The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Liz Ellcessor & Tom Phillips (Pt. 1)

Liz Ellcessor

As someone who does not primarily identify as a scholar in fan studies, I am very happy and a little nervous to participate in this conversation. I am, however, thrilled to be speaking virtually with Tom Phillips, as both of us have worked on what might be called “geek” subcultural fandoms and celebrities (Kevin Smith and Felicia Day). While there are a number of thematic similarities - and we each have photographic evidence of meeting our celebrity subjects! - I’m particularly interested in the different trajectories that have shaped our work.

I came to fan studies without the kinds of deep personal investments and experiences with fan practices and communities that many “aca-fans” have. I was a casual fan of The Office and Battlestar Galactica, I’d never heard of fan fiction, and I was absolutely a lurker and not a content creator or community participant. Fan studies, however, was simply in the water at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I did my graduate degrees. The legacy of John Fiske, the work of alumnus Henry Jenkins, the arrival of (my advisor) Jonathan Gray, and coursework with Derek Johnson all ensured that I learned about fan communities, practices, and values, as well as the methods and concerns of fan studies.

My research has focused predominantly on the industrial and infrastructural dimensions of fandom. My interests in digital media interfaces, access, and disability are all relevant to better understanding the online spaces in which fan practices may occur. Fundamentally, I am most curious about how particular interfaces enable particular forms of fan practice, discourage others, welcome particular bodies, and exclude others. In short, how is participation in fandom contingent upon the technological offerings that we often take for granted? Twitter, Tumblr, LiveJournal, WordPress, Usenet, Reddit, and other platforms offer different affordances that enable (or prevent) specific forms of participation and inclusion.

Mel Stanfill’s work on discursive interface analysis is engaged in a similar project, applying this method to commercial and independent fan spaces reveals important differences. In my chapter for the Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I used this as a starting point for a specific kind of analysis - asking how online fan sites differed in terms of their accessibility for people with disabilities, and how these technological platforms shaped the ability of fandoms to be inclusive of disability.

By studying platforms or formats, and technical details such as accessibility, I think we can better understand how specific technologies, infrastructures, and industries shape fandoms. While fan practices obviously have historical and material continuities, attending to the details in the supporting structures can reveal possible influences, limits, and assumptions that characterize fan spaces.

This is, for me, part of a larger argument about the need for media studies to consider access as a variable phenomenon. How do people gain access to content, to communication, to media services, to production opportunities? What constitutes access, or how much access is “enough?” How is access tied into various forms of privilege, particularly around race, gender, ability, and age? Fans are a fascinating point of entry for these questions, as fandoms are often engaged in explicit negotiations about access to texts, to producers, to paratextual material (like spoilers), and to communities that share their fannish investments.

Tom Phillips

Some of your comments here, Liz, echo thoughts I’ve had for a while now. You talk about not necessarily identifying primarily as a fan studies scholar, and from my position as part of the Fan Studies Network, I’ve noticed a larger trend towards interdisciplinarity in the field each year at our annual conference. As concepts of fandom and fan culture become more mainstreamed, the number of scholars finding interesting material to examine increases. Indeed, during the 2017 FSN conference held at the University of Huddersfield, UK, I posited on Twitter (with tongue firmly in cheek) that with the increasing mainstreaming of fandom, perhaps fan studies as a separate discipline doesn’t need to exist anymore!

One of the interesting thing about this blog series Henry has set up is finding out the scholarly journeys of my fan studies peers. It’s curious to note how people were drawn to the field; was it a case that they happened to be so invested in their fan object that they wanted to study it? Or was it the influential writing of the “1992 moment” that captured some kind of imaginative spark? My own journey is somewhere between the two – as a Kevin Smith fan invested and participating in an active fan community, I witnessed first-hand some noteworthy behaviour. Reading around these communal practices via scholarly theory, I was drawn to study Smith and his fans in greater detail.

One of the recurrent themes throughout my work is the relationship between online and offline fan communities, and how digital and analogue practices inform different fan cultures. Liz, you talk about the degree to which participation in fandom is contingent on various web platforms; I would build on this and ask to what extent do such fandoms also engage with offline practices? Are these fan communities the same, or are on- and offline wholly distinct spheres? How do fan performances in these different spaces intersect, if at all?

My research into this area has been more recently concerned with the world of professional wrestling. I’ve long been fascinated in the relationship between performer and fan within this world – particularly the extent to which a fan becomes a part of the diegesis of sports entertainment, actively negotiating the real and the fake. While social media are allowing more opportunities for wrestlers and fans to engage, live performance is where the majority of contact occurs. Yet attending live events can be a costly endeavour and in addition, my privilege as a white heterosexual cis man means I am less likely to be affected by issues of harassment or discomfort that may make some marginal fans disinclined to attend some venues. As you note, Liz, fandom can be a restrictive and exclusionary process, where fan capital cannot be accumulated simply because of barriers to accessibility. We have a responsibility as fan studies scholars to try and reach these marginalised people, so that scholarship doesn’t cycle through these same kinds of privileged audiences.