Why Online Fandom Communities Are Good For the Soul

So, in my previous post about fan fiction I briefly introduced the concept of Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 is a term that has been used to describe the age of the Internet exemplified by Wikipedia and blogging. These days, it seems like almost everyone can create content on the Internet from pre-schoolers to grandparents. Of course, there are limitations based on socio-economic status, culture, location etc., but it’s undeniable that the Internet has gotten pretty crowded.

While people like Andrew Keen, whom I quoted in the fan fiction piece, are concerned with Web 2.0’s overabundance of content of varying levels of quality, Web 2.0 serves another purpose beyond acting as a free self-publishing service.

Above all, Web 2.0 encourages the development of community.

From YouTube to wikis to news sites, the Internet has become more than just a way to broadcast information.  There is now an ongoing conversation online that almost anyone with access to the Internet can engage in.

That’s both really awesome, and kind of terrifying.

I think most of us are familiar in some way with the negative results of online communities. Trolling, flaming, sexism, racism, and immaturity all abound.  Many of these tendencies can be enflamed in fandoms where passions are running high, particularly whenever there’s a “ship war” going on.  For a brief explanation of shipping. let’s go to the all-knowing Wikipedia:

Shipping, derived from the word relationship, is the belief that two characters, fictional or non-fictional, are (or will be, or should be) in a romantic relationship. It is considered a general term for fans’ emotional involvement with the ongoing development of romance in a work of fiction. Though technically applicable to any such involvement, it refers chiefly to various related social dynamics observable on the Internet, and is seldom used outside of that context.

Shipping can involve virtually any kind of relationship – from the well-known and established, to the ambiguous or those undergoing development, and even to the highly improbable and the blatantly impossible. People involved in shipping (called shippers) variously assert that the relationship doesexist, will exist, or simply that they would like it to exist.

Wikipedia

Ship wars, as you might have guessed (or know from experience), are what happens when there are very passionate factions in a fandom supporting different possible “ships.”  While the most well known example of a ship war to those outside of fandom is probably Twilight’s Team Jacob vs Team Edward, other fandoms have had pretty intense wars of their own.  I can personally attest to the irrationally vitriolic tone the Avatar: The Last Airbender ship war occasionally struck.

As I said in my first post, What is Fandom?, fandom is about loving something, and being passionate about it.  Unfortunately, as we all know from reading our Shakespeare, sometimes intense passions can go astray, especially, apparently, when one is arguing with strangers over the internet about whether or not Katara (age 14) from the Southern Water Tribe should get together with Avatar Aang (age 12) or Prince Zuko (age 16).

However, while you will  inevitably run into infighting in every fandom community, which has been exacerbated by the easy access and instantaneous, uncensored communication largely provided by the Internet, I still honestly believe there’s more good in fandom then bad.

As I said before, the possibilities of online communities are kind of awesome. Not to again fall squarely into the geek stereotype, but I’m not exactly a social butterfly. I’m awkward around strangers, and my hatred of crowds is so intense that, if I were to go to San Diego Comic-Con as is the sacred pilgrimage of all geeks, I would probably immediately freak out.

But, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to connect with other people.  Online fandom communities gave me that opportunity.

Think about those kids I was talking about, the ones who are just starting out as writers in the fan fiction community.  A decade ago, that was me.  When I first discovered fan fiction, I hadn’t really adjusted well to middle school, and hadn’t yet found a clique I really meshed with.  Enter the Lord of the Rings online community.

Even with all the warnings of online stranger danger, the fan sites and forums and fan fiction pages felt like safe places to me. No one knew I was a preteen struggling to get through school both socially and academically. No one knew I was overweight or awkward in person. All they knew was what I wrote, and that I had certain opinions with which they either agreed or disagreed.

As Melissa Anelli states in Harry, A History, her book about the Harry Potter phenomenon:

It was a lot easier, as a young adult, to be a fan with the Internet than without it; nondigital fan cultures used to connect via magazines and newsletters mailed to their homes, and since it usually took an adult to seek out a fanzine, children were largely left out of the picture, or at least left to be fans in the isolation of their neighborhoods and schools. Now they weren’t only forming social connections, but using Harry Potter to explore literary concepts by writing fanfiction. They were developing their artistic skills by drawing their favorite Harry Potter characters and scenes. Since socializing online had developed to the point where any piece of fanfiction or fan art was likely to receive responses and reviews, they were also becoming used to receiving and implementing constructive criticism.

Anelli: Harry , A History p. 92

Online fandom changed my life.  That is not an exaggeration.

Growing confidence online gave me confidence in the real world.  That may seem counter-intuitive,  but the online community didn’t suck me in and prevent me from communicating with real people.  Instead, I got the courage to speak up more, and the added benefit of suddenly having shared interests to discuss with people.

There have been other examples of the bonds people grow through fan communities, which exist mostly online these days.  In Done the Impossible, a documentary about how Firefly fans, or “Browncoats” made the movie Serenity possible, there are several stories of people finding life-long friends, even lovers through the community.  The same is true for the documentary Ringers: Lord of the Fans, about the Lord of the Rings fandom.

Melissa Anelli, the author of Harry, A History goes into great detail about how acting as webmistress of one of the biggest Harry Potter fan sites, The Leaky Cauldron, and interacting with fellow Harry Potter fans online changed her life, from giving her the opportunity to meet Rowling to getting her through 9/11.

So, in conclusion, yes, there are a lot of really stupid, immature, and offensive things to be found online and in online fandom communities.  But, every time I hear about a couple who found love online, or how the online communities support got someone through a rough time in their life, I can’t help but earnestly believe all those petty arguments and trolls are worth putting up with.

Between the good and the bad, I don’t think there’s much of a contest.

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1 Comment

Filed under About Fandom, Fandom and Me (or should it be "I")?

One response to “Why Online Fandom Communities Are Good For the Soul

  1. Pingback: The Most Controversial Part of Fandoms: Shipping | The Fandom Learning Curve

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