Fan identity is at the heart of fandom studies, and one of the most contested issues revolves around differentiating types of fans based on their knowledge, behavior or both. Fan hierarchy and fan continuum are two concepts that attempt to answer this question, with different implications.
In Understanding Fandom, Mark Duffett defines a fan as “a person with a relatively deep, positive emotional conviction about someone or something famous, usually expressed through a recognition of style or creativity. He/she is also a person driven to explore and participate in fannish practices” (18). As a result, a fan differs from a general member of an audience, for “contemporary culture still marks out an emotional and rhetorical divide between the identities of the fan and the ordinary audience member” (45). By definition, fans are emotionally attached to the object of fandom, while ordinary audiences are just not as attached. Fans can be identified by what they know and how they engage in a variety of fan activities.
Perhaps it is this emotional attachment that also factors into the way fans see themselves in relation to each other. In Fan Cultures, Matt Hills refers to the notion of fan hierarchy, which he argues involves both fan cultural capital, or “the knowledge that a fan has about their object of fandom,” and fan social capital, or “the network of fan friends and acquaintances that a fan possesses, as well as their access to media producers and professional personnel linked with the object of fandom” (57). Hill’s issue is more with academics who study fans and how they arrange fans in relation to each other. Fan cultural capital is based on knowledge alone, whereas fan social capital is based on interaction with other fans and larger fan culture. This tends to lend itself to comparisons and valuing certain kinds of fans over others, privileging those who have more knowledge or more interaction with the larger fandom.
But Duffett realizes that this may not capture the complexities of fan culture. It also may reinforce a negative appraisal of fans. Remember that Duffett defines fan activity as positive. Instead, he proffers the notion of a fan continuum “that stretches between the least committed fans and the most dedicated fans” and allows for the consideration of other kinds of fan characteristics, including “fan self-identification, community participation, consumption of publicity material and archiving” (44).
This move attempts to get us away from thinking about “good” fans and “bad” fans, and more on what fans do and how they think of themselves. It recognizes as a fan anyone who has any level of the emotional attachment to the fan object. In this way, if you think you are a fan, then you are one. At the same time, it allows us to make distinctions based on how fans operate. We might be fans, but we are not the same type of fans. Some fans have a superficial engagement with the fan object, while others have deep knowledge. Hills acknowledges this when he notes that one can have high fan cultural capital, but low fan social capital. This doesn’t take away a fan’s identity, but it does describe a different mode of fandom. Fan continuum allows us to recognize the differences in fan practices without passing judgement on fans or questioning a fan’s authenticity.
Duffett, Mark. Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.