We’ve spent a lot of time discussing fandom at work. In fact, it was a major pillar in our Culture and Trends Report, this year. That’s a reflection of the increasing role that fandom is playing in culture, but we were really just focusing on fandom in an entertainment context. I think fandom has come to play a much larger role in our lives, expanding well beyond entertainment. I think it has come to affect every aspect of our lives without us recognizing that it has happened.
What is happening?
Susan Kresnicka, who is the smartest person I know when it comes to fandom, described fandom to me as an ongoing relationship between the fan and the object of their fandom (OOF), in which the object of their fandom is both reflective of the person and aspirational. In her research, she has found that there are three key needs that are fulfilled by fandom: Identity, Social Connection, and Self-Care.
Identity, Social Connection, and Self-Care are very powerful motivators, and in times past, there were many different sources we could draw upon to fulfill portions of those needs. Social organizations, religious institutions, and civic affiliations were just many of the things we used to immerse ourselves in that provided for those needs, but we are decreasingly invested in those things as our trust in institutions has fallen.
You can see evidence of this decline of trust in institutions everywhere. Edelman has done a Trust Barometer survey every year this decade, and you can watch the decline of trust in media, government, and business leaders over time in their surveys. Americans are increasingly disaffiliated with political parties, according to Gallup’s polling, and for the first time in 80 years of polling, Gallup has recently reported that a church members are now a minority of respondents.
From these charts, it appears affiliations with political parties and church membership, two things from which people have derived social connection and identity, declined precipitously this century, significantly increasing in the 2010s. Keeping that in mind, take a look at these charts:
I always look at these two Google indicators together because they can be misleading on their own. Google Search Trends is a great tool, but the charts are relative – the top of the Y axis will always be the peak of search volume for whatever the timeframe is, which isn’t a great indicator of overall popularity. Google NGram viewer looks for total volume of word usage in published materials, which I think can be heavily biased toward the present since the volume of things published is so much greater now. Together, though, these show a correlative increase in usage and interest in the term fandom that picks up just as the graphs on religious and political affiliation are dropping off. It’s this correlation from which I make the leap to the notion that fandoms are increasingly filling the voids left from abandoning the organizations that comprised traditional institutions in our lives.
How is it affecting us?
Susan Kresnicka says that anything can be an object of fandom, but I think that there’s a corollary: now everything is subject to fandom. As our faith in the institutions and organizations around us has fallen, we may be replacing the relationships and senses of identity those provided with fandoms, and as that happens, fandoms play an outsized role in the areas those institutions governed. Consider the following examples:
Politics – Party affiliation no longer forming the basis of how we identify politically is leaving a void that is beginning to be filled by fandoms. Donald Trump is the easiest-to-spot object of fandom here. What’s most interesting is that while he is not the first President to have a fandom, he is the first to understand how to harness one. Many people feel he has tranformed the Republican party, but he hasn’t. He has simply transformed Republicans and Republican-leaning voters who see themselves in him and see him as aspirational. When he says “they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in the way,” he reinforces his image of being like his voters but also being elevated above them.
News – One of the earliest institutions in which Edelman found faith to be faltering was Journalism, and from the time the Daily Show sent correspondents to cover its first Presidential campaign in 2000 through present, we’ve come to rely on entertainers like Jon Stewart, John Oliver, and Joe Rogan for our news. This is a stranger divide than the left-right divide that people assume informs our news consumption. For previous generations, the news we consumed was the news that providers thought we would be interested in. Now, the news we consume is increasing the news that our providers are personally interested in.
Economics – As our faith in economic institutions crumbled, fandoms developed around the mythical Satoshi Nakamoto, the presumed pseudonym of the inventor of Bitcoin, and Sam Bankman-Fried who might’ve been seen as Nakamoto’s Earthly avatar. Meme stocks could also fit here. Whether you subscribed to any of these fandoms or not is irrelevant. The economy is now influenced by them.
Education – A recent Washington Post study found that homeschooling was the fastest-growing form of education in America. Private schooling was second, and public schooling was actually declining despite a lack of evidence showing that public schooling had declined in quality. That means that this public institution that has generated a shared sense of belonging and identity is declining in influence. In that void, Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles was able to take root, gaining even more interest with the rise TLC’s 17 Kids and Counting and the fandom of its Duggar family.
Why is this happening?
I don’t know why this is happening, but I think that there is an unmissable correlation between the role of fandom in our lives and the evolution of the internet in our lives. As our local connections (church, civic organizations, etc…) were weakening, our ability to form social connections through an Internet that was increasingly available (first, through home broadband and then mobile devices) allowed us to find other like-minded individuals with whom we shared passions. Those groups gave us a sense of belonging and identity that we were lacking in our physical environments, and in those groups, we found Social connection, Identity, and Self-Care. Initially, our fandoms were limited to those areas that are typical of fandoms – entertainment and sports – but as our ability to define ourselves through traditional institutions, organizations, and relationships continue to erode, we may be increasingly turning to the Internet to fill those gaps, too.
One thing to think about is the possibility that the polarization that you think we exist within, today, is actually fragmentation and how each of us sees the world may be determined more by our fandoms than any singular, coherent philosophical viewpoint. With Kpop fan communities, we’ve seen the ability of organized fandoms to commit acts of altruism and harm in defense of their OOFs. This stems from the desire to venerate and defend the OOFs that they feel have given them so much, particularly those who feel the OOFs filled a void in their lives. If we are entering a world where everything is a fandom, then these dynamics may make it more difficult for us to come together as the political differences we once pretended we could overlook give way to cross-fandom warfare we feel obligated to participate in as we defend our own OOFs who have helped give us meaning.
Whew! That was a lot! Thanks for indulging these thoughts. Next week, I have thoughts on music, trends, and leading and lagging indicators. In the meantime, do you think fandoms have replaced institutions in our lives? Are there any aspects of your life where you recognize you have a nontraditional fandom? Leave a comment below. I’m eager to know if this resonates with you.
- Susan Kresnicka and Associates – Susan recently launched the Fandom Institute, devoted to the study of fandoms.
- Edelman Trust Barometer Archives – I look forward to reading these each year
If you want next week’s post in your inbox, please subscribe!