The most recent issue of Flow includes a range of different responses to the Flow conference, which I referenced here a few weeks ago. One of the articles would seem to be of particular interest to readers of this blog, because it refers to the panel on “Watching Television Off-Television” which I helped to organize, because it addresses the shifting nature of fan engagement with contemporary media, and because it was written by Kristina Busse (co-editor of the book, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which was previously discussed here).
Previously I have contrasted the context in which I wrote Textual Poachers (a world where fan culture was largely marginalized and hidden from view) and the context described in Convergence Culture (a world where fan participations are increasingly central to the production decisions shaping the current media landscape).
Busse’s question, though, is whether we are really talking about the same fan culture in the two instances. Here’s part of what she has to say:
Throughout the panel “Watching Television Off-Television,” the emphasis was on how such behavior has become mainstream: casual media users now can engage with a universe that exceeds the television show via cross-media, cross-platform texts, thus creating a synergistic “overflow” experience. Thus, Jason Mittell offered the examples of Alternate Reality Games and additional online-only available footage, Will Brooker presented various fully immersive web sites that invite viewers into the shows’ diegetic spaces, and Henry Jenkins commented on the current ease of streaming or downloading television shows. The mainstreaming of fannish behaviors is thus seen as advantageous even if (or maybe even because?) the industry clearly attempts to create such behavioral patterns in order to sell their products and/or supplementary materials….My central question is: How alike or different is such a commercially constructed position when compared to the space media fans have traditionally eked out for themselves?
At least some fans have gained power and influence in the context of convergence culture. As I suggested here the other week, there are more fan friendly shows on the schedule. Shows which attract strong fan interests have a somewhat stronger chance of surviving. Producers interested in engaging with fans are generating more additional material which expands the fictional universe. We are seeing a thawing of the relations between media producers and fans as the studios are reassessing their attitudes towards even some of the more controversial aspects of fan culture. (We saw some signs of this dÃ©tente during the Fan Culture panel at the Future of Entertainment conference.) And fannish modes of engagement with popular texts are spreading at a dramatic rate across more and more segments of the population.
And that’s part of what concerns Busse:
What ultimately separates “fans” from casual TV viewers who engage fannishly? Or, more specifically, how can we define fans without invoking a category so expansive that it includes all media audiences or one so narrow that it excludes large numbers of individualist fans? How can we create a continuum that acknowledges the more intense emotional and actual engagements of many TV viewers today without erasing the strong community structures which have developed through media fandom?
What gets lost as some of these fannish values and reading practices spread across the entire viewing public? Is there still a value in understanding fandom as a distinct subculture with its own cultural hierarchies and aesthetic norms, its own forms of social engagement, its own traditions of interpretation, its own system of genres for cultural production, and perhaps its own gender politics? Is this just another case of a subculture fearing a loss of “authenticity” as it moves into the mainstream? Or read from another angle, what happens to fan studies when it moves from the study of subcultural practices to the study of dominant or at least widespread forms of media consumption?