We're now reaching a point in anime fandom where the distinction between the casual fan and the hardcore fan, the collector, is more pronounced than ever. A lot of this revolves around the industry finally reaching a point where a great many titles are available as streaming, on-demand, or legit downloads: for a few bucks a month, you have access to a far broader range of material than ever before. $120 box sets are still available, but they are by no means the only way in; you no longer have to buy all-in to fandom to experience it. And in the long run, that might be healthier for fandom as a whole, because it means the strength of one's fandom doesn't have to be gauged against ostentatious displays of consumption.
By no means do I have the cleanest hands in this particular discussion. Sitting only a few feet away on a shelf behind me as I type this are a number of gloriously overpriced box sets and import editions. I can't tell you how many times I myself have bought into the idea that a spendy fandom equals a devoted fandom, and that the greater the spend, the greater the devotion, even when I know it's manifestly not true. But there are too many opportunities for a fan, great or small, well-moneyed or not, to believe it's true.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times recently wrote about the issue of ostentatious displays of wealth among those with a lot of it to flash around. One of the revelations he had about this behavior was that it wasn't really about enjoying what you had for its own sake — at least in the sense that most of us have about the term "enjoyment". If you have thirty-seven cars, you can only drive one of them at a time; it's not like you have thirty-seven times the amount of Farfegnügen, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Those who can afford such a massively appointed garage, though, don't think of it in terms of driving all those cars; they think of it in terms of having all those cars, of showing that they have all those cars. The flaunting of the wealth becomes its own pleasure, one all the more removed from the thing being flaunted the more you do it.
I don't think such behavior is limited to those with tons of money. It's not about the money; rather, it's about the social circumstances. Anyone who's got a few inches of shelf space, some disposable income, and a receptive audience of fellow fans, can succumb to it.
Fandom isn't a pricetag
None of this is to say that everyone who buys the retailer-exclusive collectible-tin version of something with the obi and the cellphone strap is automatically exhibiting such behavior. It's not the behavior alone that matters but the motives behind it. It's hard sometimes to tell if you want something because of what it means to you (what you are when the doors are closed), rather than what it means to your self-image (what you are when others are looking, even others you like and trust).
Fandom is social. It's possible to be a fan in a vacuum, but the experience you get is so unlike what happens when you're around fellow fans that we might as well call it by a different name entirely. A show watched on your own isn't anywhere nearly as fun as one watched with others, discussed with others, savored with others. Likewise, the market for anime collectibles takes on a very different flavor when it's about making an impression, rather than making you happy.
But under that, I think, is another, even subtler problem: the idea that the depth of one's devotion to something, whether as judged by others or by one's self, is proportional to the amount of money spent and the kind of goods acquired. If someone really loves something, the thinking goes, wouldn't they scrimp and save to get their hands on it? Isn't that kind of devotion as real as it gets?
Me, I don't believe that "true fandom" can be gauged by how much money a person spends on something, or what form they acquire it in. A fan is not necessarily more of a fan, let alone a better one, because he bought the $89.95 Amazon.com-exclusive edition of something instead of the bog-standard $49.95 version. He's just a fan with more money to spend.
Fandom is about sincere expressions of love for something, and that sincerity — and expression — can take many forms. I don't think a fan is any less a fan because he prefers to consume his favorite shows as a stream from a (legal) video service, instead of shelling out $120 for a half-season box set from Japan. (I do think any fan who considers piracy an expression of his love for something is kidding himself, but that's another discussion altogether.)
On confusing consumption with devotion
Maybe discussing fandom in a quantitative way is the real problem, because of the way we have a hard time assessing of someone is "more" or "less" of a fan of something based on little more than their outwards behavior. How much of it do they watch, and how many times? Which collectibles, and how prominently displayed? Cosplay? Panel attendance? And so on. A person can engage in a great many of those things more for the sake of the company being kept than because of a true natural interest in the material. But this is not something anyone else can deduce. This is something a given person has to suss out on their own, for themselves.
Doing something for the sake of the company being kept isn't by itself a bad thing. It's when that becomes a kind of contest with one's self or with others — when it leads to people saying things like, "I'm not much of a fan of X if I don't do Y," sometimes to others, but mainly to themselves, and not always in a way that follows such wording. Framed that bluntly, most of us laugh off such things as exaggerations or absurdities. Then we find ourselves actually spending that $120 for something that'll sit on a shelf when the $35 version will do just fine — or when a $5 rental would be just as effective — and justifying that because we're "fans".
We rank the dedication of others based on their outwards behavior because that seems like the only logical way to do it — after all, we can't read people's minds. But I think we ought to be conscious of how it can be misleading. What matters most is sincerity, and that's not something easily measured from the outside. Sincerity has to be something we each wake up to on our own.
If all this amounts to a call to action in any way, it's for people to scrutinize their own motives when it comes to going the deluxe route with a given fandom. It's too easy to confuse consumption with devotion.