We don’t talk about it much publicly, but as a society, we frequently measure our success against others in a fairly materialistic fashion. That is, we look at how well we’re doing by comparing our wealth against others in at least passingly similar circumstances. In some cases, it is more overt—I have a cousin who was visiting L.A. a couple years ago and her host kept pointing out who owned which yacht and how much each cost; much is also made of how much money professional athletes sign for. Other times, it’s more a bit more subtle—trying to casually show off that you have the latest phone or newest sports car.

Part of the problem is that, as a society, we don’t have a good yardstick to measure success against. There’s no real way to compare a plumber’s success with a university professor’s with a journalist’s, so we use material wealth since it’s the closest measurable baseline we can find for everyone.

But within a smaller culture—say, a single fandom—we can find other means to weigh a person’s success. It’s what is known as cultural capital. The idea is that every fandom has a variety of things that it collectively values. Depth of knowledge is often a big one. Insider information is another. The more of those a fan can display, the more highly rated they’re likely to be within their fandom. Depending on the particular fandom, other factors weigh in as well. Perhaps the materialism of how many tokens the person has relating to their interest or how much enthusiasm they show.

The challenge here, though, is that there’s no quantifiable way to measure the extent of any fan’s thoughts or behavior. Fans still seem to generate a general understanding and appreciation of one fan’s standing compared to another’s within their fandom. This doesn’t generally translate directly into financial capital (although it can!) but it confers a level of respect and prestige to the individual, which can then extent to them other opportunities. They can, directly or indirectly, help steer the direction the fandom heads and hold sway over other members. Again, this depends somewhat on the size of the particular fandom itself and how it is structured.

It’s worth noting, however, that cultural capital in one fandom doesn’t necessarily translate into another. You could be the world’s foremost expert in Galaxy Quest and hold a very high standing in that fandom, but most fans of BL manga probably couldn’t care less. Of course, the converse is true as well and a BL manga fan has no influence on Galaxy Quest fandom. And unlike financial capital, there’s no exchange bank where you can convert your dollars to euros.

Cultural capital is a rather ephemeral concept and, as I said, there’s no concise method for measuring it. But it does serve an important function in fandoms of all types, and helps to highlight and elevate those with the most influence within that fandom. That’s in part how and why some fandoms have grown larger and more active than others—it’s through the efforts of the biggest fans with the most cultural capital.