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Fandom’s lessons in social change
By putting fandom under the behavioural spotlight we can see it as a place where beliefs are explored and new possibilities for living are developed
Fandom is the act of joining with others who have a deep interest in a particular object of anything from a book series, film franchise, TV show, music artist, sports team, video game, or even a celebrity. A recent book on fans examines the way that their shared experience not only gives people’s lives meaning and purpose but their advocacy for the objects of their devotion mean they can at times form formidable lobby groups.
In a period where the world is under stress and seeking new ideas, what can we learn from fandom that might help us to understand the way in which people engage in important issues and self-organise to bring about change?
Fandom can involve a huge amount of activity with unique practices, rituals, and traditions. There will often be dedicated online forums, websites, social media groups, or fan conventions, bringing together people from very different backgrounds and cultures, creating a sense of community and belonging.
Fans may create fan art, write fanfiction, produce fan videos, cosplay (dress up as their favorite characters), as well as organizing events, fundraising for charitable causes, and advocating for their interests within the larger community. For example, the Harry Potter fandom, one of the most well-known and popular fandoms in the world emerged with the release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter book series in the late 1990s and grew with the subsequent film adaptations. There are numerous websites (such as wizardingworld), forums, and social media platforms dedicated to discussions, fan theories, news, and fan-created content. Events and conventions such as Leakycon allow fans to come together often cosplay competitions, panel discussions, trivia contests, and opportunities to meet actors from the films. There is an extensive fanfiction and fan art. Fans enjoy creating their own stories set in the wizarding world, exploring different characters and even Wizard Rock, a genre of music inspired by the series.
Belief and play
With the use of imagination, creativity, and a sense of engagement, we can see fandom as a form of play, with imagination used to immerse in fictional worlds, fan-generated content allowing for creative expression and storytelling and role-playing games, cosplay, and other activities offering the opportunity to adopt the personas of their favorite characters. There is a huge psychology literature that sets out the value of this type of ‘playful learning’: as Jennifer Zosh points out:
Active, engaged, meaningful, social, iterative and joyful are characteristics that individually and collectively appear in a number of scientific articles that highlight processes involved in optimal learning. These same characteristics coalesce in play.
This is interesting for, as anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann noted in her work on evangelical communities, play can be an important part of developing beliefs. Through playful engagement with alternative narratives, experimentation with different perspectives, and social interactions within communities, individuals can explore, internalize, and strengthen their beliefs. Play also fosters social interaction and community building, which are crucial aspects of both fandom and evangelical beliefs. Through these interactions, individuals can develop a sense of belonging and a commitment to their beliefs.
Arguably the same sorts of playfulness with beliefs can be seen in the area of misinformation: if you are exploring ideas that are highly marginalised, that go against the grain of wider beliefs in society, then there are inevitably doubts about whether or not these notions are true. So, for example, many New Age beliefs operate with a fundamental challenge to science notions that subjective and objective fields are fundamentally different – i.e. that inanimate objectives have no agency. But the notion of crystals have healing properties, for examples directly challenges these conventions. As Ipsos research has shown, humour (as a form of play) is often used in these fields, arguably as a means to play with these sorts of radical ideas without necessarily immediately investing in what can be quite a challenging position to take.
Play and humour are also strategies often deployed by social activists, with the aim of conveying a sense that change is possible, but also generating attention, drawing people into the conversations about the possibility of different ways of seeing the world.
This helps us to see that belief is not something binary that you either have or do not have as an intellectual acceptance of ideas or doctrines but is instead something that is experienced, expressed, and embodied in the lives of individuals and communities – such as the rituals, storytelling, community activities and embodied practices (such as cosplay). By understanding belief in this way, we can see that it often is something that is in flux and sits between us rather solely a characteristic of our own independent, intellectual thoughts.
Fandom and online gaming
Many of the fandoms have online games, not least Hogwarts Legacy an immersive, open-world, action role-playing-game set in the 1800s world of Harry Potter. Jane McGonigal, a game designer and researcher, is known for her work on the positive impact of gaming and the potential of games to enhance well-being and solve real-world problems. In line with the above, she sets out the way in which games can create opportunities to generate different ways of living and understanding the world:
Community Building: McGonigal believes that gaming communities, including those formed around fandoms, provide opportunities for individuals to connect, collaborate, and support each other, enhancing social relationships and well-being.
Collective Intelligence: gaming communities rely on collective intelligence and problem-solving as players can share knowledge, strategies, and insights that collectively enhance gameplay and deepen engagement with the game.
Meaningful Engagement: McGonigal argues that games have the potential to provide individuals with a sense of purpose, meaning, and agency. Within fandom belief systems, players often invest significant time and energy in their favorite games, engaging in discussions, analysis, and creative activities.
Collaboration and Empathy: Fandom belief systems can provide a platform for players to come together, support each other, and celebrate their shared passion for a game. This can create a sense of belonging and encourage positive social interactions.
Fandom and politics
No wonder then that fandom is increasingly seen as a space which has a wider degree of influence than their own communities. Example of this include:
Inspired by the themes of friendship, bravery, and standing up for what is right Harry Potter fans have organized charitable campaigns and fundraisers for various causes supported by J.K. Rowling's charitable organization, Lumos
K-pop fandoms, are known for the dedication of fans and large online presence. They have organized coordinated efforts, such as mass streaming of music videos or voting in online polls, to advance particular causes. For instance, K-pop fans rallied to support the Black Lives Matter movement by flooding social media with related content and donating to relevant organizations.
The Star Trek franchise has long been associated with progressive values and inclusivity. Fans of Star Trek, known as Trekkies, have been actively involved in promoting LGBTQ+ rights. They have organized fundraisers, lobbied for policy changes, and used the show's message of equality to support LGBTQ+ communities.
We can see the way that fandom is and has the potential for a wider, political impact on the world. At a time when there are questions of how to energise and engage a population to address many of the pressing societal issues we have, then activists and political parties may find inspiration in this seemingly unlikely place.
At times fandom can be considered something that is curious and marginalised – after all some of the activities are not those we would necessarily come across in everyday life. But, of course, some fandom such as football are widely accepted whilst others such as being a “furry”, (dressing up as anthropomorphic animal characters such as Bambi, Sonic the Hedgehog and the Lion King) are very much seen as minority activities.
However, we can see the way that fandom, in all its different forms, offers something potent and interesting – a grassroots self-organising movement that challenges and critiques existing mainstream narratives, creates opportunities for inclusive and equitable ways of living and can create spaces for reimagining and envisioning alternative futures and possibilities. Overall, fandom may in fact be a place in which we can all learn lessons for the way that often marginalized voices can be empowered, and social movements for change created.
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