To Affinity and Beyond: A Qualitative Exploration of Fandom Learning, Empathy, and Reactionary Fandom Culture
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Examining fandom—where fans are both consumers and producers of media—as a learning space is not new. Many studies have examined learning in terms of fandom being an affinity space. Affinity spaces are communities formed around a common object of interest that form irrespective race, class, or gender. However, none of these studies have included Reactionary Fandom Culture (RFC) into the discussion. RFC is bullying disguised as political activism. To investigate the relationship between fandom, learning, and RFC, I gathered qualitative data by recruiting online fans inside and outside of my circle and supplemented that with a snowball sampling technique. Fans were given ten open-ended questions on an online anonymous survey. I used grounded theory and open coding to find recurring themes within the data and refined my results with focused coding. There were three major themes: due to fandom’s structure as an anonymous affinity space, fans learned (1) enriching life skills and (2) empathy for themselves and others, but their learning processes were impeded by (3) reactionary fandom culture. Fans learned media literacy, critical thinking, and social skills. They also learned how to empathize with social groups they didn’t encounter in “real life.” In some cases, this led to having empathy for their own unique situations. However, RFC was a looming threat. These results echo a trend of growing outrage in political conversations that extends beyond fandom. Thus, I argue that for fandom to be a progressive learning space, and in order to be responsible members of a media-saturated society, fans must be critically aware without sacrificing empathy and learning.