Most of us don’t think too much about “being popular” once we are out of college — or even out of high school, for the more enlightened of us (can’t say I was one of those). Maybe this is why highschool!AUs hit so hard with people, because very few times in our lives are our needs and desires so close to the surface of our personalities. After all, adults aren’t supposed to be worried about popularity contests, but rather important things like career success, paying the bills, raising healthy children, and ecology.
As an author, it’s important to me that I am popular. And by that I mean, the whole package of my books and who I am as a writer and, yes, as a brand. It’s weird to think of it that way, and it does make me feel kind of immature (“oooo like me! Like me!”). Looking at writers such as LKH or JKR doesn’t really provide much guidance outside of the ever practical necessity to “write good books that people enjoy.” We like to think that will be enough, and for the one in a million like JKR, it will be.
The rest of us, though, are fighting in the streets for name recognition, which is to say, for popularity. All the “strategic” marketing advice you read about having a social presence really, honestly boils down to “how to be popular on the interwebz.” I mean, I’ve been reading that same advice, with different accouterments, since I was an adolescent. (Honestly, what other reason did I have to read Seventeen magazine? Exactly zero, I assure you.)
Ironically, I’ve found the best guidance about popularity from the community that generally disdains self-aggrandizement and self-promotion: fandom.
Honestly I think that’s part of the secret. Trying too hard is never attractive in any situation, and the authors I see whose twitter feeds are 95% links to reviews of their books and book promotion offers gives me the same uncomfortable feeling as fanfic authors who constantly link to their own stories. In fact, self promotion is generally considered a no-no in fandom. People do it but they are usually apologetic about it, or they are doing it because they are tied into something bigger like an exchange or challenge. Quite simply, a fanfic author or artist whose tumblr is filled almost entirely with links to their work will rarely gain much traction. You might think artists are an exception to this but really they break down into two categories: artists who post work irregularly and spend the rest of their social interactions on relating to people to directly (live blogging a show they are watching, for instance); or they post art daily but many of their posts are responses to requests, asks, and reblogs.
There are breakthrough fans whose work is so good or unique that they gain a ton of followers just based on that, which is what I call the JKR phenomenon. We all hope for that, but that’s not what I’m talking about here because that’s more a situation of luck (note I didn’t say talent — there are popular fanfic writers whose work is flat out terrible, but still popular. Talent helps but isn’t a requirement). What I’m talking about here are BNFs (Big Name Fans).
The BNF phenomenon is particularly curious, because no one, absolutely no one, admits to being a BNF. No matter how undeniably popular they are and how many fans they themselves have, most BNFs “aw shucks” their way through a denial of their status. Because of the inherently non-hierarchical nature of fandom, it seems in bad form for anyone to step up and say, “yeah, I’m a BNF, deal!” I’m sure some have, but I’ve never seen it, not in tiny fandoms and not in large fandoms.
But without a doubt, some fans are more popular among their peers than others, and some people will do damn near anything to get a piece of that. (Plagiarism is one tactic seen too often in fanfiction circles, but that’s hardly the only stunt a desperate fan has pulled to try and stake a name for themselves in a fandom. It’s pretty sad.)
Any position of power is open to be coveted and abused, as well as suffer from jealousy and mean-spiritedness. It’s also easy to find BNFs who flounced, or helmed wank wars, or generally created an atmosphere of hostility in a fandom.
But more commonly, you’ll see people who have been hard at work for years doing something time intensive just to keep the fandom alive. In older, lesser known fandoms there have been times when “the fandom” was literally less than 20 people on a yahoo group, waiting for the world to catch up and remember how awesome their show/movie/book is. BNFs are popular and well loved (even when they aren’t really very good people, which does happen) because of the service they’ve given to the fandom.
Which is what fandom has taught me about popularity: the best kind of popularity, and the most meaningful, is the popularity born out of service to others. Great fan artists and writers come and go with the winds of fickle affection, and while they might even make a mark that will be talked about in that fandom for years afterward the people who have really earned the title of “BNF” — the popular kids, so to speak — are the ones who display a combination of selfless devotion to the cause and strong staying power.
This isn’t an internet phenomenon. I came up in fandom in the “old” days of the 1980s when fanfiction carried less respect than your average street pimp. The old school BNFs were the ones who maintained popular zines and fan clubs (yes really, fan clubs, they were a very necessary thing before the internet happened) and the new BNFs are…not that different. They run comms on LJ, and they are in charge of fic exchanges/kink memes/challenges, and on tumblr they lead flocks of followers through the crazy, wonderful world of fandom. They are, in short, the leaders of fandom. Their opinions matter to a lot of people, and their work — whether organizational or creative — is celebrated.
Popularity is an uncertain thing, but what fandom has taught me is that angling for it through constant self-promotion doesn’t earn respect or followers, no matter how good your “product” is. The root of popularity is buried deep in the community it is a part of, and only thrives and grows when we give as good as we get.