Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 11 (2012)

Book review

Digital fandom: New media studies, by Paul Booth

Francesca Coppa

Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Digital media; Fan studies; Game culture; Media studies

Coppa, Francesca. 2012. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies, by Paul Booth [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 11.

Paul Booth. Digital fandom: New media studies. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. $38.95 (231p) ISBN 978-1-4331-1070-2.

[1] Paul Booth's Digital Fandom: New Media Studies articulates some of the ways in which today's online fan culture necessitates a rethinking of many basic paradigms of media studies. Booth, author of the just-published Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television (2012), sees media fandom and media studies as reflections of each other: both engage powerfully and articulately with mass media texts, influenced by previous thinking developed in interpretative communities. But whereas fandom has gone enthusiastically digital, media studies is trapped in many of the paradigms of old media (print, film, television). Booth consequently calls for a new media studies field that is truly "new media" studies: he imagines a discipline that could take new media (the blogs, wikis, and social networks that Booth describes as "digital, interactive, updatable, and ubiquitous") both as its subject and its primary mode of engagement, much as fandom currently does. In this way, digital fandom is itself the subject of and the model for Booth's new media studies; in particular, digital fandom exemplifies a "philosophy of playfulness" in which all fan activities and creativities take place in the context of an online, ever-changing, collaborative, and public game played with and in the media. Media scholars, Booth says provocatively, need to keep pace with these evolving fannish modes to be current both in their thinking and their scholarly practice.

[2] Many of Booth's most productive ideas come from gaming and game culture. Centrally, Booth uses the metaphor of an ARG (alternate reality game)—"a game played in the physical world that utilizes digital technology to help players solve and decipher clues and puzzles"—to describe contemporary fandom. Fandom, like an ARG, is composed of people who work together, online and off-line, not only to interpret, create, and extend the mass media, but also to make the game itself. Mass media is not simply a game we play together; fandom itself, the name of that game, is a game we make together. So the primary creative activity of fandom is fandom, which is made collaboratively on and with new media tools, and never finished. Today more people than ever are engaged in the kind of ongoing, real/virtual creative and discursive activities characteristic of digital fandom.

[3] Booth's first chapter, "The ARG Metaphor," traces the implications of this metaphor; in particular, Booth uses gaming's focus on the collective to shift the object of fandom studies from individual fan activity to the community matrix. As Booth explains, previous works on fandom have considered the fannish community only in terms of the individual fan's contribution to it, whereas he asks, "What of the contribution of the community to the whole?" (22). As in ARGs, the nature of play in digital fandom is determined by many people working together; individual contributions are to some degree secondary. Similarly, Booth argues that ARGs and online fandom share what he calls a "Digi-Gratis" economy: a mashup of market and gift economies in which some things are freely given and others have to be paid for. Booth points out that just as some ARGs are produced for marketing purposes, fandom publicizes particular television shows and films and encourages the purchase of DVDs, action figures, T-shirts, and other commercial and fan-made products.

[4] Possibly the most exciting arguments of Booth's book occur in the second chapter, "Digital Fandom between Work and Text," in which he argues for a long-overdue reconsideration of the very nature of the creative product, whether it be a professionally made or fan-made object. Booth first blurs the boundaries between pro and fan texts, arguing that in today's transmedia environment, "it is not just individual texts that hold meaning, but also vast intertextual networks of connected texts—some of which can be fan created" (34). Booth sees fan works as a type of "communal re-imagining" of stories that represents an entirely new form of communication: one which doesn't fit Roland Barthes's definitions of either work (a tangible object) or text (a series of relationships between works). Rather, digital fandom produces (unfinished; networked) things between work and text, an example of which is a fan fiction story posted to a blog. Booth argues that an entry on such a blog is not composed of only the post, but of the entire page comprising post plus comments; it is an (unfinished, networked) thing whose writer "is ultimately a group" (43). Such a story is a form of writing that "not only includes but also actively seeks critique and input" (50); as such, it is an entirely new kind of communication. From this point of view, a fan fiction story does not represent a single fan's response to a fixed mass media text, but rather is part of a larger intratextual work that invites its own set of (potentially unlimited) responses in the form of comments and other fan works.

[5] By seeing the fan fiction story on a blog as a collaboratively written and constantly changing document, Booth aims not only to decenter the idea of a fixed artwork but also, perhaps more importantly, think past the traditional production/consumption models that have historically characterized both media studies and market culture. As Tisha Turk and Joshua Jackson (2012, ¶1.3) remind us in "The Ecology of Vidding," which explicitly considers vidding fandom as an artmaking community, "while fan creators are audiences, they also have audiences." Booth similarly aims to explode the traditional production/consumption continuum that sees Hollywood professionals as producers and fans as consumers: first, because in the endlessly replicable digital world, things aren't consumed in the same way—that is, there is no scarcity; but second, because fans not only "produce content, but share, give, and develop content, and embrace the work of other fans" (43). So to see fan works as responses to mass media texts, or blog comments as responses to a fan fiction story, is to be locked into an outdated production/consumption, text/comment binary that does not take into account the online network of people who collaborate to create perpetually unfinished digital projects such as blogs and wikis. What fandom knows, and media studies may not yet know, Booth argues, is that a blog is not simply an online diary or a personal Web page; to blog is to decide to read, write, and revise collaboratively and in community, and we need new scholarship that sees creativity as cooperative rather than as statements and responses.

[6] In later chapters on fan blogs ("Intra-Textuality and Battlestar Blogs"), wikis ("The Narrative Database and the Web Commons," "Narractivity and Spoilers") and role-play ("Identity Roleplay on Myspace"), Booth gives sustained attention to these forms of digital fan activity and argues the insufficiency of contemporary media studies criticism for dealing with their complexities. For example, in "The Narrative Database and the Web Commons," Booth talks about how fans communally turn linear stories into databases of narrative material in the form of wikis. For Booth, the crowd-sourced creation of a coherent Lostapedia entry on "Sawyer" out of the 121 broadcast episodes of Lost (2004–10) is a collaborative and transformative narrative activity that media studies doesn't yet have the tools to analyze. Digital Fandom is punctuated by Booth's pleas for new work in new media: "The Blog Needs New Scholarship" is the title of one such section; "The Database Needs New Scholarship" is another.

[7] Digital Fandom's emphasis on the productive fannish community firmly situates this book on a spectrum of recent acafannish work defining fandom either as a psychological reaction or as a form of community participation. As Turk and Johnson observe, scholars like Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss seem to be interested in the psychology of individual fans, while those like Busse and Hellekson see fandom as an essentially collective entity (2012, ¶2.4). Booth's ideas in Digital Fandom seem closely related to those of Busse and Hellekson, in terms of both fan practice and media studies. Busse and Hellekson, in narrating how a fan's sad blog post might inspire a fan fiction story that inspires a comment that inspires a poem that inspires another short story, exactly illustrate the open-ended, group-authored new media communications Booth describes in Digital Fandom; moreover, they also articulate a parallel between the creation of fan works and their own academic practice, noting that both are made through "constant manipulation, renegotiation, commenting, and revising, all done electronically, among a group of people" (2006, 6)—that is, through the fully digital network Booth wants to see come to define the practice of media studies.

[8] But Turk and Johnson, while situating their own work on this spectrum of critics, articulate what is to me an important caveat to the idea of fandom as collective. They note that while they share Busse and Hellekson's interest in the fannish community, "We prefer the term collaborative, which implies individuals working together for a common purpose, to collective, which suggests an undifferentiated group, and we resist Busse and Hellekson's insistence on 'the ultimate erasure of a single author'" (2012, ¶2.4). Turk and Johnson's essay on the vidding collective ends with a case study: Lamardeuse's "Something's Gotta Give," as seen in the context of its broader ecology; that is,

[9] The relationship of vid, vidder, and audience not only to fannish discussions of Hawaii Five-0 but also to the other shows the fans have watched, the fan fiction they have read and written, the other vids they have watched and made, the reception histories of those stories and vids, the growing body of fan discussions of vidding practices and aesthetics—all the social and discursive systems within which the fans and the vid are situated. (¶4.1)

[10] But Lamardeuse's status as an author within this ecology is preserved; in fact, Turk and Johnson argue that this is how authorship functions and has always functioned. Drawing from composition studies, they articulate a creative model that depicts authors working within socially constituted systems, because "creation doesn't happen in a vacuum" (¶1.4)—and never has.

[11] But Booth, like Busse and Hellekson before him, runs the danger of entirely losing the figure of individual artist in his celebration of the creativity of the community. Booth claims that "the writer of the blog is ultimately a group" (43), just as Busse and Hellekson previously argued that "the creator of meaning, the person we like to call the author, is not a single person but is rather a collective entity" (2006, 6). And in truth, I think they're right, particularly in the mashed-up, postmodern age that Tom Pettitt describes as the other side of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, though one could argue that creativity has always been collaborative, but that in more traditional critical models, those collaborators (editors; cowriters and performers; friends, lovers, and wives) are suppressed, derided, or dismissed. I also think that most fans would have no trouble at all locating fannish creativity in the collective, even as they try to apportion credit, however imperfectly, to movie directors, TV show creators, actors, beta readers, other fans whose work inspired them, and their own supporters and commenters equally; after all, it's fans who talk so easily of the fannish hive mind, who are suspicious of BNFs (big name fans), and know how hard it is to inspire fan works in a small fandom. Ideas don't come from inside.

[12] And yet the erasure of the figure of the author or artist can mean something different to women—and fandom, at least the parts that make transformative works like fan fiction, art, and vids, is still predominantly female. Women have struggled to have their creative work recognized as art (note 1) rather than as a craft like quilting or sewing. I have written about how film editing used to be seen as a woman's skill akin to sewing (Coppa 2008, ¶4.10), and so I worry about the return to what could be seen as a craft model after a 75-year interval in which editing was a profitable and male-dominated profession that earned one both money and screen credit. Booth (who, to be fair, is a communications professor, not an arts professor) is excited about fannish creativity but rarely name-checks individual fans (note 2). In fact, in his Appendix of "Downloaded Blog Fan Fiction," he presents us only with a list of "Full Titles" and "Web Addresses" of the stories, with no author names in sight. (The screen names of "Blogs, Blog Authors, and Commenters" appear in a second table, consistent with Booth's idea that the the entire blog post is the work of art.) But I'm of two minds about the move to credit the fannish collective rather than the individual author, vidder, or artist just at the moment when remix has been recognized as our time's most exciting artistic practice, as well as a potentially marketable skill.

[13] My own aesthetic, fannish, and feminist theories tell me that Booth, Busse, and Hellekson are right, and we should be suspicious of individual authorship, both in terms of what it represents and of what (and who) it suppresses. So my concern about the erasure of the individual author is tactical rather than theoretical; I believe it to be true, but I'm not sure I trust the practical applications of that truth. So I hope, both as a fan and as a feminist, that we come to appreciate the value of the collective and that, as Booth suggests, digital fandom becomes the model of knowledge production and creative activity. But I also wouldn't mind seeing more credit go to specific writers, artists, editors, vidders, podficcers, and other individual creative workers of fandom.


1. See Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), cover text. "She didn't write it. She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about… She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book! It's sci fi!)"

2. It may be worth noting that while fans aren't name-checked in Digital Fandom, scholars still are; we're not yet at the point of failing to credit academic workers with their ideas, even though those ideas are developed collaboratively and in a network, just as fan works are.

Works cited

Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson. 2006. "Introduction: Work in Progress." In 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.

Coppa, Francesca. 2008. "Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0044.

Pettitt, Thomas. 2007. "Before the Gutenberg Parenthesis: Elizabethan-American Compatibilities." Paper presented at Media in Transition 5: Creativity, Ownership and Collaboration in the Digital Age. Communications Forum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, April 27–29.

Turk, Tisha, and Joshua Johnson. 2012. "Toward an Ecology of Vidding." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0326.