Monday, April 29, 2013

The Nature of Fandom in the Age of Social Networking

Being a fan is a pretty one-sided relationship.  Up until recently  -- and I'm going to get to this in a moment -- it was almost completely one way and non-reciprocal.  There is no mutual recognition in being a fan. 

Fandom is based on things like buying records and things, showing up at huge arenas and stadiums, and being an anonymous admirer.  Being a fan of Cheap Trick does not mean they're going to call you up to consult on song lists or invite you to hang out and talk music -- you pretty much have to be content to admire them from afar.

I don't know if I'm some kind of narcissist, or stuck in an adolescent phase of celebrity relationships, or what, but this non-reciprocity has always bothered me, and truth be told, I always wondered why it didn't bother other people. 

Like if you're talking about some creative/artist fan object -- a musician, filmmaker, writer, whatever -- for me love and admiration for the artistic object (the song, the book, the movie) immediately makes me want to spend some quality time with the fan object -- the creator.  Doesn't it for you?  Don't you find yourself thinking that person has some special insight into life?

Well, I do.  And it makes me want something back.  It's not always easy to sort out what this "something back" is supposed to be, but sometimes it's more like friendship and sometimes it's more like parenting; sometimes it's like romance or sex; sometimes you just want to know they're there, listening to you, thinking you're special and awesome. 

Often I try not to be a "fan," and to stick to just liking things -- this is an essential difference.  For example, I read a lot of novels, and with novels I make a point of trying to read and enjoy them without becoming a fan of the author.  Because it's necessary for the proper experience of a novel that you don't know too much about the novelist.  Otherwise, you're just constantly like "oh I bet that character was based on her awful first husband!" and so on and so forth and then forget it, you are just not reading the novel in the proper way.  This is, of course, itself getting harder in the age of social networking. 

With some things, though, it is really hard to like the thing without becoming a fan.  Do you know that NPR news comedy show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me?  I love that show.  I tried to stick to loving the show, but it was impossible for me to avoid becoming a fan -- of Paula Poundstone, of Maz Jobrani ... and most of all, of Peter Sagal, the hilarious over-caffeinated host. 

But it's no good for me, being a fan of Peter Sagal.  Because now I want him to be my friend, to crack his wisecracks specially to me over a glass of wine, to listen to my problems in life, and mostly just to think, reciprocally, that I am really special and interesting and awesome.

Sorry Patricia, that is not going to happen.

Now, you might think that in the age of social networking this problem is going away, or getting better, or something. Because it is no secret that social networking, and especially Twitter, are eroding the one-sided nature of fandom.  Now anyone can aim their tweet at anyone else, and anyone can engage with anyone, and armies of fans have, if not access, at least a way of getting the attention of the fan object.

Is it the end of one-sided fandom?  Does the fan concept now become reciprocal and mutual, the fan concept of my dreams?

No, I'd say the opposite is true.  Now, the fan concept is more troubling rather than less.  Because now, the one-sidedness of fandom isn't just built into the space-time continuum, like it used to be -- instead it results from actual choices of the participants.

Now, if you're a person with Twitter-wit (a Twit?), who can pack a paragraph of cleverness and humor in 140 characters, you might be able to get that reciprocity.  If you could craft the perfect fan email, with the perfect combination of humor and emotion and narrative peaks and valleys, you might get the attention of that fan object.  It can happen.  The possibility of reciprocity and mutual recognition is there.

But that means if you're just some ordinary person, some humble blogger, some everyday looker-at-pictures-of-cats-on-the-internet, you're still basically SOL.

Which just brings home even more the essential sad truth of fandom for the rest of us:  you're not special; you're just a fan.

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