A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

24 September 2012

Interlude: Fandom

How culture and history are collected by fanatics, and why this is a good thing.

I'm not in the mood to write about the 3Com merger today, although that is the next chapter in that saga.  I'm not really looking forward to writing that part, so it may take some time for me to work up to it.  Today, instead, I want to talk about "fandom."

The word "fandom" is a noun meaning, roughly, "a community of people (fans) who are fanatically devoted to something."  I consider myself a member of two fandoms -- Disney fandom, and science fiction (SF) fandom.  I suspect, although I do not know, that the term "fandom" was in fact coined by the SF fans (who also use "fen" as the plural of "fan", "fannish" as the adjective form of "fan", and "fanac" (short for fannish activity).

One characteristic of fandoms is that they tend to create their own jargon. (And one characteristic of SF fans is that we tend to be pedantic, so forgive me if I'm explaining more than you care about.)

Fan communities have risen up around pretty much anything you can think of, from aerobic dancing to Zappa.  Fandoms are both significant enough to culture, and odd enough to observe, that several books have been written about them.  My point in writing about them is that they make an extremely valuable contribution to our cultural identity and history as humans.  As such, fannish contribution to culture will very likely be a key piece of my organizational culture book.

Here's what fans do that is so very important.  They obsess about their fandoms.  They learn about their subject to a level of detail that other people find stultifying. They collect staggering quantities of stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills.  They talk to each other, and in their talking create an exhaustively complete story of the thing that has captured their interest.

So you get entire museums devoted to Pez memorabilia or mechanical and coin-operated toys and games.  There are two American museums devoted to barbed wire, for heaven's sake.  You get individuals who own entire runs of Superman comics or every bubble gum card ever printed for a New York Yankees baseball player.  Things like postcards, campaign buttons, ticket stubs or party invitations that would otherwise be lost to history are lovingly preserved by fans.

Is this stuff important?  I don't know.  But I do know you can learn a lot about American history, and particularly about the attitudes, mores and cultural fads of a given period of history, by reading comic books and looking at postcards or paperback novel covers.  I also know that there are people who matter to our history whom we struggle to understand because we have nothing but a half-dozen letters and a photograph from which to build an entire biography.

Another valuable aspect of fannish service is how it held onto all this ephemera before technological advancement made it practical for things to be digitized.  It's easy to keep these things now -- we back them up to disk.  But even as recently as the 1980s, that was prohibitively expensive and difficult to do.  The bulk of the 20th century, and certainly every century prior, was more likely to be dustbinned than to be archived.  And we would not just have lost ticket stubs and postcards.  We would have lost out-of-print books, music, and art that was not deemed "significant" enough to preserve.  Thanks to the devotion of fans, many treasures of the last few hundred years are still around to be digitized.

Fandom, then, is really just cultural anthropology being done without a college degree and solely for the sheer, crazy love of it.  We are so very fortunate to have fans and fandoms.  They are writing our history in exacting detail, and saving for posterity the things we wouldn't know to miss until after they were gone.

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