On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility

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Title: On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility
Creator: oliviacirce
Date(s): June 25, 2009
Medium: journal post
External Links: On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility, Archived version
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On Being A Village Elder: An Essay On Community Responsibility is a 2009 post by oliviacirce.

One response to this post is On bandom as a fannish community, or: what the hell, people?.

Topics Discussed

  • warnings and triggers
  • feral fandom and fans
  • Harry Potter
  • fandom as a community
  • fannish community rules
  • fannish responsibilities
  • the essay debunks some fandom statements: 1. Fandom is not a singular community. 2. Fandom and the internet are not a safe space. 3. Fandom owes me nothing; I owe fandom nothing. 4. Fandom has no universal code of conduct. 5. Why can't we stop talking about this already? I am just in fandom to have fun! Stop harshing my squee.


The last long meta post I wrote -- which I am still thinking about -- was, more or less, a discussion of multi-various fannish communities. That plurality is essential now, and it was essential then, in finding ways to talk about division and difference. We were not, however, ever really talking about two distinctly separate communities. Using terms like "book fandom" and "media fandom" was, we determined, ultimately unhelpful, because what we were really discussing was not just a dichotomy, nor even three or four overlapping but distinct communities, but rather many axes of reading and response and fannish activities and identities and texts. Two dimensions do not come close to describing the actual people -- diverse and disparate and layered and real -- who make up fandom and self-define as fans. I would never begin to suggest that fandom is a homogeneous community, nor even a singular community. Fandom, as I see it, is a larger community made up of many smaller communities that overlap and intersect and fuse and fight in ways we may never fully understand. Any community is as chaotic as the people who make it up, and fandom is certainly no exception. The fact that a larger fandom community does exist, however, is evidenced by the term itself: that we say we are "in fandom"; it is evidenced by the fact that we keep talking about how our community functions; it is evidenced by the fact that so many of us are multi-fandom; it is evidenced by the fact that we have message boards like metafandom and organizations like the OTW.

Fandom absolutely has a universal code of conduct; that does not mean that everybody follows that code or that everybody understands or is aware of that code, but it has one:
1. Do not out other fans.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not talk about fandom with the powers that be.

Of course fandom is not a singular community; I've already said so. That does not, however, mean that it is not a community at all. Fandom is a community that is incredibly multi-various, with people -- as oulangi and others on both sides of the "community" debate have said -- from vastly different backgrounds, with vastly different interests and priorities. We may not share a singular emotional connection, nor an agreed membership -- although to some extent I disagree on both those points -- but we do share an essential feature: we all consider ourselves part of fandom. If you consider yourself "in fandom" at all, then you are self-defining as part of a community. There may be parts of that community with which you disagree or do not particularly want to associate, and your primary actions and choices within that community are entirely your own, but you are still part of fandom. Fandom is not monolithic, but it is a community.

I do, generally speaking, agree that we are the architects of our own fate and that we are -- generally speaking -- responsible for our own experiences. Indeed, I get extremely frustrated with people who demonstrate a sense of entitlement in fandom. But look: I believe in the golden rule. I believe that, as independent and individual and non-entitled as we may all be or try to be, you go through life treating people the way you want to be treated. Life is crap if you don't give something back; it's crap if you treat people badly, and it's crap if you say "well, I don't owe anything to the world, so the world doesn't owe anything to me". Nobody learns, doing that, and nobody grows, and the world slides a little further into entropy because you didn't do your part to keep it going. Fandom is only as good a place as the people in fandom, and while it is nobody's responsibility to craft the "perfect fannish experience" for anybody else, it is everybody's responsibility to treat their fellow community members with respect. This isn't about owing; this is about being a conscientious citizen. With no disrespect intended to [livejournal.com profile] azewewish, I have to be blunt: absolving oneself of responsibility to fandom is a coward's way out, and it is harmful both to one's own fannish experience and to the community at large.

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, 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.

As much as I can ever know my audience, however, I imagine that the majority of the people who will read this post are no longer really newbies -- even if you sometimes feel like you are. I imagine that the majority of you have been around for a while, and been in more than one fandom, and value more than one small segment of the larger fannish community. I imagine that most of you, like me, have made mistakes and learned to correct them -- and will make mistakes again, and continue to learn. I imagine that most of you, like me, value fandom for fandom's sake. That makes you village elders -- not because you are old (indeed, there are many of you who I would consider "village elders" who are younger than me), or because you have been around forever, but because you want the community to continue to grow and change and improve, and you want to help it to do so.

As village elders, we have an additional responsibility to educate by example, to socialize the unsocialized (to fandom), and to make the codes of our community transparent. That doesn't make us authorities -- far from it -- and it also doesn't make us teachers. I really don't think that fandom should be all about the educational moment every minute of the damn day. Constant education can get incredibly tedious, and it can also be extremely patronizing, which isn't the goal at all. I don't think we should be going around telling ever person new to fandom "okay, here is the code of conduct you should follow", because every person new to fandom has to learn for themselves. What I think we should do, however, and what we have a responsibility and even a moral imperative to do, is continue to be thoughtful and contributing citizens. I said "by example", and that's exactly what I mean: be the best you can be, help to make your community the best it can be, and the rest will follow.

Yesterday's fights are incredibly important. We learned from them, and they inform our fights today. Yesterday's fights were as important to the community once as these new fights are to the community now. But each new fight is new, because there are new people involved in it; each new fight teaches somebody, somewhere, something that they did not know before. Each new fight is a way of adding to our shared understanding of the way our community works and should work. There is a lot of shit in every fight, and a lot of that shit is not productive, but just because the shit is not productive, or because you can't see how it might be productive in the moment, does not mean it is not also essential to the ultimate process of growth. Plants need fertilizer, right? So does community.

I'm the farthest thing from an authority, here. I'm a community member, and that is all. I try hard to contribute, and I try hard to give back, because I believe in fandom, and I believe in this community. I'm far from perfect. Sometimes I can't contribute, and sometimes I screw up the ways in which I contribute; sometimes I need to turn off the computer and deal with my day-to-day life; sometimes I need to prioritize things that aren't fandom battles, and sometimes I need to say "today, this is not my problem". But I never forget that I am part of this community, and that being a part of this community means that I have a duty and a responsibility to every other member of that community, new or old, friend or enemy.

So if you want to tell me that community does not matter, or that you are absolved of responsibility to the community, or that you don't believe in the community and don't belong to it and therefore are allowed to treat people in the community with something less than human decency, or that you want to keep taking from the community without giving back, then god, Jed, I don't even wanna know you.