Hear me out.
I’m not saying any fandom or fandoms are superior to any other fandom or fandoms. I’m not saying that people should compartmentalize their passions and be in “anime mode” at this event and “ponies mode” at that event. I’m not saying that mixing fandoms is in any way bad.
But hear me out.
If you’ve been around to different anime conventions, chances are you’ve seen one or more anime cons where the programming wasn’t completely based around anime and Japanese culture. Maybe there were one or more panels on steampunk or My Little Pony; things that aren’t anime, but are of interest to the con’s attendees. Or maybe half the programming had nothing to do with Japanese media.
But the event was still nominally an “anime convention.”
People who study cons and the culture surrounding them call it “convergence.” It’s the phenomenon of intersecting fan communities. As anime convention attendees discovered that many of them were not only into anime, but had similar interests beyond anime, the community bonds strengthened. If you go to an anime convention, you’ll see a thriving, enthusiastic, diverse, and welcoming community, but a lot of the time it won’t look like just an “anime” convention. That’s convergence at work.
I’m not making the assertion that the anime fandom is dying. That’s a silly thing to say. In fact, I’d say that the anime fandom is probably bigger and stronger than it’s ever been. What I’m seeing, however, is that the community has supplanted the medium. People go to conventions to enjoy the company of other fans, not necessarily to learn about anime from other fans or even to buy things.
This isn’t bad. It’s not harmful to the fandom and, honestly, the positivity that this approach promotes is welcome, but there’s a lot of potential that’s unrealized in favor of appealing to the “community” aspect.
The community focus brought on by convergence keeps things at more or less of a surface level. Because the focus is so squarely on having fun and enjoying the group, actual knowledge about the medium is undervalued. The pool becomes wider, but also shallower, which is a shame.
That’s my issue with convergence culture. In building a positive and enthusiastic community through the commonly-shared interests of not just anime, but a myriad other “geek culture” media, the media itself has fallen out of focus. However, while the branching out of anime conventions has helped other fandoms come into their own and grow, I don’t see the same happening to the anime fandom, and that bothers me.
I want the anime fandom to grow, and not just grow wider, but deeper as well, with an interest in anime as a medium. When it comes right down to it, I honestly don’t have a problem with most of the “convergence” mindset. I’ve no problem with cosplay and other fan-driven aspects of anime conventions branching away from anime. My issue comes when I see “anime” convention programming branching away from anime.
To a certain extent, it seems like some cons have given up trying to promote anime to a wider audience and have instead decided to retreat further and further into insularity. Even outside of conventions, I see this dynamic take place. I’ve seen anime clubs fall victim to this. Their focus falls away from promoting anime and broadening their own horizons within the medium and moves toward doing whatever the members think would be fun, regardless of how much or how little it has to do with anime, and skirting the very edge of their mission statement while minimally fulfilling their obligations to their hosting body.
It’s short-term thinking. It’s a mindset that asks “How do we maximize enjoyment with minimal effort right now?” rather than asking “How do we engage more people with this medium we’re supposed to be basing our event around?” As a result, the convention scene becomes centered on whatever maximizes enjoyment.
I have a lot of respect for events like Anime Boston that mandate than all events be based in anime or Japanese culture. The New England Anime Society, the non-profit behind Anime Boston, has a dedication to promoting anime that shows through into how they run their event. On the other end of the spectrum, I have a lot of respect for events like Connecticon, which bills itself as a “Massively Multi-Genre Convention.” Knowing right off the bat that a convention caters to any and all nerd media creates an environment where everyone is encouraged and empowered to share their interests with everyone else, and where everyone is encouraged and empowered to discover new things to enjoy.
I can’t put all of the blame on the conventions themselves, however. In fact, the underlying reason is with the fans. The anime fandom has a dearth of highly experienced fans who are willing to engage with the newer fans, and that’s a problem , because what it creates is an environment where people begin to engage with the medium, but have no guidance on where to go next. In addition, the disrespect much of the old guard has for modern anime cultivates a poor environment for growing the fandom.
Newbies aren’t likely to discover old anime on their own, and when the more experienced people in the fandom snub contemporary anime and refuse to engage with those who like it, it creates a disconnect between the newer fans, who enjoy the medium, but are unsure of where to go next, and the older fans, who should be the people guiding the newer fans deeper down the rabbit hole.
When you’re new to a fandom, but the people already in the fandom won’t engage with you, the only people you’re left to engage with are other newbies. And when, as newbies, you don’t possess a very deep knowledge of the medium, you gravitate toward the people you connect with, rather than the medium that connects you.
The promotion of geek camaraderie is important, and powerful things can happen when cooperative geeks come together, but at the same time, speaking specifically, the dynamic we see play out at anime conventions takes more from the anime fandom than it gives. Fandoms spin in and spin out of anime conventions, leaving core anime fans in the center.
When all’s said and done, what direction this dynamic will go in depends on the fans. Growing the anime fandom requires a combination of two things: Knowledge and enthusiasm. Too often, I see anime fans being shamed for being too into the wrong show. We instead need to embrace that enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm, things will stagnate. Knowledge can always be taught, but if we want the anime fandom to grow, we need to be willing to encourage people’s enthusiasm and give them perspective on the medium without being bitter or judgmental.
Guide people to anime, be enthusiastic, and engage with people new to the medium.
This is our job. People are leaving anime conventions on Sunday without having been exposed, in one way or another, to just how amazing this medium is, and that’s a problem.