| Arts & Culture
Television ‘Lost’ Fans Gave Me a Safe Place on the Internet. Is Such Fandom Possible Now?
Fan culture’s veer into the mainstream saw it lose its sense of protection and gain an abundance of entitlement, even cruelty.
It started when my grandfather died.
He spent the last fifteen years sending me lengthy emails, ranging in tone from I’m going to tell you all about this obscure historical fact in three thousand easy words , to I miss you, here are a few memories from when I loved you the most. After he died in December 2021, I vowed to save all his emails in a single document. By February, I realized I was missing four or five years of correspondence, so I went looking for an old Hotmail account from 2010. This was a harrowing exercise. I knew that I would find hundreds of sweet letters from my grandad but also unearth the relics of a teenage self I’d since tried very hard to bury in the internet quicksands.
Scattered between embarrassing Facebook messages and LiveJournal entries I’ll take to my grave, I came across something I wasn’t expecting:
“you haven’t logged into fanforum.com in a while”
“you have a new message on fanforum.com”
“please reset your fanforum.com password”
I hadn’t thought about FanForum for the better part of a decade, but seeing those words brought me right back. On a nondescript March evening, I stumbled upon a version of my past self I presumed lost to the internet gods, a part that years of therapy hadn’t even begun to excavate. It was right there, waiting for me to remember.
A quick password change and I was in. My avatar was still the same as it was in 2011, when I had last logged on. All my favorite subforums, the ones on which I spent most of my high school years, had shuttered in 2015, but they lived on within the “archived forums” sections of their respective sites. How bittersweet that they, and my teenage self, were right there in my currently open tabs, but also gone forever.
I taught myself English during what I think was the golden age of television: the mid 2000s. As a ’90s kid growing up in Milan, Italy, I watched The O.C. and Gilmore Girls and One Tree Hill . Back when I had all the time in the world, I watched everything I could get my hands on in the original language. Sometimes, I’d get through an Italian-dubbed episode and then switch to English to watch it again, to make sure I understood and learn a new word or phrase. For example: “Even the most intractable mistake beats the hell out of never trying” from Grey’s Anatomy , which I memorized once I realized it had nothing to do with actual hell. For hours on end, I sat on the living room couch and repeated lines back to myself without understanding a word of them, just to see what they felt like in my mouth. Unbeknownst to my parents, I DVR’d the scandalous Nip/Tuck and watched that, too, but had the good sense never to repeat those lines out loud.
My great obsession, though, was Lost , a supernatural/sci-fi megahit consistently hailed by critics as one of the greatest television series of all time. Lost follows the survivors of a plane crash as they learn to adapt to life (and death) on a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean. The show ran from 2004 to 2010 and was at least partially responsible for making an outright star of director and producer J. J. Abrams, of subsequent Star Wars fame.
At twelve, I was too young to watch season one; once season two came around a year later, I never missed a single episode. The central theme of the show is told through the episodic struggle between factions of the islanders who yearn for rescue and those who believe the plane crash was destiny (and the island itself) leading them to their life’s purpose. At thirteen, I had no real notion of what that meant—the question of fate versus willpower—but I knew enough to be fascinated. And hooked.
I wasn’t alone in my obsession. Viewers became so invested that the show’s creators started pioneering new mediums of engaging with fans: webisodes, alternate-reality games, even podcasts in their very infancy. (For some perspective, Lost premiered two years before Twitter launched; five months after the series finale, Instagram made its debut.) Existing at the intersection of traditional appointment TV and modern fandom, which thrives on fan-driven content and internet communities, Lost was a true product of its time—and the perfect rabbit hole to get lost in (for the fans, pun absolutely intended) for a lonely teenager desperate to believe in something bigger than herself.
Until the age of ten, I attended a Montessori school, where there were nine of us in my grade. At such a school, everybody is friends with everybody; children are encouraged to follow their instincts and believe in their creativity. It was an incredibly fortunate formative experience, but it was a real shock when I transferred to a public school and discovered the degree to which I’d been sheltered. Suddenly, I felt insecure and isolated: Creativity was discouraged in favor of standardized testing; making friends within a larger group was hard and completely new to me; my crush on a fellow classmate was not reciprocated, but I did get mercilessly mocked for it. I often spent weekends alone and wondered when, if ever, life was going to start making sense to me.
The islanders were searching for their life’s purpose. Even at a young age, so was I.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed access to technology. My parents didn’t let me watch TV until the age of eleven, and I never owned any of the gadgets my peers seemed to love so much — no Game Boy, no PlayStation, no Sims, no Wii. Once the internet came around, though, everything changed. At fourteen, I could use the family computer for a few hours a day, claiming to need the Wi-Fi for school projects; instead, I spent all my time downloading music from eMule, watching music videos on a rudimentary YouTube, and browsing forums.
For a kid who spent most of her life feeling isolated, internet forums were a window onto a magical world. It was the mid-to-late 2000s, and a degree of newness and anonymity made the budding online experience a revelatory one, apt for exploration and discovery. I relished the fact that no one really knew me for who I was. I was free to reinvent myself in ways I never could in the city I’d grown up in, with its small-town feel, where shedding parts of your identity to reveal your true self is made impossible by the fact that everybody knows each other and no one ever forgets who you once might have been.
While a life lived online is by definition artificial—as in, made by humans rather than occurring naturally—and its language theatrical (“omg i’m dead! literally rolling on the floor laughing!”), very little of it was performative. There was simply no point to contrived performance: Forums were communities for the sake of community, not content, ad space, or views and likes. The point was, astoundingly, to have fun and illuminate parts of yourself along the way. Even though it seems impossible now—an age when all of us might have “followers”—such spaces really did exist. And they were a lifeline to me and my peers.
We had inside jokes, celebrations, and fan videos I still remember frame by frame because I watched them ad infinitum instead of paying attention in math class, with my iPod propped against the books on my desk and wired headphones hidden through my sweater sleeves. I recently rediscovered a Spotify playlist titled “00s hits” and was stunned to realize I still remembered all the words to Daughtry’s “Over You” even though I hadn’t listened to it in fifteen years. How could that be? Oh, right. My favorite Jate video—the ship name for Jack and Kate, Lost ’s main couple, and, yes, I was obsessed with them—was set to the Daughtry song, and I must have watched it a thousand times. How very 2007.
We had a language of our own: For example, TFTNT meant “thank you for the new thread”; after a certain number of posts, you needed to open a new thread, and whoever got to it first got the group’s stamp of approval. We had fan art interspersed with quotes from the show in our “signatures,” a line of text and images that displayed with our every post. Some profiles boasted “elite fan” or “fan hero” status, with seventy thousand posts written—and counting. But you also had “lurkers,” people who read everything but never actually commented.
Forums were communities for the sake of community, not content, ad space, or views and likes.
For a long time, I was one of them. I was still learning English, and I was scared I’d be ridiculed if I made a silly grammar mistake or spelled a word incorrectly. I got enough ridicule during school hours—for my unrequited crush, my teenage skin problems, my love of pop music rather than the über-cool dad rock preferred by my classmates. Even my English studies were somehow worthy of derision: My dedication was seen as a try-hard effort, and my jumbled accent, influenced by the American shows I watched, affected pretense. I desperately needed FanForum to be a safe space to display my fiery enthusiasm, my teenage love for the characters, songs, and moments shaping me, without fear or repercussions.
And it was. Once I got over my fear of looking stupid online, I made plenty of mistakes, but they were always and only met with kindness. I got more emboldened with time and relished the act of composing long-winded sentences littered with mistakes if it meant I could take part in the fun of examining the latest mysteries and fan theories, or sharing the excitement of a new episode drop.
Lost is a complicated show, and I often needed help understanding its more puzzling aspects. Can you imagine a non-native English speaker trying to follow plot points like “turning the fail-safe key is what made the flashes of the future possible because of the intense electromagnetic exposure?” Granted, even straightforward interactions sent me into a tailspin: A simple, if flawed, “so sorry for the bother, anyone has the trailer’s link for the episode which will happen next week?” would have taken me thirty minutes to compose. But the answer was always “not a bother at all, darling” or “do you want me to send a transcript?” and again, “it’s slang, that’s why that character is hard to follow—what scenes are you having trouble with?”
I only spoke a little English at twelve, but by the time I turned sixteen, I was fully fluent and had long stopped needing Italian subtitles. I simply wouldn’t be able to work and write in English and live the way I do now if it weren’t for TV shows, forums, and the kind strangers online who corrected my mistakes all through 2009. That’s nothing short of an internet miracle.
I remember what a joy it was to be online in 2009. How easy, how freeing, how safe.
Thinking about it now, I realize I haven’t felt that level of comfort on the internet ever since. After FanForum came Tumblr, which I loved for all the wrong reasons: It made me believe listening to Lana Del Rey meant I was an alternative kid, promoted anorexic #thinspo blogs, and introduced me to the world of trolls.
That was followed by the rise of Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, which — well, a lot can be said about modern social media platforms, but safe and comfortable isn’t exactly how I’d describe them. FanForum, though, or at least my version of it, was a place where obsessive nerds like me could come together and cry or laugh or yell about their favorite things—sometimes all at once. There were ship wars (heated disagreements between fans who liked a character and those who preferred a different one, each convinced that their favorite should end up with the main girl), but everyone mostly kept to their threads and left other fans alone.
Psychologists think belonging to a fandom is good for your mental health as well as “ a significant predictor of increased happiness, self-esteem and social connectedness .” Studies highlight the strong connection fans feel with their communities and how this serves as a buffer against the decline of traditional social and local ties and the alienation that comes with it. But for me, fandom was much more. It was a survival tool, the closest thing I had to a real community, and the best thing that could have happened to my lonely teenage self who never felt like she belonged.
The question is: Could the same thing happen now?
Google Trends tells us “fandom” wasn’t a topic of general interest in 2009 , and Vox reports that “ for better or for worse, fandom went mainstream in the 2010s ,” which is easy to gauge from the rise of the Marvel and DC universes, the K-pop phenomenon, and even the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey , which originated as Twilight fanfiction. But for all its cultural currency, fan culture’s veer into the mainstream saw it lose its sense of protection and gain an abundance of entitlement, even cruelty.
Stan Twitter, a huge corner of the platform dedicated to celebrities and their fans (or stans , after the Eminem song ), abounds with the type of content you could find on FanForum back in the day, such as fan art, videos, and fan fiction. But it is also a much-publicized toxic space ; thanks to social media, fans can develop parasocial relationships with celebrities and content creators, thus becoming overly attached to people they’ve never met but consider their close friends, or even an extension of their identity. This imbalance can lead to aggression, unhealthy obsession, and dependency : Twitter stans are often found attacking artists they do not like, bullying other fans, and defending the object of their affection to extreme lengths, including sending death threats to anyone criticizing them.
Noncelebrities bear the brunt of this too: One unwanted consequence of responsive marketing in television , which aims to feed fans’ interest with particular storylines or actors’ social media presence, is a false perception in which viewers feel a sense of control over the decisions of a showrunner. Pretty Little Liars ’s I. Marlene King received actual death threats from fans displeased with the show’s finale, and the same regularly happened to Vampire Diaries creator Julie Plec . Fellow fans are also impacted, because with increased interest in each character and storyline comes increased polarization, which social media caters to in entirely new ways: Fans will attack each other to prove they’re the ultimate superfan, act possessive over the show, and exclude from their internet echo chambers anyone who doesn’t meet their moral standards.
If Lost came out in 2022, where on the internet would I fit in as a fan? Would I find the same type of community that existed on FanForum were I to make a fan account on Instagram? Or perhaps a public Slack workspace, with a different channel for each season of the show? In order to find other fans, or catch up on the latest spoilers, I’d probably still have to use Twitter. Perhaps I would be the one posting mean replies under every tweet by its showrunners.
I feel grateful I will never have to find out. But I’m also mournful that, with the internet still as young as it is, we have already managed to destroy one of its greatest promises: safe, virtual communities, untethered from the harshness of reality.
[Nowadays,] fans will attack each other to prove they’re the ultimate superfan and exclude from their internet echo chambers anyone who doesn’t meet their moral standards.
After six record-breaking seasons, Lost ended its run on May 23, 2010. I stayed up to watch the finale live, at two in the morning in Italy; just a few hours later, I cried all the way to school and back. I recently found a box with all my journals from that time, and I flipped through until I found the exact page that would change the course of my life. A March 24, 2010, entry reads: “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to become an actress so I can make people feel the way Lost made me feel.”
Three years later, I walked through the streets of Primrose Hill in North London with a stupid grin on my face, feeling freer than I ever had. “Congratulations, you’ve been offered a place at drama school,” read an email on my phone. “You’re moving to London.” Welcome to the beginning of the rest of your life.
Sure, perhaps I was always going to move to England and become an actress. Even without fandom and the joys of the internet, I might still have found a different way out of the deepest valleys of my depression. I have no way of knowing which way my life could have gone. What I do know is that at fifteen, I was convinced I was wasting the best years of my life on virtual message boards. Instead, I somehow stumbled upon my greatest fortune: a new language to open my horizons; a sense of what the internet could become and how to navigate it; the ability to make friends online; the willpower to survive my darkest, bluest moments.
Sometimes I resent my younger self for not trying harder, not getting out of her comfort zone more, not meeting IRL friends or even a boyfriend. But I am learning to be compassionate toward her and, in turn, my painful journey to making peace with the past. The truth is, I first found online forums because I needed an escape from real life. But I stayed because I saw what they could do for someone like me. They made me feel less alone. They made imagining a life outside my hometown, my high school walls, and my day-to-day misery possible. Much has been said about the relationship between media use and escapism in the context of a too-painful reality , but realizing how falling in love with a TV show altered the course of my life still takes my breath away. What a time. What a gift.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that my thirteen-year-old self had very little notion of concepts like destiny or fate, but Lost made sure to teach me. And it made sure I never forgot.