I had never heard of fanfiction, or writing-based RPG, when I was a Junior in college and living abroad. I was living, working, and studying in Rome, and some dear friends were stationed with the US Navy just a couple of hours south in Naples. One of them had started a Livejournal. I was familiar with online journaling, as I’d been using private, online platforms for a few years myself, but only as a diary of sorts (think back to sites like Xanga, OpenDiary, and Myspace), and this close friend planned to us their Livejournal as a connection with friends flung far and wide. They asked me to start one as well, so I did, with the explicit goal of keeping better in touch while traveling.
This was 2004. It took me less than a month to find ‘fandom’ – in its hay day, Livejournal was home to some of the most robust fandom in the world. I stumbled upon a rather large Harry Potter role playing game, and wanted to practice creative writing in a more consistent pattern, so I applied. I made up an original character within the world of JK Rowling’s Wizarding World and relied on the kind moderators and my fellow writers to help me navigate the world or RPG. Soon I was being invited to read other writers’ stand alone fanfiction pieces – stories, some novel-length, also based in the Wizarding World that had nothing to do with the original author. I made friends, no longer using my Livejournal solely to keep in contact with ‘Real Life’ friends, but using the site to make connections and build relationships with people all over the world, all based on our common love of Harry Potter. By this point, only the first five books had been released, we had lengthy debates about fan theories, argued playfully among ourselves about what we’d like to see happen next, and explored the minute details of the world we’d come to love so much. I would go on, over the years, to travel great lengths to meet some of my ‘online friends’ in the ‘real world’ and to this day, over 15 years later, they are some of my closest friends in the world.
I didn’t see the bigger picture while I was living in Italy. I was glad to have my game and my friends and it was a great habit-builder for my writing, as I’d hoped. When other writers are relying on you for scenes or plots, you don’t have any other choice than to write! This was my only focus in my first foray into fandom.
Soon, I made other friends, people who’d been involved for much longer than I. People who built their own websites in the days of DOS and Angelfire, to discuss and debate fiction going as far back as the original Star Trek run. Star Trek, it turns out, is the birth place of modern fanfiction, and the origin of the word “Slash” (aka, supporting the idea of two characters of the same sex ending up in a relationship – or ‘ship’ – and in this case, specifically Kirk/Spock). I learned so much about this whole other world wide community of artists, writers, fans, coders, editors… There was so much out there.
Since then, fandom has moved into the mainstream. You can read about toxic fans and published fanfics on the regular – whole platforms (Wattpad, the Hugo Award winning Archive of Our Own, and Insanejournal come to mind) have been built specifically to cater to these artists. Hollywood has embraced these hardcore ‘nerds’ with fan service and multi-billion dollar franchises such as the MCU and the DCEU. Fifty Shades of Grey rocked the publishing world (it began as a fanfiction based on the YA-Fantasy series Twilight). At one point, I became an editor of a popular Twilight fanfiction curation site. Along with ‘online’ friends, I founded and moderated a years-long Harry Potter role playing game that spanned thousands of scenes and over 200 individual characters/authors. I took on beta-editing for other authors, started writing my own fics outside of games, and when my own projects – originals – were stalled or stale, I would give myself a moment to breath a little easier and simply write about my favorite, already established characters and worlds.
Fandom has, over the years, given me an outlet for my creative pursuits when my creativity needs a recharge. It has given me some of my most cherished friendships. The nerds have taken over the pop culture conversation. Even now, when I’m feeling drained or depressed, I can turn to fandom to pick me back up, to take my mind off things, or just to offer a refuge.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately.
A few weeks ago, I lost a dear family friend. I was at work when my mother called with the news. I had to get through the rest of my shift, though I was feeling so very low, I wasn’t sure I could. When I mentioned my loss on twitter, multiple ‘fandom friends’ reached out to check in with me, some with links to cheer me up, gifs to send their love, and jokes to make me smile through my sadness.
A few days ago, my bipolar disorder reared its annoying, ugly head and I slipped into a depressive episode (which I’m still fighting). In that time, these online communities have supported me, validated my feelings, been welcome sounding boards, and simply let me be and breathe with them. They have been understanding, reassuring, and so incredibly kind. I’m not saying I don’t have support “in real life” (I do) – but the support that comes from my creative community is different. It’s artful and flourishing and silly. It lets me vent via my own creative outlets. I can ramble in an email, be angry and frustrated in 280 characters, and take comfort in virtual hugs when in-person touch is really the last thing I want.
I’m very lucky that all those years ago I fell into fandom. I’m lucky that my communities grew with me – most of us were teens then and together we’re getting oh-so-close to our 40’s now. I’ve watched my friends’ children grow, attended ‘online’ friends’ weddings, been on vacations with women who until then were only names on a screen.
I’m an older millennial, and thus among the last that aged along with the internet. My family got our first computer when I was in high school, and I got my first – prepaid – cell phone when I moved away for college. I’m sure that many people my age can honestly say that we don’t know who we would be today had we not grown into the world wide web like we did. I don’t know who I would be without fandom in my life. Come to think of it, I may never have become a writer at all, and how dull and listless would my life be without my favorite words, my dozens of works-in-progress, the characters that have reflected my own feelings and struggles…