Fandom, the two-headed god

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Title: Fandom, the two-headed god
Creator: ladyofasotlat
Date(s): March 13, 2007
Medium: LiveJournal post
Fandom: The X-Files, others
External Links: Fandom, the two-headed god, Archived version
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Fandom, the two-headed god is a 2007 essay by ladyofastolat.

The topic is "Can involvement in fandom actually detract from your enjoyment of the source material?" and the focus is this fan's involvement in The X-Files fandom in the 1990s.

The conclusion: "I think that my appreciation of the X-Files was greatly enhanced by involvement in online fandom… but, ultimately, involvement in fandom caused me to go off the show, to such an extent that I have still not watched the last three seasons."

Some Topics Discussed

From the Essay

I didn't become an X-Files fan because of the Internet. I began my X-Files obsession five months before we got our first computer, and in many ways the peak of my obsession was during those internet-free months. Discovering online communities certainly added a lot to my appreciation of the source material, though.

Firstly, there was the opportunity to discuss the show with other people. I was obsessed, I wanted to talk about it all the time, and suddenly I could. Through reading online discussions, I was exposed to whole new ways of seeing characters, to new insights, to fresh theories. I was no longer alone.

Secondly, it kept me fuelled with new material. Without online fandom, I would have had 24 45 minute new episodes a year to fuel my obsession, with a six month gap between new episodes. With fanfic, I had new material every single day.

I think this is a very important aspect of fandom, actually. Before I had the internet, I could read a book, love it, reread it a few times, think obsessively about it for a while… but that was as far as it went. I had to move on. Nowadays, a slim book, or a single 90 minute film, can lead to an obsession that lasts for months, or even years.

Thirdly, the reading and writing of fanfic allowed me to explore characters and themes in far more depth. It fleshed out minor characters, it filled in gaps, it deepened emotions. The X-Files become a whole world that I could create in, rather than just a series of 45 minute episodes for me to watch, and I am forever grateful to it for that.

Without online fandom, would I have remained such as avid X-Files fan for so long? Maybe, but I doubt it. At first, and for a while, I think that being involved in online fandom made me more of a fan, and increased my enjoyment of the show.

But, in the end, involvement in fandom certainly contributed to my declining interest in the show. It wasn't entirely the fault of online fandom, though. All things run their course, and not all obsessions last forever. Additionally, the standard… Well, I won't say that the show wasn't as good as it used to be, since that's a subjective judgement, but suffice it to say that a lot of fans were beginning to feel that the show was past its best.

However, my other reasons for going off the X-Files do relate the fandom.

- I was a British fan of an American show. All the discussion that I mentioned above, while great, was about episodes that I hadn't seen. UK-only communities were tiny. To get involved in that fandom, you had to be prepared to read spoilers. By the time I saw an episode, I had already read thousands of words of discussion about it, and dozens of fanfics that explored its themes.

Of course, this situation is a rather specific one, but I think it has a general application, too. Not many fans are there from day one. Every TV series gains fans during its run. DVD boxed sets allow people to watch a show years after it first aired. Books get reprinted, bringing new fans to series published decades ago. If those fans go online before they've finished reading/watching the whole series, it is so easy to stumble upon spoilers – or, indeed, so tempting to seek them out deliberately.

In the last few years, I have watched quite a lot of completed anime series on DVD. If I like it, I want to go online immediately. I don't want to wait until I've finished it, because the enthusiasm is now. But when I go online, I end up with spoilers. Even if I don't get spoilers, I absorb other people's opinions. I become aware that character X is really popular (even though I haven't met character X yet, since he doesn't appear until episode 12.) I know that everyone hates character Y, though I actually thought he was okay. I become aware that characters X and Z are a massively popular slash pairing. Even if I don't read the stories, I'm aware that they exist.

In other words, the purity and honesty of my own reactions are being influenced by what I read. I have preconceptions. I am predisposed to dislike Y, and to like X. The existence of all the X/Z fanfic might have led me to expect wonderful levels of interaction between them, so I'm very disappointed to find that they hardly interact at all.

But I am digressing a bit. Back to the X-Files:

- Online fandom really drew attention to the plot holes and flaws of the show. Fans would jump on every stray line and try to relate it to the overarching Mytharc. All this revealed was that the writers of the show didn't have a clue and were making it up as they went alone. Had I watched the show as a lone fan at home, chances are I wouldn't have looked at things this deeply, and would have been able to suspend my disbelief. I might have missed plot holes myself, but the combined minds of a thousand fans miss nothing. Every tiny flaw gets noticed. Fans can be incredibly merciless, because it matters so much them.

- After a few years, I had read so much fanfic that there was little that was new any more. This reduced the emotional impact of the actual episodes. If a character dies on the show, it's not good if you just shrug, and think, "He's died 50 times in fanfic, and half of those did it better." The episodes themselves sometimes seemed like shallow little first drafts, of interest only as jumping-off points for the fanfic that properly explored the issues and emotions that the episode skated over.

- Quite apart from spoilers, online discussion exposes you to a whole lot of other opinions. This is great, of course… but it can also be a little wearing. If I bounce over-joyed onto my computer thinking, "Wow! That episode was wonderful!" someone else will always be there saying, "Worst Episode Ever." All those little bits that I found really powerful, someone else will have found lame. Discussion is great, of course, but we're talking about emotions here. If I love something, and 25 people tell me that it was actually awful, there is now a shadow cast over my love. If they all point out to small plot hole ten minutes into the episode – the plot hole I hadn't noticed – I will never be able to forget it. If they point out that you can see the camera man's head in that third scene, I will never be able to unsee it.

- And then there's the whole issue of flame wars, cliques and related nastiness, but I won't talk about them here, because that was never really a factor in my X-Files days. There was a small degree of nastiness from a few people towards the end of my time there, but the community was generally very polite, very friendly and very literate.

Some Comments

emily shore: The musings are certainly interesting to me, thank you for posting them. In many ways I'm in the same situation as you were vis a vis the X-Files, except that in my case spoilers for the whole series were available before I even started watching it! Many of your observations also do apply to me... certainly I was thoroughly spoiled when I came to most of the episodes, and I do think that I would have enjoyed a few of them more if I had gone in with a fresh eye.

It is very interesting that you mention enjoying the fanfic more than the actual episodes, because that has been happening to me too recently. I've been reading a lot of long casefile stories that are more like police procedurals than actual X-Files, with Mulder and Scully tracking down serial killers rather than supernatural antagonists. And frankly, since I've never been too interested in the supernatural element anyway, I've been getting a lot more out of them. It *is* amazing how shallow the series can seem after a really good fanfic, isn't it?

On the other hand, I very much doubt that online fandom has reduced my interest in the show. It really boils down to the amazing amount of material that the internet provides for a fannish obsession, and the amount of social validation that it provides for someone who wants to read and write and reflect on it. So I can deal with the arguments and the bizarre opinions and the bias that it provides


Great post. The meta fandom people will be on to this in no time at all if someone reports it.

I think this is a very important aspect of fandom, actually. Before I had the internet, I could read a book, love it, reread it a few times, think obsessively about it for a while… but that was as far as it went. I had to move on. Nowadays, a slim book, or a single 90 minute film, can lead to an obsession that lasts for months, or even years.

Very true. I know that feeling. I would have probably have forgotten about some things many years ago if not for online fandom activity continually drawing me back in. Which has its pros and cons. I'm not sure whether or not I'd be a more successful person generally without fandom.

HP fandom has probably in some way reduced my enjoyment of the books, because I pay most attention these days to the essays and arguments rather than the fanfic. Rather than switch off large areas of my brain and just treating them as a good yarn, I find myself applying skills I'd normally reserve for my university subjects. Intellectually more stimulating, but less relaxing. And the downside of that is that as a fan, I can't trust my own judgements of the books, since I feel 'too close' to the source material - not able to see the wood for the trees, effectively.

On the other hand, I think my involvement in the BG fandom has increased my enjoyment of the games. Because I'm involved in the fanfiction aspect, the critical bit of my brain can go to work there, trying to evaluate my own work or other peoples', and while when playing the games I just have a great deal of fun making chunked orc.

I've never been in the awkward position of having to wait on the U.S. for the most up-to-date canon. I can see how that would take a lot of the joy out of the fannish activity - the HP fandom derives a lot of its energy from shared excitement - titbits let slip by JKR, a new movie, the lead-up and aftermath of a book release. Having to experience that at 'second-hand' could be a bit of a downer in the long run, I imagine.

lll shepherd: Having been in fandom long before the internet existed, I find on-line fandom amusing and a little weird.

parrot knight: I don't think that the internet has deepened my involvement in Doctor Who or its fandom very much. I very rarely post on Outpost Gallifrey's forum, for example, and although I've subscribed to doctorwho I don't follow it very much and it's not on my default view. In some ways it's allowed me to follow the fans whose views I read in fanzine articles and letters pages ten to fifteen years ago, as many of them crop up on Outpost Gallifrey or on retrospective-leaning sights such as Roobarb's DVD Forum.

I would say that the internet has broadened my experience of Doctor Who fandom, and of other fandoms as well. I haven't followed any US series since Buffy, and though I didn't get deeply into the newsgroups and fora I did look at some of the reference and spoiler sites as much to read the speculation about where each season was going and where it might have been heading if factor X or Y hadn't come into play, as to read about episodes that hadn't been broadcast in the UK yet, or the latest leaks about forthcoming episodes picked up by fans who monitored the Hollywood casting agencies or who were in positions to pick up advance copies of scripts.

I've watched the concept of spoilers emerge, at least from my perspective, as it's one I wasn't aware of before internet fandom emerged, first coming across it on newsgroups in the 1990s. Perhaps ironically, one of the advantages of the internet is that electronic payment has enabled me to buy print fanzines from outside the UK, and it's the editor of the DWIN's fanzine, Graeme Burk, based in Canada, who wrote in the most recent issue that:

the needs of fans back then [the 1980s] were different... I was hungry for any and all details of anything that was happening in the series. It's why I read the Target novels of Davison, Colin Baker and McCoy long before I saw the television episodes. The concept of 'spoilers' was foreign to us back then.

I think that twenty years ago Doctor Who fans liked to think of themselves as above taking simple pleasure in each new episode, though many would say that by 1987 the quality of the series was such that this was very difficult! More important, though, was that Doctor Who was almost the only ongoing genre series, or at least the only one known to most of its British adherents.

ladyofastolat: You have a different perspective from me, since you had experience of fandom pre-internet. I had none at all. Well, unless you count university societies, which was the first time I had ever interacted with other people on the basis of a shared interest in a book or TV series. (And which, incidentally, principally taught me to learn to laugh fondly at the object of my obsession. Pre-Oxford, I treated my obsessions with deadly earnestness, but that couldn't survive through five minutes of TrekSoc's heckling of original Star Trek episodes, or the famous five minute LotR.)

evilmissbecky: I'm grateful for being in the XF fandom way back in the day, when fandom itself was still new. I remember fondly the days of the mailing list, when it was a disappointing day when I only had 36 e-mails. Like you said, it was wonderful to have a place to discuss my obsession, to indulge it, to waste spend literally hundreds of hours reading fanfic and newsgroup discussions and episode summaries.

And of course, that was how I met you. :-)

But obsession can be hard to sustain, and I think you're right when you say that being involved in fandom can make it even harder. It's one thing to say, "I don't enjoy watching the episodes as much as I used to", but when your interest is waning, it becomes almost a chore to go online and get involved. Reading through the e-mails and posts becomes boring and something I do only out of habit, not because it's something I want to do. And that in turn makes me even more dissatisfied with fandom in general.

I guess the key is to know when to get out.

ladyofastolat: when your interest is waning, it becomes almost a chore to go online and get involved I think that waning interest becomes a much bigger issue. In the old days, if I loved a TV series, but slowly came to realise that I no longer liked it as much as I used to, it was no big deal. But I clearly remember the almost-dread I felt when I started suspecting that I no longer loved the X-Files in the way I once did. It was my main leisure interest. It was a body of friends. It was pretty much a life-style. If I stopped watching the show, I'd be losing all that. It meant so much more than merely stopping watching a 45 minute episode of a TV show once a week.

with apostrophe: If I love something, and 25 people tell me that it was actually awful, there is now a shadow cast over my love.

Yep. I resemble that remark. I'm active in the Stargate: Atlantis fandom, and will sometimes post things about Stargate: SG-1, and I have found this to be true on both. Most recently there was a SG-1 episode, which I watched by myself, chuckled all the way through, noted a few plot holes, but otherwise enjoyed. Then I went online to a forum and it really was 'This is the worst episode ever. I want those 42 mins back. I've never been so bored in my life.' I felt completely unable to state that I had liked it, and was willing to overlook the plot holes (it's not like they'd never done it before) and yes, it detracted from my enjoyment. I am still the only fan I have come across who liked the episode. Then there was the week before when I hated it, much in the way they hated the one I liked, so it all evens out in the end!

It's a risk we take. It's wonderful when you find people who feel exactly the same way about something as you. You can have a squee-fest, adn recount the episode, and point to deeper meanings and links to other things. But it also doesn't challenge us. I have been turned around on parts of episodes I have disliked, by hearing someone explain their interpretation of it.

allas sqbr: Here from metafandom.

Hmm. This has not really been my experience, but I'm more of a fandom-in-general person than the sort to get obsessed with any given source(*). If I'm behind other fans I avoid discussions like the plague, even though this means missing out on a lot of the fun. I see enjoying the source as more important.

I've been into real-life fandom (clubs, cons, and friends) for about 10 years. I came to Buffy and Babylon 5 very late having been surrounded with discussion and half-seen episodes which did kind of take some of the fun out of it but luckily both shows hold together fairly well under scrutiny and it actually helped me prepare for the particularly annoying bits.

I only got into online fandom recently(*), and while I'm rather sad to have missed the main wave of both Buffy and Bab5 still get into what's around every now and then. Off the top of my head, the only fandoms I'm into very much where I'm up to date but they're unfinished are Harry Potter and Heroes(**). In the first case I actually like the fandom more than the books (which I've always thought were enjoyable but not brilliant), so will discuss with anyone and read whatever comes along. In the case of Heroes I'll watch vids but am very reticent to read fanfic in case it ruins it for me, and only really discuss it with my fiance at the end of each episode. I have asked him not to mention spoilers he comes across trawling the message boards (he Doesn't Do Fanfic but is very much into discussions online)

But I'm a different sort of fan to you, I think, so it's not surprising my experience is different.

(*)With the exception of a year spent trawling the infant internet in the mid 90s constructing an elvish dictionary. But that's not really what we're talking about :)

(**)*cough* except for the delay while it gets to Australia, since we would never download them illegally because that would be wrong *cough*

ladyofastolat: Interesting. What sort of fan am I, I wonder? I've never really thought about it. I do tend to go rather overboard on my obsessions, and be exclusively interested in one fandom at a time, to the exclusion of all others. At the height of my X-Files obsession in the mid-90s, I barely even read any novels, since my brain was so immersed in that fictional world, that there wasn't room for another other fictional world. (Which is a bit sad, really.) However, the X-Files was the only time I've even been really involved in a fandom to that degree, and I got out of that back in 1998. Since then I've mostly popped quietly in and out of small fandoms for less-well-known books or TV series - things I've liked, rather than things I've been head over heels in love with. I think my experience would have been different had I done it ten years later than I did. Internet fandom has changed a lot since the mid-90s. The things fans were doing and saying back then encouraged a certain way of looking at and thinking about the show, which, I suspect, is rather different from the way modern-day fandoms encourage people to think about the source material. There's a lot about modern internet fandom that I find a bit strange, and don't really feel in synch with. But that's another story...

londonkds: Here through metafandom: I think the most destructive thing that being involved in fandom can do to your relationship with the actual work is if you become strongly committed through fannish discussion to a particular interpretation of an ongoing work (whether ideological, metaphorical, or ship-related), but then feel utterly betrayed when the work spins off in a direction that irrevocably contradicts that interpretation. It happened to me with both Angel and Firefly (both in relation to political subtexts) and there are some notoriously ill-tempered examples involving large fandom factions (soulless-redemption Spike fans in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry/Hermione shippers in Potter).