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A Fan by Any Other Name

What’s in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet. (Romeo and Juliet II.2, 45–46)

One of the things that’s been really fun about my recent interviews has been talking with people about how they use words like nerd, geek, and fan. Despite my own (admittedly nerdish) tendencies towards superstandard English and linguistic prescriptivism, as someone trying to put together a picture of contemporary nerd culture, I have to be open to how these words are used in practice to classify the social world. In truth, the point is not to develop ironclad definitions of them but, by asking people to reflect on how they use these labels (among others), I’m hoping to bring to the surface the kinds of reasoning that go in to defining the boundaries of geek culture.

I’m still in the early stages of this research, but I've observed two distinct ways of defining the meanings of these labels: (1) content and (2) intensity. That is to say, it matters both what you’re interested in and how you go about pursuing that interest.

For some of my interviewees, either (1) or (2) is more properly attached to either nerd or geek. For others, both dimensions are part of your geek cred, whatever words you choose to use. These definitional strategies don’t always produce neat and tidy results, leading some interviewees, for example, to aver that nerds are those who are obsessed with something, where that something could be anything, while geeks have an enthusiastic but more normal interest in nerdy subjects like science-fiction, comic books, and games. Or again, one could be a fan of anything but only belongs to fandom if the thing of which you are a fan is properly fannish. And, of course, not all fandoms are necessarily part of geek culture: No matter how much you may geek out about it, if it isn’t nerdy then you aren’t a geek.

I'm thinking more of these definitional issues thanks to Brett Schenker’s new column at Graphic Policy where he’s datamining Facebook for information about comic fans. In his first post, he described the age, gender composition, levels of educational attainment, relationship status, and “gender interest” of comic fans on Facebook. In the second, he’s returned to the same statistics, but has somewhat altered his criteria for selecting his data set.

Inclusion is based on the “likes” people are themselves listing on Facebook, and this seems like a really great way to sidestep the problems of the researcher having to decide who’s in and who’s out. The first post is based on American Facebook users who indicate that they like one of nine identifiers. Says Schenker, “Going above this nine added to the universe, but not to the point that it mattered much.  In my eyes, this nine were some of the top identifiers covering fans of mainstream comics and indie comics.”

In the second post, the number of identifiers has been increased to 28, although that has not jumped the size of the data set up by very much. Schenker doesn’t list what his identifiers are but explains his thinking in choosing them: “they are general comic book companies/publishers/lines and what I’ll call the ‘medium,’ so manga, comic books, graphic novels, etc.  I stayed away from individual books and personalities as well as related comic book tie-ins like movies, video games and toys.”

This reflects to a certain degree something I’ve seen in my interviews with people who describe themselves of fans. The term is more easily applied to the works of an author or a (sub)genre—i.e., “I’m a fan of Stephen Hunt,” or, “I’m a fan of steampunk.” Applying the term to an individual work is a bit trickier, unless that work has become something of a cultural phenomenon with a significantly large base of readers to sustain interest in it over time. One might be a fan of Tolkien, High Fantasy, or The Lord of the Rings, but one is probably not going to call oneself a fan of Generic High Fantasy Tolkien Rip-Off Novel, even if you really like it.

What this suggests to me is that we have to be very careful in how we deploy the word fan. There certainly was a time when it seemed that comics were a niche enough interest that, well, to know them was to love them. Is this still the case? I'm not entirely sure. But we should be clear that comic fans and the audience for comic books are not identical terms. In excluding people who identify themselves as liking individual works or as fans of creators, we‘re privileging a certain way of engaging with comics (definitional strategy [2]) over engagement simpliciter (definition strategy [1]).

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