One of the things that I enjoyed most about the old SF magazines (the “Pulps”) was the letters sent in by readers. Have a look through any magazines from (say) the 1940s or 1950s and you’ll find missives from fans of all descriptions, including some names that would later become big-name authors in the SF field. But the one thing you’ll really notice is the feeling of community, of “togetherness”.
Those letters pages were a forum, THE place where SF fandom got together and discussed not only the stories from previous issues, but also other things in SF that were important to them. These letters pages were the place where SF fans hung out together in between conventions, and they played a vital part in creating and nurturing SF fandom as we know it.
With the arrival of widespread internet access, we should have expected a similar process to occur online, but on a much greater scale. Huge numbers of fans could potentially get together in a vast online virtual fandom, with near-instantaneous communication provided by online chat facilities, and email and forums allowing fans everywhere to maintain constant contact and discussions on a global scale that would’ve been impossible in the old magazines.
So why hasn’t it happened? Sure, fans do maintain contact by email and chats, do talk in forums, and do visit SF websites. But not on the scale we would’ve expected. And not in any overall cohesive manner. It’s all fragmented and small-scale, some websites here and there, a few scattered watering holes on Usenet and in forums on the likes of Compuserve, Yahoo and Delphi. Where is the vast global SF fandom that the internet should’ve spawned, the single huge online SF forum where every SF fan could hang out?
And where is the feeling of “family” and “togetherness” that so distinguished the letters pages in the SF magazines? It just isn’t there. Instead of the single collective “meeting place” or “virtual tavern”, the internet seems to be used more as an enhanced form of snail mail or telephone communication connecting lots of little separate communities and sites run by individuals. It’s all so long-distance and stand-offish.
It seems that, while the internet provides the potential for this theoretical vast collective global SF fan network, in reality it has turned out to be something else altogether – a disparate collection of small groups and individuals, all doing their own thing, although with the ability to communicate with or visit other such groups. Instead of a single vast collective fandom, everybody together, all of these little groups and individuals keep their distance, setting up their own little patch on the internet, and only commune with the rest of online SF fandom if they feel the need (which most rarely do).
I know that the internet has changed my life, and, like a junkie hooked on heroine, there’s no way I could survive without my daily fix. But frankly, compared to my fantasy of a single vast virtual SF fandom, I find the reality distinctly disappointing…