Fandom in/as Contact Zone (Fandom Version)

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Title: Fandom in/as Contact Zone (Fandom Version)
Creator: tea-and-liminality
Date(s): 16 April 2015
Medium: tumblr post
Topic: fannish community, Tumblr
External Links: essay
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Fandom in/as Contact Zone (Fandom Version) is a tumblr essay written by tea-and-liminality. The essay was partially written in response to emmagrant01's own tumblr post about the difficulty of "being a silent, moderate voice in the Sherlock fandom"[1] (which was in response to TJLC wank and post-season-3 Sherlock fandom on Tumblr).

The post had 137 notes as of 24 May 2015.


"Historically, we’ve thought of fandom as community/ies - virtual places where people share - enthusiasm, ideas, passion, interests, etc. Something they have in common, and it’s the commonality that binds them. In academic literature, it’s not uncommon to see fandom theorized as “imagined communities,” which is an idea borrowed from the political scientist Benedict Anderson (and, wow, his name just took on layers of added significance for me).

An imagined community, as used in fan studies, emphasizes the sense of collective belonging, of a shared vocabulary, values, language - interests - that exceeds face-to-face interactions. And there’s probably no fan that hasn’t felt that way when they’ve stumbled onto a group of people who are talking about something they love in ways that they’ve been thinking or feeling about it all along. I don’t think it’s wrong to think of fandom as imagined community, ....

I think we’d be better served thinking of fandom as what Mary Pratt calls a “contact zone,” which she defines as:

"social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power"
"When fandom was in closed - or close-able - settings, and I’m thinking especially of Yahoo! Groups (my own first online fandom, back in 2000) and LiveJournal, I think it was a relatively straightforward thing to create and maintain a sense of community. Regular contributors got to know each other, certain standards of communication were slowly set into place and adhered to, like minds met like minds and differences, in the main, I think were generally kept localized and limited because participants were more or less coming from roughly the same place. I’m generalizing, of course, but this is my own experience of fandom in those days, and when communities did break down - and they did (Doggett OMG John Doggett) - they tended to do so spectacularly with no hope of reconciliation; in a nation-state sense, this would be the kind of thing that splintered one large nation into smaller ones, each with their own inherent values, language, etc.

Point being, I think those days are over.

Tumblr, unlike LJ and Yahoo! Groups, etc., is inherently UNclose-able. It is wide, wide open - much like, you could argue, the world itself has become with the ease of travel. Only online, it’s not travel but these kinds of platforms that enable/make us see so much more than we ever did before - come into contact with so many more people than we ever did before, and suddenly it’s a world that isn’t necessarily built up of shared values. We don’t all see things the same way. "
"I always come back to how I live in a multicultural, multiracial, multisexual, multi-everything world without threatening people or killing people left and right. Different people approach this differently. There will always be people in life - “real life” - who like to mix it up, argue politics, etc. There will be people who find their crowd and never come out, because it’s comfortable there. There will be people like me, who tend to keep people I don’t know well at arm’s length a bit - at least until I know them better. Some people will stand around in cliques and whisper loudly about the kids at the other table. And so on. So then, for me, the question becomes, what do I do when this is the world online? When fandom isn’t a happy - or even “well, we do have our problems but we love each other” - community, but one that’s intrinsically fraught with grappling and conflict? Do I try to convince everyone that I’m right? Do I listen first, and engage in conversation? Do I alleviate the tension? Do I find a much quieter place to go be a fan amongst the like-minded? I think these are all viable options, but in observing AND participating, my experience has been that the people who are trying to convince others that they’re right have the hardest/most fraught time of it - and maybe it’s because the act of trying to bring people under a common understanding isn’t unlike trying to create a “community” in a place where there’s unlikely to be one?"
"Because I do think there’s value in being on Tumblr in all its infinite diversity. I’ve learned more about sexuality, gender, class, race - I mean, you name it - in my year and a half here than I have in years of living out in the world, because here I come into contact with people I might never speak to otherwise, and all because we have this one shared thing. I think the contact is critical - but that we have to understand that it’s the nature of contact with people and ideas outside our own experiences to be a bit fraught with conflict and, as Pratt says, grappling..... ...Please don’t mistake me on this one thing: I am NOT saying that fandom doesn’t feel like community for people. I have found kindred spirits here, and I would say that we’re kind of a community. That’s not what I’m arguing, but rather that the broad idea of “fandom” as “community” is, perhaps, slowing us down/holding us back from understanding how fandom operates within environments that are not conducive to fostering a sense of togetherness."


Some of the reactions excerpted below were not posted directly as part of the orginal essay's reblog loop. They do however, refer to both tea-and-liminality and emmagrant01's tumblr essays and subsequent essays by ivyblossom and acafanmom (NOTE: tea-and-liminality and acafanmom are the same person):

"Moderate fandom voices such as ivyblossom and emmagrant01 have exhorted fellow fans to live and let live, to find the love and focus on that instead of the hate, to approach discussion in a spirit of good-natured debate, rather than a zero-sum throw down. For me, this is stuff that I have been trying to do in my own fandom, and in general I think it’s sound advice for many fans. Particularly when people seem happy to become intractably entrenched behind positions in way that leave no room for conversation or discussion, it seems the logical - or, at least, sanity-preserving - approach to take."[2]
"This is worth reading if you, like me, struggle mightily to hear what is being said once a discussion becomes heated. If, like me, you can feel the fight-or-flight response flooding your body. I’ve spent a lot of time on self-work and therapy just to learn to check out and walk away when things become uncivil, rather than responding in what I perceive to be is the way I’m being addressed, and digging in for bitter trench warfare. I’m still struggling to learn to stay in place and hear what is being said. acafanmom offers a motivating perspective."[3]
"I’ve felt like this is not only a problem with fandoms on Tumblr, but Tumblr in general. I’ve only voiced my opinion once or twice on Tumblr. I dislike getting into arguments or fights with people, and always try to avoid them. I enjoy debate but Tumblr has struck me as more of a place where people argue rather than debate. If someone dislikes your opinion enough you can get hate messages.....

What’s even worse is that a lot of the people who speak up on Tumblr are very hypocritical. A lot of people claim to be tolerant and support it. The only problem is that these same people don’t seem to understand the meaning of tolerance. Tolerance does not equal ‘I agree’, rather it means that you will accept an opinion even if you disagree. You won’t go after that person for their opinion.You can speak your own opinion, but more in the way a person debates, in a ‘that’s your opinion and that’s nice; now here’s my opinion’ type of way. Why should I be tolerant when you are going to start insulting me for holding a different opinion?

Tumblr is a bad place to speak about opinions and if you do it is like fighting a verbal war. If you don’t fit into the status quo you’re dead, because if you rock the boat in the slightest way, you are going to be pushed out of it.

I’ve had a lot more success speaking outside of tumblr about things, especially with those who I don’t agree with. What’s the point of a blogging site when you can’t disagree with a person without getting hate?"[4]
"Catching up on the moderate voices discussion (thanks to emmagrant01 and acafanmom, amongst others) the theme of “but now, because of tumblr, fandom is uncomfortable” seems to have popped up again. Sherlock is really my first fandom so all I know of this culture is tumblr .....Without comparing it to the good old days, here is part of what makes me feel awkward in this fan space.

tumblr feels like a high school cafeteria: small groups talking and joking loudly amongst themselves, while everyone is exposed to everyone else’s noise. If you are really focused on your group, you might not notice the cacophony, or you might be absorbed in drama between groups. But if you are kind of on the fringe, well, you get to watch other people clicking together and suffer through the din while feeling rather invisible. I would guess a lot of us in the Sherlock fandom have some experience being that kid that doesn’t know where to sit down to eat.

For those of us who aren’t widely followed, it’s kind of hard to call it a community. (I’m nearly at 200 followers, but what does that mean?) Sure we are steeped in the common cultural context, but we aren’t necessarily forming groups. Liking is not analogues to eye contact and reblogging isn’t a equivalent to sitting side by side because it is so much harder to reciprocate in this medium."[5]
"I think being a smaller “community,” we (Elementary fans) are not nearly as volatile as BBCSherlock fans. I’ve not received threats from posts (except those horrible troll comments on a fanfic). I’m not a watsonite, while I do think Joan was underwritten and underdeveloped in season 2, I am not militant about it. I am not on the anti-Lucy bandwagon by a long shot (no offense but you people scare me). I am very much a Sherlock/Watson supporter and yes I lean towards Sherlock and JLM. We all have a right to lean in whatever direction we want (frankly, I’d very much like to lean into JLM … but I digress). The article above caused me to stop and think. We are not a community of like minded fans. We just share a common interest. We all bring with us our own issues and overlay them on the material. A lot of those overlaid issues bring new light, new perspective on the show. But some of it is just redundant, one note harping that bores holes of hate. I guess my job as an adult, is to walk away from those and not create more hate but it is tiresome."[6]
"One of the things that I find very frustrating about online fandom (and hell, the culture of the internet in general) is that so few people take time to look at each other’s words in the larger context of that person’s experience. And granted, that’s hard to do, especially on Tumblr, but little is more frustrating than being judged (and often condemned) for a few sentences you wrote, regardless of everything you’ve said or written or done up until that point. Maybe you had a bad day, or maybe this one issue has been bugging you for a long time, or maybe you were tired, or whatever. Maybe you are in a situation in your life where you feel powerless. Maybe you were just joking. Et cetera. But I can’t help coming back to this idea over and over again, that we would all benefit from stopping to consider the perspective of the other person, the other human being behind the words we disagree with. It’s really hard to do that when you’re hurting, and it’s even harder to do it when it’s not the norm of the online community. And if that’s not something that occurs in your real life with the people you love, it’s even harder than that."[7]


  1. archived link.
  2. I don’t want to hijack ivyblossom's post that's currently circulating,; archive link.
  3. a number of things; archive link.
  4. Tumblr is a bad place to speak about opinions ; archive link.
  5. Limits on tumblr Fandom Communities; archive link.
  6. My wall of crazy; archive link.
  7. we would all benefit from stopping to consider the perspective of the other person ; archive link.