A Beginner's Guide to Fandom: A Fangirl's Perspective

Ashley Flattery is not a groupie.

The 20-year-old French major at the University of Florida, a friend I met nearly a year ago, is involved in bandom, a subset of general fandom that follows bands instead of a TV show, book or movie series. She follows Panic! at the Disco, but general bandom also includes Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Cobra Starship, The Hush Sound and The Academy Is… [Note: the ellipsis is part of the name].

Ashley Flattery

Ashley Flattery

“If you divided up all the bands, you’d have crossovers all over the place, so it’s just simpler to say bandom,” she said.

Her activities in bandom include reading fanfiction, following blogs of both band members themselves and other fangirls, and doing internet memes. She also goes to band performances when she can.

“Since bandom does have a live show component, you can meet up to go to a show together, and I’ve met a few friends that way,” she said.

According to Flattery, bands often cater to members of bandom because they became popular in the first place largely due to their internet following.

“They play it up,” she said. “It’s kind of a marketing ploy for them.”

Bandom is different from the nature of other fandoms because they are based on real people rather than fictional characters and situations.

“It’s a real person fandom, so generally we’re considered the creepy stalker person in fandom,” she said.

She feels this characterization is unfair, however.

“With regular celebrities, stalking kind of implies showing up at their house at 3 o’clock in the morning with a video camera,” she said. “Stalking in the context of bands involves keeping up with blogs and Twitter.”

While there are occasionally people who fit that stalker stereotype, Flattery said they are shunned by the rest of bandom.

“Because bandom doesn’t have the fourth wall like others do, we try to create one,” she said, “and that includes not showing up at people’s houses at 3 o’clock in the morning and not mentioning fanfiction to the artists.”

While people in fandom may write or create things that aren’t rated PG, Flattery said fangirls often have a strong sense of what is appropriate when interacting with band members. For example, she cited the case of a fan comic called The Gay Starfish about an obviously fictional relationship between two male My Chemical Romance members.

“It was extremely popular to the point that the author published it online,” she said. “However, she found out that a fan took that comic and made the band members aware of it. It’s at that point that she basically shut it down.”

Flattery said what she enjoys most about bandom are the amazing people in it. She feels the online community greatly enriches her life in unique ways because of the solid relationships built over the years.

“It’s a dimension that most people who aren’t in a fandom don’t understand at all,” she said.

While the bands were the fangirls’ catalyst, bandom continues because of the people involved.

“Originally, it was just the shared interest of the band, but now it’s become more about the community.”

One of my personal heroes, Larry Lessig, gave a talk to TED in 2007. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit devoted to discussing and implementing ‘Ideas Worth Spreading.’ While not specifically addressing fanfiction, Lessig talks about some of the legal issues surrounding user-generated content on the internet, including remixes and fan-made videos. The video is 18 minutes long and worth every second. (Here’s a transcript, but I recommend watching, as he shows several videos.)

“In my view the most significant thing to recognize about what this Internet is doing, is its opportunity to revive the read-write culture that Sousa romanticized. Digital technology is the opportunity for the revival of these vocal chords that he spoke so passionately to Congress about. User-generated content, spreading in businesses in extraordinarily valuable ways like these, celebrating amateur culture. By which I don’t mean amateurish culture, I mean culture where people produce for the love of what they’re doing and not for the money. I mean the culture that your kids are producing all the time. For when you think of what Sousa romanticized in the young people together, singing the songs of the day, of the old songs, you should recognize what your kids are doing right now. Taking the songs of the day and the old songs and remixing them to make them something different.”

What he says here comprises the essence of fandom- taking something you see and remixing it purely out of love and not for profit. Fans create their own culture when they produce new and meaningful content to share freely with each other, and any person with internet access can join in.

Where this can get problematic is when extremists on both sides of the copyright law debate get involved. After all, fans are technically writing about characters someone else owns. But what constitutes ‘fair use’ in a world where digital copies are free, instantaneous and widely available? Lessig advocates two changes to the way we think about copyrights as they apply to user-generated content (i.e. fanfiction):

“First, that artists and creators embrace the idea; choose that their work be made available more freely. So, for example, they can say their work is available freely for non-commercial, this amateur-type of use, but not freely for any commercial use. And second, we need the businesses that are building out this read-write culture to embrace this opportunity expressly, to enable it, so that this ecology of free content, or freer content can grow on a neutral platform where they both exist simultaneously, so that more-free can compete with less-free, and the opportunity to develop the creativity in that competition can teach one the lessons of the other.”

This common-sense approach is one of the best proposals I’ve heard yet. Viewing user-generated content in fandom as a potential source of creativity rather than a threat to revenue benefits everyone. John Rogers, the creator of TNT’s “Leverage,” has an open-minded view regarding fanfiction (his response to this particular question is about halfway down the page):

“I think what TV/corporate media had wrong for a long time was how they understood the idea of a “water cooler show.” They saw it as making the audience talk about their show, on their terms. So any fan-created media is them losing control of their material. I see this more as the natural evolution of culture in a shared digital age. I will be blunt — other than the satisfaction of our own creative urges (and all that entails: the quest for perfection, artistry, craft, etc), our job in media is to give you stuff to talk about in your conversations, to integrate into your social circle in whatever way you see fit.”

Writers should embrace fandom’s creative possibilities and stop worrying about how to dictate the terms under which people like their material. Otherwise, their unrealized potential will be all that’s left to comfort them when the digital culture leaves them behind.

{September 28, 2009}   Fanfiction, Part 3: The Crossover

Another popular type of fanfiction is the crossover. In my opinion, it’s one of the more interesting types of fanfic out there in terms of creativity and fandoms. A crossover, simply put, is the combination of two or more fandoms in one story. It comes from the idea of one character, plotline, etc. ‘crossing over’ into another. It’s similar to the idea of the AU (alternate universe), but instead of being a generically ‘different’ environment, the story mixes two specific fandoms together.

Popular ways of doing this include having characters from two different worlds interact. ‘What would happen if Spock met Harry Potter?’, for instance, or ‘If Buffy Summers met Edward Cullen, would they get along?’ This can be motivated from the author’s sense of curiosity (they could be wildly different characters), or it could have deeper literary significance because of some perceived similarity or productive interaction between the characters. One example that comes to mind is of Frodo Baggins and Harry Potter, who have similar character issues involving magical temptation and heavy burdens. Instead of (or in addition to) character interactions, crossover writers may also choose to insert plotlines or worlds from other fandoms. For some of the more thoughtful pieces, this goes beyond the matter of superficial environments and into questions of social commentary, moral decisions or character study. If Captain Kirk found himself with the One Ring, would he be tempted to use it? Could his tendency toward arrogance overcome his sense of moral duty?

Crossover fanfic is great for those who enjoy multiple TV shows, books and movies. Fandom operates by Murphy’s Law: if you think of it, then someone has written it. There are a lot of high-quality crossovers available, probably because the kind of person drawn to mixing and matching fandoms is more able to extrapolate the motivations and nuances of multiple kinds of characters. After all, they’ve taken the extra creative step of writing fiction for not one fandom but two (or more) simultaneously.


Fanfiction.net lets you search crossovers by wildly variant tags, including Greek mythology, musicals and cartoons. The homepage also has a box that has listings by medium, such as comics, movies and television.

LiveJournal has many different communities dedicated to crossovers. As with all fanfic, pay attention to the author’s notes and warnings before clicking on a link to a story; that’s the best way to avoid unwanted or uncomfortable stories. Note: sometimes you’ll find the same story in several places because authors have posted their stories to multiple communities.

Also, individual fans, whether on Livejournal or other Web sites, will often recommend fics they enjoy to their friends and the general public. Livejournal user daanae has a rather extensive list of crossovers from multiple fandoms. She notes the stories’ fandoms and  ratings on the page; she also gives a basic summary of the story and why she liked it, so you can get a sense of what the fic will be like before you click on it.

Again, as with other fanfiction, if you come across an author you like, read the stories he or she reads and recommends. You’re likely to have similar taste.

I’m starting a mini-series within my fanfiction series on fanfic genres. As with other literature, there are many different genres of fanfiction, but a few are more common than others. While not an exhaustive list, I’ll be going over the ones most often seen in fandom. Today’s topic: the alternate universe, often abbreviated AU.

photo credit: Shenghung Lin on Flickr

photo credit: Shenghung Lin on Flickr

Note: the picture is a reference to the butterfly effect, an idea stemming from chaos theory that adjusting small actions can lead to an entirely different universe.

The idea of an alternate or parallel universe is not a new one. The basic idea is that writers take the main concept of their show (or book, or movie) and transplant it into another environment. This can be a literal environment: fans of a 1970’s buddy cop show might write an AU in which the characters live their lives as sheriffs in the Old West, for example. It can also be a different metaphorical environment: the  world may be the same, but AU writers may create a world in which personal circumstances have been altered. Basically, it’s a ‘what if’ scenario: What if person A didn’t die after all? What if person B chose this path instead of another? The possibilities are endless because the author purposely sets out to break with the established literary canon (that is, officially published/broadcast/sanctioned work) in at least one and often multiple respects.

Why is it that fans write alternate universes when they could easily stick to already established situations? Simple- the power of creativity. AU authors seek to explore characters, themes or relationships beyond what they have been given. They do not limit themselves but rather push the objects of their fandom into new territories. Henry Jenkins, a transmedia scholar, notes this explanation from a fanfic writer on his blog:

“I find that fandom can be extremely creative because we have the ability to keep changing our characters and giving them new life over and over. We can kill and resurrect them as often as we like. We can change their personalities and how they react to situations. We can take a character and make him charming and sweet or coldblooded and cruel. We can give them an infinite, always-changing life rather than the single life of their original creation. We have given ourselves license to do whatever we want and it’s very liberating….”

In the “Supernatural” fandom, I recommend Minkmix’s fanfiction. She has several single stories as well as an ongoing AU series. Her master list is categorized by theme, so each link takes you to a listing of all the stories in that category. AU stories are so noted at the top of each page. Her writing is excellent and has a lot of variety of story type, including humurous slice-of-life stories as well as longer, plot-driven stories. Additionally, there are plenty of AU stories on fanfiction.net, but some are of higher quality than others.

{September 9, 2009}   Fanfiction, Part 1

One of the most important elements of fandom is the work they create to celebrate it. Fans are all about user-generated content- visualizing, producing and editing creative works related to their favorite TV shows, movies and books. Fanfiction, commonly abbreviated as fic or fanfic, is one of the most common and well-known types of fan products.

Fanfiction differs from original fiction because authors are not using new material they have created themselves. Instead, they use the raw material from a book, TV show, etc. as a starting place to write their own story. Fanfiction, by definition, is a mixture of borrowed and original material since fans take what authors have given them and take it in new and different directions. Fans use the medium of fanfiction to explore characters and situations beyond what the film or book shows. For example, many fanfiction authors will put their favorite characters in situations which do not exist in the original canon in order to express how they think the characters might respond to different circumstances. Another common type of fanfiction is a story in which authors experiment by establishing or extrapolating a relationship between two or more characters.

Note: This is the first of several planned posts about fanfiction; I’ll go into more detail later about different types or genres of fic as well as some of the creative and legal issues fanfiction entails.

Where to Start Reading

Fanfiction.net is a site exclusively dedicated to fanfiction. They have communities, which are archives of user-selected favorites. The site also has a search function that divides stories by author, genre, maturity rating and fandom. I should note that as a site populated by non-professional writers (often younger people), it of course includes stories of dubious quality, but there are good, high-quality stories as well. I’ve found the best way to navigate the site is to find an author I enjoy and read the authors they list as favorites; usually good writers read other good writers.

Television Without Pity has a forum where members continually recommend specific stories they have read and enjoyed. Nearly all the stories listed there are of very high quality, so it’s a good place to discover authors who appeal to your taste. Each fandom has their own separate category on the site, so if you’re looking for a fandom other than Supernatural, you’ll need to click on the show you’re interested in under the “Forums” button on the site’s main menu. (For example, they also have a fanfiction recommendation page for The Office and House.)

LiveJournal has quite a few communities dedicated to all types of fanfiction. You can modify the search terms to look for a specific type of story, fandom, etc. Communities are useful because people post their own stories as well as recommend them. They are usually policed by a moderator, so the community usually has behavioral and screening standards.

Another Note: It’s very important that you read any authorial notes before you start to read a story. At the top of the page, fanfic writers put a brief paragraph of information about the story that includes its type, maturity rating and a brief summary. Authors warn for any explicit or adult content they may have in their fic as well as any spoilers they may include. (A spoiler is any information pertaining to the show that has not been aired or published yet, such as the identity of upcoming guest stars or future plotlines.) Authors often put the story under a cutline so a reader can see the description but must click on a link to read the actual fic.  Pay attention to the warnings at the top of the page. This will save you from accidentally viewing something you’re uncomfortable with or not interested in reading.

Remember: this is supposed to be fun! Approach fanfiction like any other literary genre- find what you like, and enjoy your reading.

et cetera