I started thinking about this topic when I saw a tweet.
"ok i want a genuine answer if ur past the age of 25 why are u on twitter?"@emmeneeez
It wasn't fandom-specific, and I had a little jolt when I read it myself. Me, not using Twitter past the age of 25? Do people genuinely think you're shuffled off to a digital retirement home once you hit the ripe-old age of a quarter century?
The funny thing about this tweet is that it's nowhere near the first post I've seen on the subject. The argument pops up most frequently in fandom circles, where people either argue for or against adults participating in fandom. I overwhelmingly fall into the camp that fandom is for both, so normally this is where my brain drops the subject.
But as I read that one tweet—and started seeing the responses pour in—I began to think about the current phenomenon of age-related fandom battles, accelerated by ease of access to the internet. There's a constant tension between younger and older fans in these spaces, with the dividing line usually being over and under 20 years old.
Why do these battles occur? How do they play out on social media when it comes to creative properties? Is there any way to reconcile these two groups? After all, we both love the same things—we're just at distinctly different periods in our lives and often have different priorities.
A Product of the Internet
For anyone who was active in fandom as a teen, the ways in which it helps you navigate your adolescence are hard to describe to someone who has never experienced it. It's a warm blanket that softens the blows from some of the worst stuff that life throws your way. Fandom not only offers you a creative escape, but friends and a unified community at a crucial stage in your mental development:
"This age group has a fundamental need to contribute to others—to provide support, resources or help toward a shared goal," says Professor Fuligni when writing for The Conversation about the psychological complexity of teens. "Contributing helps them achieve autonomy, identity and intimacy—important milestones on the way to adulthood."
Naturally when you're in a nurturing space like this, you can become protective of it. I came into fandom very early, and it allowed me to discover who I was, what I was good at, and what I wanted to be. I didn't want this place tarnished by outside realities, and when you're a teen and you see adults "intruding" on an area that you've claimed for you and your friends, you can get anxious over it. This is something Brianna Wiest talks about in great depth for Teen Vogue, when describing how belonging to a fandom can help you fight off depression.
The Other Side of the Hill
Now that I'm an adult, these realities still ring true but I have a more nuanced opinion on them. After all when you're an adult in fandom, your relationship with it begins to change.
You may be less active with the fandom on a day-to-day basis, but you get heavily involved in content curation and management. Outside of fandom you're usually working. Maybe—if you have a creative side—you're thinking about how you can leverage your fandom interests into a career.
Even if you're less active in fandom on a day-to-day basis, however, you're still "active." You still have fandom friends and pursuits, and you're more comfortable with yourself and who you want to be. You're less likely to be peer-pressured into performing certain sets of social behaviours, which can make you less tolerant of people telling you what you can and cannot do with your free time. This plays directly into fandom battles and inter-generational tension.
When you're an adult in fandom, more often than not you're there because of long-term friendships and a continued love of franchises. You've already got a limited amount of free time, so arguing with people over what ships you can enjoy, what platforms you can post your art on, or what fanfic you can write—all because of your age—can feel like a chore you didn't sign up for. Nor is it one that you want.
On the flip side, adults in fandom can feel like an oppressive force to younger fans. Teens (and young adults in their early twenties) are genuinely trying to find their own space, free from parental or pseudo-parental control. Are older adults in fandom purposely exerting this authoritative force over them? No. But they're more confident and sure of their place in online communities. Butting up against this intractable presence can feel like an invasion of adult sensibilities that tells you to be quiet: that "the grownups are speaking." This leads to intense fandom clashes over shared digital spaces online.
How These Fandom Battles Play Out
Unfortunately these fights usually pop up in franchises that contain both adult and YA (young adult) appeal. Both sides are typically creating content, and the battles that follow use a particular pattern that can escalate all the way up to targeted harassment.
Adults create content for other adults, which gains visibility. The under-twenty set, angry by this visible reminder of people creating adult-oriented content in a shared space, issue a callout to have these over-twenty fans stricken from public spheres.
When faced with this, older fans dismiss or mock them. They keep on creating content, and this utter lack of influence over their age group—and the intractability of adults in their personal and fandom-oriented lives—sends younger fans into a tailspin. They lash out again, and the adults double down. This cycle then continues until it can reach a fevered pitch of doxxing and death threats, as detailed by Sean Z in his article for GeekDad on toxic fandom entitlement.
There's Got to Be a Better Way
I've experienced fandom both as a teen and an adult, so I have a pretty good idea of what they entail. Unless you're a parent or an educator, it's not your job to oversee the under-twenty crowd on your free time, especially in adult-oriented spaces. People need to be mindful of this:
However, you can't be an adult in a fandom space that is clearly marked for children and expect it to cater to you, in the vein of My Little Pony. The onus is on adults to back off and understand that younger folks need room to breathe, and everyone deserves a chance to develop a sense of fulfillment in a creative environment, the same as we did when we were young. It's not "giving up" our space so much as it's making room for those that come after us.
These fights are most intense in purpose-built shared fandoms like Star Wars, where there is both adult and young adult appeal. Neither group wants to leave, so how do we go about fixing this tension? In situations like these, I think it's best to acknowledge that both groups belong equally. Everyone loves the franchise, but despite this love not everyone will have the same lived experiences. Trying to make everyone fit the same mold will only lead to more inter-generational grief.
I also think that when people set up individual "fan groups" within these spaces—18+, for example—that we need to respect them. By having these groups exist alongside one another, and by acknowledging that they can serve different purposes, we can work towards a less toxic online environment.