Symposium

Fandom and the fourth wall

Jenna Kathryn Ballinger

Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I use the Teen Wolf fandom as an example to examine the ways social media has created a more complicated, nuanced relationship with fans. The collapse of the fourth wall between fans and The Powers That Be can have both positive and negative impacts, depending on the willingness of participants to maintain mutual respect and engage in meaningful dialogue.

[0.2] Keywords—Community management; Social media; TPTB

Ballinger, Jenna Kathryn. 2014. "Fandom and the Fourth Wall." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0569.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fans are what keep media afloat but also what kills it. Without fans, the entertainment industry would be only a shadow of what it is today. Fans, especially those who identify themselves as part of a fandom, are not passive viewers: "Fans speak of 'artists' where others can see only commercial hacks, of transcendent meanings where others find only banalities, of 'quality and innovation' where others see only formula and convention" (Jenkins [1992] 2013, 17). Here I examine the integral role fans play in contemporary media culture and the complicated relationship media (that is, that of the television and film industries) has with its fans.

2. Teen Wolf and social media

[2.1] The MTV supernatural teen drama Teen Wolf began airing in summer 2011. MTV hired Matt McDonough to take the role of community manager for the show. McDonough managed all the social media accounts for Teen Wolf, including the official Teen Wolf Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as a blog on Tumblr. McDonough's goal was to connect with the fandom of Teen Wolf using Tumblr, where fandoms were communicating most (DeSouza 2013). The blog turned out to be successful, and McDonough uses it to this day. Teen Wolf fandom latched onto it because McDonough speaks their language, reblogs fan art, and jokes about the show with them. Fans have responded positively to the direct communication. Teen Wolf fan Kaitlyn Vella (2013) comments, "When I saw Teen Wolf posting fan created content and responding to fans, I was shocked. I thought it was awesome." McDonough reached out to Vella back in the early days of Teen Wolf, when she and a friend were posting videos on YouTube about the cast. McDonough invited them to come to the set and meet some of the cast members. The next year, Vella was accepted into Viacom's internship program, where she worked for MTV's social media team. She even took over the Teen Wolf Twitter account for a few weeks. Now Vella has a desk of her own at MTV, where she helps run their main Twitter account (Vella 2013).

[2.2] Vella is one fan among many whom McDonough has provided with the opportunity to use the skills they developed as fans for official Teen Wolf efforts. Fan-made GIF sets and YouTube videos have been used for promotional spots on MTV (Wentz 2014). Since season 3A began, big-name fan (note 1) Qhuinn has been making animated GIFs of each episode that McDonough then posts on Teen Wolf's Tumblr while the episode airs. For Qhuinn, who has been engaged in fandom for more than 15 years, Teen Wolf social media (TWSM) has been a positive change.

[2.3] Teen Wolf provides an example of everything I'm not used to in my own fandom. I don't usually invest in the actors or in the show's social media. Nor have I ever been this active in a fandom—not only by working with fandom projects such as the Sterek Campaign (note 2) but by reading and writing fan fic, creating graphics, and so on. Teen Wolf treats its fandom well, and the show engages people, causing them to be more active because they feel welcome and comfortable (Qhuinn 2013).

[2.4] Fandoms can be intense; the fans are simultaneously the biggest fans of the show and its harshest critics. McDonough's decision to focus on fans who identify as part of the fandom, rather than putting out content that works with the general audience, was not a decision made lightly. He understood that with fans' passion and talent came a recognition of problematic elements of the show, as well as critical social media responses reflecting these elements. These fans are not watching the show just for entertainment. They are analyzing it and writing about it, fully aware of the both the positive and negative aspects involved.

3. Negative interactions in social media

[3.1] Because of the stigma associated with early (late 1960s era) fandom, fans stayed quiet for many years. A fourth wall was put up between fandom and The Powers That Be (TPTB) (note 3). An unspoken rule existed within fandom that no one was to speak about issues with the source material to TPTB. This fourth wall was established to prevent fandom wank (that is, drama) from appearing. However, the emergence of social media has allowed fans to have unprecedented access to people who work in entertainment—and vice versa. As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw (2013) puts it, "Forget the so-called fourth wall of fandom. It no longer exists."

[3.2] Trekkers are considered the first fandom for a television show (note 4). They are the originals; they have the most history, and their fandom has most content to pull from. It also means that they expect a lot more from any source (TV show or film) considered part of that franchise. In a recent fan/TPTB interaction, the cultural shift toward fan empowerment clashed when a script writer read a review of a movie he had recently worked on. On the Daily Dot, Baker-Whitelaw (2013) writes about Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and describes screenwriter Bob Orci's issue with the Star Trek fandom. The film was a mild hit in theaters, making just over $70 million in its first weekend in theaters; however, its predecessor, Star Trek (2009), made $140 million in the same time span. Some fans of the classic series complained about the film's emphasis on big-budget effects over plot (Baker-Whitelaw 2013). Trekmovie.com (http://trekmovie.com/) critiqued the movie, explaining why it was not a smash hit in theaters. Bob Orci read this article, commenting, "As I love to say, there is a reason why I get to write the movies, and you don't" (Baker-Whitelaw 2013). He even told one commenter to "fuck off" (Baker-Whitelaw 2013). The fourth wall was established primarily by fans for fans. Now, however, when fan critiques—even a fan's passing thought—are published online, TPTB have access to it. They can retaliate if they feel like it. The concern is that when there is a lack of civility between fans and TPTB, it creates tension—a tension that indicates why the fourth wall existed in the first place.

[3.3] Fans are now more fearless. They believe they have the right to not only state their opinion but to aim those opinions at people with positions of power in the entertainment world. The thoughts expressed by fans do have some validation. They are speaking about issues that affect their fandom as well as a general audience.

4. Positive outcomes from negative situations

[4.1] Although fans grant TPTB leeway because they have control of the content, TPTB must be prepared to receive criticism. The era of social media means that they must actively listen to that criticism, some of which is invaluable. Many fans catch inconsistencies with story lines. They know the characters well, and they will fight for a character's consistency and honor. Fans will also break down every moment in a show—not only to do a meta-analysis (note 5) but also to explain issues within the show such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. Blogs on Tumblr are dedicated to, for example, feminism in relation to TV and film, such as the Tumblr blog Fandoms and Feminism (http://fandomsandfeminism.tumblr.com/). These fans encourage writers to hold themselves to a higher standard by asking for better representation of minorities, better continuity, and overall more thought into character development. This is beneficial for both fans and television networks. "No matter if they like it or not, maintaining the fourth wall is only going to get harder as the years go by. People feel closer to their favorite shows, and that makes them engage further, which helps the shows to have better ratings and more publicity" (Qhuinn 2013).

[4.2] There is always room for a writer or director to engage in a debate with fandom. Seeing things from different perspectives provides room for valuable debates. Yet an issue may surface when that defense grows out of ignorance and displays a lack of understanding of the way fans think and process things. This is where leaders like McDonough can have an impact on shaping a positive future for fan interactions. Community managers work directly with a show as well as directly with fans. They bridge that gap. Community managers can communicate with the fandom and explain, from the creator's point of view, why a particular scene was written as it was or why character acted a certain way. A community manager can also explain to a director or writer why fans are upset, permitting an attempt to address fan concerns.

[4.3] After season 3A of Teen Wolf aired, an article was published in The Geekiary (http://thegeekiary.com/), a blog run by fans of pop culture. The article discussed several issues that had been accumulating in the Teen Wolf fandom since the finale of season 3A in August 2013. It mentions a memorial video that TWSM had released that showcases all the deaths in Teen Wolf. It was used as promotional material for a contest they had put out for a fan to "Die on Teen Wolf":

[4.4] This video should have worked. Everyone loves a good spoof, it was relevant to the contest themes and it had just enough sarcasm and cynicism to appeal to the Tumblr audience. But it failed to take into account two of the biggest complaints from Season 3A: the death of several beloved POC and female characters and the confusing timeline. This video essentially plastered a neon sign above these issues saying "hey fandom, remember all that stuff you were yelling about? Well we totally ignored your complaints and then made a joke out of it." (Popplewell 2013)

[4.5] This article probably would have received minimal attention, had it not been picked up by the blog Oh No They Didn't! (ONTD; http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/), a popular source of entertainment news among fans. Immediately after the article appeared on ONTD, Teen Wolf fans on Twitter and Tumblr began discussing it and related issues—yet there was no acknowledgment of the article on any of TWSM's accounts. Fans were less than pleased because the article mainly targeted the social media team itself, not the show.

[4.6] A few days later, an article was published by The Daily Dot that featured subject matter similar to the The Geekiary article. One of the primary issues brought up was the use of the hashtag #killdanny, which was being promoted by the TWSM team. Danny is one of the few gay characters on the show, and many fans root for him because he represents a minority viewpoint. This time, McDonough responded on Teen Wolf's Tumblr blog:

[4.7] hey. i'm matt. i'm the bag of flesh and guts and bones on the other side of this blog. i want to address the fact that a video we posted recently threatened to #killdanny unless we got votes for something or other.

[4.8] that was a joke. i am maybe better at gifs than comedy (though some of you might argue). it was an improvised line in the video, meant to play on the #moredanny tag, and i thought it seemed comically absurd that the show might kill off a character for this reason.

[4.9] it lacked perspective. it lacked insight into this fandoms amazing sensitivity to a sense of progressive representation of characters on tv, something i usually take pride in. i'm sorry, and you won't see that again.

[4.10] so, now and forever (and also coming up in 5 minutes): #moredanny

[4.11] This was a big step for McDonough and TWSM's presence. Deciding to own up to his mistakes and apologize to the fandom was a risky move, especially because he did it himself, not under the umbrella of Teen Wolf or MTV. Sounding sincere over the Internet isn't an easy feat, but he took time to acknowledge the fans' sensitivity to these issues. He seemed to genuinely care that the #killdanny tag was seen as a negative representation of a queer character. His apology gathered much positive attention. Shut Up Teen Wolf Fans, a Tumblr blog that points fingers at Teen Wolf and its fans, including the #killdanny hashtag, reblogged the post from Teen Wolf's Tumblr blog, commenting, "Thanks for the apology, Matt. More Danny indeed!" Although fandom is a small portion of the show's entire audience, McDonough chose to speak directly to them because he believed that people who identified themselves as part of fandom were the most dedicated to the show (McDonough 2013). They appreciated the give-and-take of the fan/community manager relationship. McDonough's appreciation for fandom has garnered a lot of respect—something all social media teams for television should strive for.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Fandoms have been pushed into mainstream media. If fans, TPTB, and community managers keep moving forward in a positive direction, then fans can receive a better portrayal in mainstream media than they did 50 years ago. There are obvious positives and negatives to removing the fourth wall, but the more fandom and TPTB collaborate and listen to each other, the more positive outcomes there will be.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I thank Matt McDonough for his support and for granting permission for me to use our informational interview. I also thank everyone who participated in my online survey about fan culture. Their insights were crucial to my work.

7. Notes

1. Big-name fans, or BNFs, are fans that are well known within their fandom.

2. The Sterek Campaign aimed to show Jeff Davis (creator of Teen Wolf) that if he made the Sterek (Stiles and Derek) pairing canon on the show, then he had enough support from fans to do so. Fans sent hundreds of cookies to the show's office in support of Sterek. The campaign now raises money for charity, including thousands of dollars to help rehabilitate wolves (http://sterekcampaign.com/).

3. TPTB are the creators of the source text. That usually includes writers and directors, but some fans also consider TPTB to include the shows' actors and anyone else directly involved with the source material.

4. Trekkers is the term most preferred by people in the Star Trek fandom; the term Trekkies has a mass media–created negative stigma.

5. "In fandom, particularly LiveJournal-based fandom, meta is used to describe a discussion of fanworks of all kinds, fan work in relation to the source text, fanfiction characters and their motivation and psychology, fan behavior, or fandom itself" (http://fanlore.org/wiki/Main_Page).

8. Works cited

Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. 2013. "Star Trek Into Darkness Writer: If You Don't Like It, Pitch a Better Movie." Daily Dot, September 5. http://www.dailydot.com/fandom/star-trek-into-darkness-writer-rude-fans/.

DeSouza, Megan E. 2013. "A Case of the Red Pants Mondays: The Connection between Fandom, Tumblr, and Consumption." Major Papers by Master of Science Students. http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/tmd_major_papers/3/.

Jenkins, Henry. (1992) 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Routledge.

McDonough, Matt. 2013. "Teen Wolf Social Media." Telephone interview with author. September 2.

Popplewell, Yvonne. 2013. "Has Teen Wolf Social Media Lost its Edge?" Geekiary, October 23. http://thegeekiary.com/2013/10/23/has-teen-wolf-social-media-lost-its-edge/.

Qhuinn. 2013. "Fandom Questions." Message to the author, October 26.

Vella, Kaitlyn. 2013. "Fandom Questions." Survey. Google Drive, October 21.

Wentz, Quinn. 2014. "War Promo." YouTube. MTV, January 27. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lg7Uwmug6TQ.





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