Curator’s Note: This is from a Tumblr post I drafted while preparing for a conference paper on the same topic in Spring 2014, which itself came from trying to figure out a way to understand problems I was seeing a lot in my own fandom, especially as it exists in largely non-hierarchical, rhizomatic social media sites such as Tumblr and Twitter. Please forgive the indulgence in posting it here.
Historically, we’ve thought of fandom as community/ies – virtual places where people share – enthusiasm, ideas, passion, interests, etc. Something they have in common, and it’s the commonality that binds them. In academic literature, it’s not uncommon to see fandom theorized as “imagined communities,” which is an idea borrowed from the political scientist Benedict Anderson.
An imagined community, as used in fan studies, emphasizes the sense of collective belonging, of a shared vocabulary, values, language – interests – that exceeds face-to-face interactions. And there’s probably no fan that hasn’t felt that way when they’ve stumbled onto a group of people who are talking about something they love in ways that they’ve been thinking or feeling about it all along. I don’t think it’s wrong to think of fandom as imagined community, but what I do think is that, in conceiving of fandom as community, we kind of favor the utopian side of communities (camaraderie, friendship, passion, a sense of being in something together, you and me against the rest of the world, etc.).
But what’s critical to keep in mind, I think, when talking about fandom as community – and something that a return to Anderson’s idea brings into relief – is that Anderson was originally talking about how nationalism happens (the full title of the book, in fact, is Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism). And – think about it. Camaraderie, friendship, loyalty, shared values, a sense of being in something together – people literally kill for that stuff. We’re sometimes even prepared to be beasts to other people – people who don’t fit inside our groups, our communities – if it will strengthen our own sense of connectedness with others (who amongst us hasn’t ever engaged in gossip, not because you’re an intrinsically horrible person, or because you want to bring someone down, but simply because that shared moment of affinity is so alluring?). (Or maybe that’s just me.)
When fandom was in closed – or close-able – settings, and I’m thinking especially of Yahoo! Groups (my own first online fandom, back in 2000) and LiveJournal, I think it was a relatively straightforward thing to create and maintain a sense of community. Regular contributors got to know each other, certain standards of communication were slowly set into place and adhered to, like minds met like minds and differences, in the main, I think were generally kept localized and limited because participants were more or less coming from roughly the same place. I’m generalizing, of course, but this is my own experience of fandom in those days, and when communities did break down – and they did (Doggett OMG John Doggett) – they tended to do so spectacularly with no hope of reconciliation; in a nation-state sense, this would be the kind of thing that splintered one large nation into smaller ones, each with their own inherent values, language, etc.
Point being, I think those days are over.
Tumblr, unlike LJ and Yahoo! Groups, etc., is inherently UNclose-able. It is wide, wide open – much like, you could argue, the world itself has become with the ease of travel. Only online, it’s not travel but these kinds of platforms that enable/make us see so much more than we ever did before – come into contact with so many more people than we ever did before, and suddenly it’s a world that isn’t necessarily built up of shared values. We don’t all see things the same way.
Yet, the illusion of community is still there. We talk about Sherlock fans, for example (any fandom will do) as if there is “the” Sherlock fandom, and I think this is where we start to see the limits of thinking of fandom as community. Because this idea that there’s the one fandom implicitly suggests, I think, that we all share the same language, values, roughly similar experiences, etc. And, as we’ve come to learn, we really don’t.
Rather, then – and some of you have heard me pontificate about this before, and I’m pontificating now partly because I’m giving a paper on this in a couple of weeks so I’m playing through the idea – but rather, I think we’d be better served thinking of fandom as what Mary Pratt calls a “contact zone,” which she defines as:
“social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”
I think this extends to virtual spaces like Tumblr or Twitter, where discrete ‘communities’ are increasingly unfeasible. As, again, in the world: I live in a multiethnic neighborhood, and I come into literal contact with people of different ages, races, religions, classes every day. And somehow we manage to survive the encounter – mainly because we don’t know each other well enough to rumble, but imagine if we started getting together over the one thing we all share: having children. So, we get together every week and talk about stuff, and I’m prepared to bet that, at some point, differences of opinion (on how to raise children, on what the purpose and value of education is, on a woman’s role within the family, etc.) would arise. We might struggle with language – I’m white, US-born, highly/over-educated – I am, in this sense, at an advantage linguistically in any conversation we may have (unless all the other mothers are Vietnamese, which is a distinct possibility in my neighborhood, in which case I might well be the disadvantaged one).
Which is my ham-fisted way of saying that I think – in the case of Sherlock, for example – that this show, “Sherlock,” is a contact zone – one of thousands – in which people who love the thing congregate. And that’s great, and so much amazing stuff can come out of that congregation. INCLUDING a sense of having found your ‘community’. But I think we’re not a community – we’re a LOT of people who have one thing in common, and probably a lot of other things not in common, and I think it’s easy for us to forget the latter part of that when we think about – and concern ourselves with – the idea of “fandom” as “community.” We will not always agree, and so the question becomes one of what we do next.
And for that, for me, I always come back to how I live in a multicultural, multiracial, multisexual, multi-everything world without threatening people or killing people left and right. Different people approach this differently. There will always be people in life – “real life” – who like to mix it up, argue politics, etc. There will be people who find their crowd and never come out, because it’s comfortable there. There will be people like me, who tend to keep people I don’t know well at arm’s length a bit – at least until I know them better. Some people will stand around in cliques and whisper loudly about the kids at the other table. And so on.
So then, for me, the question becomes, what do I do when this is the world online? When fandom isn’t a happy – or even “well, we do have our problems but we love each other” – community, but one that’s intrinsically fraught with grappling and conflict? Do I try to convince everyone that I’m right? Do I listen first, and engage in conversation? Do I alleviate the tension? Do I find a much quieter place to go be a fan amongst the like-minded? I think these are all viable options, but in observing AND participating, my experience has been that the people who are trying to convince others that they’re right have the hardest/most fraught time of it – and maybe it’s because the act of trying to bring people under a common understanding isn’t unlike trying to create a “community” in a place where there’s unlikely to be one?
Which doesn’t answer anything – I mean, I have no solutions, other than what I’ve adopted for myself (and it’s a work in progress): listen when people say they’re not being heard or understood (this was what I did in the epic fans-vs-acafans debate a few months back, and I concede that some arguments from the ‘other’ side had merit), rather than simply trying to make yourself heard. Walk away from intractable difference for the time being – especially if I’ve said my piece. It’s there, it’s available, but I cannot MAKE anyone believe anything they don’t want to, so I abdicate that responsibility. Create or find smaller sites off Tumblr for conversations that require a greater degree of mutual understanding and a shared/common language to really progress. I was in the habit of thinking of these as gated communities at one point, rather uncharitably, but I do this myself, and I do it in real life just as much. I am NOT the same person with my sister/brother/mom/spouse that I am in public – not because I’m hiding anything, but because we already know where we’re coming from, so if I say something that could be taken differently in a public context, generally they know how I mean it and that I don’t mean it the inflammatory way. Don’t respond to trolls, because they have a different MO altogether. I ignore assholes on the street, so I ignore them here, and do my best to keep them out of my backyard. I think those are all good tactics for engaging online, and they’re ways to make sense of Tumblr in all its infinite diversity.
Because I do think there’s value in being on Tumblr in all its infinite diversity. I’ve learned more about sexuality, gender, class, race – I mean, you name it – in my year and a half here than I have in years of living out in the world, because here I come into contact with people I might never speak to otherwise, and all because we have this one shared thing. I think the contact is critical – but that we have to understand that it’s the nature of contact with people and ideas outside our own experiences to be a bit fraught with conflict and, as Pratt says, grappling.
**Please don’t mistake me on this one thing: I am NOT saying that fandom doesn’t feel like community for people. I have found kindred spirits here, and I would say that we’re kind of a community. That’s not what I’m arguing, but rather that the broad idea of “fandom” as “community” is, perhaps, slowing us down/holding us back from understanding how fandom operates within environments that are not conducive to fostering a sense of togetherness.
“Fandom in/as Contact Zone,” ©tea-and-liminality/Lori Morimoto, originally posted on 16 April 2014