When I was growing up, all my precious computer time was dedicated to MuggleNet. Frequenting fan sites is just the kind of thing that you do when you are 12 years old and bored and not allowed to get a MySpace account. It was my first entry point into Internet culture, leading me down a rabbit hole that would basically construct my online existence throughout middle school and early high school. Fan sites have existed since the birth of the user-friendly Internet, offering a central place for fans of whatever — video game, book, franchise, television show, movie, celebrity, you name it — to find each other, talk, read up on news and collectively geek out.
Then, within a relatively short span of time, fan culture seemed to make a mass exodus into the Facebook Groups and Tumblr reblogs and spoiler-laden Twitter discussions of today, rendering the fan site positively quaint. Many fan sites still contain a cacophonous jumble of design elements ripped straight from 2003. (To put this into context, that was the year MySpace launched.) While recently-created sites look a bit more modern, the idea seems stuck in the past because fan sites are so associated with a GeoCities-style Internet. They don’t seem to offer anything beyond the offerings of a combination of social media platforms. Fan conversation is happening elsewhere, in less isolation.
For older sites, their strong suit is, of course, their history. In an Internet landscape where anything from five years ago can feel ancient, people still feel loyal to the sites that meant something to them, even if they’re nostalgic for a URL that reached their heyday only a few years ago. “Fan sites can have a continuity, a history, a real sense of community, almost like family, that I just don’t see on social media,” current Emma-Watson.net webmaster Mike says over email. “I have received many emails that start out like ‘I’ve been visiting Emma-Watson.net for years…’ There are still members on the forum from before I knew [the site] existed.”
Still, I can’t remember the last time I visited a fan site to read news or discuss anything. And that’s simply because our ever-flowing stream of content means that fan culture is more integrated into our everyday lives (and therefore, our Internet lives) than ever before. People consume fan-specific news on more mainstream platforms, without needing to go to a dedicated site to do so. Thank you, Facebook feed! Thank you, Twitter debates! Thank you, Reddit! And inevitably, the distance between consumer and producer grows ever-smaller. Pottermore is straight-up fan servicing, but it’s also an effort that’s completely the product of J.K. Rowling, creatively and financially. There is little mystery. Everything is in the canon. People can follow their favorite celebrities on Instagram or the characters from their favorite shows on Twitter. We aren’t lacking pop cultural stuff to consume.
Alison Genet, who runs the popular Divergent fan site Divergent Fans — which also has a Facebook page with over 44,000 followers — agrees that social media has dissipated some fan discussions. But she maintains that the fan site is a place for an obsessive level of discussion that may or may not happen in the mainstream. Genet started Divergent Fans in June 2011, only a few months after the first Divergent book was released. She says that while the site now gets fans of the movie who have never picked up a Veronica Roth book, the “hard core fans” still want to discuss things with other people who are well-versed in the culture.
“I think that’s where the love of making fan sites comes from,” Genet says. “Because when you have an obsession, you want to delve in deeper than mainstream media will go. You want to talk about this quote, or go in deep about why this character did this or that. And mainstream media, most of the time, hasn’t read the book. Fan sites go more niche.”
Genet has created multiple fan sites since 2008, and each has peaked and waned over the years, depending on the fandom itself. At a certain point, she admits, fan sites become quasi-artifacts, but that’s a natural part of their progression. “If there’s not a studio or a book publisher or whatever giving you new content — unless you’re going to produce content off the stars who were in the films — there is no place for a fan site to go,” she says. Her Twilight fan site, TwiFans, is still up, just way less active.
But perhaps if we come to view fan sites more like social communities, it’s easier to see their place in the broader Internet landscape. Because then they aren’t “dead,” they’re just sequestered in their own little corner of the Internet — a place where there is a social network for everything, even for people who love mustaches (the aptly titled Stache Passions). So, are fan sites dead? It depends. They’re a function of the people who frequent them, the fans. And in such a diffuse social media landscape, there is something compelling about a single digital destination. I can easily see a future where the traditional fan site form is consumed by social networking sites, but for now they just incorporate aspects of them — blogging functionality, social media accounts — and remain mostly niche, if they were ever mainstream in the first place. And perhaps that niche is exactly the place they always intended to be.