Recently, someone close to me revisited one of their favorite TV series of all time: Burn Notice. They can talk forever about how they love Michael, Fiona, and the rest of the cast, as well all the things that make the show stand out from its peers. However, something occurred to me in discussion, which is that as much as they’re fond of Burn Notice, they never felt the need to actively engage with other fans of the show. In other words, they’re a fan but not part of the fandom. Increasingly, I find myself in a similar boat about the things I love.
I still try to emotionally and critically engage with the media I enjoy (or don’t, as the case may be). I might even strike up a conversation with people through social media, including (but not limited to) those I would genuinely call friends. But if there’s one major difference between me today and the young me from decades past, it’s that I’ve since mostly stepped away from being a part of communities. I sometimes get a glimpse of a certain discussion or trend from within those communities, and if it’s interesting, I’ll check out what exactly is going on. Yet, I often don’t feel that strong pull to search for camaraderie through shared hobbies whereby I end up keyed into all the in-jokes and prominent discourses.
What I’m doing isn’t inherently better. I cherish my past experiences with chat rooms, forums, and messageboards—I even still participate in a few. What pushes me to engage less with fandom is that whenever I get into a new show, comic, anime, etc., a part of me worries about my initial perception being overly shaped by the particular beliefs and biases of whatever the most vocal hardcore parts of fandoms obsess over.
There are plenty of fandoms that grow “beyond” their targets of obsession, e.g. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Voltron: Legendary Defender, pro wrestling. While it’s a mistake to assume that these groups have been monolithic in their thinking, certain assumptions of what’s good or bad about a given aspect—characters, stories, staff—tend to ossify in at least parts of the community and end up getting taken as gospel. Often, I find that they overshadow other potentially interesting discussions or explorations, and I seek to avoid getting sucked in.
Disengaging with fandoms at large comes with a potential drawback: ignorance. For example, I could watch something with certain assumptions and not realize I’m dead-wrong about a vital piece of info—perhaps a show’s audience is expected to know about it because it’s considered common knowledge in another culture—but I’d rather be mistaken at first and adjust my views afterwards than to just be given the “proper fan” way of seeing something right off the bat. I will not accept fan consensus as gospel, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll ignore it entirely.
I sometimes see certain anti-fandom sentiments expressed: “the fandom makes me hate the show” or “I love the series but hate the fandom.” Often the counterargument is that these things shouldn’t impact your enjoyment of a work—what does it matter who else is a fan or what they do within the fandom? However, like so many instances of trying to go against the tide, it can be draining. You might want to engage with the things you love without having an interpretation already in the back of your mind, acting like experiential spoilers. You might want to talk about why you think a show or movie is your favorite without people automatically assuming you think or feel a certain way. And if part of the fun of being a fan is the communal aspect, what happens when you can’t find a community that suits you?
It’s why I think the geek social fallacies still apply to this day: geeks understand what it’s like to feel like they don’t belong, and they overcompensate by trying to connect everyone through a fandom even if there are people within who are fundamentally incompatible. But because of that desire for community, it can also lead to attempts to control fandoms whereby it becomes a requirement to justify one’s fandom tastes or accept certain established fanon in order to remain a part.
It’s okay to be a fan without a fandom. It’s okay to be a fan with many fandoms. It’s even okay to be a mix of both. What it comes down to isn’t simply about likes and dislikes. Rather, when you peel back all the layers, I think fan vs. fandom reflects how we choose (or not choose) to engage with communities, but are nevertheless still indicative of the same human social dynamics that dictate everything else, even if the exact contours and who’s in power are different. The important thing is to not forget yourself.