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Becoming Real, or the Invisible Fan?
by Kass

What makes us real?

I'm not talking about Velveteen-Rabbit-style real, a status which most schoolchildren know is conferred when someone loves one enough. I'm talking about becoming real within fandom, especially fandom on the 'net.

In Rachael Sabotini's "The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status Within the Fan Community," she talks about how fen acquire fannish status.

According to her theory, as I understand it, we accrue status through giving "gifts" to our fandoms. In the year that I've been in fandom, I've written a dozen or so stories, joined some mailing lists, hung out on IRC; presumably my fannish status, such as it is, grows or shrinks depending on what I post and how I comport myself. Online, in my case, since my fannish interactions are strictly virtual.

But how do I prove to other fen that I'm real, if I only interact with fandom virtually? How does anyone?

It's ridiculously easy to get an email account through a service like Hotmail, so an email address doesn't necessarily prove identity. Some of us write our fanfiction under pseudonyms (as I do), so names don't necessarily help prove who we are, unless you happen to know the RL person for whom the pseud stands.

And it's no secret that, now and then, fake people pop up on mailing lists. Sometimes trolls breeze through, post incendiary things and vanish; for all the reality they take on, they might as well be ghosts. Sometimes "sock puppets" -- fake people who exist only as alter egos for other fen --emerge. So it's clear that you can't judge a fan's "reality" by her email address, maybe not even by her presence on a list.

So how do we become "real" for each other?

This is a subject of some interest to me because, at this point, I can count the number of fen I've physically met on the fingers of one hand.

I live in a rural area; there are no cons within a long day¹s drive of here, and my job makes it impossible for me to take time off to travel. It may be years before I make it to my first media convention; most of you may never meet me in person.

Thanks to the 'net, people who are geographically dispersed can spend time together, can coalesce into the peculiar community that is any given fandom.  We post stories electronically, email back and forth on mailing lists, talk to each other through our typing. Our scattered-ness is part of the fun, for me; in TS fandom alone I've gotten the chance to interact with fen from Europe, the Americas, even South Africa.

But until we meet in RL -- or if we never meet in RL -- we have to take each others' identities on faith.

I'm lucky; I have a fannish mentor, a friend who brought me into fandom, who has taken me under her wing. She can vouch for me as a real, live person; other fen know her, so when she says I'm real, her word carries weight.

But not every new fan has a fannish mentor. What about the so-called "feral" fan, the fan who comes into fandom on her own, without knowing anyone already here? If there is no one to vouch for her, how can she prove herself but through her stories and her online participation? And if we don't trust what we can't physically see, how can she prove herself at all? 

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