Further future fandom: A conversation with middle school-age fans

Shannon K. Farley

[0.1] Abstract—This conversation among the author and four middle school-age fans concerns their online practices as well as some observations and analysis.

[0.2] Keywords—Amino; Instagram; Interview; Tumblr; Young fans

Farley, Shannon K. 2018. "Further Future Fandom: A Conversation with Middle School-Age Fans." In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

1. Introduction

[1.1] I took on writing this Symposium piece because when fan-scholars talk about young fans, they generally focus on university-age fans because most fan-scholars are university professors, and as such, this is the age group with which they are most familiar. I say "they" because although I consider myself a fan-scholar, I have been teaching in a school for grades 6 to 12 for the past two years, and I work exclusively with teenagers. Before I earned my PhD I taught high school, and I do so now because of my unwillingness to move to chase a tenure-track job or to commit to a life of adjuncthood. I also have a thirteen-year-old fan child of my own.

[1.2] This piece is the result of informal conversation with four of the younger fans of my acquaintance, specifically thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds who are engaging in fannish practices. I have not seen much discussion about this age group of fans. However, this is not meant to be a scientific survey of this age group's fannish practices. I spoke to a handful of kids in a specific context: the small, artsy charter school in western Massachusetts where I teach. These were also self-selecting kids who were likely to already know me because of my role as a member of the special education department, or because they were friends of my kid, who also attends the school. This is therefore not meant to be a generalization of the fannish practices of this age group as much as it is meant to be an example of some of the trends that can be seen in their practices.

[1.3] The first thing I was interested to hear about was where online these kids are finding their communities. I asked them what their current major fandoms are, and where they participated in that fandom. The bulk of what was interesting to me came as a result of this first question. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. I have referred to the kids as A, B, C, and D according to the order in which they first spoke (note 1). I have indicated my comments with my initials, SKF.

2. Interview

[2.1] A: I feel like the major fandom that I am into right now? Is furry, right now.

[2.2] SKF: Okay, just furry. As a fandom?

[2.3] A: Yeah. As a fandom. There are, like, different, you know, separations besides furry. There's an app that I use called Amino that lets me join other fandoms like that. Like, Cuphead and Undertale.

[2.4] SKF: Okay, so tell me more about Amino. How does that app work?

[2.5] A: Basically it's an app that…there's a bunch of different categories for you to join,…different "aminos" basically, different communities that different people start. You can make your own, and…

[2.6] SKF: So it's a social media app?

[2.7] A: Yeah, generally.

[2.8] SKF: So is it completely fandom based? Like, everything on Amino is fandom? Or are there different categories of different things you can be into? Fandom, or not?

[2.9] A: Yeah, there's things like art, and writing, and other hobbies you might be into. Skateboarding, or you know. Stuff like that.

[2.10] SKF: And is it a way you can talk to other people?

[2.11] A: Yeah, you can talk to other people, share your art, share your music, and talk to other people.

[2.12] SKF: So how is it different than something like Instagram?

[2.13] A: Well, on Instagram, there's not really a way to directly talk to bunches of people at the same time. So this one works kind of like, how do I say…Do you know about Discord?

[2.14] SKF: Yeah, I do.

[2.15] A: Okay, so it kinda works like Discord…And then you've got group chats you can join into. There's, like, hundreds upon hundreds of them.

[2.16] SKF: Okay, cool. So…mostly furry, and mostly on Amino.

[2.17] B: [shows me her laptop screen, which is full of Gravity Falls] I don't think I need to say anything?

[2.18] SKF: Okay, but like, for the purposes of my recording…so that we can have the actual words…B is a big Gravity Falls fan.

[2.19] B: And Star vs. the Forces of Evil.

[2.20] SKF: And how do you participate in that particular fandom? Do you use something like Amino?

[2.21] B: I have a Google Plus account.

[2.22] SKF: Google Plus is a place where people are talking?

[2.23] B: Yeah. Uh-huh. And the cool thing is that it's actually connected to a drawing app, so that when I do fan art it's immediately uploaded to Google Plus.

[2.24] SKF: So Google Plus has a good connection to other apps.

[2.25] B: Yeah, and it's also linked with my Gmail account, so I can get notifications when other people comment on my stuff.

[2.26] SKF: So you use Google Plus because it is easy to upload your pictures that way, as opposed to other apps?

[2.27] B: Yeah. And I can also upload videos, which I am also…I really like making AMVs [anime music videos]. Someone will tell me what song they're really into right now, and I'll put an AMV together.

[2.28] SKF: Do you post your videos to YouTube as well, or just to Google Plus?

[2.29] B: Just to Google Plus, because there I get more fast answers…

[2.30] SKF: Like feedback?

[2.31] B: Yeah. As opposed to YouTube where sometimes it takes people years and years to find the video.

[2.32] SKF: Is that because you already have an established community on Google Plus that's already into Gravity Falls, that's already looking for your videos?

[2.33] B: I have more than one, and I have some that are just getting started.

[2.34] SKF: I haven't been on Google Plus in years, because it was just like, when they started it, it was supposed to just be a replacement for Facebook [chuckling response from teens] and people tried it for a while, but then like, no one was really there so most of the people that I knew just fell away from it. But it sounds like it still has some vibrant communities. Is it just like a created circle, like a Gravity Falls circle that everybody is in, or…?

[2.35] B: Well, you can make your community around whatever you want. And what I really like about it is that it's really really secure. Like, usually people, if you're in the Gravity Falls community, you can only talk about things that are related to Gravity Falls or else you'll get kicked out of there. Or you can only talk about things that are related to Star vs. the Forces of Evil or you'll get kicked out of there.

[2.36] SKF: If you wanted to have a conversation about personal things, you'd have those conversations elsewhere?

[2.37] B: Yeah, you'd link it with your Gmail account, and if you want to, you can have a little chat box where you can talk to the same people, but about different things. And you can still have, like, an unrelated thing, like a meme or whatever, but it has to be related to Star somehow. You can't just, like, have a picture of a mountain. [laughter breaks out]

[2.38] B: It'd get flagged, like, uh, spam.

[2.39] SKF: What if you posted something really loosely related, like, "There are mountains on Gravity Falls." Do you get called out?

[2.40] B: Yeah, that's spam. [laughing] But I really like how they keep it controlled. Like, they don't let people just come in there and start screwing stuff up.

[2.41] C: Okay, so. I'm on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, honestly. Um, I found my friend K 'cause of the Dan and Phil [YouTubers] live show that we're going to July 21, like there's an account on Instagram that was posting all the tour dates, and then you could comment on your tour date, and then they'd add you to a group chat of that tour date so you could meet people, blah blah blah. And I found this girl K, and it was only us talking in the group chat for like two weeks and then I responded to one of her [Instagram] stories and then we just talked for, like, forever. And now, like, we have each other. I convinced her to finally get Tumblr again.

[2.42] SKF: Okay, so. You have made, like…

[2.43] C: I have a lot of internet friends.

[2.44] SKF: …a particular friend because of this fandom because of the live show that's happening for these particular two YouTube stars had its own…

[2.45] C: Yeah, like, I found other people too. But K and I have really hit it off, and now, there's a café right down the street [from the venue] where we're going to have a meetup.

[2.46] SKF: So far we're talking about fandoms, and we're talking about platforms. The platforms I've heard about so far are Amino, Google Plus, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.

[2.47] C: Wattpad, if I…dare to go on there ever. [room giggles]

[2.48] A: I go there.

[2.49] SKF, to C: You used to. Last year was all about Wattpad.

[2.50] C: Oof. 'Cause I was all about [Minecraft Diaries YouTuber] Aphmau. I regret all of it.

[2.51] SKF: Don't! [softly] It's part of your history.

[2.52] C: [laughing] Yeah, but it's also, like, ugh. Also bands. Fall Out Boy.

[2.53] SKF: Let me give D a chance to answer this question too. [to D] So. Big fandoms?

[2.54] D: Oh, there are so many.

[2.55] SKF: Give me your big one right now.

[2.56] D: I have four big ones. But my biggest one is probably DC. Not the DC Cinematic Universe, but DC in general.

[2.57] SKF: Like, the comics?

[2.58] D: Comics and Cinematic Universe.

[2.59] SKF: So both together, got it.

[2.60] D: Yeah.

[2.61] SKF: And where do you participate in the DC fandom?

[2.62] D: Mostly Amino…Because I find it's a really great place. The people there are really supportive. You can upload your art, you can upload your fan fiction. You can role-playif you have OCs [original characters], or if you want to role-play as canon characters. That's the main reason I joined Amino was to role-play, because I have so many OCs.

[2.63] C: I did a lot of role-play on Tumblr last year.

[2.64] SKF: So this is my question—because I'm not actually hearing a whole lot of Tumblr love—

[2.65] D: I used to be on Tumblr, but…

[2.66] A: I've never been on Tumblr.

[2.67] C: Oh, don't. Oof. It'll suck you in.

[2.68] B: I'll go there if there is, like, a link to it from Google Plus.

[2.69] SKF: One of the things I'm wondering is, because, my generation has a problem with Tumblr—

[2.70] C: [scoffing] Tumblr in general is problematic. [background laughter]

[2.71] SKF: Right. So, my fandom platform, in my day, the big one was LiveJournal, and then Dreamwidth. It's a journal-based site, where everyone has their own blog, like in Tumblr. But unlike Tumblr, you can have filters [and] access lists; you can lock things for people; and unlike Tumblr, there are actual conversations that happen in comments, that stay in one place.

[2.72] D: Yeah, that's kind of the reason I left Tumblr. I did like it for a while, but it got too hard to navigate through it, so I just left.

[2.73] C: Honestly, I only really use Tumblr when…maybe like twice a week. I don't have much of a following on there, unlike Instagram or Twitter. Like, I use it for…posting or finding fan art.

[2.74] SKF: The other thing that Tumblr isn't great at, which I'm wondering about, because B, you said one of the things you liked about Google Plus was how private it was, and how protected, and how everyone was nice…I'm wondering, because one of the things we as fan-scholars are concerned about with Tumblr, when we see the trends, is that it feels like fandom in general has gone from a very protected, "don't show the normals what we're up to" kind of culture to "everybody knows about fan art and fan fiction, everybody can find it, it's all out there in public." It seems to me that your generation might be going back to wanting to be more private again, based on what you're telling me?

[2.75] B: Not so much that, but that you don't want some random person coming in and throwing everything off. Like, you're having this nice role-play and someone just shows up and posts a picture of a cat playing piano. [kids laugh and agree]

[2.76] C: And when you have fan accounts and then you post things…I mean, fan culture is just, like, finding posts and then reposting it on your account so that you can have more followers.

[2.77] SKF: That's the other concern, right? That on Tumblr it's really easy to steal other people's stuff.

[2.78] C: Yeah.

[2.79] A: That's true.

[2.80] C: That's why you watermark. Honestly. In the middle, so that they can't crop it out.

[2.81] SKF: But sometimes they'll still steal it, with your watermark, and not care. Right?

[2.82] B: That's why you write on the bottom of your post, "Not my art."

3. Conclusion

[3.1] What this initial conversation indicates to me is that the younger teens are simultaneously less afraid of being public but more interested in having communities focused on only the fandom topic. Other online practices I observe my kid and their friends engaging in bear this out. They will have multiple Instagram accounts with different focuses. The main album will contain only the most planned-out, aesthetically pleasing shots, while the random captures of daily life will either go into Instagram stories or else into Snapchat (which Instagram Stories is generally trying to replicate on a platform level). Separating one's online self into several narrowed personae is fairly common, it appears.

[3.2] Amino is a platform that I had no knowledge of before talking to these students. It has a read-only website ( Like Snapchat or Instagram, its full functionality is available only on the app. It's existed for a few years as a loose confederation of interest-specific separate apps, but it more recently created a central hub where one can access the different aminos. Louise Matsakis (2018) describes Amino as a "mobile-first platform aimed at teens…organized similarly to Reddit—which also doesn't require real names—but has the emotional, nerdy attitude of Tumblr." Matsakis's bigger point, and the one that is also most interesting to me in light of the conversation with my students, is that Amino allows for true anonymity. There is no "log in with Facebook" button, and users can create different identities for different aminos. It resembles the fannish attitude toward privacy used at Dreamwidth or the Archive of Our Own, but in an updated mobile-forward platform created specifically for teens.

[3.3] The other major takeaway from these conversations is the extent to which young teens' experience of the internet is entirely app based. I have been observing this shift for years, and it's not a big surprise, but the effects of it on the thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds I interviewed are profound. I spent some time describing the Archive of Our Own to them and showing them the site, to their great interest. They were particularly impressed by the ease of narrowing searches for fandoms and pairings. However, once they learned it didn't have an app, it was clear this was a deal breaker. The kids of this generation use the web for school and apps for fun. The split is psychological and normative, and it will not be bridged by simply educating the young fans on the existence of websites. If the AO3 is going to sustain its user base, it is going to need to develop an app.

[3.4] Again, this conversation is not meant to stand in for all fans of middle school age, but their communities teem with kids of the same age with the same interests and norms. It is safe to say that both the interest in narrowing down the focus of communities and of living one's online fannish life in apps are generation-wide trends, and we need to be mindful of this as we continue to look at the future of fandom.

4. Note

1. In addition to anonymizing the students, I asked for explicit permission from the school and had them return signed permission slips that informed their parents of the general project and that noted that a published article would result. The major challenges in doing this kind of work with minors are permission and protection of privacy.

5. Reference

Matsakis, Louise. 2018. "Amino Apps Makes the Case for Anonymity Online." Wired, February 13, 2018.