Friday, December 20, 2013

On Fandom: The Network

How many comic fans do you know? How many do you chat with via social media? How many of them are close enough friends that you might attend each others' weddings? Everyone's going to have different answers to those questions obviously, but it makes for an interesting thought experiment about the connections within fandom.

There are easily a couple hundred thousand comic fans in the U.S. There's no way you can know all of them. And of the ones you do know, it probably wouldn't be easy to rattle off their names. First off, just about every comic creator these days is/was a fan first. As is pretty much every retailer. And the comics news folks. And the bloggers. It would take you a while to create a list of all the ones you're familiar with.

Of all those people, you probably only chat with a relative few on any sort of regular basis. The nature of the human brain is such that we can only sustain about 150 concurrent ongoing social contacts. Our neocortices don't seem to have the capacity to keep up with more than that many people. (See chapter four of my book on comic fans for a more extended discussion on this.) So this group of 150 is a distinct subset of all the comic fans you know.

But one of the cool things is that each person's 150 are different. The 150 people I know in fandom might include you, and the 150 people you know might include me, but the other 149 we each know could be entirely different.

Years ago, I moderated a Fantastic Four message board. Not surprisingly, I got to know many of the board regulars. In the course of chatting about the FF, there'd frequently be tidbits of personal information, and we got to know each other over time. But as a moderator, I also got to know the other mods. We had a separate moderator message board, partially to discuss technical and policy issues but also to just chat. Jump to today, a decade or more later, and a few of the people I first met on those boards I'm still friends with. But I'm pretty confident that those people haven't even talked with one another, much less are friends.

But what's also interesting is that I've met other comic fans through those people, and have become friendly with them. And those people I've introduced to still other comic fans that I knew, and they've since become friends.

Now you might think that would lead to an ever-increasing group of friends within fandom, and we'd eventually all know each other. But this is where that 150 person limit comes into play. While we might still know and remember all of those people, we can't keep up with all of them. We can keep up with that 150 or so. As we get more interested and engaged in other fans' lives, we let other friends' acquaintance fall to the wayside.

Think back a bit. How many people did you used to be friendly with that you haven't spoken with in a couple years? Maybe you moved and don't visit your former local comic shop any more. Maybe they had a baby and they didn't have time to visit the message board any more. Maybe your phone died and you got out of the habit of checking Twitter regularly. Life happens, and people move in and out of your field of vision.

But I find it fascinating that those connections can remain in place. So that circle of 150 friends is no longer a subset of all the comic fans you know, but a subset of all the comic fans you're on friendly terms with, which is then a subset of all the comic fans you know. Then mix that with the circles of friends that your friends know, and you've very quickly gotten an excessively complex and hard to read Venn diagram! It'd be curious to try to chart one out at some point; anyone want to give it a go?

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