I had someone ask recently, "Is it just me, or has fandom just really exploded in the last few years? How did that happen?" Fandom has indeed gotten more mainstream in recent years, and it's viscerally evident in San Diego Comic-Con, whose 2013 convention kicks off next week!
The con currently attracts around 130,000 attendees every year, and it's only limited to that many because of fire codes in the convention center! But, while the show has expanded its audience nearly every year since its inception in 1970, the biggest jumps in attendance occurred in 2004 (jumping up to 95,000 from 70,000 in 2003) and 2006 (jumping up to 123,000 from 103,000 in 2005). Now some readers among you might look at those dates, go back to this week's title and say, "Aha! Didn't Facebook launch in 2004? People connecting with each other digitally, and then taking that connection to real life in San Diego? That makes complete sense! Great column, Sean!"
That is an attractive way to look at it, but that version does use a lot of shorthand and perhaps oversimplifies things a bit. Facebook did indeed launch in early 2004, but it wasn't open to the general public until late 2006, after the two San Diego conventions noted above. But despite it's name recognition and general association with the term "social media", Facebook wasn't created in a vacuum. There was MySpace before that (launched in 2003) and Friendster before that (launched in 2002). And San Diego isn't the end-all, be-all for every fandom out there either -- it's attendance pales in comparison to Comiket and Angoulême, and those two shows focus pretty exclusively on comics.
That said, there's some truth in the basic concept there. Science fiction fandom, for example, can said to have really started by Hugo Gernsback who published magazines of science fiction stories beginning in the 1920s. While the notion of enjoying sci-fi stories wasn't new, what Gernsback did to help launch sci-fi fandom was that he began publishing the addresses of people who wrote in letters. While letters of comment were published previously (as a cheap way to comply with postal regulations) the letter-writers' addresses were withheld. People who read those magazines could see that there were others in the world who appreciated the stories the same way they did, but they had no way of connecting with them. The only connections they could make were the handful of people in their immediate geographic circle.
When Gernsback began publishing addresses, that helped to eliminate physical limitations for contact. A letter-writer from Florida could carry on a conversation about science fiction with someone else from Oregon. Admittedly, this was a slow process, limited by the speed of postal deliveries, but with new addresses being published in every issue of a variety of Gernsback's magazines, one could amass a growing circle of friends and acquaintances that all liked and appreciated the same type of things. Science fiction fandom began because individual fans now had an outlet and method of communicating with one another.
The birth of the internet provided a similar experience. Actual addresses were no longer needed. Postage was no longer needed. Most importantly, the communication was nearly real-time. People could leave a message on a BBS or a web-based message board, and it was immediately available to anyone who stopped by.
Then, eventually, we get to social media sites like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook. What those types of sites did above and beyond those message boards was to essentially advertise what people were fans of. Once a person hit "Like" on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer site, or a Back to the Future fan page, or whatever, that essentially became a permanent attachment to their profile. When people would look them up, they would see the types of things they were interested in. And from the other side of things, people who "Like"d a site could also see everybody else who "Like"d the site previously! The idea of using social media to connect with other people is at the very heart of the concept, so people's fandom networks grew exponentially in a very short amount of time.
Now, recall that the implicit primary goal of establishing a fandom is to make connections with other like-minded people. That perfectly aligns with the stated primary goals of social media sites. (Which, I feel compelled to add, is not the same as the actual primary goal of selling user data to make money!)
So basically what's happened is that more and more tools have become available for people to connect over their favorite things. Whereas a person may have once felt alone and isolated because they didn't know anyone in their hometown who actually liked the same things they did, they now can find others with similar tastes online with a ever-decreasing amount of difficulty. These groups became fandoms and proliferated, and that proliferation has been normalizing. "Hey, if it's okay for me to openly express my enjoyment of Glee along with these other people, it's probably also okay for me to say how much I like My Little Ponies!"
The resounding success of Facebook over previous social media sites makes Mark Zuckerberg an easy target for a lot of things, including the now common complaint of "when did Comic-Con stop being about comics?" And while it's an issue can hardly realistically be pinned to him, that doesn't mean it's not fun to take pot-shots from time to time!