Fractured Fandom and Power Flows

In the past decades, academic scholarship has celebrated fans and their fandoms, and even public discourse has seen a turnaround from ostracizing fans to embracing them. While there are benefits to being fans, problems do exist within fandoms and threaten to emotionally and even physically hurt fans, and these problems should be addressed so that we may truly celebrate fandom as a phenomenon, an institution, and a way of life. This recognition does not mean a return to the conceptualization of fans as obsessive and dangerous fanatics, or as being socially isolated and awkward individuals.

Instead, what needs to be remembered is that fandoms are not monolithic communities where all individuals share many overlapping characteristics, but are instead collectives of various factions held together by the commonalities they share, which may be one single yet important commonality: an affective for a particular “thing.”

Within this collective, the differences between individuals can result in fractures that illustrate the formation of a subgroup, and that a fandom is made of any number of these subgroups. Subgroups form within a fandom when all fans agree that they have an affection for something, but what specific aspect they like, how much they like it and how they express this liking can differ from subgroup to subgroup. The fractures within a fandom demonstrate these differences, which can be small or large, and can lead to smaller and more specific fan communities.

Fractures do not simply occur within fandoms, causing these subgroups and specific fan communities. Fractures also occur between fandoms. Wherever they occur, they can result in the use of in-group/out-group distinctions. Fans of one fandom or community may place themselves in positions of privilege, as being “true fans,” which can result in the in-group policing the boundaries of what is appropriate for the fandom and thus distinguishing themselves from the “fake fans” (i.e. the out-group). Such policing involves the in-group developing feelings of superiority due to differences of opinion (e.g. their interpretation or affectation being appropriate) and differences of behavior (e.g. their shipping or cosplaying being appropriate).

Thus, these fractures can result in perceived and actual power flows.

True fans will act in ways to display their power in the fandom or fan community and will work to depower those they perceive as being fake fans. Interviews with 103 fans from various sports, media, geek fandoms revealed how fans perceived such power flows in relation to these fractures, and how they acted when confronted with these fractures.

This presentation from CSCA 2017 considered these power flows and how they related to different types of fractures and different good, bad and ugly methods for handling the fractures. While fractures do not have to result in negative experiences for fans, the fact that they do means fan studies needs to move beyond simply celebrating fans and fandom to understanding how power flows through this aspect of people’s lives, and how it can have serious impacts on those lives outside of their fandoms and fan communities.

So after reading all 103 “stories” aka interviews from this study, I made several observations.

First, as mentioned above, many people are talking about things that happened to them, with no apparent sense that they did anything to deserve what happened. Some do talk about being the instigators, but for the most part there are people who do not feel that they did something that truly warranted the reaction they received. And then there are the people who are just observers to problems between other people, sometimes discussing how they took sides, and sometimes claiming to be impartial bystanders.

Second, there is a lot of pain in these stories. Luckily, a lot of it is short term, and many people claim to have been strengthened, in different ways, because of the experience. But there are far too many stories of people having lasting impacts — sometimes very negative — to the experience. In addition, many people discussed how the problem they experienced related to other problems in their “real lives” such as sexual assault, bullying, abuse, depression, and so forth. Commonly these people discussed how they had hoped for the fandom to be their respite from these negative living conditions, but found the problem to exacerbate their real life problems.

Third, the most common communicative action taken in response to these problems is to shut down. To self-censor and silence one’s self. Only a couple times do people discussing trying to engage the other person(s) communicatively — in ways that could be considered more dialogic. Often times people will say they wish the other person was more willing to listen to their perspective, but there does not seem to be as often the attempt to do so on their part.

Fourth, that also relates to how often the problems seem associated with failures to listen — which includes failures to ask questions to better understand. Miscommunication, misperception, misinterpretation — all of these are highly prevalent in the stories.

Fifth, there is a lot of discussion about how the instigator had power in the situation, either because of some form of hierarchy or popularity. But there was also a lot of discussion on how power comes from inside, from taking control over yourself. Not sure yet if that could be read as a rationalization.

Finally, the discussion of power goes across all types of fandoms, all types of fractures, so that is definitely something to look out for in the concrete analysis that examines the intersection of type of fracture, reason for fracture, perception of power in fracture, and response to fracture.

Here is the entire presentation with all results and examples from the fractured fandom study.

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