Fan studies: The different and the revisionist

You can’t have PCA without a fan studies panel. Better yet, if you are in anyway interested in fan studies, this is the spot of the week. My first stop was a session titled “Counting and recounting the players in fan culture.”. The three panelists, all from Old Dominion U, discussed fandoms from the perspectives of marketing, transmedia storytelling, and ACA-Fandom.” Of these presentations, I was particularly interested in marketing, and ACA-Fandom.

In terms of marketing, Diane Cooke, from ODU discussed the role of fan communities as marketing tools. This is a fascinating subject for me, as I am most interested in about the intersection between fandoms and corporate cultures. In the textual poachers model, fandom is about establishing a moral economy, which necessarily pits fans and corporate interest. However, I find myself often thinking that it can’t be that simple. Nothing ever is, and this is why I chose to study fans who interact in spaces that are furnished by corporations. Diane Cooke’s presentation addressed a related topic. Based on the work of Peter Morville, she suggested the “Markets are conversations.” Furthermore, the corporate players involved in these conversations are actually tying to be responsive.

Now, that kind of statement would not fly under the transgressive, textual poacher model. “What do you mean corporate players are trying to be responsive? Don’t you realize that whenever they get involved in anything, they wreck it?”

That may be so, but I’m a pragmatist. Fan communities are no longer marginal to the way in which the culture industries operate (BTW… that’s also a Jenkism). Rather, fans are really seen as valuable brand advocates, which is why D. Cooke’s presentation was so engaging for me. Her project was about mapping fan conversations about the release of the Beatles Rock Band game, and it uses a rhizomatic perspective.

Now, if you’re not familiar with rhizomes, or you know them in another context, perhaps, they are a metaphor for complexity. Deleuze and Guattari came up with it, and they used it to explain how we can construct knowledge, and understand complex phenomena. Rhizomes are essentially surface roots, which spread in different directions. The analyst and the critic of culture would be well advised to follow the rhizomes, wherever they may lead. In this sense, rhizomatic theory is different than other philosophical perspectives about knowledge. Rhizomatics is about connections and disruptions, whereas the more traditional way of understanding knowledge is about specialization and deep respect for authority.

What makes rhizomes so well suited for projects that map web-based interaction is precisely this idea of surface, and even unpredictability. In nature, you can’t really predict where a rhizome will go (yes, rhizomes are real. They are actual roots… next time you go to the grocery store and pick up ginger root, you should know that’s a rhizome). In an online environment, you can’t predict what will become a meme, be forgotten, lay dormant and then re-emerge, be taken at face value, or what impact any of it may have. If anything, you can follow a phenomena, and you can map it and describe it, but you can’t expect to fully comprehend it.

“The rhizome is huge, so how can you maintain conversations?” That was one take away from Cooke’s presentation. As she described the process of mapping, you have to be aware of the various stakeholders that are involved in this conversations. You have the official ones, which are essentially the corporations that have incorporated the internet into their marketing efforts (that would be ALL OF THEM), and the consumers, which include fans. Fans will take to the internet, and share information, and official stakeholders are always keeping an eye out.

I don’t mean that in the sense of spying. I mean it in the sense of recognizing the opportunities that fans create for brand extension. In this sense, Cooke described fans in ways reminiscent of Muniz and O’Guinn’s brand communities. They keep up with the developments that pertain the objects of their fandom, and they share information and speculation about these objects.

Cooke’s colleague at Old Dominion University, Danielle Roach, spoke on “Pre-Jenkins ACA-Fandom.” Her work brought in a feminist perspective on ACA-Fandom, by suggesting that feminist scholars who wrote about fandom before Jenkins published textual poachers had been left out of the historiography of fan studies. I wholeheartedly agree with the argument, but I can’t help but wonder if the omission of individuals like Janice Radway is not only due to the declining fortunes of feminism (Roach’s argument), but could also be the result of the ways in which we label and self-identify our work. I mean, did Janice Radway ever say she studied fans?

Still, why aren’t we including much earlier work on fandom as part of the historiography of the discipline? Perhaps is because starting points, or foundational stories if you want, are often arbitrary. However, the ways in which power structures play out and influence academic disciplines should be taken into account. I found that to be Roach’s most valuable contribution, and that was my main take away from her discussion of the historiography of fandom.

The Changing Face of Fandom

I am a fan of Henry Jenkins. I follow him on twitter, and I read his blog. I own several of his books, and I have quoted him repeatedly in my work. However, since Henry Jenkins is not a singer, or an actor, my fandom is a respectable activity. In fact, my activities would not be described as fandom at all. As Joli Jenson would say,  I’m an “aficionado,” or even “an expert.” This paradox shows how the word fan has been tainted, and turned into a pathology. Understandably, academics, as Jenson states, are not too eager to describe themselves as fans of other academics:

Would I defend my ‘team,’ the pragmatists, against the attacks on them by, say, Hegelians, neo-Marxist and/or post-structuralists? You bet. Would I do so in a rowdy, rambunctious or violent way? Of course not. I would respond instead with respectable rowdiness (acerbic asides in scholarly articles) and acceptable violence (the controlled, intellectual aggression often witnessed in conference presentations (Jenson, 22).

Jenson’s essay, Fandom as Pathology, really made me think of how we, and by extension the media (in a chicken ‘n egg way), use language to disparage specific activities and individuals. We create others, by making them seem dangerous, and in the process, we reassure ourselves that we are normal. With fans, this has usually meant characterizing them as either “obsessed loners” or “frenzied crowds” (Jenson, 14). Trekkies are a perfect example of this.
In Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins starts chapter 1 with a discussion of William Shatner’s appearance as host of Saturday Night Live. Jenkins described how the skit used popular stereotypes about trekkies to disparage these fans. This is Jenkins’ analysis in full:
Trekkies are:
  • Brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast (DeForest Kelly albums);
  • devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge (the combination to Kirk’s safe, the number of Yeoman Rand’s cabin, the numerical order of the program episodes);
  • place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material (“It’s just a television show”).
  • are social misfits who have become so obsessed with the show that it forecloses other types of social experience (“Get a Life”).;
  • are feminized and/or desexualized through their intimate engagement with mass culture (“Have you ever kissed a girl?”);
  • are infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature (the suggestion that they should move out of their parents basement, their pouting and befuddle responses to Shatner’s criticism, the mixture of small children and overweight adults);
  • are unable to separate fantasy from reality (“Are you saying we should pay more attention to the movies?”)
    (Jenkins, 1992, p. 10)
  • Jenkins’ point, and Jenson’s as well, is to show how such stereotypes are produced through selective representations. Interestingly enough, though, the same media that has stigmatized trekkies for decades, is now scrambling for fans (maybe not trekkies, but fans altogether). Changes in the media landscape make it increasingly difficult to reach a mass audience.

    And changes have been dramatic. Just consider this: in 2005, 41% of American homes received 100 or more television channels, but viewers tend to watch between fifteen and twenty of these. This is a far cry from the time in which only three networks ruled the airwaves. In addition to more choice, technologies such as the DVR, online streaming, DVD’s, Youtube and the ITunes store have revolutionized how people watch television shows (Jenkins, 2006a; Lotz, 2007). As a consequence of fragmentation, advertisers need to make greater efforts to reach the same number of eyeballs that was once readily available because the average audience size is much smaller (Webster, 2005; Lotz, 2007). In fact, according to Webster (2005), ABC, NBC and CBS combined only reached 29% of the audience during the 2002-2003 season. This is very significant, considering that those three networks commanded almost 70% of the audience in 1985 (p. 368).

    So what does this mean in terms of fandom? According to Henry Jenkins, the Internet may be re-deeming the fans; they might be the future of the television industry in particular (Jenkins, 2007). Fans are desirable users because their degree of engagement and loyalty to television shows is greater than that of the casual viewer. In other words, they will watch, and also actively seek out content, thus creating multiple opportunities for exposure to advertising (Ha & Chan-Olmsted, 2004).

    Yet, in order to tap into fandom, the media industries need to re-conceptualize two things. First, as Jenkins suggests, they need to re-think strategies to build brand loyalty and fan engagement. Second, they need to re-think the language used to describe fans.

    The re-conceptualization of marketing strategies is well underway. Approaches such as “affective economics” (Jenkins, 2007) attempt to increase our level of involvement with a brand, by understanding the emotional connections between consumers and brands, and to harness these  to guide purchasing decisions. A key approach in affective economics is the “brand community,” which is defined as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand” (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001, p. 412).

    For Muniz and O’Guinn (2001), brand communities are signs of the times. They reflect the conditions of industrialized societies in which branded commodities are everywhere. However, these authors warn against dismissing members of a branded community as indoctrinated drones, or obsessive fans. On the contrary, these individuals are fully aware of the commercial nature of brand. Furthermore, they “do not wish to be confused with indiscriminate zealots who are “weird nuts” occupying marginal positions” (p. 418). Because absolute devotion is not required for membership, these communities are open to anyone seeking more information about the brand. That some casual visitors can eventually become fans is not unexpected (Andersen, 2005).

    They “do not wish to be confused with indiscriminate zealots who are “weird nuts”? What a telling statement. However, I think we can take it further. The conflation between fandom and pathology, without a doubt, works against fans. Yet it also works against the industries that are vying for their attention. This seems to be forcing a change of the language used by the media to talk about fans. Here are some examples of the fandom as pathology discourse described by Jenson:

    • An obsessed fan arrived at Warner Brothers studios with a 1.5m-high teddy bear for an actress who was shot dead a year later, a security guard told a court yesterday. Prosecutors allege that the fan, Robert Bardo, 21, tracked Rebecca Schaeffer to her home, rang the door bell and killed her with a single gunshot when she opened the door (The Courier Mail, Sept 27, 1989).
    • AN apparently deranged fan of ice skater Katarina Witt is being held in custody over fears that he was stalking the Olympic champion (The Sunday Mail, December 29, 1991).
    • David Letterman’s most dogged fan showed up again in his neighborhood, after telling authorities she’d leave him alone. Margaret Ray, a 39-year-old from Crawford, Colo., who has been arrested six times on charges of breaking into Letterman’s house, tried to get a taxi driver to take her to the late- night comedian’s estate. Police later found her near Letterman’s home and put her on a train back to New York City. Ray was released from a Connecticut mental hospital last spring (USA Today, March 26, 1992).

    Stalking and violence against celebrities is nothing new. However, I have noticed  that there is a catchphrase used to describe obsessive fans. They are celebrity stalkers, and unlike your run-of-the-mill fan, or your infantile trekkie, stalkers are pathological and deranged.

    With this catchy label of celebrity stalker, media coverage can really point out a further distinction between obsessives and regular fans. The word fan, then, can begin to be untangled from its negative connotation, and used to signal “positive” behaviors. Fans, then, can become more respectable. However, what kinds of behaviors would make for respectability?  Facebook is one site where the language of respectable fan activity plays out very clearly. Facebook allows us to proclaim our loyalties by becoming fans.

    Picture 1
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    Picture 7

    On Facebook, you can  become fans of almost anything. A country, a television show, a consumer product, or a cause, seem acceptable objects of fandom. However, you cannot become a fan of the KKK or the Nazis, because that would be against the Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. You can, however, become a fan of Hating the Nazis.

    Picture 8

    With the internet, entrepreneurs have found ways to put a positive spin behaviors that could be construed as stalking. When they’re successful, such behaviors can harnessed for profit. And this is just what Gawker Media has done. Gawker Media, which is the parent company of Gawker, describes itself as a site in which traditional publishing meets audience engagement, which, in this case seems to mean gossip. What bizarre twist in affective economics.

    But maybe it is not so bizarre after all. According to Jenknis, gossip is an important facet of how online fan communities emerge and operate. Gossip provides us with a “common ground […], as those who exchange information assure one another of what they share” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 84). Gawker illustrates this point well, especially through one of its most popular, albeit controversial, features:  Gawker Stalker. Gawker stalker allows people to post celebrity sightings by sending an email to the editors of Gawker. The site also includes a map, although this feature is not updated in real time.

    Gawker receives about 3 million UVAs (Unique views) per month on its celebrity gossip site Gawker.  According to their about us page 66% of the traffic is people between the ages of 18-34, which are a very coveted demographic for advertisers.

    I would say that Gawker exemplifies the next trend in audience research, that is, the move from and impression-based logic of advertisement, to an expression-based logic. Impressions refer to the number of “eyeballs” that can view a media product at a given time. Expressions, on the other hand, reflect what people do with the product. According to Jenkins, expressions are a form of personal investment which recognizes that “consumers not only watch media; they also share media with one another, whether this consists of wearing a T-shirt proclaiming their passion for a particular product, posting a message on a discussion list recommending a product to a friend, or creating a parody of a commercial that circulates on the internet” (Jenkins, 2007, p. 68).

    It is also an example of new ways of re-framing the image of the fan. By using the word fan repeatedly, as in Facebook, or by making the distinction between fans and stalkers, companies can further tap into what people are passionate about. However, they must first begin by setting the limits of what behaviors are acceptable, and what is still considered eccentric or crazy.

    Sorry Trekkies!

    • Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture.
    • Star fan on kill charge. (1989, September 27). The Courier-Mail.