As an undergraduate student, studying a course in Journalism, Film & Broadcasting because I thought I wanted to be a journalist, I remember the moment I realised that Fan Studies existed and that it was something I wanted to do. I was taking an undergraduate course, taught by Matt Hills, and after the very first session headed to the University library to take out the “classic” texts; Textual Poachers, Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women, and the edited collection on The Adoring Audience. From this point, in my second year of undergrad study, I had a sense that I wanted to become an academic and that I wanted to study fans. I wanted to see people like me be represented in the field and to work to better understand the often complex connections that we have to different objects.
My trajectory was a fairly linear academic one in the UK. I went from a BA to a Masters-level course, then straight into my PhD where I was keen to look at how fans across different fandoms shared practices and modes of identification and communication. At that point, and I’d argue still, fan studies has tended to be relatively monolithic and remains guilty of often looking at single objects or communities in isolation. Whilst some work has started to look at ideas such as ‘cyclical fandom’ and I’ve considered the concept of ‘interloping fans’ moving into fandoms that are adjacent to a central text, I’d like to see more understanding of how people move across fandoms, and how they move in and out of these in different ways.
My PhD thesis focused on fandoms around three different TV genres – drama, soap opera, and reality television and found that systems of cultural value and hierarchy and discussions of self-identity and narrative were common across each. The work I’ve really focused on since, however, was originally a small part of the study – it just so happened as I was researching fans of The West Wing that the series was cancelled. This opened up a quite unique chance to research fannish responses before, during, and after the cancellation. This was also something that, at the time, was relatively under-researched and which I chose to focus on in my subsequent research. The idea of post-object fandom, looking at what happens to fans and fandoms after the objects of their affection cease to produce new works, has allowed me to really chart the complex ways in which fandom and identity and narrative intersect. I’ve been keen to focus on this largely because I also think that fan studies has over-emphasised fan community at the expense of the more individual experiences of the fan, what I referred to as ‘lone fandom’ in my Post-Object Fandom book.
This is important to me because my own experiences in fandom have been relatively lone pursuits. I’ve dipped my toe in the waters of organised fan cultures but never moved beyond reading other people’s posts, tweets or Tumblr blogs, perhaps occasionally making a comment or two, but never really forming any relationship with those people. I attend fan conventions, and make polite conversation with people in lines but I don’t become friends with them. I’ve always felt in some ways that this has marked me out as quite different within fan studies. I don’t readily adopt the term aca-fan in the same way as others might because I’m often more of an outsider to the fandoms I may study than other scholars are. I think this inside/outside position is something that needs more research and understanding – I think it throws up some interesting and important ethical questions, for example. It also offers different ways to think about how we conceptualise fans and fandom (a debate that has long raged within the discipline). I really like Cornel Sandvoss’ work in Fans for this reason, in his discussion of how whilst many fans draw on community and connection, for others the sense of self-identity (which may be an individual process of negotiation) is the most important factor. I’d like to see Fan Studies pay even more attention to this because lone fans pose methodological challenges. For instance, if we tend to recruit participants via established existing communities for ease, or because we are already community members who have access, how can we contact lone fans to engage them in our research? If, by their very nature, they are not largely engaged in communities, how can we start to understand their engagement in other ways? I’d like to see this discussed and developed more, and to move away a little from the sometimes still overly positive focus on fan community.
On another note, I’ve found myself researching fannish places and locations as a result of a research assistant post I was appointed too straight after I finished my doctoral research. This was not something I had previously considered, but it’s a testament to how we can sometimes almost accidentally become interested in areas we have previously not really focused on. As my experience in fan studies and my role conducting audience research into responses to the use of locations in and around Cardiff in the UK in television shows like Doctor Who came together though, I’ve become much more focused on the different ways that place, fandom, and identity intersect. My current research into Theme Park Fandom has opened up some fascinating questions such as: can we be fans of a place? As I’ve noted elsewhere, “It is thus useful to consider what places can do to visitors who may not bring particular media or fan-specific imaginative expectations with them and yet may respond strongly to a particular place. What aspects of that spatial experience are these individuals responding to? What confluence of affective, emotional and experiential elements may cause them to become fans of that site and its associated texts or cult icons?” (Williams 2018: 104). For example, my own fandom of Harry Potter emerged only after my first visit to the Hogsmeade section of Universal’s Wizarding World in 2011; my interest in those places and my experiences of them were physically rooted, embodied and spatial before they were textual. I’m thus really keen to see studies of fan tourism move beyond the metaphor of pilgrimage and a focus on fan visits to places seen in texts towards more of a deconstruction of how place and fandom intersect in different ways. As always, I think it’s crucial for fan studies to keep moving into new areas of study, whether that is paying more attention to different ‘types’ of fan (e.g. the lone fan. I’d also love to see some proper research into children as fans), or re-thinking some of the established modes of understanding fan practices (such as moving away from a more linear understanding of fan visits to locations being driven by a text towards consideration of how a place may generate fannish attraction and practices.)
At the time I “discovered” fan studies, I had never been in a fandom in my life. I was a film geek and TV junkie growing up, but I was well into my graduate studies before I learned what was involved in fandom – and most of that I learned for the first time through scholarship. My undergraduate degree was in a fairly traditional film & media program, where we studied theory, history, and aesthetics of film, with a little TV thrown in. In the second semester of my coursework toward an MA in film studies, I took a required course in media and culture studies; in this class, I found out that I am more interested in studying what people do to make meaning out of the media they consume than I am in studying media texts themselves. We were assigned, among other things, Henry Jenkins’ “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten” (1988); I was introduced to cultural studies as a means of studying media and what people do with it in their daily lives; and I was hooked.
But again – I was not, myself, a fan. I had never heard of fan fiction or vidding, I had never attended a convention, I had never been much of a joiner at all, much less tempted into a fan community. I was, however, a lurker, and this was the height of Web 2.0. I procrastinated all manner of work by reading comments sections and message boards online, watching how others invested such time and energy into loving (and hating) popular culture. I read every scathing recap on Television Without Pity, and my participation with media became wound up in the productivity of others. In essence, I became a fan of fandom.
Like you, I don’t identify as an aca-fan – it is a term that never really resonated with my own positionality – but I do appreciate the reflexivity involved in the concept. If fan studies was established as a discipline that gave theoretical rigor to the practices of the fan communities in which aca-fans were enmeshed, then it seems we are both arguing for new directions in the field that account for the practices that are more like those in our experiences.
Your concept of lone fandom reflects a good portion of this experience for me, someone more prone to exhibiting my personal fandom through voracious, even obsessive, viewing rather than through connecting with others. As a concept, I think it it speaks to a need to be more explicit in our work in separating fans from fandom. What language, for example, do we have to account for those who are not so much drawn in by investment in a particular text, but rather by the interpersonal connections and camaraderie of the community itself? If you can have a fan without the community, how do we address the fandom that is not based on fannish affect?
I do regular fieldwork at San Diego Comic-Con, where it is quite common for me to interview individuals who disavow or demur a fan identity. When I approach someone in line and ask to talk with them about the convention, they might reply, “Oh, you don’t really want to talk to me. I am not as much of a fan as some of the people here.” And yet, these are people who made the (considerable) effort to get to San Diego for Comic-Con, who are in an hours-long line to see a panel, who spend time and money at the convention to buy exclusive toys or clothes for their favorite things. They do fannish things, but resist calling themselves fans.
Some of this is, of course, self-preservation that acknowledges perceptions of hierarchies and insider/outsider dynamics in fan communities; no one can call you a “fake fangirl” or tell you that you do not belong in a community if you resist membership yourself. In fan studies, we have increasingly paid attention to the ways in which fan communities shore up their shared identity by excluding others, particularly as it comes to gender (see, for example, Suzanne Scott’s work), to intra-fandom hierarchies (both Mel Stanfill and Kristina Busse have excellent discussions of these issues), and to questions of geography, language, and access in transnational fandoms. I am continually drawn to the boundaries, both self-designated and proscribed, that are drawn around fan communities and personal identity, and the ways that fans designate, present themselves, and are viewed by outsiders. As a discipline, I think there is room to take a closer look at the ways in which interpersonal dynamics and identity politics, as much as textual content, frame participation in fandom and the unproblematic adoption of a fan identity.
As you say, this of course presents a methodological challenge. It is about finding those lone fans who do not necessarily affiliate with a community, and it is just as much about finding those who do not identify as fans. For my work, it is about finding those who do not attend San Diego Comic-Con, but who may practice fandom or consider themselves fans in other ways. In short, I see this as an opportunity for more scholarship to define our terms and be explicit in our stakes. When we study fans, are we studying practice or identity, community or individual, or some combination of the above?
Bacon-Smith, C. (1992), Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hills, M. (2005), ‘Patterns of surprise: The “Aleatory Object” in psychoanalytic ethnography and cyclical fandom’, American Behavioral Scientist, 48 (7): 801–21.
Jenkins, H. (1992), Textual Poachers. London: Routledge.
Lewis, L. A. (ed.), The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. London: Routledge.
Sandvoss, C. (2005), Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Williams, R. (2013), ‘“Anyone who calls Muse a Twilight band will be shot on sight”: Music, distinction, and the “interloping fan” in the Twilight franchise’, Popular Music and Society, 36 (3): 327–42.
Williams, R. (2015), Post-Object Fandom. London: Bloomsbury.
Williams, R. (2018) ‘Fan pilgrimage & tourism’ in Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, London: Routledge, pp. 98 – 106.