Fan/dom: People, practices, and networks

Katherine E. Morrissey

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The announcement of Kindle Worlds as open to writers of fan fiction provides an opening to discuss the field of fan studies in terms of fandom communities and individual self.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan communities; Fan networks; Fan practices; Fan studies; Fan work; Media studies; Methodology; Participatory culture; Social media

Morrissey, Katherine E. 2013. "Fan/dom: People, Practices, and Networks." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The announcement of Amazon's Kindle Worlds platform has launched another round of debate on the future of fans, fandom, and fan production. An e-publishing platform that allows authors to self-publish tie-in works to a selection of media franchises, Kindle Worlds describes itself as "a creative community where Worlds grow with each new story" ( 2013b). Amazon's announcement picks up on the rhetoric of fans, calling these stories fan fiction and using terms like "creative community." Of course, in this version of fan culture the creative community's worlds are licensed, ownership of the stories is retained by the licensee, and permissible content is specified by a Terms of Service agreement.

[1.2] Is this the brave new future for fans? Maybe. Maybe not. Fans have certainly seen other efforts at monetizing fan fiction come and go. The popular (and fan-run) Archive of Our Own was inspired by large-scale fan outrage over FanLib, a 2008 attempt by two entrepreneurs at creating a for-profit fan fiction archive. However, in that instance the owners of FanLib, not fans, were making the profit. In contrast, Amazon positions Kindle Worlds as an opportunity for fans themselves to monetize their work. Where this will lead remains uncertain, but in a post–Fifty Shades of Grey world, fans and their creative work are getting a lot more industry attention. Many fans and academics are keeping a careful eye on the unfolding of current events.

[1.3] At a time when digitization and media convergence are changing so much within media culture, fan scholars need to ask themselves: Is fan studies in a position to thoroughly study and monitor these changes? In recent years, many scholars have observed tensions between scholars interested in fan communities and practices and those advocating instead for a focus on individual fans, their consumption, and modern identity. These tensions make it challenging for fan studies to fully attend to contemporary media shifts and the impact of these shifts on fans and fandom.

[1.4] The current interest in identity and the experiences of individual fans might be seen as part of an ongoing effort to expand the scope of fan studies. If early work on fans focused primarily on specific subsets of fan culture, a more individualized and diffuse view of fans certainly extends the field's scope. However, this does not mean that research into communities and practices can be left in fan studies' past. In our current moment, issues of power, agency, and representation within cultural production greatly need our focus. We need to be attentive to the ways that contemporary media technologies impact fan networks and fan production today. Earlier work on communities and practices has been criticized for being too specific and too narrow, but when has context not been crucial to the thorough study of media and culture? Studies of fans are studies of individuals, their practices, and their social networks, as well as of changing communication technologies. Only by studying fans and fandom at multiple levels—looking at fans as individuals, at their collective practices, and at the networks they create—can we more fully understand their positions within today's shifting media environment.

2. (De)historicizing fan studies

[2.1] The term "fan" once conjured up images of Star Trek conventions, Beatlemania, and Red Sox games. Today the term is used generally to indicate a myriad of individual tastes and preferences, from film noir to southern barbeque. Fans and fan engagement can be conceptualized very broadly, in ways that encapsulate a diverse array of objects, interests, and experiences. It is precisely because of this that fan studies faces such a challenge in its efforts to broadly theorize fans.

[2.2] Recently, fan studies has focused increasingly on the individual as fan and on the relationship between fandom and the self. For example, in Fan Cultures (2002), Matt Hills calls for increased attention to individuals' experiences as fans over the course of their lives. In Fans: The Mirror of Consumption (2005), Cornel Sandvoss looks to the relationship between fan consumption practices and the shaping of identity. This shift toward the individual and away from fan communities has also been described as a "move away from studying the community" and a "refocusing on the relationship between fans' selves and their fan objects" (Busse and Hellekson 2006, 23; Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 8).

[2.3] If this is a refocusing, however, it is one that risks reducing our depth of field. Individuals interact with objects in many ways, and group ties play a major role in guiding how they do so. A great deal of fan activity is still cooperative and still linked to social networks. This means that the specifics of community and context remain significant, particularly in a networked media environment where media objects are increasingly designed to be shared. In Spreadable Media (2013), Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green warn that we "focus too often on the value or sovereignty of the individual rather than the social networks through which audience members play active roles" (xiii). Jenkins, Ford, and Green are interested in a more general (and less fan-specific) spreading of media content, but fans and fan networks are still central to these conversations about audiences and media flows.

[2.4] Rather than narrowing our view to focus on individuals and consumption, it may be more productive to see the shift, instead, as an addition to approaches we have long used to study fans. In their introduction to Fandom (2007), Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington argue that fan studies has passed through three stages. First was an interest in audience communities' responses to popular media. Next came a complicating of the producer/consumer binary and a look at the ways that fans themselves can replicate cultural hierarchies. That led into the third, a contemporary interest in "fandom as part of the fabric of our everyday lives" (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 9). If this is true, perhaps now it is time for a fourth stage, one in which we look at the different ways that fan experiences are distributed at both the individual and social levels. We should analyze fandom not only through individuals' media consumption, but also through fan networks and practices.

[2.5] A focus on fandom from multiple perspectives is critical, given ongoing challenges in conceptualizing what it is to be a fan. How do we attempt to process a concept that is simultaneously claimed as an activity, an identity, and a connection to others? Rather than seeing this confusion as a problem, perhaps it is more useful to see it as precisely the point. In trying to understand an aspect of media culture that we all, to some degree, engage in, the field of fan studies needs to approach fans and fandom in a variety of ways: at the level of the individual, at the level of practices, and as a framework in which the self encounters media culture. In our current moment, the media environment is undergoing dramatic changes. It is critical that fan studies continues to question the control of cultural production and consider the ways that today's media industries are working to accommodate both fans and fan practices.

3. Media industries and fans

[3.1] Whether public or private, individual or social, fan practices and networks are facilitated and shaped by communication technologies. In 1992, Henry Jenkins described a "weekend-only" version of fandom, accessible via weekend conventions and meet-ups (280). Shaped, in part, by the slower-moving, print-based systems these fans used to communicate, this world offered them a reprieve from their day-to-day lives. Ten years later, Matt Hills describes a very different, "just-in-time fandom," in which the "practices of fandom have become increasingly enmeshed within the rhythms and temporalities of broadcasting" (2002, 178). These changes were shaped by fans' adaptation to Internet-based communications that enabled more rapid communication among greater numbers of fans.

[3.2] Hills has cautioned against describing the changing temporality of fandom "as a techno-evolution towards fuller 'interactivity.'" He argues instead that "this eradication of the 'time-lag' works ever more insistently to discipline and regulate the opportunities for temporally-licensed 'feedback'" (2002, 179). Today, just over a decade after Hills outlined the just-in-time version of fandom, technical developments have further complicated fan temporalities and social practices. Today, viewers use digital recorders to delay viewing or circumvent broadcasts entirely by downloading content on their own. These shifts continue to affect fans' media engagement, their social networks, and their creative practices. In turn, media industries continue to restrategize.

[3.3] Today, we see entertainment industries expanding their efforts at monetizing social networks online. Social media encourage users to identify as fans by guiding the writing of online profiles, suggesting interest categories, providing "like" buttons, and so on. These tools allow users to seek out others who share their interests while also helping companies collect user data, track online consumption patterns, and target advertising toward specific sets of users. Amazon's Kindle Worlds describes itself as a "platform that will enable any writer to create fan fiction…and earn royalties." Positioning the platform as a "creative community" and imagining intertextual "Worlds [that] grow with each new story," Amazon picks up on fans' longstanding interest in community and in collaborating to develop story networks ( 2013a). This language is one example of media industries' increased view of fans as a target demographic. Initiatives like this represent ongoing attempts to reposition fan production within controlled production environments that then license and limit creative work.

[3.4] These industry efforts are part of longstanding attempts to control content and profits. Fan communities have dealt with takedown notices from corporate lawyers for decades. As fan practices have become more widespread, media industries have adapted in turn. Fan communities are increasingly taken up by media industries today as target consumer groups. Fans are identified as preexisting audiences for products, and fan practices are selectively encouraged as part of industry marketing strategies.

[3.5] In our contemporary moment, media industries are particularly interested in shaping fan networks, fan engagement, and fan practices as a means of organizing and facilitating commerce. Just as academic scholars have used and defined the term "fan" to activate different objects of analysis, media industries today are strategically positioning fans and fandom to suit their own ends. Fan studies must therefore attend to the ways that fandom emerges as a negotiation between various cultural stakeholders at the individual and the group level.

[3.6] Focusing on identity and fan engagement on the individual level is an effective way of trying to trace the many different ways individuals experience media and process the world around them. However, there is a risk here of overemphasizing the individual and overlooking the significance of community and networks of practice. Fan studies needs to continue to consider both the significance of fans coming together to form collaborative networks and the technological conditions that currently affect this process. We are shaped as much by our encounters with others and by our practices as we are by our individual acts of consumption and our individual experiences of media texts.

[3.7] What kinds of fan communities are media industries interested in, and how are they engaging them? What kinds of practices do media industries seem the most comfortable with, and on what terms? How are fans responding to the increasing attention that fan networks and practices are receiving? These are just a few of the important questions that scholars of fan studies face today in our ongoing conversations about fans, fan practices, and fandom's role in shaping identity.

[3.8] In today's media environment, fans engage with media culture as producers, as consumers, and as part of social practice. This means that the questions above should not be reduced to classic producer/consumer or active/passive models of media consumption. However, we still need to think about questions of power, access, and representation. Fans are a part of a complicated web of cultural engagement and mediation. Access to cultural production and power within communication technologies is distributed at multiple levels and across various systems.

[3.9] Within fan studies, we need to remember that the act of being a fan unfolds across these structures, not outside or apart from them. Individuals are not simply reflected by media, they are constituted within it. Fan studies is, absolutely, a study of the modern self and its mediation, but the self is shaped by practice and within multiple social networks. Only by exploring fandom holistically, looking at its communities, its practices, and its individuals, can fan studies continue to map out the role of fans and fandom in the shared production of contemporary culture and society.

4. Works cited 2013a. "Amazon Publishing Introduces 'Kindle Worlds'…" Press release, May 22. 2013b. "Kindle Worlds for Authors."

Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson. 2006. "Work in Progress." Introduction to Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 5–32. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. 2007. "Why Study Fans?" Introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 1-16. New York: New York University Press.

Hills, Matthew. 2002. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Sandvoss, Cornel. 2005. Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Malden, MA: Polity.

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