20 September 2012

a scrap's scrap

I have come to a conclusion, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Years of presence within the convention community have given me a certain insight, and after spending the better part of a few days reviewing a lot of the data I’ve gathered, and the stories I’ve heard, I’ve found a common thread in a lot of them.

Specificity is vanishing, in place of generality. 

I'm not talking about a "specific" specific here, I'm talking about the idea of specificity: choosing to belong to one group, and taking great "pains" to maintain that membership through dialogue, cosplay, self-identification and critique. The idea of choosing to specifically ally with one "thing" is swiftly losing ground to the idea that allying topically to many things- generality- is the preferred, and one might think "appropriate"- avenue towards which one expresses their fandom.

I spend a lot of time speaking and writing about the skew of physical fan communities towards multifandom pursuits, “fandom for fandom’s sake,” and while I still have a strong belief in that idea, it comes with the notion that a major motivator for the process of this conversion lies in the lack of specificity within anime fandom. 

Example: many of the longtime fans can remember a time when there was a specific show that grabbed and held their attention. For me, that was Dragonball Z. For a friend of mine, it was initially Evangelion, then Rurouni Kenshin, then Naruto and Bleach- four specific shows that he loved and identified with, often placing them above contemporary series. At the con, I saw a change from InuYasha to Naruto and Bleach, to Hetalia, but even while those were maintaining popularity, their “dominance” was slowly being ceded to cosplay and adoration for other series. 

In the past two years, this notion of generality has practically become the norm. While Homestuck currently holds the title “most visible fandom,” when compared to the rest of the con, it doesn’t quite have the same “visible dominance” that InuYasha once enjoyed (where you could go to a con and see more cosplayers of the character InuYasha than anything else). It is undeniably popular, but lacks the level of saturation that previous fandoms captured and wielded. Rather, it’s become a large force existing within a gulf of large forces. 

Moving beyond cosplay for a moment, look at the viewing habits of contemporary fans: I noticed a number of tweets this week asking “what’s the next big thing? what should we be watching?” There was a time when this, too, was “obvious.” Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon had their day, then Pokemon, Cowboy Bebop for a time, Fullmetal Alchemist...but where is that concept today? Is there a show that has such a dominant presence, that you can say “everyone” has seen it? One could argue Madoka made an impact, but again, Madoka is one big show in a sea of other “big shows-” it’s “visibly” popular, but not overwhelmingly so. 

I think, at least within the anime community, hand in hand with the notion that fans are pursuing the idea of fandom, they are also pursuing an idea of generality over specificity. There is no “fan canon” anymore. There is no “must-see” series, or “must cosplay” property. Rather, there are a slew of choices and options, some of them big and trendy, that fans have to choose from, and often embrace. Casual cosplayers who swap outfits multiple times a day, rather than don the same one for the entire weekend. People who marathon episodes of multiple shows, rather than devouring just one. The ability to belong to multiple groups, and claim membership in multiple fandoms, as opposed to throwing their all behind a single, all encompassing property. 

Fandom for fandom’s sake relies a lot on the notion of generality, because specificity requires “too much” of it’s adherents, whereas generality welcomes variety. With regards to its impact...well, you be the judge of that. 


  1. I don't think "generality" is quite the term I'd use. It carries with it an implication that people are, as a matter of course, interested in knowing at least a little about a wide variety of things.

    The term I'd elect for is the slightly more pejorative "superficiality." It's not about what people want to know so much as choose to retain, for in a world of practically unlimited media options which is ever-increasing with each passing day, the one thing that remains constant...is time.

    So it's true that people are moving away from specificity. But the reason why is not born out of a Renaissance tendency towards becoming Jacks of all trades, but rather because the amount of time in a day remains the same. As such, if something can't be learned QUICKLY...it's not worth remembering.

    People want Cliff's Notes. The Wikipedia summary. The Headline News. Sum it up in 140 characters or less. They want to read the headline, maybe the first paragraph or two (possibly the last), then jump straight to writing comments or hitting the Like/Retweet/Share button. Then it's on to the next thing. In a world where you can see dozens of naked ladies in seconds, where you can get the entire run of a comic with the click of a button, where every episode of every Star Trek is available on Instant Watch, where your search results can be customized and filtered as needed...the incentive to stick with just one or two things vanishes.

    It's like if you go to a fancy all-you-can-eat buffet. Doesn't matter if one table has really great bread rolls and rice, and the smoked salmon is excellent. You're not loading up on just those, even if smoked salmon and rice would historically be a pretty solid meal. No, you have to look through everything, and even if you see something that you want ("ooh, bacon-wrapped filet mignon!") you're only going to take a little because it's one plate at a time and those things can only hold so much.

    The high-speed, streaming, mobile incarnation of the Internet has made fandom get in the media buffet for fandom's sake. Me? I'm trying to figure out which one of these things is the salad bar so I can skip past that.

  2. It could be that the Specificity that you refer to was in fact artificially created by limited resources. People don't change in the limited time western anime fandom has existed, no matter if it seems that way as you get older, so it must be the fandom itself changing. What's changed in the last decade or so? Digital fan subs, internet series and fads both fan made and for profit and speed of legal access to content. Specificity is dead and it was killed by choice.

  3. I like the term "superficiality" rather than "generality."

    Maybe it's the type of fan I was/am, but back in the day, I feel like there was more freedom to go your own way. Everyone knew Cowboy Bebop, Inuyasha, etc., but I don't remember worrying about "the next big thing." Shows like that seemed to be cultural touchstones, but not necessarily the only place you'd set up camp.

    We had our own buffet back then, but it was companies like ADV that licensed tons of different shows across different genres. Now it seems to be caught between releases from the major anime distributors (which throw themselves behind fewer, but more popular/longer, shows) and internet streaming (which is like drinking from the firehose).

    I think the con scene might account for some of this too. It's not that we focus just on things that are easy to process, but also what keeps us in the know. I don't have much interest in Naruto, Bleach, Dr. Who, or Homestuck, but I feel like I could fake more first-hand knowledge of these things than I have based on what I've picked up from conventions. That makes me wonder if we've moved the goalposts of what it means to be a "fan" nowadays.

    I think there's a similar problem in gaming, but it's probably more obvious there than in other fandoms. You have a few people who will dump tons of time and effort into a game (think of the most obsessive WoW players). Because the community is so connected, they can set the pace for everyone else. Likewise, I think there are people who consume so rapidly that they're always looking for the next "fix" (which is why there's such a glut of similar Facebook games), and that encourages a wider market.

  4. I also agree, superficiality is a better term to generality. As I was envisioning this, generality meant more the predilection for modern fans to choose small devotion to a wide scope versus deep devotion to a small base of information. As I've seen it, even when given the chance to skew towards a more "selective" range of tastes, certain fans have made it almost their "mission statement" to focus their energy on what ultimately amounts to a focus of energy.

    One of the comments made via twitter asked if fans these days were little more the dilettantes. I think this critique is apt on several levels, most notably because a superficial dedication strips fans of much of the knowledge that a more dedicated fan might have. Even in other "geek fandoms," there is at least a marked devotion to something beneath the surface. There are parts of anime fandom (especially con fandom) where being a superficial fan is all that is required, and often all that is expected. (I can't go so far as to say this serves as a detriment, though I have witnessed superficial-type fans making fun of the more serious ones.)

    Part of this is definitely the wealth of new series and options, but at some point one has to ask: where do you draw the line between showing appreciation for something, and being a fan. A lot of self-identified fans approach their fandom as appreciators.

    1. "Small devotion" makes sense. Given that, what I meant was there's an inflated sense of devotion--everything is The. Best. Thing. Ever.

      "Focusing energy on focusing energy" is a good way to put it. That would also explain, for example, why memes tend to be especially huge in fan circles.

      It seems like there's an "old guard" of fandom that values dedication, while the new generation values passion. (I'd argue the "old guard"'s system is slightly more complex, but I'm biased.)

      This might be where the idea of "fake geeks" comes from. In some way, we all overextend our claims of fandom, but it's becoming easier and more advantageous to do so. It's also why people are so offended at the "fake geek"accusation--there are two sides who talk the same language ("geek," "fandom," etc.) but there's a huge difference in what they mean.

      As an older geek, and as someone who has a painfully straightforward and literal way of thinking, all of this is why I sometimes feel like I'm falling behind or out of fandom altogether.

    2. Well said. The tendency to relate everything to Best.Thing.Ever has the potential- and often the ability- to ratchet up energy, it's that same ratcheted energy that often is off-putting, especially to "old guard" fans. It's a major sticking point, because the old and new "guards" of fandom have a different values set, and that causes them to express their fandom in different ways. Neither method is "flawed," but because motivation and satisfaction is ultimately subjective, it leads to confrontation.

      I hate using terms like "fake geek," but if one is secure in their geekdom, then being labeled a fake shouldn't bother them. But I also feel that hurling terms like that around limits interaction, and lacks some of the credence involved in a serious discussion of geekdom.

    3. I don't particularly like the whole "fake geek" fad either, but I've wondered if it isn't yet another difference between the old/new generation.

      Back in the day, fandom wasn't really "cool," and a lot of the people who were considered nerds/geeks weren't all that social. Now it's considered cool and it's often intensely social in some circles.

      If you come out of that sort of oppressed culture (using the term lightly, since this is the first world problem version of oppression), you might not feel like the cool, the popular, and the social haven't "earned" their place.

  5. I recall dealing with the "geek hierarchy" back in 2004, when it was strongly attached to the tabletop RPG community. They viewed anyone outside their little circle as being "fake," and some went so far as to say those "fakes didn't deserve to play." At the time, I remember thinking such ideas were counterproductive, and detrimental to the community as a whole.

    Somewhere in the past 3-5 years, the con community (or rather, certain aspects of it) decided to embrace an "anything goes/we welcome all" mentality, much to the disdain of the "old guard." That mentality fostered the explosive growth. That explosive growth caught mainstream attention, and things changed.

    I would call that "social evolution," but that kind of terminology has its own connotations.

    1. I hadn't thought of it that way. I end up just assuming I'm representative of most "old school" geeks (that is: grew up in the 80's/90's). For many of us, school was this massive, centralized social hierarchy and we were on the losing end, so fandom/geek/whatever-you-want-to-call-it acted as a refuge where you can do your own thing. There was less pressure to keep pace or follow trends.

      For me, this also meant being intentional about keeping the social hierarchy around me flat, or at least not playing into it. Counterexamples of this, like the tabletop RPG community, didn't occur to me. I've encountered them before, but for some reason I categorized them as the exception. (Again, I'm painfully straightforward, so the idea of someone who identifies as an "outsider" and yet enforces their own social power/hierarchy blows my mind.)

      All this is to say, once fandom, etc. becomes mainstream and social and cool, it's jarring if you ever used it as a refuge. "We welcome all" is the right thing to do, but it's easier in theory than in practice. It's hard to navigate when greater social pressure/hierarchy comes along with it. (Arguably, and this is a whole other tangent, this can also lead to people seeing themselves as more accepting than they actually are.)

    2. I used to refer to "geek grading" as a form of selective self-loathing: take the one thing you hate most about you station in the mainstream, and apply it to your fandom group. Basically, the self-hating geek. And I've read entire books and essays dedicated to professed geeks willingly isolating and critiquing their own communities, preferring solitary geekdom to social geekdom.

      (In fact, this is my biggest critique of Matt Hills' Fan Cultures- he plainly states his disdain for interactive community at one point in chapter 4, while opening the book with a critique of Jenkins' "apologist" writings.)

      In my case, my little geek community was so small, we never interacted with the "hierarchy," and my one or two crossed paths with them left a sour taste in my mouth. That might have been my own biggest motivator towards open fandom/"freegeeking." I'd rather be a part of a "shallow," but accepting community, than a tenuous, constantly on edge member of a closed one. It still keeps me from taking part in a lot of anime fandom and game culture.

      I think I might have skated over another major issue: escapism. Freegeeking and "all are welcome" communities often place escapism on a much higher threshold than "deep knowledge" communities. It is part and parcel with fandom for fandom's sake: escapism is the ultimate goal and motivator, and once that has been attained, everything else is tertiary.

      This, of course, leads right back to a values discussion on the nature of escapism as a primary goal...

    3. In that case, I'd say I come close to being the self-loathing geek. I'm not sure the internal criticism is all bad: it's an attempt to apply the "Golden Rule" to yourself and those around you, and to avoid others' mistakes. But it is misguided in the sense that it's impossible to "fix" or completely simplify these problems (people being people), so isolation and self-loathing becomes the only option. (Not to mention that such critique can be its own attempt to exert power couched in good intentions.)

      In that sense, self-loathing geeks are a lot like the quote about the "reality-based community": if you begin understanding and highlighting the problems, someone else with more influence can just change the rules or the framing.

      I'd like to believe that escapism and deep-knowledge can live side-by-side, but that sort of balance may not be in human nature. The escapist will at some point be concerned with what he doesn't know. The expert will at some point demand extra respect for what he knows.

    4. Well, I'm a firm believer that the two worlds can easily co-exist- they do for me- but in order for that to happen, it requires hard work. And, as has been implied (and outright stated), the current ethic of fandom relies more on "the easy way," than making the concerted effort. For the old guard, this was part of the process: you did you "homework," and you were rewarded with both knowledge and acceptance. In the new world, a lot of that work is sacrificed through relaxed membership rules and the "all are welcome" mentality.

      So whereby some still do the work, often for no real "benefit" aside from possessing the knowledge itself, many others are more content to accept being accepted. That, of course, can lead to stratification and feelings of self-lotahing among those who "did the work" when they joined. Those that can't accept that dynamic become "elitist," while those that accept it become "elder statesmen."

      Is that a degree of devotion? Definitely. But unless that degree is assigned arbitrary "power," it's ultimately icing.