Telephones and Fandom

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Fandom: Pan-fandom
Dates: early 20th century-present
See also: Fandom and the Internet, Phones in Fanworks

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A compilation of David Starsky, Captain Dobey, and Kenneth Hutchinson all on the phone (but not with each other!). -- the artist is Pamela Grove, printed in Shootout #5 (1984), reprinted in Bonaventure in 1990. Hutch in the same pose by another artist can be seen here.
The Beauty and the Beast (TV) character,Catherine Chandler, calls someone on the phone. That someone probably isn't Vincent Wells, as people living Below communicated instead by tapping on pipes. The artist is Terrie Smith, and this illo was printed in Faded Roses #1 (1989).
from Wild Cards #5, the artist is Angi Towski, Skinner and Mulder snuggling up to Mulder's, cell phone
Catherine Chandler calls her friend, Jenny, on the phone. The artist is Shirley Leonard, and the art is in Where Rapture Lies (1996)
Catherine Chandler's friend, Jenny, talks on the phone. If they are talking about someone else than Vincent Wells or Joe Maxwell, they pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test! The artist is Shirley Leonard, and the art is in Where Rapture Lies (1996).

The use of phones for fannish communication, telephones in fandom has a long history. However like all technologies, it has been reshaped and in some cases superseded by other technologies.

from Double Play #5 (1990), artist is Jocelyn Munro: maybe Rick is calling AJ?
Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg on the phone (maybe talking to each other about Jim's latest zone, about the loft's broken elevator, about who's going to cook the stir-fry for dinner that night), cover of Sentry Post #8 (2003)

"In 1939 many fans still didn't have phones - including the four who organized the first Worldcon. But in those days if [Sam] Moskowitz mailed a Special Delivery letter by 6 p.m., the other party would get it by 11 if he wasn't more than 50 miles away, at a cost of 3 cents." [note 1]

Over the years, Phones in Fanworks have become more frequently used central themes and devices as they became more ubiquitous in the modern world.

20th Century

From a fan in 1976:

We are not just lonely "Trekkies" misunderstood and far scattered, alone or in small bunches separated by Long Distance Phone Rates and Post Office Snail Mail. Together we are strong. We spoke our minds and the world heard.[1]

Much As It Ever Was

Fans used phones much in the same manner that fans use email today: to collaborate on writing and publishing stories, to organize a convention or to squee over their favorite TV show.

In 1996, two fans used it to practice for some filking they were going to do at Shore Leave: "I sang this year with [MR] who came all the way from Los Angeles... She practiced with me over the phone for hours, and made up beautiful harmonies." [2]

the inside back cover of Pegasus #4 v.1, Leia Organa talks to someone on her Western Electric Princess phone artist is Joni Wagner (1979)

One zine publisher explains the process of producing a zine: "…the dozens of miscellaneous items that go into producing a zine, but aren't part of the actual printing cost. Such things might include presstype-lettering, typewriter rental, typing and layout supplies, long-distance last-minute phone calls to distributors, etc...postage…" [3]

Another fan wrote that when publishing her zine it required: "Soliciting contributions, working with the contributors on editing and revising, advertising, and sales relied on postal service communication and whatever long-distance phone calls the budget could handle." [4]

There were also social nuances to fandom phone use as evidenced by Susan Garrett's chapter in The Fantastically Fundamentally Functional Guide to Fandom ("Telephone Courtesy OR How to Make Enemies Without Even Trying") here.

And the inability to 'reach out and touch' another fan by phone, spurred some fans to more creative heights: "Though it seems to her like she was born there, Mindy Glazer dates her entry into ST fandom to February 11, 1978, at 8:30 p.m. (precisely), when there was nothing on tv and the only person she wanted to telephone had already telephoned someone else. Unable to find anything better to do, she began writing The Perfect Object."[5]

Most phones in the 1960s-1980s were corded, which meant that the phone could not be carried off to a more private or comfortable place. For fans who did not have freedom to talk openly about their fannish passions (such as slash), this made phone use both tricky and onerous. And because phone headsets and speakerphones had not yet been made widely available, fans would spend hours with the phone pressed to their ear or clamped against their neck. Arm and neck pain were a typical complaint after many long phone sessions.

The phone was also how some TPTB passed on information to fans in expectation that these fans would then pass that information on to others. One of the highlights of the August Party was a long-distance phone call from Gene Roddenberry: "The August Party convention was held in Maryland in the 1970s. It always featured a long-distance call with Gene Roddenberry, and the information would then be passed along to the rest of fandom, often by way of reports in various zines." [6]

Those fans with greater access to telephones would immediately put that access to fannish use:

"One fan in the late 70s and early 80s ...had free long distance phone service, which she made extensive use of in fannish pursuits. She was a driving force behind the "Save Spock" campaign in 1982, and because of this she was able to get the word out to numerous people on the status of this project. There were also extensive uses of "telephone trees" - i.e., when something of fannish interest because known, people had assigned people to call. Fan A would call fans B and C, fan B had a couple of people to call, fan C ditto. I don't have firsthand experience of this, but I was told that fans in the New York City area made extensive use of this technique. (Which, of course, had the danger of the "telephone" game in which information can get distorted the further away it was from the original source.) The use of monthly letterzines helped keep accurate information out there. (And, of course, fans were constantly calling each other with updates on fannish information without any formal “telephone trees”.)"[7]

"No review of Perestroika would be complete without mentioning the fantastic Suzan Lovett art throughout... I find it impossible to select one as a favorite, but the drunken (and nearly naked) Illya talking to an amused Napoleon comes close." [8]

The Cost

For many years, letter writing, letterzines, and newsletters were the mainstays of fannish communication. Telephone bills in the US were divided into local calls (usually free within a limited area), regional calls and long-distance calls. The charges for the latter two types of phone calls were often prohibitive. " really a shill for Ma Bell? Phone numbers in the Litterzine? Gads, if my phone bill goes any higher I'll be forced to start working the streets! (Tho how I'll support my "habit" on 25 cents a night...)" one fan wrote when the editors of the Starsky & Hutch letterzine proposed subscribers begin including their phone numbers in their LOCs.[9] Another fan, this time in Pop Stand Express, said "New Year’s Resolution - RESOLUTION #2: CUT DOWN ON THE PHONE BILL: Rip out all phone jacks and expose the wiring. The phone company will charge you a minimum of $65.00 to replace it, which should be incentive enough to let it be."[10]

Phone charges were horrendous,[note 2] even by today’s standards. Fans would complain of monthly phone bills in the mid-hundreds (translating into thousands of dollars by today’s standards)[note 3] and would often stay up until after midnight to be able to afford lower rates. Some monthly phone bills were more than the average fans' rent and when their phones were disconnected, they'd use elaborate work-arounds relying on pay phones, refused person to person calls and callbacks. Sometimes, phone calls would be scheduled in advance by mail or via a LOC in a letterzine: one fan sent the following LOC to a letterzine to alert another subscriber to an incoming long-distance phone call: "I'm letting you know now that I will call you on April 16, 1985 at 8:00 p.m."[11]

The high cost of using phones was not only an issue in the US, it was a worldwide challenge that many fans faced. Outside the US, local calls are generally charged. A member of the UK fan club STAG wrote ironically in 1973: "For anyone absolutely dying to ring me, my phone number is [phone number redacted]. But beware! FIRST, learn how to revive your husband/Mum/Dad/Boyfriend from the shock, of getting a mile high phone bill, and don't leave it, like I alas did, almost too late to revive my poor Old Man. He's still recovering now, bless his tootsies, and it's a very long road to recovery." [12]

Likewise, international phone calling was beyond the reach of most fans, making communication between countries painfully slow, rife for misunderstandings and reliant almost exclusively on letters. Even creators of famous TV shows could not afford international long-distance calls. For example, Gene Roddenberry dictated and mailed a series of audio letters on cassette tape to UK and Australian fans the 1970s and 1980s. These 'letters' were then played to fans attending conventions. [note 4]

The Phone Tree

One way that fans organized, passed on news, and were motivated via the phone was the Phone Tree.

Don't Call Me During That Time!

Much like how Britain has TV Pickup, it was usual for fans not to call eat other during the programs they were watching. However, because of timezones it could be difficult for fans to remember when other fans were watching the shows and therefore some fans establish regular "do not call" hours to keep their shows from being interrupted. From 1991, a fan writes:

... I must warn you that I can be rather rude to people who call during my favorite TV shows. ST:TNG is never interrupted because of its time slot (10:30 Saturday evening). "Twin Peaks" (8:00 p.m. Thursday) and "Quantum Leap" (9:00 p.m. Wednesday) are not so protected. If you therefore call and get Mr. Hyde, check your TV listing for a possible explanation. Also, I ask you not to call (if you can help it) after 9:00 p.m. (Central Time). From about 9 to 10:30 p.m., my teenage girls get calls from at least 100 of their most intimate friends; thus you can expect an interruption from call waiting at least once every five minutes. Mary Jane, of course, has been very generous at fielding phone calls from the network, but she does have an atrocious phone bill If you want to be kind to Mary Jane (she has not complained — this is MY idea alone), how about having her return your call collect or send her a stack of postage stamps occasionally to help defray her expenses.[13]

Roleplaying Over the Phone

A fan in 2005 comments:

It's so funny when I think about the role playing I did with my friends on the telephone...we didn't really call it that...didn't call it anything, and now I see the same sort of thing being played out on LJs, IMs, etc. It's pretty exciting, and I don't miss the old way at all....

LOL...I was a weird kid...but it was fandom related. I was a Bee Gees fan and my friend loved Peter Frampton, so we'd play over the phone like I was a Bee Gee and she was Frampton and we'd go from there... *heh*...

I was never into RPS! LOL...but if I was doing RP gen and and het fic over the phone, there's probably someone who was into teh slash! [14]

ET gets his phone bill, Warped Space #48, art by Gordon Carleton

The Arrival of the Internet

The arrival of the Internet did not immediately replace phones. Email was not particularly common in the early days of the internet and didn't become as ubiquitous as it is now until the early 2000s.[15] Most fans only had access to dial-up[note 5] which meant they were using regional or long-distance phone numbers to access the Internet. Using internet via dial-up happened through the actual phone line, meaning that nobody could call you while you were on the internet and so fans often had to quickly log on, download their mail, log off, read the email, compose their responses and log back on. In some cases, fans did not have the ability to read messages while offline, so they were forced to read and respond to email messages very quickly and briefly in order to keep the phone line as free as possible. Replies were also not expected to be frequent or immediate[15]—often it was only possible to long online during hours when nobody was likely to call you, such as at night, so an email sent the previous night might not been seen until 24 hours later at the earliest by the recipient. In other instances, fans paid for each individual email message they sent (ex. In 1991, ISP Prodigy began charging 25 cents per email)[16] which made digest versions of mailing lists and single email responses to multiple posts commonplace. Other fans had access to free academic e-mail, although this could lead to its own problems with explicit content.

Internet chats were also not feasible for many years, due to high phone charges and the impossibility of having an entirely separate phone line installed just for the internet, but this soon changed with the introduction of America Online in the 90s. Prior to AOL, the internet was mostly restricted to university staff and students, which meant that AOL introduced an influx of newbies to the internet and oldbies were not particularly pleased with this development.[17] AOL continued to grow, however, and their rapidly increasingly membership meant that more and more fans were logging onto the internet every day. Eventually, customer complaints and competition from other ISPs pushed Internet providers to offer more and more local access numbers or flat rates,[17] and some providers dropped their ‘charge by email’ practices (although the practice lingered longer in Europe than in the US).

When this happened, phone usage began taking second place to email, since it no longer mattered how many emails a fan sent and overall internet had become a much cheaper means of long-distance communication:

Kathy and I made liberal use of the electronic mail available to each of us - me using America Online's Internet Gateway, Kathy using Internet through the University she works for. This wonder of modern technology literally enabled us to story conference on a daily basis while keeping our respective long-distance telephone bills down...” [18]

More and more fandom began using mailing lists, blogs and IRC chats as their major source of communication.[note 6]

21st Century

Y2K and the Start of Internet Culture

By the year 2000, the internet had fully entrenched itself as a part of culture and it wasn't going anywhere. America Online was truly America's internet provider, worth $125 billion and projected to grow 33% by the time 2001 rolled around.[17] Fans had already begun to create websites for fan content, such as, but newcomers such as FanFiction.Net and the many, many fannish sites hosted on GeoCities started to pop up as internet became less of a luxury and more of a necessity for many people. In these early days, unless you knew a fan's email or were part of a mailing list, it could be difficult to find other websites and likeminded people. This resulted in webrings, which allowed multiple sites with similar content to link to each other and therefore increase their fanbase.

Dial-up internet still made internet usage tricky, since many people did not have a separate phone line for their internet so using it would tie up the phone line. By 2005, however, broadband internet had become commonplace enough that most people had internet that wouldn't tie up their phone line[19] and the introduction of free email services such as Gmail and Yahoo meant that most fans had stopped communicating via phone to other fans, except those they knew in real life, and started communicating with each other through email and chat applications like AIM.

Skype and the Rise of Smart Phones

In 2003, the app Skype was released, which negated the expensive long-distance fees that fans incurred through calling via an actual telephone and somewhat brought phone communication back to the forefront. By 2009, Skype's growth had exceeded traditional long-distance telephone growth and was expected to grow in usage to over twice the volume of the entire world's phone companies combined.[20] This game-changing software allowed fans to roleplay over Skype[21][22] and connect with other fans through text, voice and video.[23]

In 2007 Apple released the very first iPhone, ushering in the era of smartphones and our current "always connected" mentality. By 2012, even with cell phone ownership at its highest and free long-distance calls, some fans had never spoken to another fan by phone. Partially this is due to smart phones most frequently being used as a "digital ‘Swiss Army Knife’, replacing possessions like watches, cameras, books and even laptops."[24] These new mobile technologies allowed people to access the Internet directly from their cellphones, allowing them to once again use their phones to talk to each other, though they may not ever hear one another's voices.

Many fans also use their phones for displaying fandom references and membership in a fandom, since they can be highly customized in the way they look via custom phone cases,[note 7] the lock screen/background,[25][26] or ring tones and notification sounds.[27] Many fan artists also make cell phone charms,[28] which were hugely popular in Japan and made their way to the west via anime fandoms.

By far the most popular use of smartphones in fandom, however, is for reading or viewing fan works in public areas, with this often replacing the need for an E-reader. Since most people continually have their phones on them, it's easy to get on AO3 or the like and browse fanworks while waiting for the bus or in any other situation that leaves someone with a chunk of downtime. Both Wattpad[29] and FanFiction.Net[30] have mobile apps, making them easy to access on a smartphone, while AO3 has started they're "focusing our efforts on building a single, responsive version of the Archive that works (and works well!) on as many devices as possible."[31]

Social Media and Fandom

With many people interested in the link between loneliness and smartphone usage,[note 8] it's no wonder that fans have turned to social media to connect themselves with other people. However, social media phenomena such as ARGs and augmented reality games (like Pokemon Go) are also ways for fans to connect with other people, sometimes in real life.[32][33] Social media helps connect fans across the world and helps them bond over a mutual interest like Supernatural or BTS. Social Media such as Twitter, tumblr and Facebook are now replacing the mailing lists, IRC chat, and blogging older fans are used to.

Use of hashtags on sites like Twitter allows fans to quickly connect and chat with like-minded people and talk about their fannish interests while chat apps such as Discord, Kik, and Line allow fans to chat with each other on the go without the sometimes restrictive texting limits that cellphones have. There are also many Discord servers dedicated to specific fandoms and ships that also allow fans to connect with like-minded people.[34] Public and private Whats App Groups, and photo/video sharing sites like Instagram or Youtube are now new means to express ones fan culture. Push notifications and subscriptions to their favourite creators now allow fans can be now kept up-to-date 24/7 about everything happening in their fandom.

Smartphone advancements mean that more and more people have front-facing cameras, breaking down some visual barriers that stood between fans previously as selfie-posting on Instagram and similar places become more common in online spaces. Video-chatting through apps has become more common in many online spaces as Skype has phased out of popularity for things like Amino and FaceTime. Instagram and Twitter, in particular, are popular places for cosplay enthusiasts to connect and share their work. In a thread about gaining Instagram followers on, one user wrote the following:

It is a mystery. I have always thought that people send friend requests and click "likes" people they do not even know because of being lonely and in-confident. Loneliness and lack of confidence are probably one of the most essential reasons making people to where they create accounts in social networks. It is a good thing to make friends but all those "friends" are sort of unreal while people kind of go proud of having that many of them. Either way, it is a pleasure of communication. It gives a feeling of importance and being liked at least for some time. Besides, some people remain in a friendly relationships for years, which is awesome![35]

Perhaps this is the real root of why fans want to connect with each other through various ways on their phones: it's nice to know that you're not alone. Even The Powers That Be have caught onto this, using the stories function on Instagram to share behind the scene content from movie sets[36] and staging "Instagram takeovers"[37] where one cast or crew member will be given access to the official Instagram account for the day to share whatever they feel like. These types of interaction, along with livestreams and other types of fan-creator interaction, are designed to put a face to the production of a show where it used to be that the writers and creatives behind a show weren't highlighted or given as much weight as the actors.

Many actors will also livetweet along with fans during the premiere, with actor Isaiah Mustafa contributing hugely popular memes to his Shadowhunters liveblogs.[38] Fans now have the very real possibility of interacting with each other or with TPTB by liking or commenting on content. For some fans, the highest honor is receiving a mention, like or a similar interaction indicating acknowledgment of their existence "from" the subject of their adoration. These are other actions have practically erased the fourth wall between fans and TPTB, which can be a dangerous thing when tinhatting sets in and fans feel "entitled" to a ship (such as Destiel or Klance) becoming canon.[note 9]


"Ballad of the Bankrupt Fan," filk to the tune of "Sixteen Tons" by T.E. Ford, written by Jacqueline Taero:
You go into fandom
And what do you get?
A little more crazy
And deeper in debt.
Oh, Lord, it's been fun
But it sure wasn't free:
I owe my soul to AT&T.
It all seems so harmless;
Those tapes look so nice.
Then some books to go with them
And before you think twice
You've called up your friends
For an hour or three....
And you owe your soul to AT&T.
Got a whole stack of zines.
Got posters and stills.
Been to so many cons,
The thought makes me ill.
And the touch-tone phone
Has proved fatal to me:
I owe my soul to AT&T.
Some said to try Sprint,
Some said MCI;
So I tried 'em all
And the bills made me cry.
I'll have them paid off by 2003:
Alexander Graham Bell,
Have mercy on me!
You go into fandom
And what do you get?
A little more crazy
And deeper in debt.
Oh, Lord, it's been fun
But it sure wasn't free:
I owe my soul to AT&T.[39]

Notes and References


  1. ^ "Sam Moskowitz delivered two talks at the 1939 con, one of them 'The Fan World of the Future.'... [At the 1992 Worldcon], he began with his own look back at the way fans lived 50 years ago, a series of recollections that enthralled everyone." -- from File 770 #95, November 1992
  2. ^ of Communications Common Carriers PDF by the FCC; historical rates begin on page 277. In 1975, a daytime call between LA and NYC was $2.16 for 5 minutes. In today's dollars (2012) that would be approximately $9 for 5 minutes.
  3. ^ One subscriber to the Black Bean Soup newsletter wrote: "My first round with S&H fandom was right at the end of the 4th season. I met some really neat people (could we have used the internet then, my average phone bill was $300)." Vol 1, #13 (1995).
  4. ^ A few of these audio letters have been digitally converted and donated by Janet Quarton to the University of Iowa Special Collections in 2011.
  5. ^ For anyone too young to remember what dial-up is, see this article that compares using dial-up to more modern internet services for an idea of what this was like.
  6. ^ “Since I'm a fervent advocate of CHEAP, let me tell you how you can cut down on those killing phone bills chatting with your B&B friends and start e-mailing them instead.” Beauty and the Beast newsletter Of Love and Hope #3 (1995).
  7. ^ Services like Red Bubble (example) and Society6 (example) will allow fan artists to distribute their art, which can then be printed on cases for many popular phone models. There are also, in some instances, officially branded phone cases.
  8. ^ Try Loneliness Linked To Negative Social Media Experiences, Study Finds for just one of many thinkpieces about this.
  9. ^ See also Tinhats and the Fourth Wall for a further look into the problems that can arise when the dissolution of the fourth wall leads to fan entitlement.


  1. ^ Sharon Ferraro in A Piece of the Action #45 (1976)
  2. ^ from a con report in Come Together #32
  3. ^ from Connie Faddis, The Halkan Council #20/21
  4. ^ K.S. Langley, The Times, They are a'Changing, posted to the Fanfic Symposium on June 19, 2003 (expanded from an earlier email to FCA-L. Accessed June 2, 2009.
  5. ^ 1982, The Annual Fan Q Awards Nominations Booklet.
  6. ^ Joan Marie Verba from Boldly Writing.
  7. ^ Kathy Resch's memories in Back When Dinosaurs Roamed The Earth Part IV dated September 9, 2012.
  8. ^ from Partner Mine
  9. ^ S&H issue #16 (1980)
  10. ^ Mock New Year's Resolution to reduce a fan's phone bill from Pop Stand Express #15 (1987)
  11. ^ Between Friends #8a (1985).
  12. ^ STAG issue #3, 1973.
  13. ^ from Electronic Male News #6
  14. ^ comment by fleurette at Fanthropology: Fandom: Evolution, Archived version, February 1, 2005
  15. ^ a b Love it or loathe it, email changed the world. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  16. ^ Prodigy Special Offer hits my mailbox... posted in, Feb 4, 1991)
  17. ^ a b c A Brief Guide to the Tumultuous 30-Year History of AOL. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  18. ^ editorial to Trap Open! #1 (1993).
  19. ^ The slow death of dial-up. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  20. ^ Skype Is Killing It on Long Distance. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  21. ^ Roleplay through skype. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  22. ^ Skype Roleplay Group???. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  23. ^ Friend whos new to the fandom...anyone want to add her skype? x:. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  24. ^ Smartphones hardly used for calls. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  25. ^ Sherlock Lockscreens tag on Tumblr. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  26. ^ Harry Potter Lockscreens tag on Tumblr. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  27. ^ Star Trek Ringtones on Soundboard. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  28. ^ Phone Charms on Etsy. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  29. ^ Wattpad Mobile App via Google Play. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  30. ^ Mobile App via Google Play. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  31. ^ On Archive of Our Own Mobile Apps. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  32. ^ Heartwarming Pokemon Go Stories. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  33. ^ ARGFest 2007 Panel IV: Defining ARGs and the Future of ARG. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  34. ^ Fannish Discord Server List. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  35. ^ How do people have so many instagram followers? on Accessed 26 April 2019.
  36. ^ Umbrella Academy Behind The Scenes | Instagram Videos Accessed 25 April 2019.
  37. ^ Bandstand Broadway - Corey Cott's Tony Day Instagram Takeover. Accessed 25 April 2019.
  38. ^ Shadowhunters' Isaiah Mustafa's Meme Monday Stories Are The Greatest Thing Ever!. Accessed 26 April 2019.
  39. ^ from I Don't Care What You Smell #1
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