Character vs. Identity: How Millennial Interactions with Fandoms Shape Personhood

Posted by: Olivia Ledbetter

There is a place where Millennials can discuss the intricacies of Parseltongue and philosophize on why blue police boxes have a special place in their hearts – it’s called the realm of internet fandom, and it has gone mainstream for Millennials.

If you have ever read the comment sections of pop culture articles, you have probably scraped the surface of at least one of the many online communities that exist. These groupings were once reserved to geographic locations but have become more widespread as the rise of the internet provided an easy platform to connect people with similar interests. Participants of online fandoms are not looking for mindless entertainment. Instead, they are pouring time and energy into being a part of very active and passionate grouping of people. It’s one thing to know what a fandom is, but why do people spend so much time and energy participating in them?

Many are drawn to join these internet subcultures for the sense of community they foster. After all, it is nothing new that most people would like to be surrounded by people who share similar interests.  However, community isn’t everything. One of the most surprising keys to fandom success that marketers can learn from is that, while they are formed due to a common uniting interest, the most fervent communities aren’t homogenous at all. In fact, some of the biggest fan bases have an inherent diversity that makes them successful.

The diversity within these communities can be explained in part by how the groupings themselves function. Online fandoms are not for people who are vaguely interested in a topic;  instead, participants communicate with an almost religious zeal, usually resulting in everything from fan fiction to online forums. Erin Liabo, Senior Director for Viacom Velocity Marketing (MTV), defines fandom as “a subculture of diehard Super Fans with a shared, deeply personal passion for a specific TV show, movie, celebrity, character, book series, band, genre, etc.” This deeply personal passion is the key to many fandom’s success. People like to belong to a group, but they love being able to build their own identity through that group participation.

Shaping Identity Fact from Fiction

To better understand how being a fan helps people to express identity, look to possibly the largest and most devoted fandom in history that surrounds the magical story of a boy with a lightening bolt scar and round glasses. Of course, all fans speak the same basic language of magical spells and main characters, but there’s still room within the series for a diversity of personal identity through the four Hogwarts houses. The plethora of online quizzes shows that fans desire to identify with one house that can be theirs, fueling a lighthearted online debate over which house is the best and where people should “sort” themselves. People love the series not only for the shared memories within the fan community, but because they feel like they can own a part of the fantasy world as an aspect of their own personhood. For example, being in the house of Ravenclaw means a person values intelligence, and identifying as a Gryffindor means a person sees him/herself as brave. A large part of the wizarding world’s popularity is that fans can jump into the fantasy realm, but then identify a very real part of themselves in a section of it.

Another major online fandom is the long-standing British sci-fi TV series following the time travels of a character named the Doctor. Of course, there is the common core of fans called Whovians who understand the sci-fi world and all of its characters. But spreading out from that core, there is a lively debate about who the best Doctor was. The part has been played by many different actors over the show’s 50 years, and each fan has their favorite. This self-identification of who they believe was the best says something about the fan’s values, as each actor played the part differently. Again, there is a common knowledge shared within the community, but the fan’s ability to place themselves in one subgroup propels the fandom to become an aspect of personal identity.

How Brands Can Make Their Own Fans

Even in specialized online communities, Millennials want to be unique. They want companionship with others who share their interests while also building their personal brand through subgroup labels they strongly identify with. Brands can learn to share their stories to build devoted fans much like these famous series have done. To do this, brands must first be open to sharing their own authentic story. Millennials want to support businesses with beliefs they can identify with. After sharing their philosophies, truly successful brands will then allow room for consumers to add their own spin to the story.

Much like fandoms, a brand moves from mere interest to a part of identity when consumers can strongly connect with a unique part of the story or experience. User-generated content can work for brands like fan fiction works for books by making things feel personally relevant and relatable. Marketers should realize that the brands consumers choose tell about personal identity just as much as their Hogwarts house does. Enabling them to help shape that image will build passionate advocates. Brands that let consumers be a part of their story? That’s sure to gain a Millennial fanbase.

About Olivia Ledbetter

As the 2017 Editorial Intern for Barkley, Olivia understands that great thinking needs a groundwork of solid strategy before it can become truly visionary. Her background in copywriting and creative writing has cultivated her belief...See Olivia's full bio.