Everyone who consumes media has been a fan of one thing or another at some point in their life. From an early age, we attach value to the things that give us joy, with some things earning more value than others. Whether it’s preschool edutainment, Saturday morning cartoons, or even premium cable shows, fanbases are just a natural part of the overall experience.

Within fandoms, though, the age-old question of “what is a fan” inevitably arises. Can a person be a  fan of a piece of media if they simply consume it? Do they need to experience all of the supplemental material? What about the spin-offs? The creator’s old notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin? How many times did they experience the thing? Do they know it inside and out? Do they own any merchandise?

Do they own all of the merchandise?

Photo of a large shelf filled with anime DVDs.

In a lot of cliques, the degree of one’s fandom can easily be tied to how much merchandise a person owns. It’s simply not enough to just enjoy the media. Rather, there is an unspoken cash buy-in, whose value is defined by fellow members. In this light, one’s status as a fan is defined less by adoration of a franchise, and more by how much cash a person is willing or able to drop on it.

Really, who were the “biggest fans” when we were growing up? Was it the kid who could name every Pokémon? How about the youngster who caught all 151 on the original Game Boy? While both feats require a degree of dedication and honest love of the Pokémon universe, they aren’t exactly visible from across the playground. Instead, most probably remember that one kid who kept a binder with an entire set of the Trading Card Game cards, or even just the ultra-rare Charizard holofoil.

In the age of social media, this phenomenon has taken on a life of its own. The rise of lifestyle bloggers and influencers has led to an online landscape that’s rife with content creators who – whether they know it or not – are all saying the same thing: “Don’t you wish you could be like me?”

While many associate this idea with fashion and travel personalities, the phenomenon is especially prevalent across geek subcultures. It’s not something that’s typically discussed directly, but its side effects are frighteningly clear.

In 2018, manga publishers took an interest in the art of “Bookstagram.” For the uninitiated, Bookstagram is basically the equivalent of “food porn” for books. Bloggers create intricate backdrops, sometimes with dozens of tiny props, prop a book in front of it, and snap a photo, which they then share to followers on Instagram. It’s a trend that’s big in the “bookish” community of adult bloggers, especially within the manga fandom.

Snapshot of an Instagram post by Viz Media.

Anyway, several manga publishers, including Viz Media, saw Bookstagram as a new frontier for social media marketing. Viz began asking manga fans and bloggers on Instagram – myself among them – for permission to repost their photos. The publisher then started sending free copies of new releases to those they reached out to, not in exchange for reviews of the content on the inside, but in exchange for original Bookstagram style photos of the volumes, themselves.

This lasted for about half a year before Viz started creating their own Bookstagram photos for their new releases, leaving the rest of the community they fostered behind. In addition to learning how to make their own Bookstagram posts, Viz had inadvertently lent a hand to the creation of  a small clique of manga bloggers.

We all talked to each other and became friends. And, when a social network sees a person interacting with a certain group of individuals – and hashtags – it starts to show that individual more and more content related to those subjects.

Ever since those days of photographing comics for my favorite publisher, I’ve seen a lot of manga Instagrammers. As a result, I’ve noticed certain trends and quirks arising within the community. Talking to a few friends within the community helped open my eyes to a few other things, as well.

When it comes to traditional “Instagram models,” the posts that get the most engagement (likes and comments) are those in which the Instagrammer is at their most desirable. They have the best hair, make-up, and clothes. Their apartment is decorated like a Target catalog. They’re often on vacation in exotic locales.

In short, they’re living a life that their audience admires and is subconsciously envious of.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this is far from exclusive to the stereotypes of lifestyle bloggers. Bike bloggers show off the best bikes on the coolest looking trails, car bloggers show off the coolest looking cars, food bloggers show off the most delicious looking meals, and so on.

When it comes to geek media like comics, books, and games, there might not seem to be an analog between showing off the “coolest” of something. What are the most desirable single items in geek culture? A collectors edition or boxed set of something is rarely more than a couple hundred bucks, and VR set-ups are getting more affordable by the day.

Still, this doesn’t mean that influencers don’t exist in geek fandoms. They’re just different. Since it’s hard to wow an audience into subconscious jealousy, geek influencers often go for the “quantity over quality” approach.

Instead of creating Instagram posts that boil down to, “Look how cool this thing is,” we’ve seen the rise of posts that basically proclaim “Look at how many cool things I have.”

With book bloggers – manga included – this becomes apparent with post after post showing off bookshelves stacked to capacity with books upon books. And, sometimes, there are entire walls covered in shelves.

I’ve been focusing on Instagram due to its intrinsically visual nature, but this phenomenon also extends to YouTube. Nobody wants to watch a video where someone stands in front of a blank wall. This leads to comic and book YouTubers filling their bookshelves just to have something behind them. As a result, viewers see their large collections, and subconsciously begin to think “I want that.” That’s to say nothing of haul videos and collection tours, which tend to be more popular than reviews of things the YouTuber already owns.

Much of this phenomenon is subconscious, but it’s easy to find comments in which individuals openly voice their concern that they’re not a “big enough” fan of something if they don’t have an entire spare room filled with merchandise. I’ve seen people embarrassed to post photos of their own collections because it was “too small.” I’ve seen people take breaks from social media because they couldn’t afford to buy all of the manga people are showing off.

My hope in writing this piece is to dispel this toxic notion. Whether or not you are a fan of something cannot be measured by anyone else’s made-up scale, least of all how much you spend on things.

I consider myself a pretty big manga fan. I write about manga, and I read a lot of it, to boot. At the same time, though, I have less than a hundred volumes. I love a lot of traditional shonen series, but they all run for so long that I only keep up to date with one of them. Everything else I collect tends to be shorter, complete series, plus the first volumes of anything I can get a hold of.

Manga fandom isn’t about how much you own; it’s about loving and reading manga. You can do that at the library, or through digital outlets, such as Viz Media’s official Shonen Jump app. It’s cheaper, takes up less space, and in many cases, it’s just easier.

So, next time you question your value as a manga fan because a stranger on Instagram has five full shelves of ninjas and soul reapers and pirates, try to keep in mind that the only thing that matters is that you love manga. If you’re a fan of manga, you just are one. It doesn’t matter how much you own, or how much you spend. Fandom is about having fun with the things you love, regardless of how many things you actually have.