"How do you not know what 'shipping' is?": Casual Fans, Hardcore Fans, and Language

NOTE: One aspect of the definitions for casual/hardcore fans is that they are conditional. There is no one definition, my definitions of casual/hardcore fans being two of several. Some are directed at specific fandoms and some are general assumptions but none are consistent or entirely the same. Also, the definitions are rarely defined in academic fields and are generally found in participatory websites, such as Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary (which I reference). I do utilize a newspaper article that discusses casual/hardcore fans but pertaining to sports. However, the majority of published or scholarly articles on fandom have singular foci, such as a particular fandom, case studies, or interviews. However, since the definitions of casual and hardcore fan are largely based on fan's self-assessment and self-scrutinity, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary offer a unique insight into how fans define themselves, other fans, and fandom in general.

Matt Wastradowski's "Hopelessly Devoted" focuses on the differences between casual and hardcore fans of specific sports teams. While the majority of the article consists of biographies and interviews of various fans, Wastradowski does address an opinion of the general differences between casual and hardcore:

"Once you find something you're passionate about, you go above and beyond the call of duty. The feeling of belonging to something bigger and believing that they can help the team are powerful motivators for the most diehard fan...it's a social element that some people really thrive on...It's a way of showing what they're passionate about. And some people, based on their personalities, take it to the extreme...(The Columbian, italics added)

Passionate, motivators, die hard, social, extreme: Used to describe fandom and hardcore fans, Wastradowski's words are aspects of fandom that are key to understanding the dynamics of these online communities and their participation . Since creating a Tumblr page dedicated to the Grey's Anatomy fandom, I have wondered about the constituents of my participation and whether words like Wastradowski applies to me. Prior to my fandom class, the extent of my participation was limited to watching the show, listening to the Grey's soundtrack, and following other fans who enjoyed the show as well. My activity was limited to "reblogging," or reposting what had already introduced to the internet by another Tumblr user. I didn't understand the intricacies of fandom or even what fandom really was.

According to a personal definition, I was a casual fan. Personally, a hardcore fan was someone who consistently created fan art, fan videos, fan fiction, or any other physical manifestation of their dedication and fan participation and who was working towards or had already become a known figure in the fandom community. However, analyzing past interviews that I have conducted, fan blogs, and official/unofficial definitions of casual/hardcore fans, I have realized that language (knowledge of and lack thereof) is an important indicator of a fan's participation. I focus on the Grey's fandom since I have studied it closely over the semester but my assessment may be loosely applied to other fandoms as well.

"Meredith Grey" by C. M.

Participation as a Constituent for Defining the Fan: Is it enough?
Is the artist of this painting a casual fan? C. M. painted an image of Meredith Grey, the protagonist and main narrator for Grey's Anatomy. While this painting is intricate and detailed (implying that at least some amount of time and dedication was exercised to create this piece), it does not indicate her level of participation. However, her labeling Meredith as "narrator extraordinaire" and thanking her "Dr. McBoyfriend" for feedback and criticism does. It is C.M.'s language and not her actual work that truly signify C.M's knowledge of the show and the fandom because she uses specific language when discussing aspects of Grey's: language that is unique to the show and used by fans who are regular participants in and up-to-date with the fandom. However, C.M.'s website does not indicate this level of participation. Upon further perusal of her blog, her art subjects range from Mad Men to personal doodles to comic book characters to drawings of friends. She's a multidimensional artist with no sole dedication to one fandom; her painting of Meredith Grey was the only art connected to the show that I could find. However, one can deduce that her level of participation is somewhat beyond what I defined above as a casual fan from her use of language associated with fandom, specifically Grey's.

Hardcore Fan = "Proper" Fan: Fan Legitimacy
While conducting research for this wikispace, I stumbled upon an alternative label for "hardcore" fan called "proper fan" (Urban Dictionary). The term "casual fan" seems to remain the same in most contexts but "hardcore" has several variations, "proper" being what I've seen as the most used. When I search "proper fan" in Urban Dictionary, "casual fan" comes up as well suggesting how both definitions are inexplicably intertwined. The definition is as follows:

Proper fans are the ideal kind of fan. They have their fandoms, and they deserve them. A proper-fan knows ample info about his fandom, and takes it seriously-but not too seriously. Proper-fans can be created at any point in a fandom[']s history. For instance, a Lord of the Rings proper-fan can be created after he watches the movies, [and] if he then proceeds to read the books, etc, and remain[s] a fan after the hype die[s] down. Proper-fans handle remakes of their fandom relatively well, provided it doesn't completely destroy their beloved characters.

Putting aside the blatant bias in this definition, I want to look at the specific language used in this definition.

The proper, or hardcore, fan is described as "ideal:" a standard of perfection in a fan. They "have" their fandom, indicating a proclamation or possession by the fan of the fandom and they "deserve" it, or warrant (in an unspecified way) the fandom's acceptance of their participation. They possess "ample info," or knowledge of their fandom, which would include familiarity with the canon (characters, plot lines, themes, tropes, relationships if applicable) and the community originated from and around the canon. They can be "created" at any point, so length of participation does not apply in the fandom, and can enter it through various mediums which do not have to be the original medium in which the canon was presented to the public. However, a proper fan's loyalty surpasses "hype," or popularity and they "handle remakes," or changes to the canon, with ease and acceptance (except if the canon-definition references "characters"-become unrecognizable).

While biased, the above definition gives great insight into public distinguishing between a casual and hardcore/proper fan. Even the word "proper," which implies social acceptability, competency, and legitimization, calls attention to fandoms' need to separate wayward fans from the ones who bolster, perpetuate, and expand a fandom and its community. While M.K. is a proper fan by definition, A.B. is not and, (hypothetically) therefore, these two particular fans are separated by legitimacy. Ultimately, the defining and labeling of fans are determined by language: the language used to describe them and the fan's language used to describe the fandom, other fans, and themselves.

Language and the Fan
For my Fandom Ethnography, I interviewed two subjects, both of whom are fans of Grey's. However, they described themselves in very different terms when I posed the question of casual-fan vs. hardcore-fan:

5. How do you define the terms "casual" fan and "hardcore" fan and which of the two do you consider yourself to be? If you see yourself as casual, hardcore, both, or none, explain why?

M. K.
I think a casual fan is someone who watches Grey's Anatomy and enjoys the show and is willing to have conversations with others about it. A hardcore fan, on the other hand, is someone who never misses an episode, has strong opinions on all the characters and isn't afraid to voice them and contributes in ways other than simply conversation to the fandom, e.g. through fan fiction. I'd probably err more towards the side of hardcore fan purely because I run a blog for the show, make fan videos and write fan fiction.

A. B.
I would say now I'm more casual considering I don't read [fan fiction] that much. I used to be hardcore like replying on every chapter and annoying the fuck outta writers to do another chapter.

Both M.K. and A.B. define the level of fandom participation based on the nature, amount, or level of language used by the fan, even though they don't specify what kind. M.K., while labeling herself as a hardcore fan based on her running a blog, states that a fan not only "never misses an episode," but has "strong opinions" and "isn't afraid to voice them. To voice an opinion in a fandom, especially to reply or retort to any response, one must be versed in the language of the fandom, or at least have a degree of familiarity, to be able to argue/discuss effectively and thoroughly. An example of this is when I asked the subjects of my interview about "shipping," or public support for a romantic or platonic, canon or non-canon relationship in a fandom. (Urban Dictionary "Shipping"):

6. Grey's frequently focuses on the various relationships in the show and the dynamics of these relationships, which have lead to notorious "shipping" within Grey's fandom. Who do you "ship?"

I ship Meredith and Derek (MerDer) and from time to time Mark and Lexie (Slexie). But I'm always a MerDer fangirl - always have been, always will be :)

I have no clue what shipping is.

While the word "shipping" may be deduced from context clues in my question, I do not explicitely define shipping nor give an example. Despite this limitation, M.K. immediately delves into the specifics of "shipping in the Grey's fandom and utilizes the language required to convey such a concept: she regurgitates the word "ship," while using the common fandom practice of labeling a relationship, or "ship," with a fandom constructed mash-up of the couples' names (i.e. "MerDer" and "Slexie"). M.K. even uses the term "fangirl," to describe herself (Wikipedia defines a fangirl as a female that is more prone to intensified devotion to emotional or romantic aspects of a fandom). In contrast, A.B. was not famililar with the concept of "shipping" at all and forego answering the above question as well as another that referenced "shipping." M.K, being familiar with the concept, answered with examples similar to her previous references:

7. Do you think certain "ships" in the fandom create animosity or unification amongst fans? Why?

Quite a lot of people, especially those who 'ship' couples, tend to create an air of animosity between fans who ship rival pairings. An example is between MerDer shippers Calzona shippers - both complain that the other pairing has better storylines and more screentime. So, yeah there's quite a lot of hate...
M.K's familiarity with shipping may have been acquired through minimial participation, however, I speculate that the majority of her knowledge derives from her blog, "Anatomy of a Confession." The function of the blog is to field and post confessions from Tumblr users, known or anonymous, that are posted on relevant or related images from the show. Several have to do with plot line, character's actions or emotions, criticisms, or fan desires. However, one of the most frequent subject on the blog is "shipping:"


Not only is this image a prime example of shipping within the Grey's fandom (a platonic relationship and, if romanticized, non-canon), but an example of M.K.'s exposure to shipping. As a person who goes through all the fan submissions and actively publishes them on her blog, M.K. has probably received a colossal amount of confessions that reference shipping or the animosity M.K. discussed in the interview. While A.B. does not have to run a blog to be familiar with shipping, I hypothesize that she must have some degree of participation or observation in similar mediums. Fan fiction (which A.M. stated was her preferred fandom outlet) may not explain or even use the word "ship" in an effort to maintain the fantasy, especially if attempting to recreate or alter the canon. However, M.K.'s participation centers around fan's interpretation or opinions of Grey's and is exposed to more language that describes the fandom's relationship to the canon rather than the canon itself.
While these two fans do not encompass strict definitions of casual/hardcore fans, they are a prime examples of the difference between the two. M.K. utilizes language only known by fellow Grey's fans or members of other fandoms. A.B., while having some degree of participation albeit inconsistent and small in comparison to M.K.'s, is not knowledgeable of some language of her fandom and, perhaps, fandom in general.

Conclusion: Language, Participation, and Fandom

While fandom encompasses the diversity and variations of a traditional community, it is particularly unique because the community is not determined by spatial factors and, largely, has an online presence/existence. The internet has allowed some fandoms to expand globally, incorporating various cultures, ethnicities, languages, and ways of thinking about and viewing the world.

Since language is an extremely volatile and conditional aspect of humanity, it is interesting to see how language is built up around fandoms that consist of so many different participants. For example, I have studied American Sign Language for several years and would be interested to discuss hard-of-hearing or deaf interaction with fandom, since the deaf community utilizes the internet with increasing fervor as technology improves and evolves. Since American Sign Language (or Sign Language from other countries) vary greatly from their derivative language, such as English and French, and have idioms unique to the language and deaf culture, it would be interesting to see how that effects a hard-of-hearing or deaf person's language usage or creation of language pertaining to the fandom.

There are so many aspects of fandom that can be explored, discovered, and analyzed as seen by the numerous topics my fellow Fandom classmates have addressed for this Fandom Studies page. While I have addressed language as a key component (and perhaps main component) in assessing the "casual" and "hardcore"/"proper" fan, participation is also important. It also possible for a single fan to have different degrees of participation in various fandoms creating a multitude of fan identities and personas. So, instead of leaving you with a tentative concluding definition of fandom, fans, and language, I want to leave you with a couple of images where you can determine for yourself: what makes a casual or hardcore fan?

Cougars fan decorates her room
Harry Potter fans at Comic-Con