Welcome to Geek Word Wednesdays, where we feature common terms relevant to geeks everywhere; and explore a more critical discussion on geek identity, culture, and discourse. If you have a word you’d like us to study, let us know!
Attempting to define what “geek” means goes hand-in-hand with discussing the definition of fandom, and what fandom is. Google, as always, provides the curious with a good place to start.
Etymology Online provides a point of origin for the word, pinning its first use in the year 1903. Fandom thus combines two words, “fan” + “-dom”. Other sources claim that the suffix is shortened version of the word “kingdom” (which you’ll see below), but I find this explanation – also from Etymology Online – a lot more comprehensive:
[“-dom” is an] …abstract suffix of state, from Old English dom “statute, judgment” (see doom (n.)). Already active as a suffix in Old English (as in freodom, wisdom). Cognate with German -tum (Old High German tuom).
Back in 2002, Dave Wilton of Word Origins provided a definition of fandom that was less cut-and-dry than what we’ve presented above:
…fandom, n., a base of enthusiasts for a particularly activity, book, movie, or television series; originally from baseball; from fan + [king]dom; (1903).
Fandom is quite a sub-cultural phenomenon. The word dates to the turn of the 20th century and was originally used to refer to baseball fans. But it achieves it greatest linguistic heights in the realm of science fiction. Science fiction fans have their own lingo in referring to themselves and to their activities.
Fans engage in criticism and discussion. They write their own stories, or fan fiction. They publish web sites and magazines devoted to their subject. All this activity generates a vocabulary and jargon unique to these sub-cultural groups.
So in a single word, we’re getting the sense that fandom is simultaneously an individual state of being, an actual community (or sense of community), and something that involves discernment or judgment. I’m sure you all know just as well as I do that it’s not nearly as paradoxical as it seems. As the old saying goes, like attracts like: people connect easily over common interests. Connecting with each other is precisely what fans do using the common ground of the stuff that they enjoy.
Being a fan also entails being enthusiastic enough to discuss their interests and interrogate aspects of these interests that bother them. Said interrogation also includes discussing the behavior, opinions, and works of other enthusiasts, and of the creators of their favorite things. Thus we can say that fandom is participatory. A fan doesn’t just absorb the source material: a fan tries to include herself in an exchange of ideas about the material at hand, either by talking about it (see also every single social media platform out there) or by writing or drawing back (i.e. fanart, fanfiction).
Last year, BBC wrote an excellent article about how Sherlock Holmes was instrumental in the formation of modern fandom. Arthur Conan Doyle’s work touched the hearts of so many people that when he attempted to put an end to the series, hundreds of fans wrote him letters on the matter. This was likely the first incident in Western fandom where fan feedback contributed to the narrative flow of a story.
Later down the line, it became common practice for comic book companies or television stations to publish the addresses of their office in the spirit of getting readers/viewers to write to them. Some comic books published letters and fanart of interest in their issues. In a similar vein, Japanese manga publications put together things like character rankings, a poll that the likes of Shonen Jump continues to release yearly together with beautifully rendered artwork in their magazine.
The rise of the internet, however, drastically changed the face of fandom by making it easier for fans to connect to each other, exchange fan works, and express their views. The internet is also the reason why fandoms have become global communities. Such ease of communication paved the way for bigger conventions, faster feedback for creators and companies, near endless possibilities on trading/creating fan merchandise, and much more expansive discussions on issues that concerned enthusiasts.
Another major effect of fandom moving into the digital space of the internet was a rise in new forms of fan works, ones whose formats were inconceivable before social media platforms and fan-specific online communities existed. From “fan soundtracks” to blog-based role playing starring one’s favorite characters to publishing crossovers in the form of web comics to uploading fan music videos on YouTube to developing erotic mobile games, us geeks could express our love in amazing new ways to an audience far beyond our friends, or to the creators themselves.
This is definitely one of the contributing factors behind the rise of geeks and geekdom in mainstream culture. In spite of the fact that they are often rife with problems similar to what plagues “real life” geek circles, participating in a fandom (even if said participation involved lurking in the background and consuming the works of other fans) made fans feel less alone. Such camaraderie has the potential to reduce feelings of alienation, and is often enough of affirmation for enthusiasts – especially the young ones in high school and college – that they’re not all that strange for liking what they do. Barring that, it at least assured them that they weren’t the only weird ones out there.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there’s now a huge potential for cyberbullying within fandom communities, so much so that the bullying becomes a “public” spectacle within the digital space.
It’s common practice in blog-based RP, we note, for “anon” posts to provide a space for players to express their anger, upset, or disdain for other players and for games. The intense gossip generated by these communities causes many online roleplayers to abandon the hobby entirely. This is concrete evidence against the assumption that online fan communities should be typically friendly because of the unifying factor of common interests. Other examples of how political fan communities can be exist in the comments section of places like YouTube. Discussions there can get as intense and as unfriendly as exchanges on “real life” or “real issues” can be.
Because of the many political, sociological, and cultural implications of the rise of fandom, scholars like Henry Jenkins began focusing their studies on fans and fan communities. There’s much to be said about Fandom Studies, which is one of the newer fields of academic discourse. It’s an interdisciplinary field by default because of the multitude of factors that a Fandom Studies scholar has to consider: the fan as an individual, fan communities and their interactions with each other, the cultural artifacts that fans are enthusiastic about, and fan works. And that stuff is just specific to fandom. Pile race, gender politics, sexuality on top, and you’ve got a hot mess of questions that you likely won’t be able to exhaust in your lifetime as a critic.
Since it’s inexplicably tied in with pop culture, Fandom Studies constantly faces the issue of legitimacy against more traditional or “more important” fields of study. This is a little ironic to me, especially since it is clear in recent movie trends alone that big name companies consider the geek market a lucrative demographic to cater to. If that – together with the aforementioned cyberbullying – isn’t proof of how important it is to understand fans on a sociological/psychological level, I don’t know what is.
Fandom, for many of us, is a huge place that is equal parts intimidating as fuck as it is wonderful. Being a fan is simultaneously something that a geek is, something that a geek lives through, and something that a geek does. However one decides to view fandom or participate in fan activities, it’s clear that the existence of our fan communities and the noise we generate within them is making waves in the “real world”.