When I first heard the word “fandom,” it left a bad taste in my mouth. I've never really been “pro-crowd,” as it stands, and kind of distance myself from people more or less on reflex. Sometimes, this comes in handy: the more people I keep away, the less people I have to worry about offending or pissing off bad enough that they'll shove me away. Other times, this really doesn't. I've spent a lot of time on my own and feeling really lonely.
Also, a lot of the things people write on the internet about fandoms aren't exactly complimentary. A fair amount of writing has been done on the more extreme corners of fandoms: people who draw graphic sexual art of their favorite pairings (or write graphic sexual encounters between pairings) of characters, for example. Or those who believe that they are the characters in question. There are even some people who have structured their lives entirely around their fandoms, barely brushing elbows with reality. While these are in the minority, they're a very vocal minority, and one that puts the worst impression of a fandom forward.
So for a long time, this was my view of fandom: a creepy, unsettling group of people who got way into whatever it was they were doing. They were a few steps geekier than the stuff I did. Spending some of my time rolling dice and pretending to be an elf at least felt like I was making something new. Yes, it was the same something new over and over again, but it felt like imagination to me, and that was really what counted in my eyes. Even when I did roleplaying in settings based on other people's works, I tried to create new characters, things people hadn't seen before, and to ask questions and twist established continuity in the series.
In short, I was that kind of insufferable, and ultimately terrible, jerk.
This lasted for quite a while. Almost all the way through college, I was terrible to deal with on anything I disliked, and even worse on what I liked. While I didn't realize it, I actually was a part of the terrible parts of fandom, and while there weren't a lot of people around in my respective fandoms, they were still there. And I was part of almost every “hate-dom” known to man, and while that community is made up exclusively of people who dislike something, it is, in fact, another kind of fandom.
After years of my bullheaded and elitist approach, there were two events that finally opened my eyes to the true nature of fandom, and allowed me to cast off the stupidity of my past.
In 2011, I started to cover conventions. It started out as kind of a “spur-of-the-moment” thing, a chance newscast that saw me heading to Book Expo America that May. From there came another odd chance, and I wound up covering the Live Action Roleplay event at the AnimeNEXT convention in New Jersey. Interacting with the other people in the event, I realized something interesting: I'd slowly dropped my detached sense, the idea that mine was to observe but not take part. I liked the group. And, as I threw myself further into the event, I found that I liked myself.
This was something that had never happened before. I'd had periods where I was more or less okay with myself, but I'd never out-and-out liked myself before. Nor had I actually felt comfortable around groups of people, but while I ran around like an idiot and pretended to be someone else, I started to figure things out about myself. For one, I was actually kind of goofy. Not in a sense that actually presented any danger or irritation, it seemed, but in a sense that I was pretty ridiculous. Now, part of this was the character, but it seemed like something else...it seemed like a way to “act out” through the character...to not be restrained by myself. Walking around in someone else's head felt pretty good.
And it was something I brought to roleplaying and to more of my life. Yes, I was all kinds of crazy and silly, but it felt right. It felt like me to be that strange and not have to apologize for it. I would walk around these people's heads, and it felt like I turned up more of myself every time I did. It was something I'd done earlier, of course, but I'd always felt like using role-play as a form of “cheap therapy” was something only done by the most desperate of cases. In my new state, a state uncomplicated by the old, insufferable Sam, I saw it differently: while I didn't have much of an identity living isolated in a house in Central Jersey, I could help build one.
Of course, this epiphany got a bit lost in the shuffle soon. I'd been accepted to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and while I felt like I'd made a lot of progress between therapy and my rediscovered love of roleplaying both live-action and otherwise, I couldn't argue with something concrete that seemed like a more solid part of my future. Even if it was a bit in the opposite direction. So off to Hawaii I went, and while I kept in touch with my fandom friends, I mostly abandoned it for a more serious look at my studies.
In time, fandom saved me there, too. While I didn't initially have many friends in Hawaii, I happened to fall into a group with both fans of science fiction, and roleplaying-- the two fandoms I'd come to call “home” during my time more or less isolated in New Jersey post-undergrad. It also didn't hurt that they were fans of anime, a bond explored during KawaiiKon 2012. While I had two serious emotional events that did mar my time in Honolulu irrevocably, I had the friends I'd made (first through fandoms, and then through experiences) to help me through. But I was depressed, broken, and second-guessed myself every step of the way, so eventually I had to leave. I needed familiar surroundings. I needed a support network.
When I finally came home after my experiences in Honolulu, something of an emotional wreck, and having burned a few bridges resulting in the aforementioned collapses (a few incidents cost me the friends online I made over the previous year. While I would love to expand on them, I'm really unsure what actually happened, other than it hurt like hell), the first thing I came back to was another live-action role-play event with the people I met at the convention the previous year. And it was just what I needed. While I had been shattered by my few bad experiences during my year in Honolulu, I quickly flung myself into yet another role, and worked that much harder, playing not just to have fun and walk around inside the character's head, but also to put as much psychological distance between my collapse and where I currently was. Playing a character who was kind of a son of a bitch let me embrace the bits of me that were like that a little better.
This time, I did keep in touch with the people I knew from the LARP scene, and I benefited from that, too. While I had lost a lot of friends over the previous year, I had gained an entire social group through the fandoms I belonged to, and they seemed to like me. And liked me being all kinds of silly and crazy and yes, a little bit terrible. So I began to rebuild things from where they were. It turns out they're all a bit silly and a bit crazy and a bit out-of-control themselves, and it's nice to know I'm not alone in that.
To this day, I've kept building on that, and fandom's backed me up. While I'm not satisfied I have an identity, the people I know in the fandoms and my interactions with the role-play, anime, and science fiction fandoms are helping me work it out for myself. And though I may not have a full identity, my interactions with fandom make me feel like I have a shot.
I wasn't expecting this to be some kind of transcendent deal, some sort of bit about how fandom “changed my life”, but as it turns out, that's kind of what it did. And I didn't mean to get caught up into it, and it sure as hell probably didn't mean to entangle me, but for better or worse, fandom has become a large part of my identity. I'm not sure how, I'm not sure it'll last, but as long as it does, fandom is helping me rebuild my identity, and I'm glad it is.