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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2009/11/30
by David Steinberg

Fandom vs. Fans

One of my current fascinations is a movement in the Science Fiction world. There’s a large group that goes by the term “fandom” that has a particular interest in the media that makes up the Science Fiction world, but largely in order to take the raw materials of the movies, TV shows, and books to create their own works of art. While most of it isn’t to my tastes – it’s amazing how many people can watch a complicated drama and emerge with it with nothing but a need to figure out convoluted ways to pair together the characters that they find hottest – it’s a completely valid way of interacting with the material, along the lines of Tela is not a spy essay. I only have one problem with this group, and that’s their name.

Yes names are trivial things. Focusing on them frequently can ignore content in exchange for a superficial label. However in this case, the name leads to an important misperception. When you call yourself “fandom,” you start to think that you represent the entirety of people who care about the subject. This was apparent recently when a group of passionate fans of the British series Torchwood went on a little rampage about a character death. You couldn’t kill their favorite character because you’d be disappointing the fanbase and without them, there’s no show. The producer then got some heat by explaining that millions of people watched the show and maybe a group of a few hundred fans isn’t quite as important to the show as they think they are.

That exchange got me to thinking about band forums. The problem with music forums is that they’re driven by the diehards. Casual fans have other things to do than to sit on Philzone and argue about what lineup Phil should play with in 2010. As a result, discussion gets almost completely centered on the needs and wants of the megafans. This gives a completely twisted view of who goes to the shows. Even the most tour-centric crowds are largely filled with people who just want to see a show or two.

There are huge differences in the mindsets of those two groups. I’m a casual fan of Tea Leaf Green and Perpetual Groove and Railroad Earth. Because I only see them once or twice a year, when I go to a show I want to see “Taught to Be Proud” and “It Starts Where it Ends” and “Seven Story Mountain.” Sure there are people who are at their 100th show and would want to kill if they had to hear another “Garden III” (or “All This Everything Part 1” or “Long Way to Go”), but what can be forgotten when fans try to out obscure each other on message boards is that no one – not the Grateful Dead, not Phish – can make a living solely by getting a small diehard group to come every night. Sure it can be fun to mock the people who see music as a hobby instead of the focal point of their lives and criticize their tastes in songs, but without them, there would be bands to begin with. When you go to Madison Square Garden and find yourself wondering, “Why the hell is the band playing ‘Sample in a Jar?’” look around the venue at how many people are singing along. Just because it’s not popular in fandom, doesn’t mean it’s not popular with the fans.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation.

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