groups and communities. I'm generally behind the wall of LiveJournal fandom so it shapes how I view fandom. I don't attend many conventions either. Given those two things, I might not know that Twilight fans are getting shafted by this group on LJ, that group on FanFiction.Net, this other group on Facebook and this other group at conventions. I might miss that the connections are a few influential people here or there. I might also miss that some of the contests that people use in the Twilight fandom aren't new but rather business practices that are being carried over from say Star Trek fandom or Harry Potter fandom. Those intersections, between groups, explain a lot of what is going on in fandom on a wider level... and there are now an overwhelming number of possible intersections.

No apologies necessary for babbling. That's all I do here every day! That's what the internet was made for, wasn't it? ;)

FWIW, there are more fandoms and larger numbers within those fandoms than there were even a decade ago. So if you're trying to study fandom at such a macro level, I think you have to not lose sight of the fact that you're only one person. There's so much out there already, not to mention what's constantly being generated, that no single individual can keep up with it all. But, in my research, what struck repeatedly struck me was how similar different fandoms are at a macro level. I alluded to this in the piece on Twilight that I just referenced. What happened between comic fans and Twilight fans the past year or two is actually pretty similar to what happened between sci-fi fans and comic fans a few decades earlier.

One of the books I used for research was Harry Warner's history of science fiction fandom: All Our Yesterdays. It was published in 1969 and covered sci-fi history only up through around 1950. What was striking, though, was that if you changed just a handful of the specifics -- updating names and dates, changing "mimeograph" to "off-set printer", etc -- it would read almost exactly like a history of comic book fandom!

Many of Henry Jenkins' books, too, showcase the similarity of different fandoms. That's how he's able to talk at length about TV shows and movies that he might not be as familiar to him as Star Trek or The Matrix. At such a macro level, they all look pretty similar.

So don't beat yourself up over not being able to keep up with all of it. Figure out how things work at the larger scale, and you can apply that model to fandoms that you're not as readily able to keep up with. The specifics might differ a bit, but whether you're going to a football game, a Three Stooges festival or a comic book convention, you're still going to get a decidedly noticeable 5-10% of the crowd dressing up in honor/appreciation of their heroes.

Laura Hale said...

So if you're trying to study fandom at such a macro level, I think you have to not lose sight of the fact that you're only one person.

One of the reasons Fan History is in wiki format is because we (myself and one or two friends) wanted a collaborative effort. There is a lot of work sort of being done but no way of unifying the bits and pieces that everyone is doing. By building a framework, working from a micro level, trying to strive for neutrality and/or multiple points of view, the goal was to make it less overwhelming and centralize the documentation. Hence, less stress.

It is just difficult to get more people involved in documenting the history of fandom as most people lack a vested interest in completing that documentation. We've taken some steps to help make it easier to invest people with a purpose like allowing them to promote themselves, encouraging them to document their activities on a microlevel where they can promote, document the history of fansites they run, communities they participate in, etc.

The macro isn't the issue. It is the micro focus that tends to become the issue. We get bogged down in the micro details... because the approach of the admins (not necessarily our contributor base) is a micro approach. We describe the forest by describing each individual trees until we've documented enough trees so that we can begin to draw larger conclusions.

I don't generally appreciate the macro approach because I think you can be in isolated positions, draw conclusions from that position and then summarize that as the position of the whole of fandom. One example of that involves a comment made by Henry Jenkins circa 1998 (or 2002 ) or so in Wired Magazine (I think). He claimed that old school fans would not have been tolerant of the amount of Real Person Fic, that they didn't write it and fandom didn't embrace it. A lot of people took that as gospel and it is one of those myths that still gets circulated around fandom even now. The problem is that it just isn't true. The group of fans he might have been researching might have held this position but it certainly wasn't true in music or actor fandom. Or even to a degree Star Trek fandom, where people were busy writing actorfic, some of which eventually got published in an authorized book.

Laura Hale said...

Figure out how things work at the larger scale, and you can apply that model to fandoms that you're not as readily able to keep up with.

Larger scale I can understand. I think I probably have a pretty good grasp of these patterns. Some of them just aren't discussed. There isn't necessarily an audience. (Or I might not be aware enough to tap into it.) The patterns discussed in my original post are rarely addressed, even as people complain about how certain things are right now. Certain things are outright ignored: People still fear a massive crackdown on fan fiction and that a single fan could precipitate that happening by trying to monetize something or trying to draw huge amounts of attention from creators to their work. It just isn't going to happen. It isn't in people's best economic interest to have that happen. (The economy of fandom is often a forgotten one, except as it pertains to authors trying to go professional, or where there is overlap between smaller publishers, authors and their reader base.)

Related to big patterns, Fan History's specific goal is to document the history of specific fan communities... with all 100,000. As one of the gatekeepers of that project, I feel a need to focus on that goal in order to get contributors involved with the project. The business part of promoting and creating the infrastructure is interesting. I've learned a lot. I just don't always find the promotional aspects, the monetary aspects, the creating of infrastructure to allow for growth as fulfulling as the desire to write a really detailed, well researched history like this one.