Put on your shades and grab the keys to the DeLorean, friends, because today we've got special guest Clare from The Literary Omnivore with us to take us on a trip through fandom history with a quick overview from our complicated past to our gloriously rich and unsurprisingly splintered present. Clare is one of our favorite fannish historians and pop culture critics, and we're super excited to feature her here. :D
Fans have always been fans. Virgil’s Aeneid is literally epic fanfiction of The Iliad. Before Beatlemania and Whedonites, there were Lisztomaniacs. And the first documented ship war was over Jo and Laurie in Little Women, with Jo/Laurie shippers on one side and Louisa May Alcott on the other. The fannish impulse—that special blend of love, critique, and, occasionally, correction—has been expressed time and time again throughout human history.
But fandom—the organization of fans into a specific community—is a phenomenon of the twentieth century, especially the Western media fandom that characterizes fandom to many people both in and outside fandom. In fact, Ronald A. Knox’s 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” gives fandom the practice of referring to their texts as "canon". The satirical essay is meant to mock the German New Criticism (a certain take on historical criticism of a text) of the Bible by applying the same method to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The comparison of the Biblical canon to Doyle’s canon caught on, which is to say that the fannish usage of “canon” is over a century old.
But fandom does not start there.
The Twenties and Thirties
The September 1934 issue of Amazing Stories.
Rather, media fandom starts as science fiction fandom in the letter columns of science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories in the late 1920s. (Both magazines were owned by Hugo Gernsback, the man for whom the Hugo Award is named). In these letters, science fiction and fantasy fans were able to interact with like-minded fans for the first time. Eventually, these fans began writing each other and started gathering in person. The very first local science fiction fan club, the Scienceers, was organized on December 11, 1929, in New York. The Scienceers gathered at the home of members to discuss speculative fiction and work on their club paper, The Planet.
However, the first fanzine (a term coined in 1940 to differentiate them from professional magazines; at the time, they were called “fanmags”) was started by the Chicago-based Science Correspondence Club. The SCC began the year before the Scienceers, in 1928, but focused, as you might imagine, on far-flung correspondence. (There’s an amount of controversy over which organization counts first—obviously, I side with the Scienceers, since they met in person.) The Comet (later Cosmology) ran from 1930 to 1933. Eager to capitalize on this flurry of fannish activity, Gernsback began the Science Fiction League, which local groups of fans could join. (This is how the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society got started!)
Soon, these far-flung local groups wanted to meet in person. The first convention, Philcon, was held in 1936, when fans from the New York branch of the International Scientific Association visited the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society at the home of member Milton A. Rothman. Slightly larger and larger fan conventions followed until the establishment of the World Science Fiction Convention in 1939. Worldcon (as it’s known) has been held every year since then, with, of course, a break for World War II.
Fast forward about thirty years. Science fiction fandom has continued trucking along, producing fanzines, organizing conventions, and often seeing its members go pro, like Isaac Asimov. But 1966 introduced a show that would change the face of fandom forever—Star Trek.
The filming of an episode of Star Trek.
Up to this point, science fiction fandom had been organized around general interests related to speculative fiction. While fans had favorite novels, stories, and series, the texts weren’t the sole focus of fandom. Many fans pursued their interest in speculative fiction by writing professionally or working in scientific fields. The Sherlock Holmes fandom had started to organize, with the New York Baker Street Irregulars founded in 1934, and produce meta (including Rex Stout’s 1941 “Watson was a Woman” theory), but their lack of interest in science fiction meant that their evolution as a fandom was in isolation from the development of science fiction fandom.
Star Trek was of obvious interest to the already established science fiction fandom, but it soon began attracting a new kind of fan. Unschooled in the ways of science fiction fandom and overwhelming female, these fans were more interested in the interpersonal relationships, politics, and philosophical questions facing the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise than the technology used by the Federation. These fans began participating in science fiction fandom, but it soon became clear that there was a rift between the old fans and the new. As Paula Smith, the woman who coined the term "Mary Sue," stated in a 2011 interview:
[3.25] Q: You mentioned before that Trek fandom broke away from science fiction fandom.
[3.26] PS: The SF guys didn't want to talk about things that women were interested in. Buck Coulson, an SF (and U.N.C.L.E.) writer, used to say, "There is no subtle discrimination against Trek fans in science fiction—it's blatant." And the women said, "The heck with this," and started making their own zines and organizing their own conventions. In addition to Devra Langsam, there were people like Margaret Basta and her twin sister, Laura. They did S.T.A.R., a newszine out of Detroit that went out to literally thousands of people. There was also Dee Beetem in Colorado, and Ruth Berman, who published T-Negative out of Minneapolis.
[3.27] Q: What percentage of Trek fandom were guys and what percentage were women?
[3.28] PS: Trek fandom was the mirror image of science fiction fandom. I would say 90 percent of science fiction fandom at the time was men and 10 percent was women, and there was a reverse 10-to-90 men-to-women split in Trek fandom. The two groups quickly diverged; after a while, only about 5 to 10 percent would shuttle back and forth between the two fandoms.
With this, Star Trek became the first media fandom, hence its nickname, "The Mother Fandom." Spockanalia, the first Star Trek fanzine, was first published in 1967. The fanzine featured fan art, fan poetry, fan plays, and, of course, fan fiction. (Interestingly, fan fiction was a term used in science fiction fandom to refer to amateur original fiction, not fiction based on the work of others.) Gene Roddenberry and the rest of the production crew for Star Trek responded positively to their fans; the third issue of the fanzine features a letter from Roddenberry stating that the zine was required reading in the show’s offices. The first Star Trek-specific convention was held on March 1, 1969, at the New Public Library in New Jersey. When NBC elected not to renew Star Trek for a third season, married fans Bjo and John Trimble spearheaded a letter writing "Save Star Trek" campaign that changed the network’s minds and gave Star Trek enough episodes to be syndicated, effectively midwifing the entire Star Trek franchise.
John and Bjo Trimble, the couple that saved Star Trek.
When the show went off the air in 1969, that syndication kept the fandom alive, creating new fans each year. During what ultimately proved to be a hiatus in the story of the Star Trek franchise, slash was introduced in 1974 with the publication of "A Fragment out of Time," a Kirk/Spock fic by Diane Merchant published in Grup.The actual story was vague about its participants, but the full-page fan art featuring Kirk and Spock that accompanied the piece and Merchant’s follow-up essay, "Pandora’s Box… Again" left no doubt as to who they were. While it was was instantly controversial, Kirk/Spock became popular, making slash fans a small but important part of fandom.
The first page of the first issue of Spocknalia.
While the queering of ostensibly straight male characters for the enjoyment and philosophical use of straight female fans is perhaps one of the most iconic ways that fans subvert and critique their source text, this was just one method of many for Star Trek fanfiction authors to play with their source text. In these fanzines, female characters were fleshed out, politics were explored, and, of course, jokes were made. Fans who were not interested in writing fanfiction contributed to the fandom by writing meta, working on filk songs, and creating costumes, among many, many other fan activities. Fandom is generated by the blank spaces in a text (to borrow Michael Chabon’s conception of fandom in his essay "Maps and Legends"), and, during the hiatus, Star Trek fans had plenty to work with.
The obvious interest in Star Trek convinced Paramount to start looking into reviving the show. (This would eventually become Star Trek: The Motion Picture.) But before that decision was made, George Lucas’ Star Wars was announced for release in the summer of 1977. Star Trek fans braced themselves—with the lack of any new Star Trek material (despite the constant tease of a revival), would significant amounts of fans jump ship?
A still from Starsky and Hutch.
They should have been more worried about Starsky and Hutch. While Star Wars’ development as a fandom was accelerated—the first Star Wars fanzine, Hyper Space, debuted the month after the film’s release—it was still science fiction, linking it back to the fan communities that started it all. Starsky and Hutch, on the other hand, had nothing to recommend it to those who walked in the footsteps of the Scienceers. It was a cop show that dealt with grittier elements, even having one of its leads spend an episode hooked on heroin. But the chemistry between Paul Michael Glaser’s Starsky and David Soul’s Hutch was irresistible to slash fans. With their adoption of Starsky and Hutch as a source text, media fandom completely broke from science fiction fandom, proving that source texts that generated fandom could be from any genre. The proliferation of media fandoms led to the creation of multifandom zines such as Warped Space.
The Nineties and Early Aughts
During the last decades of the twentieth century, fans took advantage of advances in technology to expand their fan activity. Star Trek fan Kandy Fong is considered the grandmother of vidding. Inspired by the music video for the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” she began creating slideshows set to music in 1975 for the amusement of her fellow fans. Her 1980 vid, "Both Sides Now," is the oldest fanvid accessible to modern fans. As VCR technology advanced, so did the fanvids. Fanmixes began being shared during this era as well. The earliest fanmix I can find is a 1996 cassette tape included with the sixth issue of the Miami Vice zine Crockett-Dial, but I doubt the practice started that late.
But the technology that made the biggest impact on fandom was by far the Internet. The greatest problem facing pre-Internet fandom was simply finding other fans to create a community with. Finding fandom was often a matter of luck, especially after fandom (especially slash fandom) began encouraging discretion following negative interactions with George Lucas and Lucasfilm in the Star Wars fandom in the late seventies and early eighties. And, because fans will generate fandom independently, some fandoms developed in isolation from mainstream media fandom, such as the Xena: Warrior Princess fandom.
Actor Karl Urban signs a photo for a fan at a 1998 Xena convention.
The Internet, naturally, changed all that, albeit slowly due to originally limited access and resistance from fans devoted to print fanzines. (To this day, there are plenty of fans who are not active online.) The first mailing lists (characterized by adzine Media Monitor as the digital versions of the letter columns of fanzines) were begun on private and university servers in the early nineties. Most focused on single fandoms, although multifandom lists did exist. In 1997, however, Mark Fletcher created the free mailing list service ONElist, allowing any fan with an Internet connection and an e-mail address to begin a mailing list. Using Hotmail to generate free e-mail addresses, fans began joining mailing lists in significant numbers.
However, fan activity online was not limited to mailing lists in the mid-nineties. In 1995, Geocities became the first of several free web hosts that fans used to create sites devoted to fandom, including fanfiction archives. These archives could range from including the fics of a single fan to attempting to archive the entire efforts of a fandom, such as The Gossamer Project, an X-Files fanfiction archive begun in 1995 that served to centralize the fandom. Coding had to be done by hand, generating hours of fan labor, but now a fan could search for "X-Files fanfiction" in the comfort of their own home instead of having to meet the right person to get her hands on the stuff.
The last years of the nineties saw the introduction of two services that had the biggest impact on online fandom—FanFiction.Net in 1998 and LiveJournal in 1999. Fanfiction.Net’s open registration allowed fans from even the smallest fandoms to begin posting fanfiction online, no web space or knowledge of HTML required. Most importantly, its inclusion of reviews allowed fans to build a community not only on the website itself, but also in their respective fandoms. LiveJournal was less accessible, due to its initial use of invite codes to control the growth of the website. While this did mean that fans who got codes often invited fellow fans to join the journaling website, it made for a smaller community. The practice ceased in 2003, and LiveJournal became an enormous hub for fandom, due to features including friend lists, threaded comments, and communities.
Fans in line for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
In 1999, Harry Potter became the first fandom born online. The series had become popular in the United States that year with the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and fans began using their new resources to express their love. That year saw the first piece of Harry Potter fanfiction posted to FanFiction.net, the creation of mailing lists and newsgroups devoted to the series, and the foundation of MuggleNet, which became one of the largest Harry Potter fansites online. Due to the young age and inexperience with fandom for many of these new fans, Harry Potter was a threshold fandom—a fandom that introduces a fan to the larger world of fandom—for many children of the nineties and aughts.
The late nineties and aughts also saw showrunners begin to interact more with the fandoms based on their work, as facilitated by the Internet. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon frequently interacts positively with his fans to this day, leading to a development of a fandom centered around Whedon’s works as a loosely interconnected source text all their own. Supernatural, which premiered in 2005, often includes nods to its fandom, occasionally demolishing the fourth wall to do so. The 2006 show Heroes actively sought and encouraged fandom, mimicking the style of American comics, providing supplemental materials, and hosting panels at Comic Con to drum up interest. Used to the relative privacy of fanzine-based fandom, older fans felt ambivalent about these new relationships, but younger fans, especially those who became fans online, accepted it as a natural part of fandom.
The Late Aughts and Early Teens
While LiveJournal remained a major hub for online fan activity in the aughts, the company’s sale to first Six Apart in 2005 and then to Russian company SUP in 2007 began to make the site less friendly towards fans. In 2007, Six Apart suspended user accounts without warning on two separate occasions (Strikethrough and Boldthrough) for listing interests that the company saw as promoting illegal activity, which affected not only fan communities, but book clubs and rape survivor groups. Already on edge, the last straw for many fans on LiveJournal was the 2011 announcement that subject lines in comments would be removed, rendering any fanfiction memes (which used subject lines to organize themselves) useless.
Posting an entry on Dreamwidth during its beta testing.
Several fans moved to Dreamwidth, a fan friendly journaling website launched in 2009 and staffed by former LiveJournal employees. The fact that users could import their LiveJournals to their new Dreamwidth made it attractive to many fans. But more fans (and newer fans) flocked to microblogging platform Tumblr, launched in 2008. Tumblr has become the face of fandom in the teens due to its ease of use, open registration, and easy management of multimedia sources (something that LiveJournal users had to turn to other services for). Fans on Tumblr see themselves as fans first, often participating in multiple fandoms at once, rather than as, say, Sherlock or Supernatural fans first, recalling the community focus of the early days of media fandom. However, Tumblr lacks the ease of discussion found on journaling websites due to its lack of a commenting system, leading some older fans to question its usefulness for meta.
The late aughts and early teens have also seen fans take fandom more seriously. Founded in 2007, the Organization for Transformative Works is a non-profit organization dedicated to the interests from fans, from advocating for fans’ legal rights to publishing the media studies journal The Journal for Transformative Works to preserving fandom history. They also run the Archive of Our Own, a noncommercial and nonprofit fanworks archive meant to be more stable and permanent than other fanfiction archives. Many fans have begun to advocate for political change, like the Harry Potter Alliance, which uses fandom as a jumping point for many activist campaigns. And many fans simply want to see themselves reflected in the texts that they love, promoting diverse narratives and rewriting their beloved narratives as they see fit—just like our Trekkie foremothers.
A pair of Trekkies sporting the flower crowns popularized by the Hannibal fandom at Florida Supercon 2013.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, really. Every fandom has its own unique history, and I haven’t even touched on anime fandom, real person fiction, the changing face of slash due to the rising visibility of queer fans, the rise of aca-fandom, how the mainstream media treats fandom, or the Futurians, to name a few topics that deserve entire dissertations. If fandom history fascinates you as much as it does me, here are some suggestions of where to go after your inevitable Fanlore binge.
- Boldly Writing by Joan Marie Verba
- Fancyclopedia 3
- Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse
- Fic edited by Anne Jamison
- The Making of the Star Trek Conventions by Joan Winston
- Star Trek Lives! by Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak, and Johan Winston
- Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins