Hope's essay is an honest look at the negative side of BNF-dom, and through her eyes I got an idea of what it's like for someone who 'stumbled into' BNF-dom. I hadn't thought a lot about this before, because I had (naively, it seems) assumed that most BNFs set out to be BNFs, or at least at some stage stopped to reflect on their growing status and decided to continue in and embrace that role. While Hope describes the 'plight' of BNFs in extreme terms ('anybody who agrees with you is a minion', 'you must friend everybody who friends you, or you're an inaccessible elitist'), there's more than a grain of truth in these ideas--people DO have high expectations of those that they've ascribed BNF status to. In some ways it comes down to the following scenario:
A is new to fandom and has just got an LJ. A reads a lot of B's fic. A starts posting their own fic/meta/art. A is acutely aware of B's behaviour or non-behaviour towards them--if B comments back, A is happy. If B does not comment back or friend or acknowledge A, there is woe. If B comments back but without very much enthusiasm or only to disagree, there is woe.
It is possible that person B doesn't even know that they've been ascribed BNF status by person A (and X number other people), but that doesn’t prevent A's feelings being hurt.
Hope's essay is tongue-in-cheek. I was particularly amused at the 'secret meeting rooms' section of her essay (I can so easily imagine that scenario developing!). She pokes fun at herself ('Don't write essays on how hard it is to be a BNF') and she acknowledges that it's not all pain being a BNF. But she doesn't offer a solution to the problem of status in fandom. Maybe because there isn't one...
So, Hope's essay got me thinking a lot. Mostly, it just raised a lot of questions for me. Tough questions.
How do you define a BNF?
Wiki defines a Big Name Fan (BNF) as 'a member of a fandom who is particularly well-known, liked and celebrated for their contributions of art, fanfiction, or articles on fandom'. BNF-ness is subjective--it's based on the opinions of others. As the Wiki entry wisely points out, 'one cannot proclaim oneself to be a BNF, as to do so might invite derision or ridicule.' So, you have to wait for others to declare you a BNF. But how do they decide? There's not one accepted definition that all fans use--how could there be? If you said 'a BNF has over 1000 friends on LJ', how would you categorise someone with 400 friends, who the majority of fans in a particularly small fandom have friended? Clearly the definition of a BNF in a big fandom like Harry Potter would be different from those in a small fandom.
How does someone become a BNF?
Clearly there are multiple paths to BNF-dom. You can write fic, you can write meta, you can make art (vids, icons, manips), you can be a hub of social activity, you can run comms and organise new fandom activities, set trends, socialise. Fic and meta, in particular, seem to be traditional paths to BNF-dom. But what about icons? Can you become a BNF by making awesome icons in a particular fandom? Or vids? I think both of those are extremely important contributions to fandom that give people a lot of pleasure. Maybe it's just me, but I haven't often heard these people referred to as BNFs. Perhaps 'Big Name Iconers' or 'Big Name Vidders' would be more appropriate. I'd love someone in one of those fields to let me know their thoughts on this. Am I talking smack? Do you find the BNF tag does get ascribed in your field? Or, if I'm onto something, is it good to be free of the (threat of the) BNF tag?
Regardless of what you do or produce, you have to put in a lot of work to be a BNF. You have to post frequently and produce material that people continue to appreciate. To me, this initially suggested that BNFs set out to become BNFs. This was partly why I found Hope's post enlightening. I realised in reading it that this assumption of mine was illogical--it would be better to assume that there are many approaches to BNF status, as people are very diverse. I still suspect that some people craft their status intentionally (that doesn't make it automatically undeserved), but others may fall into it because they really enjoy writing/posting/creating and before they know it they've got people calling them a BNF.
Is BNF-status portable?
Some BNFs are multi-fandom. I'm fascinated to know what happens when they move fandoms. Do they have to get redefined? Or is their BNF status portable? If Hope's right, maybe it's freeing to move out of a fandom where you've been stuck as The Man. Or maybe it's tiring to have to start over again. Do newly migrated BNFs ever have days where they feel like screaming 'Aaaaghhh! If this had been a fic in my old fandom, I'd have had 100 comments by now!'?
How do you define a Smallville BNF these days?
And then you have the puzzle of Smallville. It's easy to say that we had Big Name Fans, in the early seasons before many fans, BNFs or not, moved on to SGA or elsewhere (no, I'm not complaining, just stating). We're a relatively small bunch today. Do we have BNFs in our little pond? Or do we hold ourselves up to those old-time BNFs and say 'well XX doesn't have as many friends as so-and-so did when she was in Smallville fandom, so XX is not a real BNF'? In a very real sense, we still live in the shadow of those early fans, and we know it. But is it silly to hold them up as a benchmark? Or is it useful? Personally, I think it's partly silly and partly useful, but I'm prepared to be persuaded otherwise!
Why is the term BNF construed as negative?
You would assume that being called a BNF would be flattering. I would argue that it IS flattering--it's saying that you think someone is particularly popular and well-liked in their fandom. However, many people protest at being described as BNFs. Partly this is modesty, partly it may be because the term has come tohave negative connotations. This is even pointed out in the brief Wiki entry: 'Fans report ambivalent feelings towards BNFs. The title BNF also carries a negative connotation of being arrogant and self-important. Accordingly, many people who are deemed BNFs resist using that designation.' Arrogance and self-importance, huh? Not very nice attributes. And not always fairly ascribed to BNFs. But whether or not it's true of an individual, unfortunately the term itself is 'sticky' with these connotations--presumably because a minority of BNFs truly do display these characteristics (not that surprising, seeing as a minority of the general populace display them). While I was writing this essay, enderwiggin24 linked me to this essay, which demonstrates the despair that can be felt about the term. No wonder noone wants to be a BNF these days!
Interestingly, enderwiggin24 also linked me to another post on the history of fandom in which the poster argues that the negative connotations of the term developed when popularity became more measureable--on LJ it's easy to see how many friends someone has, or how many comments they got on their last fic. I thought that was an interesting observation, though I can't verify it as I haven't been around that long.
So it's like being famous?
Yes, I think it is sort of like being famous. Fame has a lot of perks--a big network of friends, access to the parties where all the cool kids hang out, people reminding you of what you've achieved… But it's not all fun. Look at the celebrity magazines--people take vicious delight in watching famous people mess up, famous people embarrass themselves. We justify this because they're deemed 'public' figures, but there's a blurry line, right? Sometimes people seek out fame, other times, they're thrust into it or it becomes too much for them to bear.
The 'little people' versus the BNFs
Yes, I'm broaching the subject--not to stir up hate, but because I think open discussion of the issues would be helpful to mutual fannish understanding. Amid the post-hate-comm fall-out, I've seen several people post or comment saying that they either don't understand the 'little people' concept or they think it's creating divisions and encouraging resentment and hatred to breed. Fair enough. But I do have an idea what is meant by the term 'little people', as it has been used in the recent kerfuffle. As with the term 'BNF' it's easiest to describe the most extreme version of a 'little person': the 'little people' are new people, people with very few friends in a particular fandom, or people who feel unrecognised. Unlike the term, BNF, it's a term that people can ascribe to themselves. So, despite appearances, it feels a bit empowering to use it. Is it divisive? Well, it depends on the usage. It could be used that way, or it could just be a useful term to coin in discussing the power dynamics at play within a certain group (in this case, fandom). Because there are power dynamics. There are 'little people' (or people who see themselves that way). There are BNFs (or people who are referred to that way). But neither status can be measured objectively with any success, and consequently there are vast expansive grey areas in between.
I know you are. But what am I?
Most of us are out there in the grey areas. We're not BNFs, even if we've accumulated a bunch of friends who love and adore us and what we produce. We're not 'little people' (except when we're irked!), because we've been around a while, and our f'lists have grown as a consequence. Occasionally we might invoke the term BNF to describe someone on our f'list in a conveniently neat way, or we may self-effacingly say that we don't expect much feedback on our fics because we're 'not that big' or 'not that well-known'. Maybe, some of us are BNFs in a really small circle, but we wish we could get into that bigger party over *there*! So much grey.
I honestly haven't reflected that much on BNF-dom until the recent dramas. But I'm glad I've done so now, because it's made me more conscious of behaviour in fandom, and how actions can be perceived by others. As we've seen, BNFs are not robots--they have feelings that get hurt. But they're also highly visible, so they're more likely not only to have people like them, but also to have people dislike them. Meanwhile, the 'little people' have feelings too, and (as described in the scenario above), some have already had their feelings hurt by one BNF or another, but feel they can't speak up about it without prompting an even more negative reaction.
What to do about it?
Like Hope, I don't have a lot of answers, though I'm able to sit back and reflect on the condition. At first I was thinking of this as two separate questions 'What can the BNFs do?' and 'What can the little people do?' But I realised in writing this up that that approach was absurd given that most of us fall into those grey areas. What should we all do? That's the more important question. This comes down to making conscious decisions about the way you want to conduct yourself in fandom. Everyone's got to find their own path, and we'll all make our own decisions about how we conduct ourselves. Personally, what I've learnt is that if you want to be a BNF or you want to be treated as the equal of a BNF, you've got to hold your head up high, own your opinions and argue them fairly and openly. You've got to extend courtesy to others and sometimes it pays to let things go. Developing a sleek duck's back façade can be very useful! Don't assume the worst of people--assume the best. Don't judge people too quickly--find out a bit about them first or probe their argument a bit further. And if we want BNF to be a term of praise not abuse then we need to start using it that way.
So. What do you think? How do you define a BNF? Do we all agree on who the BNFs are? Would you like to be one or do you prefer lurking in the grey areas? Do you ever feel disempowered because you're not one? Anyone got interesting anecdotes to share about BNF status (from either side of the fence)? Is Hope just ridiculously paranoid? Am I talking about ghosts that don't exist? I'd honestly love to hear from you. I'm sure some of you have thought way more about this topic than I have!