From a Cyberspace of Their Own to Television 2.0: An Interview with Rhianon Bury (Part One)

Several months ago, I was contacted by Rhianon Bury, an early contributor to the scholarly research on female online fan communities through her book, A Cyberspace of Their Own, asking me to help her publicize a survey she was conducting on how fans engaged with new delivery platforms for television content. Bury agreed to do an interview for my blog which deals with this new initiative and what it means in terms of her own methodological approaches (an expansion from primarily ethnographic to a more hybrid approach), as well as shifts in the field of fan studies and new media since 2005 when her book first appeared. Like many of us, Bury is finding it hard to separate out the study of media audiences, creative industries, and new media practices, at a time when some aspects of fan culture have become more central to the operations of convergence culture, while, as many recent scholars note, others remain marginalized and in some cases, continue to be fully hidden from outside attention.

You have recently launched an online survey designed to better understand the shift in the media consumption patterns of fans in response to the changing affordances of the new media environment. What kinds of shifts are you hoping to explore?

I am interested in learning more about shifts in both modes of viewing and fan practices afforded by time shifting, streaming, downloading and Web 2.0 technologies. Industry data has provided a starting point for my "Television 2.0" project. According to Nielsen, 38 percent of US households now have DVR/PVRs, up from 33 percent in 2009 and 24.4 percent in 2008 (TVbytheNumbers). In addition to its traditional Live data stream, Nielsen produces two additional streams: Live+SD (same day) and Live+7 (seven days). Although the latter are not significant in setting advertising rates, their effects are starting to be felt in network decision making. Writing in the New York Times, Bill Carter suggests that NBC's The Event was spared early cancellation on the strength of its Live+7 numbers. NBC subsequently ordered a full season, although it remains to be seen whether all will be broadcast given that the live/live+sd numbers continue to fall (Toni Fitzgerald).

A number of recent surveys by marketing research companies attempt to quantify the popularity of viewing of time shifted and online content. Say Media, for example, found that 56 million Americans are "off the grid viewers," 13 percent of whom can be classified as "opt outs" who have no longer watch live TV at all (GigaOM). This matches Strategy Analytics findings that 13 percent of Americans are planning to cancel their cable subscription in the next year. The large majority of "cord cutters" are under 40 and are college educated.

This type of industry data, however, cannot capture the complexity of viewer and fan engagement with multiple screens and platforms. I want to know how much television programming people are watching in front of the television screen, the computer screen and/or on a mobile device. I also want to learn more about what kinds of programming people watch (and rewatch) on which platform(s) and under what circumstances. Television programming is not a homogenous category and viewing is not a homogenous activity.

In terms of media fandom, anecdotally we know social media looms large. Web analytics software can quantify views, hits and clicks of primary and ancillary content on network sites, Hulu, and YouTube. The resulting data, however, tells us very little about the heterogeneity of fandom in terms of the range of practices that fans engage in (or not) and their varying levels of investments and involvement in participatory cultures.

Until now, you have been seen primarily as a qualitative researcher. What has motivated you to adopt a more quantitative approach to this project?

First of all, I am trying to fill what I see as a large gap in the study of fan and participatory cultures. It is of great concern to me that eighteen years after the publication of your very important work, Textual Poachers, no large-scale quantitative academic studies have been conducted. Without valid and reliable data, we cannot make generalizable claims about fan practices. We know fans watch television programming on a variety of platforms, go to cons, participate in online discussion forums, are members of online fan communities, read and write fiction, make vids, live tweet episodes, etc., but we have no idea how widespread these practices actually are among the fan population to use research terminology. Getting a snapshot of this population is not only interesting but critical to establishing a legitimate field of study, at least in the social sciences.

Moreover, unlike my previous research, my starting point is not a particular fandom but rather the individual viewer/fan. There is a tendency among fan scholars to study the fandoms of which they are a part. Methodologically, there's nothing wrong with this choice as long as one is sufficiently reflexive. Such an approach also foregrounds research questions on community and community making. I'm sure we all know people who really enjoy particular television shows but who don't actually do much more than watch the show, talk about it face-to-face, add it to their list of "likes" on Facebook and/or go to the broadcasting network website on occasion.

The Television 2.0 project is actually a mixed methods study. I will be doing not only a quantitative analysis of the data collected in the survey but a qualitative one as well. The second phase will consist of follow up interviews with interested survey respondents, starting (I hope) in early 2011. I still consider myself primarily a qualitative researcher because my interest in measurement is not an end in itself.

You published Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online in 2005 and it reflects research done much earlier than that. What do you see as the biggest changes in online fandom over that time?

It's hard to believe that almost fifteen years have passed since I started working with members of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades (DDEBs). In the preface to Cyberspaces, I recounted first discovering their websites using a lynx browser on Mozilla using a monochrome monitor. I can't even visualize that interface today!

Beyond the obvious technological changes, one of the biggest shifts has been in the gender composition of fan-based cyberspaces. Research on internet access and use shows that gender parity was reached around 2000 in North America. Would the DDEBs be set up as private female-only listservs today? I doubt it, not because listserv technology is obsolete (at least for this purpose), but because the Usenet group ( where the founding members originally met likely would have had far more participation from women, thereby "diluting" the sexist attitudes of more vocal male members of that forum. In other words, the practices engaged in by the majority of members would have created different community standards or norms.

More significantly, online X-Files fandom would not have been concentrated in one space. A range of alternatives would have been available: discussion forums on Fox and Television Without Pity; LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, particularly for fan fiction writers and vidders; Second Life and Facebook. Fans who had felt personal affinities with others on the various forums they visited would have become personal Facebook friends. Earlier this year, I reconnected with some of my research participants from the DDEBs on Facebook, which has been fun. And just this week, I read the status update from one of the members of the original DDEB indicating that she has created a private Facebook group for the community.

A second major shift that I would like to mention is related to the production of television's secondary texts or paratexts. There was been a lot of "industry creep" into the areas that were once exclusively the domain of fans. Most networks host discussion boards and produce a range of ancillary content for their series websites, including quizzes, polls, games, as well as facebook pages and twitter feeds. The reasons for this move are obvious: fans are also consumers and media content producers want to foster fan loyalties to their brand. Combine easily accessible sites with the power of Google and YouTube, the latter which allows for far wider distribution of fan vids than in the past, and the result is a multiplicity of entry points into fandom.

Rhiannon Bury is an Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada's Open University. Her research interests include communication technologies, identity and community, and media fan culture. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own, was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently collecting data for her Television 2.0 project. To take the survey, visit here. Check out her blog.