When it comes to feeling out of place, there’s nothing quite like being dressed in a Sherlock Holmes costume on a train full of Brisbane Roar supporters. Yet this was my experience on my trip home from Gold Coast Supanova earlier this year. Having spent the weekend reveling in a delightful sense of belonging at the two day convention, I was abruptly returned to a more familiar state of not quite fitting in as the swarm of orange-clad soccer fans descended on the train at Milton station. Though my unusual attire didn’t attract as much attention as I would have expected, quite a few curious glances were aimed my way. A mother and young child sat opposite me; the little girl displaying the open fasciation typical of her age.
“How was it?” her mother asked me in a friendly tone, gesturing to the Supanova show bag I held.
I was slightly taken aback, but we had a pleasant conversation until I had to depart the train at my station. On the walk home I questioned myself as to why I found the experience strange. After all, wasn’t it a bit judgmental of me to assume that a sports fan couldn’t also be interested in an event like Supanova?
But the truth is, to many people outside of what is collectively referred to as ‘fandom’, these individuals live in an entirely different world. In my explorations of academia on the subject of fans and fan communities, I stumbled across a tidy definition in a book entitled Theorizing Fandom. According to the authors, ‘fandom’ generally signifies the social and cultural environment inhabited by those who identify as ‘fans’. Another specialist, Paul Booth, points out in his recent book Digital Fandom that the word can refer to a fan of music, sports, or even food, and that everyone is a fan of something. But no matter what we are a fan of, our appreciation of it becomes part of our identity. Similarly, the all encompassing term ‘geek culture’ commonly refers to the ideas, customs and lifestyles of those who identify as fans.
A fandom functions as something of a secret society; a world created for and by the fans and the fans only. Just like any covert operation, there are some identifying features. For example, there are a collection of words and phrases that make sense only if you speak the cryptic language of the community; there are badges, t-shirts and jewellery bearing obscure references that can only be deciphered by fellow fans who often identify themselves with a subtle “I love your earrings” or a less subtle “I love you” (yes, really). Yet despite this fact, I’ve met so many like minded people this year that I’m beginning to feel like a serious fan magnet.
It can be difficult to determine whether there are more fans (or possibly just more people who are admitting to the title) or whether technological advances and an increased popularity in geek culture have simply made it easier to connect with them. But with ever increasing attendance at conventions like Supanova, I am inclined to think that it is the former. With close to 40,000 followers on facebook, and media coverage by every major national newspaper and news channel, Supanova Pop Culture Expo is certainly not the relatively obscure event that it once was. In fact, according to a graph on the Supanova website, attendance in Brisbane has more than doubled since the expo’s inception in 2002, going from around 8,000 guests to almost 20,000. The event, which was originally held annually in Sydney and Brisbane only, now also takes place in Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast with the new editions also showing rapid increases in attendance each year.
Amber, 18, and Liz, 26, are both self proclaimed fans of the shows Supernatural, BBC Sherlock and Doctor Who, and became friends when they met at Supanova in April this year. Since then they have both been to All Hell Breaks Loose, a Supernatural convention in Sydney, and several fan meet-ups. In an interview, Liz explains: “I love the fact that we made friends at Supanova purely based on fandom reasons”. A huge part of fan interaction is still based on communications over the internet, especially social networking sites such as Twitter, and blogging platforms like Tumblr, which is home to a countless number of dedicated fan-blogs. But many fans agree that web communication has its limitations, and to some of them this real life interaction is crucial. Whilst Amber has frequent exchanges with many of her nearly 900 followers on Tumblr, and even has Skype conversations with some of them, Liz states that “You don’t know who you’re talking to on Tumblr. You might think that you do based on the things that they post but you don’t— you can never actually know someone until you meet them in real life”.
Michelle, 24, has been a Supanova volunteer for the past three Queensland conventions, and has attended as a guest several times before that. Her interest in the event comes as a surprise to some, given that her main passion is sport. Michelle particularly enjoys supporting her homeland team, the New Zealand All Blacks, in Rugby Union. She reveals to me that although geek culture is not one that she strongly identifies with, she finds that the other volunteers are friendly and accepting. When asked what her favourite part of being a volunteer at Supanova is, Michelle replies “I think its the friendships you develop with the other volunteers. You don’t have to be fake, whoever you are, who cares, that’s fine”.
In addition to the popularity of big conventions like Supanova, there are also frequent smaller events, meet-ups and venues at which fans can interact. Brisbane alone is full of them: there is the local branch of the Doctor Who Club of Australia, which hosts monthly meetings where ‘Whovians’ can watch episodes and chat to one another. The University of Queensland has it’s own Harry Potter Alliance and Quidditch Team. And then there are places like The Mana Bar, which again originated in Brisbane and has since opened in Melbourne, with plans to expand both nationally and internationally. Being a cocktail bar primarily dedicated to console gaming, it is fair to say that venue appeals to a fairly niche market. But believe me when I say that this does not stop the place from becoming absolutely packed on a Friday and Saturday night. Speaking again of the importance of face to face meetings, Liz excitedly tells me that “there is nothing more fun than getting together with people in the same fandom as you who feel as strongly as you and talking to them about it—” here Amber agrees “—It just gives you this feeling of incredible connection to people, and I don’t really know any other time that you feel that kind of connection”.
But despite the growth of conventions like Supanova and a shift in attitude towards geek culture due to hit TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, many people in the general public still remain baffled by fans and their practices. And yet, so many that claim little or no understanding of fandom in this sense are fans nonetheless. Australians are unarguably passionate about their sport with, for example, over 2.5 million viewers tuning into State of Origin game one in May this year. Where fan communities worship actors, writers, directors and artists, sports fans have different Gods. Michelle states that a great deal of Rugby Union and Rugby League’s appeal is in “seeing people perform really well”. And like fandom culture, a big part of the experience comes down to the atmosphere: “It’s easier to get into it when you’re there and you’re not a sports person because the atmosphere gets you carried away with it, especially with a game like State of Origin”, Michelle explains.
According to an article by Amir Ben Porat, sports fans share a similar sense of investment in their passion, allowing it to become a central interest in their lives and become an integral element of their personalities. Their commitment is evident in emotional, social and mental areas of their lives, and their behaviour, their clothing, the way they spend their time, and their relationships and interactions with others all reflect this. But of course, there are still many differences between football and fandom. Liz argues that it is a different mind set: “we are literary, writing type people so we appreciate things like the scripts and the characters”, whereas those who are really into sport focus more on admiration of the athlete’s abilities. As someone who is involved in both cultures, Michelle believes that the biggest difference between the two is probably the crowd: “When you go to a football game you talk to the person next to you and then you leave and that’s it. At Supanova you meet people and you almost become friends…I have so many people on my facebook from Supanova, but nobody from a League game”.
When it comes to fandom, the bottom line seems to be the sense of belonging that arises from being in a community of like-minded people. Being a fan of something, no matter what form it may take, is reflected not only in our actions and in our passion but also in our identity. It is part of who we are and what makes us unique. According to Amber and Liz, being part of the fandom world, and feeling accepted by its occupants, is one of the best feelings in the world. And although Michelle feels more at home in the sporting community, she agrees with this sentiment: “It’s about learning to be comfortable. Who cares about what anyone else thinks, as long as you’re happy and you’re doing what you want to to do”.
Last weekend my friends and I attended a fandom meet-up, once again in costume. I was amused to hear stories about their respective train or bus rides to get to the venue, which were not unlike my own experience coming back from Supanova (though they involved decidedly less orange clothing). We agreed that the curious glances made us feel uncomfortable, but were sustained by the knowledge that we would soon be amongst individuals who not only accept but celebrate our eccentric ways. On the topic of acceptance, Liz sums it up beautifully: “People say we waste our lives being obsessed with fandom, but I say some of the most fun times in my entire life have come from being in fandom…does it really matter how much people value what we do so long as we enjoy the fact that we’re doing it?”