The Fan As Ambassador

For a variety of reasons, I tend to think seriously about the issue of fandom [1], not least because it is an issue which I find to be greatly important in surprising ways in our lives.  To say that one is a fan of something, be it a musical act or company/product or sports team or anything else is to announce to the world that one is a member of a tribe.  One tends to expect and find a sense of community with other fans based on one’s similar interests and often finds oneself involved in certain rivalries with other tribes based on one’s fandom.  Thus fans of Star Wars and Star Trek are often pitted against each other although it is quite easy to like both franchises, and fans of Nicki Minaj are pitted against those of Cardi B concerning their various areas of superiority (Cardi B with more recent success and #1 hits, Nicki Minaj with more Hot 100 singles and sales given her longer career).  Sports franchises tend to have rivalries with those teams which have thwarted their ambitions (and so Seahawks fans tend to dislike Steelers fans because of that one Super Bowl), as well as with various other regional and/or division opponents.  Membership in a particular tribe gives one a set of friends and enemies based on one’s loyalties.

But there are a great many people in the world who have no such loyalties.  For example, in the world of soccer, I have no particular team that I consider myself a loyal supporter of, and so if I was watching a game of soccer in a sports bar while eating (which is something that happens from time to time), I would be seeking enjoyment from the game (as well as whatever book I was reading at the time) but would not be actively rooting for or against any of the teams, although one or both fandoms might well be represented among the other viewers.  For the unaffiliated observer of sports or music or any other aspect where tribes are important, every fan one meets serves as an ambassador of their tribe.  So, if someone is a partisan of the Sony Playstation series as opposed to the Nintendo or Xbox, that person serves as an ambassador of the Sony tribe.  If a given person has a strong preference for Linux as opposed to Apple or Microsoft, that person is an ambassador for the Linux tribe, whether they are aware of it or not.  Their partisanship marks them as a representative of the tribe that they support and that they claim membership in.

Obviously, this leads to particularly serious gatekeeping concerns.  Not all ambassadors do their tribes credit, after all.  A Christian who does not live up to God’s laws and ways, for example, brings shame and dishonor upon the whole tribe of believers, after all.  The same is true of Muslim terrorists or obnoxious Cowboys fans or Antifa bullies.  There is a great tension when it comes to being a fan, and again this tension is not something that many fans seem to be aware of.  On the one hand, being a fan gives one a certain license to express one’s own identity as part of a particular tribe, through one’s clothing (sports jerseys, hats, Magic Mormon underwear) or other accessories (crosses, rosaries, and the like).  On the other hand, though, being a fan means that other people judge one’s fandom by your own behavior.  While the self-expressive aspects of fandom are well known and appreciated, the aspect of intergroup communication that fandom involves is not always as well known.  People pay a great deal of attention to how their fandom can be a way of expressing themselves, but do not always pay a great deal of attention into ensuring that other people think fondly of their tribe when it comes to interactions.

This can manifest itself in particularly painful and unpleasant ways.  One of the most unpleasant tribes I have to deal with on this blog is the tribe of Golden Earring fans.  Most people know little or nothing about this long-lived Dutch rock group.  In the United States, the group has had two hits, one in the 1970’s called “Radar Love,” and one in the early 1980’s called “Twilight Zone.”  Both are awesome songs, but the general knowledge of the group among American listeners is slight.  As a result of having written about the band as part of my series on acts that belong in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, fans of Golden Earring have regularly visited my blog and a great many of them have been trolls, thinking it totally unreasonable that someone would think the band worthy of the RRHOF on the strength of two songs in a body of work that has lasted for five decades.  One of the rare decent members of this fandom suggested I listen to a box set of their songs to discover the band’s larger body of work, and I did and found it to be very excellent.  But while I love Golden Earring’s music and would gladly go to a concert to watch them even now, I really detest their fans, who think that only someone who has listened to a great deal of the band’s obscure music can have the standing or credibility to praise them as a worthy act.  Unfortunately, with fans like these, who needs critics or enemies?

More cases like this could easily be supplied.  And no doubt anyone reading this can think of times where they were trapped in unpleasant encounters with very annoying and obnoxious fans who were clueless or indifferent to the way that their behavior was making their tribe abhorrent in the eyes of others around them.  Yet members of tribes forget that no matter how large their tribe, they are but a minority of people in existence, and that their behavior can greatly alienate the behavior of large groups of people who can collectively be very important.  So a group of Chelsea soccer hulligans can antagonize the populations of entire countries by their behavior, or ignorant political provacateurs can find themselves opposed by far more people than they bargained for because all they were focused on was their own internal group cohesion and not their external group reputation.  Anyone can be a stan, but not everyone is well equipped to be an articulate spokesperson and ideal exemplar of their tribe before others.  To give but one example, I myself have been moved to publicly declare sympathy with the Juggalos in light of their own persecution by the government as a gang combined with the articulate and restrained behavior of members of that particular tribe, and while I do not consider myself by any means a member of their tribe, I will happily stick out my neck in defense of the right of people to be so without suffering harassment or persecution from the government for so being.  And that’s not something I can say about many fandoms, sadly.

We are left therefore with a conundrum.  The proliferation of social media has made it easy for fandoms to coalesce and create viable and visible tribal identities of one kind or another.  For those who have tended to be out of step with those around them, this has been immensely positive in demonstrating to members of such tribes that they are far from alone.  That said, the proliferation of tribes and the means of self-expression that tribal membership has long involved has not carried with it a sense of understanding of the responsibilities that such membership entails when it comes to representing one’s tribe in the larger world of people who are often indifferent or hostile to that identity.  Moreover, I am not sure who would be willing or able to communicate the responsibilities of representing various tribes in question with the proper decorum that would encourage others to think highly of the tribe, be they Juggalos or fans of Golden Earring or K-pop stans, be they fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Atlanta Braves, be they pastafarians or supporters of the Westboro Baptist Church.  The vast majority of us have some sort of tribal affinities, be they religious, political, cultural, or athletic loyalties, whether we have acquired them from birth in a given area or a desire to fit in with the areas where we have found ourselves throughout our lives.  And while being a member of a tribe can greatly help us to feel connected to other people who have the same group identity as we do, it is of vital importance that we recognize and fulfill the responsibilities of ambassadorship that such group identities gives us.  For every membership in a given fandom or tribe makes us an ambassador of that tribe to outsiders whether we realize it or not, and most of us could stand to do a much better job of it.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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