Most people will tell you that education doesn’t stop when you take your last exam or finally leave school. Learning is a life-long process, and we continue to pick up new skills and knowledge until the day we die – but how do we do that in the absence of a class of people to back us up?
The short answer is that we don’t. When you learn to use the new coffee machine at the office without causing an espresso explosion, your colleagues are right there with you to get things wrong in a variety of hilarious ways until one of you finally figures it out based on your collective experience. That’s a bit like having classmates, right? But increasingly, the class we learn the most with is our fandom.
Whether you’re a casual reblogger, a fan-event attendee, or a fanart creator, chances are you’ve learnt something through being a fan of whatever you’re a fan of. Being a Sherlock fan taught me a lot about how a story can be structured to make a big impact in a short space of time; being a Harry Potter fanfiction writer gave me the confidence to make my own writing available online. Whether the Tales of Redwall taught you about bravery and loyalty in the face of tyranny, or The Merchant of Venice gave you a new understanding of the Elizabethan period of history, it’s hard to get so emotionally invested in the media we love without coming away having learned something.
It goes beyond the messages and trivia the creators of the media try to convey, though; when we become part of a fandom we become part of a large group of people who largely communicate through text and images on a screen. Sarcasm, as many people have noted over the years, does not thrive in the written form, for example, and it’s easy to offend people. By joining a fandom, by getting involved in their discussions, we learn to articulate our own opinions clearly, respect the views of others and see things from their point of view. In my experience, fandoms tend to be made up of largely tolerant people who focus on the things they have in common rather than the things they disagree about (except in the case of shipping wars, but even those tend to be relatively light-hearted). Perhaps because those outside of fandom don’t always understand those within, fans band together and support one another.
Of course, there are always some fans who start fights, cause trouble, and are rude – just as there are always those who will behave like that in the real world. Fandom is a relatively safe space in which to learn to deal with those people, and in which other people are likely to be dealing with the same people and problems. After all, if someone’s insulting your fanfiction for having a non-canonical gay couple in it, they’re probably doing the same to other fanfictions featuring gay couples. You can all ignore them together, or in the unlikely event that they’ve been brave enough to use their own online identity, you can all work out how best to respond.
A fandom is also a great place to discover and improve on your skills – after all, it’s one of the few places you can get a whole load of feedback on, say, your sketches of The Gentlemen from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, from people who are already familiar with your reference material. Other skills come into play, too, though – there’s an element of canny marketing in getting those sketches seen by the right people. Speaking of marketing, if you spot the opportunity you might even be able to set up your own online shop to sell those sketches, and that’s a whole new set of business skills. Fandom is allowing me to – hopefully – improve my talent for journalism, as we speak. And even if you don’t create anything as part of your fandom, it’s almost certain to improve your research skills and keep your mind active, because puzzling over minute details tends to come with the territory.
Learning things on your own can be really difficult. With nobody to encourage you or help you, it’s tough to focus on improving your mind. Fandoms give you those classes of people who will help you, support you and guide you; some will even teach you. One really obvious example of a fandom as a class of sorts came last month when the BBC Sherlock fans organised a ‘Get Fit Challenge’ to improve their ability to chase cabs around London just like their heroes, should the need ever arise. Thousands of fans took on the challenge and encouraged each other to meet their own personal fitness goals. Actually, that sounds better than a class to me, because I don’t remember my PE classes at school being particularly supportive.
If you think you’ve learned nothing from being involved in fandom, go along to a pub quiz and check out your scores on the trivia questions. Chances are there’ll be an answer you only knew because it was mentioned in a CHERUB mission briefing or formed a major plot point in your favourite episode of Poirot. We’re learning all the time, and we’re learning together.
Eleanor Musgrove (spent more time on fanfic than homework at school)