I believe this is the golden age of fandom.
We could have a debate about the quality of current content versus the classics of old—certainly more is being produced today, and “nerd culture” is at its most mainstream—but that debate would exemplify what can sometimes be wrong in fandom: competitiveness, and judgment, and gatekeeping.
What I want to explore is the best of fandom, and I think the best of today’s fandom is the best there’s ever been.
For any out there who might be unfamiliar, “fandom” is a term for a collective group of fans—it can be applied to a specific work, such as the “Harry Potter fandom,” or as a general term for people who express enthusiasm and even love for fictional works—through buying collectibles and t-shirts, attending conventions and midnight screenings, drawing fanart or writing fanfiction. Being a part of fandom is more than just enjoying a work; it’s about the hunger for more, the passion for the details, the connection you feel to others who love the same, and the burst of creative energy that can come from this adoration.
It’s the last two that are more powerful now than they have ever been.
I’m sure as long as there have been creative works, there have been fans. Shakespeare’s plays probably had a dedicated group of followers (including Queen Elizabeth?); and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fandom was so strong and vocal that he had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from the dead. In fact, an interesting book I read about fanfiction—Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison—mentioned that the Bronte sisters wrote fanfiction as their early work (I’m pretty sure; this is from memory).
The earliest form of fanfiction as we recognize it today—“amateur” fans writing stories about their favorite characters or worlds and sharing it with each other for free; as opposed to licensed media tie-ins or adaptations of works out of copyright, both of which share many qualities of fanfiction, but notably not the “free” part—is generally believed to have come from the original Star Trek fandom, who sent out newsletters and coined the term “slash” around the pairing of Kirk and Spock (a.k.a. Kirk-slash-Spock). In these early days of fandom, to love a fictional work so much that you subscribed to newsletters and attended conventions was a mark of an outcast, a “Trekkie,” a geek or nerd before that was an okay thing to be.
But still, people sought fandom out. Because somehow, fiction stirs something in us, powerful and deep and often unavoidable. (I maintain that “sports fandom” shares many of the same traits—costumes and gatherings and trivia and fan creations—without the stigma, but I digress…)
So what has changed to make today’s fandom not only so much more mainstream, but so much better?