When Fandom Goes Mainstream...

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 détente 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?

To some degree, fandom has already started to lose some of its distinctiveness as a subcultural community. Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic expansion in the amount of fan fiction being produced, for example, with many of the newcomers entering the space not through social interactions with other fans but rather from reading fan fiction online. In some cases, old time fans would argue, some core norms of the fan community have been shredded and old taboos have been violated as these "unsocialized" fans have pulled fan fiction in their own directions. Communities which might have been separated geographically and culturally have been brought together online, resulting in a series of flame wars and feuds over disagreements about how texts should be interpreted or rewritten in a "fannish" way. As many of these reading practices spread further, reaching fans through commercial channels who have had no real direct contact with fandom as a subculture, further changes are likely to occur.

Busse links this shift in what it means to be a fan to what seems destined to become an important conceptual debate in the field of fan studies -- between a focus on fan cultures (which runs through my own work) and the emphasis on the emotional experience of the individual fan (best embodied by Cornel Sandvoss's Fans. Sandvoss seems to want us to return to the idea of the isolated, individual fan at the moment where most of the rest of the world is discovering the power of social networks, embracing an "architecture of participation," and recognizing the importance of the kinds of knowledge communities that have always been central to the concept of a fan culture. Yet, Sandvoss is correct to argue that a great many people who call themselves "fans" have no direct engagement with the larger social community which fandom represents and our research paradigm privileges the most visible and distinctive fans over the more "causal" fans who can be difficult to locate or document. For these people, being a fan becomes a form of media consumption but not necessarily a kind of social affiliation.

This leads Busse to suggest we make some basic distinctions in our discussions of fans and fan culture:

I want to suggest that we distinguish between fan and fandom as well as acknowledge that there are different trajectories that combine into levels of fannishness. In other words, an intense emotional investment in a media text that is wholly singular may create a fan but does not make the individual part of a larger fandom, whereas a person enacting fannish behavior may not define him- or herself as a fan. It thus might be useful to consider the overlapping but not interdependent axes of investment and involvement as two factors that can define fannish engagement. Moreover, we need to consider models that can differentiate between people who are fans of a specific text, those that define themselves as fans per se, and those that are members of fandom.

This last bit seems particularly important to me. From the start, media studies has been most interested, it seems to me, in the study of fans of particular texts. My early work on fans keeps getting described as a study of Trekkers (if I am lucky) and Trekkies (if I am not), even though the idea of nomadic reading was absolutely central to Textual Poachers account of fandom. Whatever Poachers was about, it wasn't about the fans of a single series (Star Trek or otherwise), though I do spend a chapter talking about the fans of Beauty and the Beast and tracing their shifting relationship to the series. Rather, I would have said that the book was much more about a kind of cultural logic which shapes how fans read across a range of different texts and even more importantly, about a specific social and cultural community -- mostly composed of women -- which actively translates the experience of watching television into various forms of cultural production.

My second book on fans, Science Fiction Audiences (written with John Tulloch), suggested that there may be multiple fan communities with their own interpretive and creative practices which grow up around the same series. There, I am focused on Star Trek but try to show a larger context for the differences in the way the series gets read in the technologically-focused community at MIT, in the female fanzine culture, and among the members of the Gaylaxians, a queer fan organization.

Yet, still, my emphasis was on fan communities -- the shared social contexts within which fan reading and creative practices occur -- and not on fans per se. Indeed, most of fan studies has ended up being a study of fandom -- as in the practices and creations of a specific subculture of fans -- rather than the study of fans -- what we assume to be a somewhat larger, socially fragmented, group of people who feel a strong emotional investment in television content but who may never translate that attachment into the kinds of creative and social activities which we study. Sometimes, we get around this distinction by describing the most socially active group as fans and the more causal and isolated individuals as followers but this simply creates a misalignment between academic terms and popular usage.

Busse's essay, then, is dealing in part with how academics conceptualize fandom but I also think she is expressing concern over the mainstreaming of fan culture and I understand her concern. There has been a pretty long history of media producers nuzzling up to fans in the early days of a franchise when they need help attracting an audience or staying on the air and then creating more distance when the show reaches a certain level of commercial success. Fandom as a subculture seems closely associated with the idea of niche success, where-as a mainstream success may depend on a more diffused notion of what it means to be a fan.

Busse writes:

Commercially encouraged modes of engagement that employ modes of fannish identity do not create instafans; moreover, the types of engagement often vary, not only with intensity but also with creativity. In the end, I feel it is important to realize that playing a computer game or looking around a website may not be wholly the same as participating in a fannish gift exchange or contributing to a shared fictional universe.

Yes and No. In some cases, these commercial materials represent a point of entry into other, more elaborate forms of fan activity -- they represent one gateway among many into fandom and it is up to the individual participant whether they are satisfied with playing in the shallow end of the pool or whether they want a deeper immersion into fan culture. In some cases, such as the creation of immersive shared worlds around fictional programs or the deployment of alternative reality games, there may be more creativity and social engagement going on here that Busse is estimating from the vantage point of someone who comes at fan culture from a different point of entry.

There are also important gender distinctions here in terms of what activities count once fandom goes mainstream -- with the commercial industry finding it easier to absorb some of the collector or geeky aspects of male fan culture more easily than it can deal with the issues of emotion and sexuality that run through female produced fan fiction. I am struck in my own work that gender was much more central to Textual Poachers, written at a moment when fans were marginal, than in Convergence Culture, written at a moment when fan culture is more central to the ways the media ecology operates. Does this reflect a lack of segregation of interests in these newer fan cultures or the continued marginalization of interests and tastes that have historically shaped women's participation in fan culture?

We need to continually refine our categories of analysis and this essay makes a great contribution by bringing some of these questions out into the open.

A Few Links of Interest to Aca/Fan Readers

For those of you interested in science fiction...check out the webcast version of my conversation with Joe Haldeman on the Craft of Science Fiction which I publicized here a few weeks ago. I felt like it turned out very well with lots of insights from Haldeman about science fiction's place in contemporary culture and some interesting discussion of the representation of war in his own writing. One of my favorite moments came when he discussed the influence of Ernest Hemmingway on his work -- not exactly a common topic of the SF convention circuit. And he also reads from his forthcoming novel -- a time travel story set at MIT.

For those of you interested in Harry Potter... check out Episode 10 of Spellcast, a podcast created by the fine folks at Fictionalley.org. Gwen does an interview with yours truly about Convergence Culture with a particular focus on fandom and Harry Potter.

A Bit of Metablogging...

I have noted that there has been a decrease of late in the number of comments being posted to this blog despite a continuing increase in the number of people reading it. I have struggled for some time to think about the best way to address this when I spoke to a friend in Live Journal community who said there was some perception that there was no point posting comments here because they were being filtered.

Let me explain what's going on: This blog receives more than a hundred spam messages a day, most of them things that I really don't want going up on my site -- promises to expand the size of the various private bits of our variously gendered anatomies, footage of young women taking full advantage of their local menagerie, or promises of imagines of certain prominent media personalities engaged with what they would call in the world of wrestling, foreign objects. So far, even spam filter I have tried either lets significant numbers of these messages slide through or cuts out many of the most substantive posts and in most cases, both occur. I have moved away from a policy where things go up instantly on the site and then I have to take down all of the porn spam to one where everything goes into hold until I can filter through it manually.

I actually try to do this several times a day though when I travel or am running a conference or... there are days when I may only get to this task once every 24 hours. The only messages in the end, other than the unspeakable spam, that actually get filtered are those which are asking me to fix some bug on the site -- like a bad link (and there I just fix the problem) or those which clearly want to speak with me personally (and I just respond to the person directly).

Otherwise, it is my belief that every message I get is going up on the site within 24 hours of when it is posted. I know that is slower than most Live Journal entries which offer instant gratification but don't seem to face the same volume of spam. (I am told that the amount of spam is connected to the number of links to your site so the spam problem is a product of how successful we've been at generating more productive kinds of conversations. Ironic, isn't it?)

If for some reason your message doesn't go up within 24 hours, please ping me at henry3@mit.edu since I very much want to get your messages out there. We have created a really astonishing community of readers around this blog and I'd like to have you guys talking with each other more often.

I plan to continue to run periodic posts like the Pimp My Show one last week which are intended to generate a lot of traffic from readers but honestly, I'd love to get your reactions -- positive or negative -- to all of the posts here. Almost every given post seems to be generating discussion on other blogs targeted at some subset of the readership and I am grateful for all the shout outs. But it would be great, given the mix of industry folks and fans, for example, who read this blog to have more exchanges among you here. I see these posts as conversation starters, not the last word on the subject. I am not always able to respond personally to every comment but I am trying to use them to guide the content I put up here on the blog and they are extremely helpful to me.