|See also:||Metadiscussion, Metafandom, Metafic|
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In fandom, meta (also meta essay) is used to describe a fan-authored piece of non-fiction writing discussing any aspect of fandom, fanworks, or the source text. This can include discussing characters and their motivations, fanfiction tropes and trends, fan activity, particular plot elements, choices by canon creators, alternate possibilities for canon and much more.
The term “meta” describes something that is an abstraction of itself (X about X).
Meta, in Fandom terminology, is usually used to describe the analysis of a show, its characters, or Fandom itself. Very often, people create meta that is almost academic in nature, citing multiple resources and defending their point of view.Meta [is] a blanket term to include things like headcanon, ship manifestos, theories, and character analysis. 
Meta can be described by both intention and scope. [It can be] about fandom as a whole, a particular fandom, a particular event, a particular canon, a particular episode or aspect of something, it all counts. Fandom talking about itself or its interests in a thoughtful way is the best description we can come up with. When it comes to intention, pretty much anything that isn't fictional or conversation would count. Meta can be very long (even a series!) or it could be just a few paragraphs. 
The definition, and terminology, used to describe meta has varied over time and with different fannish platforms. See Origin & Evolution of the Term.
Origin & Evolution of the Term
Meta describes a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter. It is derived from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-) meaning "after", or "beyond".
What constitutes meta has varied over time and with fannish platforms, as each platform has its own community norms, and constraints about what can be published. On mailing lists, for example, discussions of the source text, characters and fanworks was taken for granted - these were simply everyday discussions. The prevailing term, therefore, was metadiscussion, which means "discussing the discussion", or shifting away from the topic at hand to talk about how the topic is being discussed.
LiveJournal and journal-based fandoms popularised the concept of the "meta essay", which was a long-form piece of non-fiction writing on any canon or fandom-related topic. This informs what many fans think of as meta today, although when it first emerged, this 'new' definition of meta was controversial, with fans believing there was no need for a separate term to refer to simple discussion. (See Not All Fans Agree on the Definition).
While discussion would take place in the comments of meta essays published on journal platforms, there was always a clear separation between the original "essay" and the ensuing discussion. However, this line has blurred with the advent of microblogging platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, in which a relatively brief initial post or comment can spark off a discussion that produces meta - yet the original post arguably does not qualify as a meta essay in its own right. There is yet to be an agreed-upon term that distinguishes these discussion-formatted meta from essay-formatted meta ("metadiscussion" being an established term to refer to something different).
Meta can also take the form of multiple posts (by the same author) in a reblog chain or Twitter thread, either to separate the initial observation into individual thoughts or to circumvent the platform's length limitations. The nature of microblogging platforms can make the subsequent discussions difficult to follow, with multiple 'versions' of the same meta branching off in different directions as different fans respond and add their thoughts.
Some Fan Comments
Not All Fans Agree on the Definition
Seriously, what is with this new 'meta' definition? Does anyone understand why people are using this term for basic discussion now? I saw it all over the place, with people defining anything that wasn't creative work or recommendations of creative work as 'meta'. Since when did talking about the source become 'meta'? And if basic discussion is meta now, what is the discussion style formerly known as meta now called? (Whether the former metadiscussion of 'discussing the discussion', or the former metadiscussion such as happen(ed)(s) on FCA-L, where broader fannish topics are discussed.) 
I absolutely loathe that normal fan discussion is now being labelled "meta" and as a result, many fen are increasingly eschewing the idea of discussion because they erroneously think discussion must mean an academic treatise! Meta-analysis has a very specific meaning. I'll even accept the term being broadened to relate to non-statistical overview analysis of fandom interactions and trends. But to call any fandom discussion "meta"? NO, a thousand times NO. It drives me nuts that a number of influential fen with academic backgrounds routinely promote such usage. 
Sometimes fanworks themselves become metafic, where characters within the text comment on canon or fandom. Back when RPF was rare, some people called any story meta where the characters and the actors for those characters interacted. See some fiction examples.
A fic that utilizes the pairing of Meta/Fandom: Untitled Anthropomor-Fic; archive link (NC-17) by alyse (219 comments) ("But Meta had a way of making that seem okay when it had Fandom at its mercy. Meta had a way of making everything seem okay when it touched Fandom just right. When Meta did that, Fandom was just Meta's bitch. And Meta knew it.") (2007)
Recursive fanfic may also be called metafic.
In vids, the tag meta is occasionally used when images of fans appear along with images of characters, but the term metavid is more commonly used to describe a vid that comments on a specific show, or its fandom, or fandom as a whole.
Fans have also had a lot to say about fandom itself, often in the form of meta essays. These can take the form of formal essays, but also as posts to personal journals.
- 2002: The Metablog noticeboard community provided a central place to post links to "blogs and LJs that discuss issues of importance to fandom." Metaquotes community provides the lighter side.
- 2004: The Shipper's Manifesto, a community for shippers to post meta essays in support of a particular pairing.
- 2005: The metafandom newsletter community on LiveJournal and (after Strikethrough, 2007) on InsaneJournal compiles links to "interesting discussions in fandom" over both journalling sites (but no blogs).
- 2007: The meta_roundup community on InsaneJournal compiles links to ""fannish stuff of interest" on InsaneJournal exclusively.
- 2019: This Week in Meta, a pan-fandom newsletter rounding up links to meta posted around the web.
Resources & Further Reading
- Category:Meta Essays
- From Metaphysics to Teen Wolf Meta: The Evolution of a Word; archive link by Annalee Newitz (June 2, 2014)
- LJ Communities ! = Mailing Lists, a fan discusses the changing nature of fan discussion, meta, and the then-new fannish platform LiveJournal (2005)
- On symposia: LiveJournal and the shape of fannish discourse (2008)
- The Fanfic Symposium (A website collecting meta essays, active 1999-2006)
- The Fan Meta Reader (A website dedicated to republishing "thought-provoking, theoretically innovative, and stylistically unique fan analysis". Active 2014-2017)
- Geek Word Wednesdays: A Definition of Meta in Fandom by Pammu (April 6, 2016)