Nearly every fandom is a pretty loosely knit group. Even those that have formal fan clubs associated with them aren’t all-inclusive. After all, since identifying yourself as a fan is generally sufficient to be considered part of the fandom, whether or not you are literally a card-carrying member has no relevance on your devotion to whatever it is you’re a fan of. Which begs the question, if there’s no formal organization to belong to, who’s in charge?

Well, that’s a misleading question, really. With no formal organiztion, there is no leadership per se. True, all the members follow the band (or artist or character or whatever) but there’s no rule structure that puts any one person in charge of another. The fans take their cues from whoever they’re following, but there’s (generally) no directives being passed along. The real question then becomes: who are the authority figures in a fandom? That is, who do the majority of fans look to for direction of the overall group?

In a sense, it boils down to who has the most cultural capital within the group. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skills and wisdom someone has and is regarded as having value. The notion was originally codified by Pierre Bourdieu in 1973 and, while he initially limited it to “high art”, the concept was soon broadened to be applicable more or less universally. In terms of fandom, it largely addresses the people who are shown to be the most familiar and intimate with the details of their fannish interest. Who is most familiar with the full back story, who has the most up-to-date news, who demonstrates the best understanding to make previously unseen connections and influences.

I should stop a moment to emphasize the word “demonstrates.” One of the key points about cultural capital is not that an individual simply has those knowledge, skills and wisdom I referenced earlier; they must also be able to demonstrate that to other fans. In order for cultural capital to be earned, it must be witnesses by others. Simply knowing a great deal about a band (again, or an artist or character or whatever) would be enough to qualify someone as a fan, but unless others are able to appreciate that knowledge, there’s no reason to believe they know more.

This is, I believe, at least partially where things like the “fake geek girl” ideas come from. There’s a desire to prove one’s fandom is deeper than someone else’s—that they are the greater authority—and so they quiz others on increasingly esoteric points of trivia. They fear a loss of their own cultural capital and set out to prove their own worth. There’s a fear that they are no longer in control of their fandom, and aggressively seek out proof otherwise by forcing their knowledge on others.

What they often fail to realize, however, is that their fandom is not unique. Whatever you’re a fan of, and whatever fandom club you’re in, there’s another similar group somewhere else. Maybe on the other side of the city, maybe on the other side of the country. But the fandom community you’re a member of is inherently local, and there will be others that spring up. Those others might not care about your cultural capital if you’re a jerk about it, and you might find yourself in a fan club of just one as everyone else migrates to a friendlier setting.