Alright, Wanderers, I’ll level with you. I have used a misleading headline to make this article sound cool. I mean, it is cool! At least, I hope you think so. But let’s be honest: fandom isn’t a secret. Your friends in real life might not know about your guilty-pleasure love for Desperate Housewives, but they’re probably aware that somewhere out there, there are people who like Desperate Housewives. People who really like it. Who really, really like- [That’s enough. –Ed.] Right. Basically, we’re all aware that people are fans of things. That’s no secret. It’s also no secret that people who like the same things often clump together and like them together. We call these ‘fandoms’ and a surprising number of non-fans – or at least, people who wouldn’t consider themselves fans of anything – are completely aware that they exist.
So what am I talking about Secret Societies of Awesome for? Well, think about your fandom for a minute. Think about how often you probably slip tiny references into your everyday conversation. Browncoats – you know how often you call things ‘shiny’ or claim ‘no power in the ‘verse’ can stop you doing something. Whovians – your microwave goes ding when there’s stuff. Buffy fans, don’t even try to pretend you’ve never said ‘five by five’ or just succumbed to weird Buffy speech patterns. I caught myself muttering ‘Hang-me-in-a-bottle-like-a-cat-and-shoot-at-me’ when my dinner started burning while I was trying to wash up the other day – and if anyone can tell me what fandom that’s from, Fandom Wanderers will give them a Twitter shoutout. Clue: it’s an old one.
I had a point (it… got away from me for a bit, yeah) – ah, yes. We make a lot of casual references to our favourite things in normal conversation, and a lot of the time we expect other people to either understand or move right on along. There are a few different responses to an oddball fandom reference – let’s call them the Nod, the Shrug, and the Squee. The Nod is when someone doesn’t recognise the reference, but gets what you were trying to say anyway – if you’ve just said something in a slightly strange way, for example. The Shrug is where they don’t recognise the reference or understand you, and you’re going to have to rephrase in one of Earth’s many convenient normal-human dialects. And the Squee… the Squee is where we get into Secret Society of Awesome territory.
Secret societies – at least in films and TV – often have secret handshakes, or passwords, or other ways for members of a society to recognise each other without talking about Fight Club. Fandom’s not so different; when you make a reference to a fandom the other person didn’t realise you shared, the Squee kicks in and you can both forget what you were talking about before, because OH MY GOODNESS WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE EPISODE HAVE YOU SEEN THE LATEST YET? …And so on. Suddenly you both know that, while everyone else might say Wizards vs Aliens is for kids much younger than you are, or Twilight isn’t appropriate for you to read, you can talk about that fandom together.
No – I’m wrong; there are four possible reactions. Because some references have their own set responses. When someone gives you the correct answer to your reference, or adds the next line… that’s when you really know they’re a fan too.
But it gets better. See, the secret society that is each of your fandoms does not exist in a vacuum, separate from the real world. No, you can take those references out with you as you walk down the street. You might see an old red telephone box and smile a little to yourself, fondly reminded of Community’s metafictional Inspector Spacetime. You might pass a charity shop with a blue duffel-coat in the window and think of Paddington Bear. Suddenly, the world is made up of a million in-jokes you’re party to, and you can feel the connection to every other fan even when you’re walking home alone.
Then, of course, there are the occasions when fandom spills out into the real world in a more obvious way. My local supermarket had BAD WOLF written across the tarmac of its car park every night for several weeks after the relevant episode of Doctor Who aired; more recently, we’ve seen the Believe in Sherlock movement sweeping the world by way of post-it notes and posters. Increasingly, fandom is something you can share with the world… even if half of them don’t understand it. Indeed, new members can even be brought to your fandom by sheer curiosity when they can’t figure out – to take Sherlock as an example – why #moriartywasreal is trending or what on earth is so funny about a picture of a hedgehog eating jam.
Badges, tattoos, clothing, bags, particular coats or ways of tying a scarf… all these things can be signs to another fan that you share their fandom. But nobody else needs to know. Of course, you can also wear explicit signs of your fandom – a hoodie with the slogan ‘I grew up with Harry Potter’ makes it pretty obvious what you like to read, for example. Personally, though, I love the element of mystery that comes with wearing my ‘MJN Air’ t-shirt. Most people assume I’m just a frequent flier with a particular airline, but I live in hope that one day someone will come up to me and offer to play Passenger Derby, or tell me the lemon is in play. Because that’s half the fun – making new friends based on secrets you already share. You get a whole new friendship with built-in in-jokes to start you off. What’s not to like?
Well, I’m coming to the end of this long, rambly article, so what have I been trying to say? I think my point here is that one of the great things about fandom is constantly belonging to something exciting. No matter where you are or what you see or do, you can share in something that makes you happy – that makes other people happy. And OK, sometimes you’ll see a leaf on the breeze and feel sad, but it’s a comforting, together kind of sadness, even when you’re completely alone. Other people get it; other people know how you feel. And they’re the ones who feel the same way. You never need to expose yourself to ridicule by asking someone if they like your fandom – just throw out a reference and see if they bite.
Pretty convenient way to make friends, that.
Eleanor Musgrove (likes your shoelaces)
Seriously, if you can tell us what our writer’s referencing with ‘Hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me’, we’ll give you a quick shoutout on our Twitter account and you’ll look really brainy.