Fandom as Folklore

Every group bound together or by common interests and purposes, whether educated or uneducated, rural or urban, possesses a body of traditions which may be called its folklore. Into these traditions enter many elements, individual, popular, and even “literary,” but all are absorbed and assimilated through repetition and variation into a pattern which has value and continuity for the group as a whole. – Ben Botkin, 1938

“Fandom” is a broad term, possibly too broad to work with in a work that would be more expansive than this, but for my purpose here today it will have to serve. Loosely, it is the term used to refer to the collective of fans who engage in fannish activity. Not just people who are fans of a show, mind you, or even those who might attend convention, but more specifically, it tends to refer to those who spend time gathering together in groups online to, at a minimum, discuss a television show, movie, book, manga, graphic novel, or other form of entertainment, or, more likely, to produce some form of art based on the same.
Or, as I wrote in another text:

Thus, fandom is a mode of reception: conscious selection to watch (“read”) a show (text) faithfully from week to week; rereading through reruns, video archiving, or buying the DVDs; absorbing the text and then translating it into other types of cultural and social activity—making meaning from it, not just transient comprehension. Minimally, fans feel the need to talk about it with other fans (go to conventions, join fan clubs, go on fan chat sites) and many go on to produce new texts. Fan fiction is a particular form of fan activity through which fans inject their own semiotic readings onto texts that are seen by others as commercially produced commodities. “For its practitioners, a TV show and its characters are but the starting point for new flights of literary invention — conflicts, romances, whole storylines that the series’ actual creative team never dreamed of.”

Fandom is generally subdivided into the various works of art the fans are relating to. Therefore, you have the Harry Potter fandom and the Trekkies, the Heroes fandom and the Losties, the Highlander fandom and the Narnia fandom. A lot fans participate in many fandoms, however, and many people refer to “fandom” in general as one larger group made up of subgroups, the way one might refer to Europeans, and then break it down into the British, the Germans, the Italians, the Swiss, the Greeks, etc.

Indeed, for purposes of this idea, this argument, as it were, a lot of fandom activity and the inner workings or rules of the group carry across varying mini-fandoms. This is how a fan moving from a Highlander group to a Supernatural group knows some of how to act, how to behave, how to post their fiction or art, and generally get on. There will always be language that is particular to each subset, but the general rules are the same, at least, and if you observe them only in rare cases will you run afoul and when you do, you will be swiftly educated in your new fandom.

Folklore, on the other hand, has been defined in many ways by many people. One of the biggest hurdles that many disagree on, however, is who, exactly the folk are. Alfred Dundes offered, in his The Study of Folklore, that “folk” can refer to “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is-it could be a common occupation, language, or religion-but what is important is that a group…have some traditions that it calls its own” Further, Dundes argued that the “folk” should not be automatically identified with peasant or rural groups, or with people from the past. Instead, he contends that contemporary urban people also have folklore and suggests that rather than dying out, folklore is constantly being created and recreated to suit new situations. (Dundes, 1965)

Fandom most certainly is a group of people sharing at least one common factor–the love of a certain show, movie or book. Often its subsets are linked further–the love of a form of writing, a character, a pairing, an episode, a story arc, a particular writer on the show. Even outside the smaller subsets, all of fandom is linked by the fact that they participate in an activity much on the outside of the group do not understand: they take their liking of a form of entertainment to the next level. They watch or read for meaning the casual viewer does not see. They create new work from that which was already there. They subvert meaning and change text and create something new. All of this binds them in a way that makes them outcasts in some ways.

Fans are often perceived as laughable by those who do not understand. The media portrays them as loners, or geeks living in their mothers’ basements unable to function in the real world. They are often seen as mentally unstable, unable to divorce fiction from reality, and thus made the butt of jokes even by the shows they love. The truth is often quite different.

Fans come from all walks of life, and all education statuses. While no doubt some do fit the stereotype, just as many are people you’d never guess, highly functioning with high-powered jobs, well-educated and well-cultured. But they find something in fandom that they don’t get in their mainstream lives, and they remain a part of it.

The quintessential fans, “Trekkies” have been maligned by more mainstream culture, sidelined, marginalized, made out to be figures of ridicule. However, a deeper understanding of what it means to be a fan and what fan culture is about is required before one can appreciate the depth and intelligence and productivity this subset of our culture is capable of. News media has characterized fans as “kooks” and explained the “Trekkie phenomenon” (and by extension, other fandoms) in terms of “repetition compulsion, infantile regression, commodity fetishism, nostalgic complacency and future shock.” However, recent sociological studies of fans have shown a community of great depth, intelligence, creativity, productivity and compassion.

When united, the fandom community is capable of great generosity. After both the earthquake in Haiti and the more recent flooding in Australia, massive auctions were held in the general fandom community on LiveJournal with writers and artists auctioning off their talents, offering to make a bidder a piece of art, or write them a story of their choosing in a given fandom for a donation to the disaster relief. Both campaigns were extraordinarily successful.

More than a defense of fandom, though, this is an example of a functioning community of people, who are drawn together. They aren’t just loners out there all by themselves, or a non-cohesive interest group. There really is a sense of community that I think is equivalent to that of which Dundes was speaking.

That in place then, we turn to the question of traditions and art. Fandom has several varying traditions. There are rules about how art and fiction must be posted that are the same across forums and archives. Some may vary depending on place, but the general ones are the same and aren’t always even listed anywhere because you’re just supposed to know. All of fandom knows. It’s implied. When you post a story, you include the title, the summary, the characters, the words, the rating, any warnings (and by warnings this means whether there is any nonconsensual sex, any character death, any homosexual sex, any incest or anything else that might be triggering or upsetting for soemone), and if the story includes any spoilers (generally just including what episodes/point in the movie the story might mention events up until so no one who hasn’t seen up til then will be spoiled).

Fandom has its own slang, as well:

Canon – the source material, what actually happened explicitly on the screen
Fic – a piece of fanfiction/a story
Manip – a manipulated piece of art–generally putting two characters together through photoshop.
UST – unresolved sexual tension
OTP – one true pair
OT3/OT4 – one true threesome/foursome/etc
Mary Sue– a female characterwho has no faults and all the men fall in love with her – can be an original creation of an authors (and if so is generally seen as a self-insert) or a canon character.
Gary Stu – the male version of a Mary Sue
Self-insert – when a fanfic author puts themself into a story either through the use of a Mary Sue or directly
Crack pairings – pairings with NO basis in canon–the characters never even met, usually
Beta – someone to read over a fic and edit it/proofread it or make more substantive suggestions for the author about voice/characterization/story.
Flame/Flame war – when someone leaves a pointless highly incendiary remark on another person’s post or fic. A war happens when two or more people get into a series of such remarks back and forth. This is not constructive criticism but something like, “OMG, I hate this fic. You suck.” — why even leave that?
AU – alternate universe
Het – heterosexual pairing
Slash – homosexual pairing, generally male/male
Femmeslash – homosexual pairing, generally female/female

There is a lot more, obviously, but these are some of the most used, and they are ones that any noob (newbie – someone who has just become a part of the group) to fandom would have to learn. There isn’t anywhere to go to learn them, of course, so generally, you must figure it out, or ask. In this way, it is an oral form of learning–as much as “oral” can be translated to a form of IMing (instant messaging) or leaving comments in forums.
Fandom has its own art to offer as its “folkart,” as well, though, true, it is not an oral art the way much of folkart is thought to be. But it is the art of the group, and in many ways it is just as ephemeral as oral art. It is not published through traditional channels, and it is not “legitimate.” Most of it is subversive in that its very legality is left in question and the work can disappear from the public’s eye with a cease and desist letter because no one is ready to take the battle to court. In that case, the art becomes something that is passed around via email, instead of posted, or shared at a convention in person: stories read, pictures displayed, songs sung, costumes worn.

The various forms of art are actually too numerous to list, but the most common are fanfiction, fan art (most often: drawings, manipulations, icons, desktop wallpapers and banners), fan videos, filk music (songs which take tunes from other music and make songs about the fan subjects) and costumes for cosplay. Others have included pottery projects, using quotes from shows in artistic pieces of jewelry, reproductions of prop or jewelry pieces. The limit really is that of human creativity in working with things that they love.
Fan conventions and the customary things that go on there further identify this group, just as a folk festival might: readings of stories, filk music played late at night, cosplay, costume contests, role playing games, video contests, panel discussions with the artists and writers, late night rewatching of episodes, face-to-face meetings with friends who have only before been Internet handles and words on a screen.

This is just a broad overview, with a lot more research needed into the area, but the nature of folklore is changing in the digital age. Oral culture itself as changing as the way we communicate changes. What was “oral” may not be necessarily the same thing, at least by intention, not with the advent of instant messaging and group chats which replace telephones and sitting around a fire more and more.

The change in the world does not have to mean that the creation of folklore ceases, or that it is something for an era past. But our definitions may have to change as our idea of what “traditional” shifts, as well. Fans may not be defined by geographic location or culture–but fewer and fewer things are these days. I think this is a fascinating area to do more exploration in, and I’m eager to take the time to look into it further.