Feral (glossary term)
|See also:||Threshold Fandom, Eternal September|
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Feral is a fandom term originating in the early 1990s, which was used to describe a fan who discovered fandom (usually media fandom) independently, without being introduced by a “gatekeeper” (a more experienced fan).
The term is representative of a shift in fandom behaviour between the 1960s and 1970s, during which discovering fandom on one’s own was traditional, and the 1980s and 1990s, in which newcomers to fandom needed to be initiated by a member of the community.
The use of the term “feral” to describe fans has been controversial, with fans objecting to the term’s implications and the “us vs them” attitude that it fosters. (See Controversy). However, other fans considered it an important distinction to make, between fans who understood the accepted social codes of fannish communities, and those who didn’t. Still others have reclaimed the term, and are proud of their feral origins.
Some variations on the term have evolved, such as feral vidder (used to describe a vidder who came to vidding without a mentor) and feral fandom (used to describe fandoms which developed in isolation from wider media fandom).
The women's fanzine community draws its members from among the adult and late teen population, and it has developed an extensive mentor-apprentice system for training newcomers in the structures and customs of the community, including the codes and aesthetics of fan fiction, and a particular aesthetic of television viewing.
In the 1960s and 1970s, people generally discovered media fandom independently. Fan letters to the show would get you directed to an official fan club, which often had contact information for pen pal lists, unofficial clubs and fanzines. One could simply contact and join these clubs, buy the zines or start writing to people without introduction. Fan activity was extremely diverse, as were ideas about fan fiction and relationships between characters. Many of the established standards and practices fans take for granted today did not exist, or existed only in rudimentary form.
By the early 1980s, newcomers had to "know somebody" in order to be accepted. This initiation process often took place at conventions, where one would be introduced to one or more experienced people. Rather like an apprenticeship in trade or a postulant in religious life, the newbie fan would be vetted for membership and taught what they would need to know about how to interact with the larger fan community.
At Shore Leave [a Maryland fan-run science fiction convention ], Judy Segal led me through the fanzine rooms. In 1983 there were four parlor rooms filled with the fanzines for sale. She guided me to the more general work, and I bought fanzines from Roberta Rogow, who specializes in, among other things, fanzines from new writers; from Joanna Cantor, an ardent feminist; and from others, while eschewing some of the more controversial genres. This is typical for new members brought into the community. Mentors, particularly for complete neophytes like myself, are often more traditional members of the community and act as gatekeepers. They lead the new member to the art and literature that either requires minimal decoding for an outsider, or that will not shock the sensibilities of a reader who has not yet learned to decode the messages embedded in the community's product. Judy mentioned the hurt-comfort genre as one she found personally troubling; she dismissed the relatively new homoerotic fiction.
By the mid to late 1990s, more and more fans were "discovering" fandom on their own via the Internet. Some fans were very proud of their feral fan history, as it meant that they were independent and outside of the 'media fandom' box.
Variations on the Term "Feral"
A Feral Fan was a term for someone who would stumble onto fandom the old fashioned way, or discover fanzines, perhaps at a used book store, scifi con or an ad at the back of a scifi magazine, and then get into fandom simply though directly purchasing zines, without having to know someone first.
A Feral Vidder was specifically related to people who read an intro on how to create fan videos in a zine, and who then went out and bought two VCRs—perhaps an linear editing VCR, if they were lucky (and rich) -- and created their own works, without ever having anyone mentor them personally (as had been the custom back in the late 80s/early 90s). There were even people who independently hit on the idea of creating homemade music videos without knowing anything about the culture of "vidding" or that anyone else was doing it. In the anime and game fan community it was referred to as AMV (Animated Music Videos). It had been common practice for years—existing long before Youtube.
Feral fandom is the newest term, really only coming into its own post-internet, and the breakdown of the gatekeeper system. It is applied to any fandom around a form of popular modern Western media that is not seen as having branched off from media fandom. The term is sometimes also applied to any fandom outside media fandom, even those connected to other large fannish communities with a long history, such as anime fandom.
Members of "feral" fandoms often find the term overly subjective and insulting, seeing the "media fans" as the clueless outsiders. (See Bandom Terminology Debate for an example of this type of culture clash.) These days most new fandoms develop their own culture, practices and vocabulary independent of media fandom.A fan in 2009 explained:
Back in Harry Potter fandom -- or really, in the meta-aftermath of various wanks in HP fandom -- there were discussion of "the feral fans of Harry Potter". This is undeniably a slur, and I am more than willing to apologize for that slur, but it is also a crucial concept. "Feral fans" are fans who are not socialized. The "feral fans" of Harry Potter came into HP fandom without ever having been in another fandom, and without any interest in the larger fannish community. They frequently thought that fandom was nothing more than a stepping stone on the path to pro-writing, and generally failed to appreciate that they were part of a community that valued fandom for fandom's sake. They made mistakes, like outing other fans [not as gay, but revealing their legal names or other private information], and, in the notable case of Cassandra Clare (who, by the way, I have nothing whatsoever against either as a person or a writer), like failing to understand that plagiarizing the exact words of others was stealing even in fandom. The "feral fans" of Harry Potter fandom violated the social codes of the fannish community. More often than not, they did this by accident, because they were improperly socialized and did not understand that they were part of a community, and that the community had rules and regulations like any other, despite being chaotic, relatively egalitarian, and constantly changing.
Every fandom has feral fans, because every fandom has people in it who are new to fandom. Some of those people will come and go, and some of them will be uninterested in learning more about the larger community. Some of them will prefer to remain unsocialized. That is completely legitimate; not everyone who flirts with fandom needs to marry fandom, and not everyone who passes through needs to become part of the community. For the most part, I don't have a problem with people who choose to remain "feral fans" -- although that said, outing in particular can be a major problem with people who flirt with fandom and then leave without learning the foundational precepts. Still, if you don't want to be a part of the community, far be it for me to tell you that you have to be. Just don't expect the community to give anything back to you.But everyone was a newbie, once upon a time. We all had a first fandom, and unless you date all the way back to the first time Star Trek was a fandom, you probably have at least some imposter syndrome. I've been in online fandom for half my life, and I still feel like a newbie; there are always going to be people who are smarter than me and better than me, people who have been around for longer, and are more articulate, and write more stories, and write better stories, and make awesome vids, and do fantastic art, and are way more involved, and more meta, and write better meta, and know more people, and are more visible, and give more back to the community. Given the incredibly varied and talented make-up of this community, I think if you don't have a little bit of imposter syndrome in fandom, you're probably doing it wrong.
Feral means "reverted to wild." Applied to humans, the term refers to children "raised by wolves" or in an isolated environment without interaction with other humans. Most true feral children exhibit atypical speech, personal habits described as strange, and severely impaired social functioning. Some fans object to being called feral, not the least of which was the "us vs. them" attitude that it helps foster.
And what is a feral vidder? From what I can tell by the people who use the term, it's anybody who was not mentored into vidding by *them*, or someone *they* consider part of their community. Someone who has not adopted *their* rules. Someone who comes from no community, someone who has no community. Because the people who bandy this term about believe that their community is the only community.
From the view of existing media fandom at the time the term was invented, the metaphor was an accurate representation of the process of how people found media fandom. Feral fans didn't come in through the existing gatekeeper system ("fellow human stimulus"), and they did create their own terms ("atypical speech", such as applying the term slash to a depiction of heterosexual relationships that weren't canon). They didn't necessarily know or care about the values of the current media fandom culture, such as any activity involving zines—the original basis of media fandoms' social structure.
Many fans also use the term to refer to their own past selves, or how they felt they were before they found their home or tribe in media fandom. A lot of personal stories talk about the sense of community and welcome they receive once they start interacting with other fans. So for some, when they say they used to be a 'feral fan', it meant 'I felt isolated and alone'.
Other fans have commented on alternative linguistic usage of feral, and the classist and racist overtones of its etymology.
In addition to the potentially offensive connotations of the term itself, the concept of a feral fan can also be offensive because of the unspoken assumptions that underlie it: that there is a single, default, mainstream "fandom" community (traditional Media Fandom) and that joining it is a normal part of any fan's introduction to fandom. In addition to many insular fandoms with an unusual fandom-specific culture, there are also entire large sectors of "fandom" (anime fandom, for example) that have their own distinct history of gatekeepers and defaults. Fans from these communities may join more traditional media fandoms after years of being "in fandom", often leading them to be especially offended at terminology like 'feral'.
Some comments by fans:
- "I'm very happy to see people reclaiming the term! I've nothing against that. What I don't like is when people use it to mean that the vidder in question comes from no community at all, just because s/he doesn't come from the traditional one. That implies that there *is* only one vidding community, and if you aren't in it you were raised by wolves. It makes me cranky. (: But I'm all for people using it to describe themselves from a place of pride." 
- "I don't think of feral as dismissive either...it takes a lot of energy and imagination to get anywhere without mentorship or support...so yes...pride and power :) but as with all these terms, reappropriation's different than use by others!" 
- "My vid-mentor jmtorres considers herself to be a feral vidder, with pride. I think there's a place for the label, at least in a self-applied fashion." 
- "Heh, well. I do come from no community at all. I didn't know the wheel existed; I reinvented it. Ergo my use of the term feral for myself." 
Examples of Feral Fandoms
The classic feral fandom is Xena: Warrior Princess; it independently reinvented many fannish traditions in isolation from other fandoms. (See the "Parallel Evolution" section of that fandom's page for more information.)
The X-Files was a very large fandom at its peak (being a mainstream crossover hit), so large that the number of newbies overwhelmed the existing members with fannish experience. So although in some ways XF was a classic media fandom -- fanfiction, extensive analysis, picspams (before those had a name) -- in other ways its self-concept was strongly isolated. XF is noted for developing a complex system of category-ratings in its fanfic, an artifact unknown in most other media fandoms. A great many mediafen got their start in XF; it is also fair to say that a great many X-Philes have been fans of that show and that show only, and have shunned the multifandom experience.
Harry Potter had a lot of early activity on fanfiction.net, and as such, had a more peripheral connection with the main thread of media fandom, which at the time was centered on mailing lists. As a threshold fandom, Harry Potter brought in a lot of new fans, and those fans tended to be younger and centered (at least initially) on Fanfiction.net; some fans participated in both media fandom mailing list communities and communities based around activity on ff.net.
HP is another feral fandom, which got way too many new fans for older fans to establish social norms, and it had/has another atypical fannish population, although in this case it trended much younger than other media fandoms (but older than anime fandoms), and it had and continues to have a lot of members who aren't aware that "fandom" isn't synonymous with "Harry Potter fandom" for everybody.
The fandom became a hybrid of sorts, picking up terms and concepts from media fandom, but also developing their own terms, their own practices, and their own spins on how fandom worked. The Cassandra Claire plagiarism scandal is an example of the type of complex situation that the hybrid fandom experienced, with various factions and groups clashing over terms and ideas, and what the appropriate reaction to the situation should be.
Twilight has been described as a feral fandom, where some of the mores and practices—such as those around deleting fanworks and sharing copies thereof—developed independently (and in different directions from) previous, interconnected media fandoms.
Alternatives to "Feral"
Some fans have tried to come up with alternate terminology to describe the concepts of feral fans and fandoms that lacks the negative implications of the word 'feral' itself. However, there are enough offensive assumptions embodied in the term that nothing has stuck. Alternate schema for describing the relationships between types of fandoms have also been proposed. One such idea blends the wave theory of slash with the idea of feral and threshold fandoms to produce a wave theory of fandom:
A first-generation fan would be someone who writes drawer-fanfic, or finally goes on line in search of.. something, or who attends a first con/buys a first dojinshi - someone moving into/towards an organized structure of fandom for the first time. A first-generation fandom would be mostly comprised of these newcomers, and it would be occupied with the excitement of bringing people together and creating things (cons! archives!). A second-generation fan would be someone who has a few years of experience in a fandom and who has ventured outside of their neighborhood... but who generally choose friends closeby or from their first-generation area; a second-generation fandom would have more migratory fans, because now they know how the buses run, it's pretty easy to get from White Collar to H50 [Hawaii Five-O]. And third-generation fans have an even broader overview of fandom and how little anyone can know of all of it, but they tend to have friends from all walks of fandom, and not much smugness about how advanced they are; I have no idea what a third-generation fandom looks like, my metaphor just broke down.
- Seven Reasons Why Selling Fanzines Isn't Bad, Wrong, or Hazardous to Your Fannish Health by bluecove (September 2006)
- On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility by oliviacirce (June 2009)
- Enterprising Women by Camille Bacon-Smith, 1992, pg 81 Free Preview
- Bacon-Smith, p. 93, "Training New Members".
- One anon on fail_fandomanon remarked that the term was "just a snotty, egocentric way of saying one small group of fans is the true fandom, and the rest of us were supposed to be orbiting around them." 2 August 2013 thread. (Accessed 4 August 2013.)
- On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility
- Laura Shapiro. Comment in "I Invented Pants". 22 September 2006 (accessed 2 November 2008).
- Stultiloquentia. Cleaning up after myself. 22 September 2009 (accessed 30 September 2009).
- Vividcon 2009: Some observations about race, gender, and accessibility; ; Archive for page one, page two; Archive for page two, comments by Laura Shapiro, August 22, 2009
- Vividcon 2009: Some observations about race, gender, and accessibility; ; Archive for page one, page two; Archive for page two, comments by cathexys, August 22, 2009
- Vividcon 2009: Some observations about race, gender, and accessibility; ; Archive for page one, page two; Archive for page two, comments by grey bard, August 22, 2009
- Vividcon 2009: Some observations about race, gender, and accessibility; ; Archive for page one, page two; Archive for page two, comments by jmtorres, August 22, 2009
- Coffeeandink. Fandom Genealogy 10 August 2006 (accessed 2 November 2008).
- In former times, science fiction and fantasy fans might refer to these beginners as neos, newbies, buds (as in budding), or virgins.
- From a Fail. Fandom. Anon. thread Alternative to "Feral Fandom". Posted March 27, 2012. (Accessed April 9, 2012.)