It’s great to hear about your work, Dayna! It’s been about 6 years since we were students together at Annenberg, and when I left I think you were still in coursework so it’s been awesome to see what cool research you’ve taken up since then. I also appreciate that Henry paired us up because our work has so much productive overlap!
The questions you’re asking about how fan communities coalesce on Twitter are so important, particularly since we have seen so many people of color have taken to this platform. There’s been a great deal of conversation about Black Twitter, but I’ve been interested to see how Asian Americans are also using Twitter to engage in all sorts of antiracist fan activism. Some of my most recent research has examined the deployment of hashtags such as #OnlyOnePercent, #MakeMulanRight, #StarringJohnCho, #AAironfist and #WhitewashedOUT and the way that journalists have engaged with Twitter users about these issues. In some ways Twitter provides a boon to research because the community is right there, sharing this really public platform and inviting participation to some degree. But I’d love to hear more from you about what you see as the challenges of studying Twitter. Do you feel like you’ve been able to develop productive ways of accessing and analyzing fan communities on Twitter, and could you explain what are some of the specific challenges of studying marginalized communities on Twitter?
Thanks for your question, Lori. And let me say that I too am glad to have this opportunity to discuss my work with you after some many years away from USC. We both have taken different trajectories in our work, but there is still significant overlap.
Online research of fan communities is always tricky. Individuals don’t post to Twitter with the assumption that it will be seen by anyone other than a targeted audience. In marginalized communities there has always been a distrust of any type of research whether it’s conducted for academic purposes or financial gain by corporations. Twitter is a space where groups of users intersect and companies take that opportunity to conduct market research. Additionally, scholars like myself who are “acafans” who both disseminate research and participate in fan communities on Twitter. Essentially, we navigate between two poles within the space of Twitter, and even if we are well meaning and see ourselves as insiders, not everyone will see us that way. The reality of being an “outsider within” once I stepped into research on Scandal fandom, hit me in an unexpected way when questions about my intent were raised by Black American Twitter users during the process of my study. I learned that even though IRB offices classify most online research as exempt from specific protocols of notification and consent, it’s very important to be forthcoming with your intentions and the process of collecting the artifacts (data) that will be examined. Thus, the biggest challenge for me was grapplying with how best to collect and analyze the “data”—tweets, images, interactions, etc.—in a manner that would not be viewed as taking advantage of the fan community I was attempting to shed light on and make visible in the field of fan/fandom studies. I cannot say that I have completely found the answer that would alleviate the possible concerns of the community I’m focused on in my work, but it is something that remains at the forefront of my thoughts as I consider how to continue my research.
Another challenge relates to analyzing tweets. Identifying specific hashtags, phrases, etc. beforehand helps a lot. Another element that was central to the work I did around Scandal fandom was time. Because my team and I collected tweets while fans live-tweeted during the original broadcast, we were able to locate tweets during specific moments and narrow those down through filtering. When I examined tweets it was for the purpose of constructing a narrative about Black American fans’ engagement and participatory practices online. I did this by organizing data thematically; identifying shared sentiment, interpretations, and word usage; and, assessing the ways blackness and Black cultural experiences are signified during the process of television viewing.
I’m interested to know what your experience has been like exploring Asian American fan communities on Twitter, Lori. Also, in my work so far I haven’t discussed media activism, but I, of course, know it has been central to Black American politics for decades. My question for you is what do you see as the pros and cons to Asian American fan communities’ activism online? I ask this question because there is a frequent dismissal of activism enacted online; “hashtag activism” for instance, is thrown around like a dirty word and often viewed as political noise that has little to no societal impact. In your work, you must have encountered moments where Asian American fans’ activism succeeded and failed. Would you share a few examples?
It is definitely the case that some Asian American fan activism has had serious traction, while others have been less effective. Let me give an example of both. One incident that led to actual change was the casting of the Hellboy reboot. In August 2017, white actor Ed Skrein started tweeting about how excited he was to be cast in a Japanese American role for the film. Fans immediately responded with frustration about the whitewashing, particularly in a year that had been rife with white actors taking roles from Asian Americans. Many used the hashtag #whitewashedOUT, which had been a coordinated hashtag campaign from May 2017 to start a conversation on Twitter about the range of problems facing Asian Americans in Hollywood. In a stunning turn of events, Ed Skrein announced days later that he was dropping out of the project so it could be cast more appropriately, and Daniel Dae Kim later was given the role. This seemed like a clear case where a politicized collective of fans were able to use the affordances of Twitter to directly address the source of a problem (even if the problem centers on a celebrity figure), communicate their concern in an effective way, and help make the argument that change is necessary.
But let’s look at another incident that was far more organized and multifaceted, and had no influence on the media text in question -- the casting of the Netflix series Iron Fist. In this case, fans were once again outraged to find out that white actor Finn Jones had been cast to play Kung Fu master Danny Rand. A fan collective called Nerds of Color immediately set to work organizing around this issue using a wide variety of well-trodden tactics. They wrote long-form news articles explaining their position, allied with the digital activism collective at 18 Million Rising to collect signatures on a petition, hosted a podcast with ComicsAlliance to discuss the issue, shared dozens of pieces of fan art depicting an Asian American Danny Rand, set up interviews with Asian American actors and other professionals about siding with their cause, and provoked a Twitter conversation with over 11,000 tweets using the hashtag #AAironfist.
Despite these efforts, the casting remained unchanged -- an outcome that unfortunately is far more common than what happened with Hellboy. Yet you didn’t ask about representational change, you asked about societal impact. And I think that despite the fact that conversations around Hellboy resulted in the desired casting changes, the conversations around Iron Fist could be said to have a much more profound social resonance. I strive to avoid being overly idealistic about the vague notion that “changing the conversation” or “raising awareness” are acceptable outcomes for activist campaigns, because it is certainly the case that horrific social problems like racist policing and gun violence seem to remain unaffected no matter how much we talk about them. But in the arena of Asian American representation we actually have seen the dial move quite a bit in recent years -- including the successful rise of Asian American sitcoms, Netflix series, films, directors, showrunners, writers, comedians, and more. It’s my contention that we can never look at these incidents in isolation from one another, but we have to consider the way that a “failed” Twitter campaign and the eventual possibilities for the greenlighting Master of None or Crazy Rich Asians are interconnected. Hashtag activism does play a role in contributing to the larger argument that Asian Americans are an important audience and consumer base whose desires should be addressed, regardless of whether or not individual properties end up making the right casting decision.
I would also say that it’s been interesting to see the differences between Black Twitter and what we might call Asian American Twitter. While many participants in Black Twitter have become wary of being exploited because there has been so much scrutiny of their discourse, Asian Americans are so hungry to be noticed that I rarely hear complaints about the particular ways in which they’re being observed. That’s another reason why I think it’s helpful for us to talk to each other about how we are studying Twitter communities and what we are finding, because there are some serious differences across differently racialized fan communities. On that note, I would love to hear more about your future research on hybrid Black-Asian fan communities. Do you think this kind of cross-racial investigations can reshape fan studies of race in necessary ways? What might be productive about expanding beyond these more US-centric conversations to include global perspectives?
I think one of the best ways to have a deeper conversation about fan communities and practices and race is to move beyond US-centric conversations--where appropriate. I recognize that there may be constraints to conducting such research in terms of access and resources, but in some instances it seems necessary. This is particularly the case with my interest in issues that arise globally within K-pop music and fandom, including anti-Black racism, cultural misappropriation, isolation of Black fans.
I first encountered K-pop music in a cafe in Daegu, South Korea in October 2014. The song that played was “Bounce” by Bobby--a South Korean rapper who had won first place on the third season of the hip-hop competition show Show Me the Money. Of course it was no real surprise to hear a rap song in another country; hip-hop has traveled globally for decades. But what did strike me was just how familiar the song felt despite being in another language. I asked a friend and colleague from USC--Kelly Song--about the music scene in South Korea and was introduced to a whole new world of music and, subsequently, fandom.
What resonated with me, first in my encounter with Bobby, and later with Rain’s “30 Sexy” music video, was that sense of familiarity that I could only describe as blackness--significations of Black American aesthetics, music and dance style. With that came a feeling of nostalgia; I was brought back to my days as a fangirl in middle and high school in the late 1990s and 2000s when I loved male bands like Jodeci and Dru Hill. Eventually, while watching fan videos made by Black women and reading comments on social media platforms, I discovered that I wasn’t the only person drawn in by the similarities between contemporary K-pop music and R&B and pop music in American in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My interest in understanding both the global flow of Black American culture into Korea, and Black American fans’ relationship to K-pop grew from these observations.
Besides the nostalgia and joy that permeated from Black women fans’ discussions of K-pop music is frustration and, sometimes, feelings of anger. As I mentioned earlier, K-pop music has been heavily influenced by Black popular culture. However, South Korea is a country that is currently working through conceptions of race and racial difference as it encounters migrants from non-Asian countries. Moreover, South Korea has a history anti-Black prejudice--in the form of blackface performances--that continues to this day. There have been many instances that have given Black fans’ pause when it comes to their enjoyment of the music including K-pop idols’ demonstrating how to “talk Black” (a.k.a. use African American Vernacular English) on radio shows, wearing dreads, afros and cornrows, using the “N-word” when performing American songs, featuring the Confederate flag in music videos, and occasionally donning blackface. Black fans’ reservations about K-pop music and fandom are often exacerbated by the fact that non-Black fans tend to downplay the significance of these mishaps by presuming that idols have a lack of knowledge about race relations in the U.S. and therefore Black fans shouldn’t be “too sensitive” or offended when idols engaged in racially insensitive behavior.
There is much to be gained within fandom studies in the examination of both race and fandom within the U.S. as well as trans-nationally. I think that sometimes the impetus within fan/fandom studies is to focus on shared practices and enjoyment rather than conflict within fadom and negotiations made by individual fans. While prior scholarship has been keen to focus on gender differences in fandom, issues of racial differences within fadom have not be addressed in meaningful ways. I see this changing, especially as I look at the contributions you, Lori, have made to the field, and those of other scholars such as Kristin Warner, Rukmini Pande, Miranda Larsen, to name a few.
Lori, I’m interested to know what the future you envision for your own research. What new aspects or issues do you plan on exploring or hope that others will explore in this area?
Your work on Black fans of K-Pop is super intriguing to me, because I do think that we often neglect these kinds of complex cross-racial affinities, both in their potential for appropriation and the ways they can produce meaningful hybridities. My current research centers on Hmong Americans and their culturally-specific media cultures, and I noticed that Hmong in the diaspora are also quite active within K-Pop and other Korean-centric fandoms. There are a lot of Facebook groups for Hmong fans who love and celebrate Korean cultural products, but I have also seen some discussion from Hmong Americans who are concerned about the sublimation of Hmong culture to Hallyu. This made me wonder how we can make sense of one culture in diaspora encountering another culture in diaspora, and how those power differences are negotiated in digital spaces.
I would love to see scholars continue to tackle these issues, and have been very happy to see work coming out of some of my graduate students at UW-Madison in this arena. Camilo Diaz Pino has been researching anime fandoms in Mexico City and the way they have been taken up within political protest, while Wan-Jun Lu is studying the way that Taiwanese fans of the online streaming platform Viki become cultural intermediaries who are both consumers and producers of cosmopolitan discourses. These particular projects can add richness and specificity to our understanding of these larger global movements and new cultural formations.