No, Virginia, the end of fandom is not here just because fandoms grow nastier or because they learn critical thinking. In an op-ed for CNN, writer Sara Stewart posits in her headline “The end of fandom may be here” in which she proceeds to make the mistake many a pop culture critic makes: assuming fandom is a monolith. Now, you could argue that Stewart was given that doom and gloom headline by her editors, and you’d probably be right, but it’s this point she makes that shows she doesn’t know what fandom actually is: “Perhaps fandom — defined as the attachment to the artist as creator — should no longer be the point.” Fandom isn’t an attachment to the artist (singular) as creator; it’s an attachment to the creations artists (plural) make, and furthermore, a detachment from those same creations as something new, usually in the form of fanworks, is created in its place. Stewart’s view of fandom is fundamentally flawed.
There is no such thing as a monolithic “fandom”—Stewart’s initial focus appears to be on comedy fandom, specifically a hypothetical fandom for Louis CK. I would argue that in my understanding of fandom, there was never a “fandom” for CK. It was more of a critical appreciation by, well, critics. Yes, the man has fans, but did they ever coalesce into a fandom? A fandom is many things, made of many different people, with many different takes on the media they consume. Just because someone is a fan of say, Woody Allen or R. Kelly, to use two examples of utterly terrible people who have fans, does not mean there is a fandom.
There’s a reason fandom drama is notorious: everyone splits into factions at some point, disagreeing on everything from character motivation to ships to what should and shouldn’t be canon. Also, fandom drama is not a universal concept: the Harry Potter fandom at its peak had endless ship wars, yes, and so does Star Wars, but the stakes are a little different in every different permutation of fandom.
Star Trek has the concept IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It’s a Vulcan philosophy, based on the idea that there is unity in diversity. In a sense, it describes how we should think of fandom: not as a singular force, but as many different forces working towards a similar goal, that being love, appreciation, and critique of pre-existing media, as well as of the creators of those films, TV shows, and music we all adore so much.
Fandoms, in their infinite diversity, also create so many different things, like gifs, art, fanfic, meta, that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they are. They’re more than a loyalty to a show or a brand; they’re loyalty to the characters and the ideas within the media each fan consumes. There are even fandoms where the fans have turned against the creators and the canon, creating something entirely new from the ashes of a bad story turn. People who dislike what shows have become still stay in fandom in the hope of making lemonade out of lemons, so to speak.
Every fandom also handles creators behaving badly differently: some fandoms just go quiet — an instant heat death of a star — think about the last time you saw a huge boon of Harry Potter fan content on your dash or feed. Louis CK, Stewart’s leading example, is generally not considered a part of good society any longer; sure, he still has fans, but they’re not representative of what most fandoms are: diverse, inclusive spaces dedicated to fostering community and art and writing. When was the last time you read Louie fanfic?
Stewart’s right in that fandoms need to think critically about the works and creators they support, but she’s wrong in the assumption that they haven’t been doing it all along. Think of the newer generation of pop culture academics who came from fandom, or your favorite fanfiction that entirely rewrites the preexisting canon, an implicit critique of what came before it. Fandom won’t end because people start thinking; fandom will only end when people stop thinking. Fandoms are infinite these days; they’re not a giant monolith filled with people who worship at the feet of the works they adore. There’s a lot the mainstream gets wrong about fandom culture, but the idea that fandom is a singular noun might be the most frustrating error; a fandom that’s not diverse in thoughts, personalities, and identities might not be worth being.