Fandom, celebrity, and power: BNFs

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Title: Fandom, celebrity, and power: BNFs
Creator: ellie_nor/Flame/flamewarrior
Date(s): August 26, 2006
Medium: online transcript, podcast
External Links: online transcript here, Archived version
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Fandom, celebrity, and power: BNFs is an essay and podfic at Slashcast by ellie_nor/Flame/flamewarrior.

Topics Discussed

The Essay

Celebrities. They're everywhere. The media doesn't seem to be able to give us anything else. Young people grow up with the idea that being famous, whether for a real achievement or simply for being famous, is a career path in itself. And yes, here in fandom too, we have our celebrities, Big Name Fans: the BNFs.

So what's it all about? In my opinion, it's all about power. I'll explain.

There are four different kinds of power. First of all, there's personal power. This is the power you're born with or that you develop through your own efforts. It's the power of your own talent, looks, attitude, charm, wit and skill. In fandom it could include your abilities as a fanfic or meta writer or artist, or your skill at managing an archive, RPG, or running a convention.

Then there's instrumental power. This is the power you have because you have control over resources. 'Resources' can mean money, but it can also mean information, contacts, equipment or access to another person or an organisation. In other words, sometimes, it's not just what you can do, but also who you know that matters. If you're a good fanfic writer, even a really good one, but you're new to a fandom or on its periphery, it can take an awfully long time to get that Skyehawke account.

Another kind of power is official power. This is the power people have because of their role or title. If you moderate or run a mailing list or an archive, that means you! Official power and instrumental power are the kinds of power people usually think of when they talk about power corrupting people. You can't manipulate your personal power (even if one aspect of your personal power is the ability to manipulate people), but you can manipulate these other two kinds of power in order to get away with bending or breaking rules and moral codes to get what you want.

Finally, there's projected power. Projected power is power attributed to you by other people, whether you really have it or not. In other words, it's not about you, it's about how others see you. The more prominent you are within any community or group the more projection you attract. And because its source is in other people's heads, you have no control over it.

Being a Big Name Fan is all about projection. Whether you come to people's attention because of your writing or artistic talent, your great archive site, your robust debating style, or even your gift for creating believable sockpuppets, once you have people's attention, projection starts to take over. There will always be many people who find the pull to project onto them irresistible, and most don't even notice that they're doing it.

When someone comes to our attention for positive reasons, we usually project onto them what we wish we were. The BNF gets sent high up onto a pedestal, whether they want to be there or not, and their fangirls and boys can become a little irrational in their desire to serve and protect them. I can't remember the number of stories I've heard of a BNF getting into a polite disagreement online which their fans turned into a flame war by showing up to 'defend' them. It doesn't help that most fandom interaction now happens over the Internet - it's even easier to project onto someone you've never met in person.

Sometimes, things turn nasty: the fangirls and boys of one BNF decide they don't like another BNF and their fans, perhaps because of 'shipping differences; or there's a self-appointed 'in' group around a BNF who proceed to slag off everyone else; or ordinary fans start to associate a BNF with the actions of their more out of control fangirls and boys. When someone comes to our attention for negative reasons we tend to project onto them what we hope we're not. Negative thoughts turn into negative words; negative words turn into verbal attacks; verbal attacks turn into ejection from a community or even, in some cases, the threat of legal action or harassment, and all with alarming speed.

It would be amusing - all of that bile, over a silly thing like fandom! - if it weren't for the fact that this is how conflicts out in the big bad world proceed, from playground bullying to sexual harassment to ethnic cleansing. Google for "the Allport Scale" sometime, or take a moment to read up on the Rwanda genocide.

I don't think there's a solution - groups of people have been playing out these dynamics for millenia [sic], after all.

Maybe BNFs can be aware that people's reactions to them, whether positive or negative, aren't always really about them or their endeavours.

Maybe the rest of us can try to become better writers or artists or archive owners or whatever, rather than looking to BNFs to do it for us.

And maybe we can all try to remember that every one of us, from the littlest newbie to the hugest of BNFs, is, in the end, just a fan.

I'm Flame, flamewarrior on Live Journal, and that's my Fandom Opinion.