Digital space and Walking Dead fandom's Team Delusional

Tosha R. Taylor

Manhattanville College, Purchase, New York, United States

[0.1] AbstractAs previous fandom studies have shown, fans' disappointment in canon narratives may lead to adaptations and fragmentations in fan communities. This article examines Team Delusional, a subset of Walking Dead (2010–) fandom that emerged on Tumblr after the death of a series character. Rather than accepting the character's death as canon, Team Delusional has built a postobject fan community around the theory that the character secretly survived and will return to the series. Largely overlooked or even rejected by the larger Walking Dead fandom, this group continues to use Tumblr as its main community base. By deploying Tumblr's specific features and politics, the group maintains its identity and engages in interpretive practices that resist canon restrictions and intrafandom conflict. This analysis of Team Delusional's interpretive practices on Tumblr demonstrates the ways in which this social media platform particularly lends itself to postobject counternarrative fan subgroups.

[0.2] KeywordsDigital community; Fan community; Fandom conspiracies; Hashtag; Interpretive practice; Multimedia; Postobject fandom; Television; Tumblr

Taylor, Tosha R. 2018. "Digital Space and Walking Dead Fandom's Team Delusional." In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Beth Greene deserved better, she deserved everything. And they killed her. And I won't ever forgive them for what they did. (Tumblr user, December 1, 2014) (note 1)

[1.2] They killed hope for all of us. (Tumblr user, December 1, 2014)

[1.3] I just can't believe they did this. So I'm left with this awful feeling like "What am I supposed to do now?" (Tumblr user, December 1, 2014)

[1.4] These reactions appeared on Tumblr the day after the airing of 5.08 "Coda," the midseason finale of The Walking Dead (2010–), which ended with the death of a particularly polarizing core character, Beth Greene. The physically slight, softspoken young woman lacked the propensity for violence and survival skills common among the show's more popular characters, for which she was often criticized. Yet subsequent to her development in the fourth and early fifth seasons, she gained a small yet vocal following. Her death in "Coda" came as an unwelcome shock to her fans, many of whom initially felt it occurred for unacceptable reasons (such as shock value or furthering male characters' pain). A campaign was mounted to persuade the showrunners to "Bring Beth Back," including a petition that ultimately gained 65,738 signatures, and a "Spoon Riot" in which fans mailed plastic spoons (a reference to Beth's finding of a spoon that foreshadowed the core characters' future location) to AMC's offices. Arising concurrently with such demands, however, were alternate views of her death scene that were disseminated online, primarily via Tumblr. Previously devastated fans began asking if it were possible that Beth had not actually died at all. The question soon evolved into proposed theories of her survival.

[1.5] When the series returned from its midseason hiatus in February 2015 and Beth did not, these fans were not dissuaded. Rather than succumbing to what Cohen (2004) and, respectively, Tsay-Vogel and Sanders (2017) call a "parasocial breakup" with a text that has displeased them, they have transitioned to a postobject fandom in which, according to Williams (2011), fans continue to interact with the fan object after it has become "dormant" (266). Yet, while Williams further describes the postobject fandom as occurring when the fan object "yields no new installments," this group believed new installments were, in fact, still ongoing (266). The fandom grew as time passed without Beth's return, encouraged by perceived references to Beth hidden in the show's narrative and promotional materials. Online, fans created and disseminated complex theories to explain that Beth's death was artful misdirection. In response to criticism from other Walking Dead fans, the group adopted the name "Team Delusional." Despite the passage of two additional seasons of the show, Team Delusional has survived as a stigmatized group within the larger Walking Dead fandom, updating their theories with new episodes of the series. To support their theories, members also monitor the social media of the show's creators and performers, analyze marketing materials, and compose lengthy intertextual essays.

[1.6] Recent studies have identified Tumblr as being particularly conducive to fandom practices (DeSouza 2013; Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014). Though its members use other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Walking Dead forums, Tumblr serves as the primary base for Team Delusional. This article will examine the ways in which Tumblr's interface and features have facilitated Team Delusional's development as a community, their production of transformative works, and other fannish practices. However, I will also argue that Tumblr serves a dual purpose for Team Delusional: while the site has become a relatively safe space for members, Tumblr's obscurity and cliquish tendencies relative to other platforms (such as Twitter) create a sense that this group has been relegated to a stigmatized digital space. Throughout this article, I will consider Team Delusional in the context of postobject and conspiracy fandoms to elucidate the ways in which they maintain their community through utilizing this particular social media platform. For conciseness, hereafter "Team Delusional" will be abbreviated to TD, an abbreviation that is also accepted by the group itself.

2. Situating Team Delusional

[2.1] The communal nature of fandom has been discussed since the inception of fan studies, with many commonalities remaining despite fandom's continued evolution (Jenkins 1992; Hills 2002; Chadborn, Edwards, and Reysen 2015; Tsay-Vogel and Sanders 2017). Such commonalities include shared passion for the media object, active engagement with the object through interpretive practices, and the production and dissemination of transformative works. Postobject fandoms often include the same practices. Williams (2011) argues that, after the fan object's conversion to "dormancy," its fandom is not over but rather sees changes in the ways such practices manifest (269). For instance, rewatching episodes, a practice Williams (2015) posits as integral to television postobject fandom, allows fans to produce new discussions and works. Such practices have proven essential to TD, whose members return to past episodes to connect them to new ones. A sign Beth kept in her jail cell-turned-bedroom in season 4 is, for example, interpretively linked to a nearly identical sign on a villain's fortress in season 7 and is thus considered a sign of Beth's impending return.

[2.2] TD members are not simply postobject Beth fans, however. They are a much smaller subset of Beth fans whose community is built upon the belief that this character secretly survived a seemingly fatal wound and has been hidden by the showrunners from the audience for years. In this way, the fandom resembles other conspiracy-based television fandoms, such as The Johnlock Conspiracy (TJLC) fans of the BBC's Sherlock (2010–17) who believe that the show's creators have misdirected viewers by placing their male leads in heterosexual relationships to disguise a canonical same-sex romance; like TD, this fandom is primarily based in Tumblr (Collier 2012). Acceptance of the basic conspiracy theory (that Beth survived and will return) is a necessary shared conviction within the community. Individual TD members are not required to create their own subtheories, but they must adhere to certain general interpretations of the canon text, as well as the actions and statements of the show's creators, performers, and marketing partners. They may, for instance, disagree with the theory that Beth was bitten by a walker (the show's term for zombies) and will be integral to a future immunity arc upon her return, but there is a general interpretive consensus that the presence of the show's theme song over the ending credits to "Coda" was meant to signal her survival.

[2.3] Outside of fictional contexts, conspiracy theory–based fandoms include those centered on celebrities. While TD's theories do not resemble these as closely, some notable overlap exists, particularly as many of TD's theories involve observation and narrative explication of the performers' actions, statements, and personal lives. Writing of celebrity death conspiracy theories, Ballinger (2014) finds that such fandoms "transform [fan objects] into symbols" for their communities (182). As a young, optimistic woman whose abilities are called into question by both characters and the show's fans, a secretly surviving Beth serves as a figure of fan identification for some audience members. Additionally, according to Ballinger, the conspiracy theory elevates the fan object. By participating in the conspiracy-based fandom, TD members believe they recognize and propagate the true importance of a character often otherwise neglected by the larger fandom.

3. Team Delusional and digital community

[3.1] According to Booth and Kelly (2013), the relocation of fandom to online spaces has "augmented" fannish practices and "made fandom as a whole more visible" (57). Booth (2015b) notes that fans have become "more rigidly categorised" as a result of this heightened visibility (288). TD members may participate in other fandoms, but within the larger Walking Dead fandom and among themselves, "Team Delusional" functions as a distinct community marker. Some members maintain separate Tumblr blogs and accounts only for participation in TD. While Tumblr requires only that a blog's URL is publicly visible, users wishing to categorize themselves as TD may place TD markers in their usernames or optional blog descriptions, the latter of which often function as shortform autobiographies. Markers popularly include "Team Delusional" or its abbreviation, references to "Bethyl" (a portmanteau representing the ship of Beth and fan favorite Daryl Dixon), or simply the #Team Delusional hashtag. Identifying oneself so explicitly as a TD member simultaneously signals solidarity with this fandom subset and with an underdog character, but it also opens users up to criticism and harassment from other Walking Dead fans. TD members who identify themselves as such thus invite community while inherently signaling resistance to adversity from the larger fandom.

[3.2] Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter (2014) find that Tumblr allows a fluid movement in and out of fan communities through which fans "are part of the fandom they feel they are" (4). As it is based upon an unpopular conspiracy theory, TD is particularly fluid, with members moving from TD to Team Fence, who are unsure of Beth's survival but believe, based upon fan-curated evidence, that it is a future possibility, and Team Acceptance, former TD members who no longer believe the theory but who may still participate in the TD community. Fans may change their Team identification depending upon their current feelings about the show's development and at times receive encouragement to do so from other members (note 2).

[3.3] Quantification of TD's membership poses a number of problems. The number of likes for TD posts on Tumblr would seem to indicate that the community is much larger than a count of its most active members would suggest. Indeed, while a foundational discussion may only involve a few TD members, the discussion may receive more than 100 unique likes by Tumblr users who do not actively contribute to the theories but who consider themselves part of the community nonetheless. However, likes recorded on the original post need not relate to the original post at all but may instead be linked to reblogs (including those critical of TD), or may simply express approval of some of the post's content without signaling TD membership. Members have periodically sought to perform headcounts by requesting likes and reblogs, but the resulting numbers may be skewed when the requests are recirculated, as recirculation on Tumblr allows the same users to like/reblog the post anew. Furthermore, as likes and reblogs are publicly visible as notes under the original post wherever it appears, users who wish to avoid ostracization for being TD might forego participation in these headcounts. Tumblr, therefore, initially enables and subsequently complicates efforts at quantifying the community.

[3.4] Regardless of the community's size, its members have recognized and used Tumblr's particular interface and features to establish a presence on the periphery of the larger Walking Dead fandom. Here, believers can congregate, converse, build upon their own and each other's fannish works, and avoid the criticism that typically follows when their theories are acknowledged on other sites. The use of Tumblr's features also enables forms of fan governance within and outside the fan groups themselves. The collective mourning of Beth fans on Tumblr after "Coda" as expressed in the quoted passages that begin this article (part of the "loveshock" phenomenon that precedes postobject fandom [Williams 2011, 27]), has transformed into a viable fandom subset complete with gatekeepers, internal hierarchies, intrafandom conflicts, and perhaps most importantly, an organized system of production and interpretive practices.

4. Tumblr's interpretive capabilities

[4.1] Digital fandom spaces enable fans to engage in more participatory and interpretive practices and facilitate more personal interactions between fans and media creators (Busse 2013; Bourdaa and Delmar 2016). Because of its conspiracy-based nature, interpretive practice is the key manifestation of TD's productivity. Fandom studies has often awarded the fan a "position of expertise" (Booth 2015a, 87). Such a position is not undeserved, for, as Jenkins (1992) notes, fans' readings of their texts may rival even those performed by academic scholars. Because of this attention to detail, passionate fans notice "discrepancies and contradictions" occurring within the fan object (Leavenworth 2014, 141). TD bases much of its theories on such discrepancies, creating complex explanations for deviations in visual or narrative continuity, seemingly unfulfilled storylines, and apparent gaps in footage, all factors that may make significant contributions to postobject fandoms (Williams 2011). For instance, shortly after "Coda" aired, fans' visual analysis of Beth's death scene revealed that the bullet's trajectory could not possibly match the manner in which it was fired (a practice common to death conspiracy theories). Stills from the scene were quickly disseminated on Tumblr, with users adding lines to the images to highlight the discrepancy. Similar discrepancies that TD commonly cites as being unaccounted for in the show's canon, as documented on Tumblr, include a seventeen-day gap in the narrative after Beth's death, footage of the main cast members running from an unseen threat during that time, a broken music box canonically representative of Beth that begins to play again, and one character's accusation that the core group "sacrificed one of [their] own" in season 5, an accusation that does not clearly correspond to any other deaths that season. Conspiracy interpretations thus offer fans a means of publicly explaining points the show itself has neglected.

[4.2] Because of their strong emotional connections to the text, their own fan communities, and their wealth of "discursive resources," fans approach texts with certain expectations for their primary object of interest (Davis et al. 2014, 51). TD members approach each new episode with the hope that it will work to confirm their theory of Beth's survival. When the episode contains an element they may link to Beth, members are quick to update and explicate their interpretations and, subsequently, to disseminate their analyses online, with Tumblr serving as the primary production/dissemination point. This practice also occurs when an episode does not contain any clear references to Beth herself but rather to things perceived by TD as secretly signaling her future return, such as yellow clothing, scissors, or tunnels.

[4.3] Zubernis and Larsen (2012) identify three modes of fan practice: the technical, the analytic, and the interpretive. TD falls between the analytic and interpretive spaces on this model, fusing "analysis of the text from within the parameters of the text itself" and "interpretation of texts from without the text by comparing them to something else," often other television series but at times more traditional narratives such as classical mythology (18). Their fannish productions include both blogs (analytic) and more conspicuously transformative works (interpretive), and these are combined so intricately that, barring Beth's actual return, their more detailed written analyses hosted on Tumblr may be deemed akin to fan fiction (note 3). Furthermore, as will be discussed below, their production/dissemination of fannish works takes advantage of Tumblr's place on the border of the semipublic and the private, fans-only space, which affords them some anonymity even as it prevents their theories from receiving wider spread validation from others within the greater fandom (18).

[4.4] Through digital platforms, fans' commentaries also take on the role of reproducible text (Hills 2013). Booth (2015b) finds that the blogs are not discrete and insular but rather "the combination of the post plus the comments (plus the multitudinous blog entries written over time)" (43). Tumblr reblogs both further disseminate the original blog content and create new content through commentary and other textual additions, such as reaction GIFs. Such posts become infinitely reproducible, gradually transforming with subsequent modifications and amendments. A further textual layer is added when posts are intentionally recirculated. For instance, it is common for TD members to reblog old posts as reminders to the existing community, as a means of boosting morale when a specific prediction or subtheory has failed to manifest in the series, and as new information to new readers. Each recirculation, then, may be imbued with new or multiple intentions as well as alterations to the original interpretation. Tumblr's notes feature, which records likes and reblogs regardless of whether or not they include new commentary, may also be counted as an added, communal textual layer, for these typically indicate support for the text, and even in the case of reblogs without commentary, present the text to a wider audience.

[4.5] Bothe (2014) further finds Tumblr particularly appropriate for fandom practices as a result of its allowance of mixed media posts. Tumblr's primary interface is a multipurpose dashboard that, in addition to displaying posts by followed blogs, is also the point at which users reblog and create content (DeSouza 2013). Individual contact between users may also result in content generation for the community. Users may publish asks they receive from other Tumblr users publicly if they choose, and anonymous questions (which may be sent by users without Tumblr accounts) must be answered publicly (Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014). Tumblr's "highly visual-focused nature" further enables users to engage in participatory consumption and interpretive practices (DeSouza 2013).

[4.6] Tumblr's facilitation of graphic communication enables visual rhetoric within the larger corpus of TD's evidence of Beth's survival. In a post dated August 8, 2015, a user juxtaposed several images of actress Emily Kinney crying in character with screenshots of her crying on her final appearance on the talk show Talking Dead (2011–) to argue that, because Kinney was complicit in the conspiracy, her weeping was merely a performance. Here, the two-column multirow image format allowed on Tumblr establishes a graphic argument before the reader even sees the user's analysis. Similar visual arguments are easily constructed and disseminated in the same manner. Indeed, discussion of the technical discrepancies in Beth's death scene noted above often receive a multimedia treatment, with screenshots, GIFs, and behind-the-scenes DVD footage interspersed with analytical commentary in a single post.

[4.7] The same multimodality is applied to discussions and fan interactions. In a post dated April 28, 2016, a TD member reblogged a post addressing Beth's age, a contentious topic in Walking Dead fandom because of the popularity of the Bethyl ship and Beth's early establishment as a teenager (note 4). The original post begins by quoting an unspecified interview with Kinney, then quotes contradictory information from a previous interview. The contradiction is then explained in the Tumblr user's own commentary. On the next line of the post, the user references actor Scott Wilson (who portrayed Beth's father) and his seeming approval of the ship in another interview, for which the user provides a YouTube link. A screenshot is then provided of Wilson voicing a similar sentiment on Twitter. This text/image juxtaposition continues immediately below but still within the same post, as the user first quotes actor Norman Reedus (who portrays Daryl) in two separate interviews, then provides a screenshot of the actor's confirmation of an implied Bethyl romance in his 2014 Reddit AMA. From here, the user quotes an interview with actress Lauren Cohan (who portrays Beth's sister), once again providing a link to the source within the text. Finally, the user concludes with their own affirmation of the character's adulthood. Throughout the post, the user bolds text they find particularly significant, adding another implied gloss to the collected text. In a similar post on January 26, 2017, a TD member responded to an anonymous ask regarding Kinney's schedule for a new series (which could preclude her from secretly filming for The Walking Dead) using text, screenshots of Twitter posts by other actors in the new series, a production notice for the series (which another TD member was credited with providing), and set photos. Far from anomalies, these analytical curations are common in TD's Tumblr discussions.

5. Community tags

[5.1] Another Tumblr feature that appears integral to TD's fandom practices and community maintenance is the use of hashtags. Although typical search engines such as Google may include results from Tumblr and some Tumblr blogs include an internal search feature, tags are perhaps the simplest means of finding content (Bell 2013). Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Tumblr allows spaces in tags, thus making multiword tags easier to read and interpret (note 5). On Tumblr, TD appears to have an unofficial monopoly on #Team Delusional, to the point that members of other fandoms using this tag may be publicly cautioned. In response to insults and trolling, TD has also adopted the label and hashtag #Team Defiance. Other common tags centric to TD's postobject nature include #Beth Is Alive, #Beth Will Rise, and #Beth Greene Deserved Better. Additional hashtags may be utilized in response to specific events; after Beth did not return in The Walking Dead's seventh season, one user proposed that #TDLives be used for a week to affirm the community's continuance.

[5.2] Tags also provide a means of categorizing information and thus lend themselves to interpretive practices. Describing fans' listmaking, Booth (2015a) finds "order made of disorder" and a "database" emerging from "an inherently unordered collection of raw bits of data" (90). Navigating TD's myriad theories, evidentiary images, links, and other artifacts would pose great difficulty for readers elsewhere, but through utilizing Tumblr's tagging system, users have created such order from disorder. TD-specific tags allow readers to find these artifacts and build an understanding of collective and individual interpretations within the group. Formative TD members have turned their blogs into databases by using the tagging system and have also created corresponding directories to facilitate readers' experience. Tags may pertain to predicted narratives within the larger scenario of Beth's survival, specific props (the music box, Beth's hunting knife, conspicuously emphasized clocks), and perceived artistic and literary allusions.

[5.3] In addition, users often write commentary in the form of tags, a practice that is especially useful when reblogging non-TD content for TD purposes (note 6). Tagging a reblogged image from another Walking Dead episode as #Coda, for instance, may highlight a discrepancy between the cited episode's statements, visuals, or narrative and Beth's death scene. A GIFset of Daryl reacting to another character may be reblogged with #Daryl Misses Beth to argue that the scene is a covert reference to Beth meant to keep her in the audience's memory. After the show's seventh season finale, which restaged a scene that originally included the Beth-symbolic music box with the box now missing, a TD member reblogged another Tumblr user's screenshots from the scene with #Music Box to draw TD members' attention to the absent prop. In this way, a wide variety of posts may be reappropriated into TD's theories.

[5.4] The use of tags is, perhaps unsurprisingly, political. Deller (2015) argues that, despite a lack of official rules regarding tags, Tumblr communities establish their own conventions. Tumblr users discourage using tags simply to identify the topic of a post; rather, the use of a tag here ideally indicates the post will be supportive of the tag's subject. (Obvious exceptions include content and trigger warning tags and posts about distressing subjects). A fan posting in the #Bethyl tag, then, is expected to support the ship. So pervasive is this convention that many fans perceive negative posts in a tag as a form of harassment. This perception is not without merit in TD's case. TD's stigmatization has given rise to a number of troll accounts whose purpose is to collect TD posts for the purpose of mockery. Public ridicule, which may include identifying information and personal accusations, are then placed in the TD tag. To further annoy TD members, one such account uses as its avatar a close-up of Beth's head as the bullet exits her skull; this avatar then appears beside every post this user places in the tag so that, unless they manually block this user, all readers following #Team Delusional are confronted by the inflammatory image. Thus, while tags allow for the easy aggregation of information and content appropriation, they may also be used against fandom groups.

6. Fandom pariahs

[6.1] While Tumblr shares features with other social networking sites and fan forums, it suffers from neglect or even stigma in many popular discourses. Studies of Tumblr are still nascent, and at the time of this writing, even some academic knowledge of its marginalization appears to rely on personal user observation. Writing of tension between Tumblr and Reddit, Mogilevsky (2014) finds that Tumblr "has emerged as a scapegoat for everything that's perceived 'bad' about social justice" as a result of politically minded posts that have gained popularity there. Outside of its concern for identity politics and its callout culture, Tumblr has also gained a "reputation as something of an insular platform, a space for artists and advocates and kids," and while similar sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and even individual blogs are frequently acknowledged in mainstream news, Tumblr typically does not receive such attention (Dewey 2015). In short, Tumblr seems less likely to be considered a valid discursive space, and therefore TD's primary location there evokes a sense that, regardless of users' agency, this controversial fan subgroup has been relegated to its obscurity. This relative obscurity, however, affords users some protections. With only a URL visible by necessity, Tumblr may potentially reveal no identifying details of its users and thus may serve as a social media experience entirely divorced from its users' offline identities (Bell 2013; DeSouza 2013; Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter 2014). Writing of the queer community, Bell contends that Tumblr "become[s] a public manifestation of [a] private face" which requires no explanations from its users (33–34). This characterization may be easily extended to fandom, particularly for fan groups and subgroups deemed unpopular or controversial.

[6.2] Unlike many fan-centric forums, Tumblr boasts a general lack of moderation that is particularly conducive to stigmatized fandoms. While fan spaces challenge notions of ownership and social hierarchies (Hills 2013; McCulloch, Crisp, Hickman, and Janes 2013), they are not always or entirely democratic. The personal moderator in particular may function as a censor and wields a degree of power over other participants in the fan space; in "determin[ing] the baseline rules of discussion," the moderator may establish a status quo within a community and inhibit those who do not abide by it (Gibson 2017, 2351). It is perhaps no surprise that very vocal fandoms, including other conspiracy-based fandoms such as TJLC, have gained ground on Tumblr. More problematic and personally invasive fandoms, such as those based upon conspiracy theories regarding members of the band One Direction, have also found a home on Tumblr (Jones 2016b; Asquith 2016). The site has no limitation on how users approach or contribute to a discussion or on the frequency of topics being addressed, as there is, for instance, on Reddit's various fan forums, where posts deemed by moderators to be too similar to other recent discussions or too unpopular may be removed from public sight entirely or may be downvoted to oblivion by other users, a phenomenon that may result in the post or comment being rendered invisible. Similar practices occur on more specialized forums. In short, while fan interactions present their own risks (as discussed below), the absence of conspicuous moderating forces is likely an initial factor in TD's ability to maintain their community on Tumblr.

[6.3] TD's adoption of Tumblr may also be rationalized through the acknowledgment of stratifications within fan groups. Competing and opposing methods of fan engagement and interpretation may lead to fragmenting of fandoms, which in turn gives way to a division between more publicly acceptable practices/interpretations and those left on the margins (Jenkins 2006). Such stratifications occur, in part and whether intentionally or not, as a result of the privileging of only certain relationships among fans and between fans and media creators (Johnson 2007; Scott 2013; Booth 2015b). TD's relationship to Walking Dead canon particularly places them at risk. The group, as reflected in the statements with which this article begins, was born out of disappointment and even outrage at the show and its creators. Simultaneous dissatisfaction with and love for the text, according to Jenkins (1992), leads fans "to try to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within original works" (24). Williams (2011) sees a similar phenomenon in the "loveshock" that follows the death of a fan object character, which is exacerbated by a perceived lack of narrative satisfaction. TD's fusion of postobject fandom and conspiracy theory position them as less-than-ideal fans when compared to media creators and fans whose interpretations of the canon are deemed more acceptable.

[6.4] While canon creators do need their fans (Jenkins 2013), they are also selective about the kinds of fans they want publicly representing their work (Johnson 2007). Creators determine which interpretations and interactions are valid and may promote their work in ways that invalidate or even penalize fans who present alternatives to approved approaches. As The Walking Dead has aligned itself more closely with the source comics (in which Beth does not exist), it seems unlikely that the creators of an androcentric zombie drama might wish to encourage a small fanbase whose basis is a somewhat peripheral, young female character primarily associated with a controversial romantic pairing. TD, furthermore, poses something of a threat to the accepted overt canon by assigning particular intentions to showrunners. Just as celebrity death conspiracy theorists help raise their object to an "iconic" status (Ballinger 2014, 182), TD demotes the show's central narrative (currently that of a war between hypermasculine factions) to argue that the true but as-yet-covert narrative is that of Beth's resurrection.

[6.5] Extrapolating on terms coined by Dreamwidth user obsession_inc, Busse (2013) notes two particular types of fan works: "affirmational" works that uphold the boundaries of the canonical texts and "transformational" works that privilege fans' interpretations over the canon (82). We may locate TD at the intersection of these types, for the group simultaneously dismisses the surface canon and posits itself as the true interpreters of the real canon. In reinterpreting, remixing, and appropriating canonical works that have left them dissatisfied, fans do not necessarily reject canon authors outright but rather hold them responsible for erring, at times rejecting events within the canon. In this way, TD has been particularly resistant to the Barthesian reading common in fandom studies (Goodman 2015). TD and similar canon conspiracy fandoms such as TJLC find artful deceptions in problematic narratives. They do not argue, for instance, that Beth was not shot; accepting as canon the brief image of the bullet wounds on Beth's head, they verify what all spectators are able to see (she was shot) while arguing for a truth we do not see (being shot did not actually kill her). In this way, they credit the canon authors with a high degree of manipulative creativity.

[6.6] Yet, as noted above, even a flattering interpretation may not be approved by creators. Jenkins (1992) writes that, particularly when fans' readings run counter to intentions, creators may take action to keep fans "in line" (19). Creators of some popular series have represented such fans negatively on the shows themselves, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and Supernatural (2005–) serving as prime case studies (Johnson 2007; Stanfill 2013; Goodman 2015). To date, The Walking Dead has not lampooned TD within its own narrative, but outside of Tumblr's relative safety, parties associated with it have engaged in behaviors that may appear to be calling attention to TD, if not outright trolling them. An overview of such interactions reveals a marked difference in the fandom's discursive capabilities on and off Tumblr and thereby imbues their location on Tumblr with added social justification.

[6.7] Few of the show's creators acknowledge TD as a viable subset of their fandom. In a March 2017 interview, executive producer Greg Nicotero maintained silence when a crowd of fans shouted support for Beth's return, but in the previous month, in an interview with Rodney Ho of, he referenced pro-Beth campaigns as an example of how fans' desires do not dictate the show's direction. Most explicit policing of fans' preferences, however, seems to occur through marketing channels. Official Twitter accounts of the show's media team have made jokes about Beth's survival, implicitly encouraging approved fans to mock TD in their own comments and replies. Shortly after TD began to form in 2014, the official Walking Dead Facebook account linked an article entitled "How to Bring Beth Back" that proposed ways Beth could still appear on the show, preceded by the caption "Okay, it's been a Beth heavy week … You'll see that headline and roll your eyes, we know." Comments were largely vitriolic toward the nascent TD and were neither removed nor discouraged by the account's moderators. Official Facebook and Twitter accounts have deployed language reminiscent of TD to acknowledge Emily Kinney's other projects, advertising her debut LP with "Beth is back!" in 2015. In January 2017, as part of their series of fan reactions to characters' deaths, the official Twitter account referred to "Beth's *ahem* fate" rather than her death, a noticeable difference from the language used in other videos and which TD members promptly noticed. The account later identified a mysterious hooded figure as Beth; subsequent comments included a mix of fans' criticism and praise for trolling TD.

[6.8] Actors who appeared in Beth's season 5 solo arc have notably provided vague responses to TD's questions that are certain to (and do) encourage the belief that Beth will return. Their engagement with TD is an anomaly in Walking Dead performers' social media, which is usually quite limited in casual correspondence with fans. As the main cast members' social media accounts are all much less interactive with fans and must also refrain from posting even the most minor spoilers, the allowance of these actors to publicly troll TD points toward a larger disregard for this fandom at best and an open disdain for them at worst (note 7). Skeptical TD members have speculated on Tumblr that the actors may also be engaging in a practice similar to the queerbaiting that is commonly also suspected by discouraged members of TJLC (Collier 2012).

[6.9] Just as canon producers may undermine fan's desires, "antagonistic corporate discourse" may be deployed to help shape a preferred "consumer [fan]base" (Johnson 2007, 298). Unapproved interpretations may still play a part here, for, despite fandom's oft-cited engagement in materialistic consumer culture, TD members' requests for Beth-centric merchandise have been met with public mockery on more popular social media platforms. When a Twitter user asked the official Funko account "how many times do i gotta ask for a beth greene pop" on December 11, 2015, the account responded, "More. Way more. She dead" (regardless of the fact that Funko has licensed Pop figures for other deceased Walking Dead characters) (note 8). Funko was quickly called out for their response on Twitter and, when screenshots of the interaction were posted on Tumblr, Tumblr users also mobilized in contacting Funko directly. Their efforts resulted in a Twitter apology and a longer explanation of product licensing restrictions via email. Both forms of response were reported to TD Tumblr accounts as screenshots, where they could be archived and discussed within the community.

[6.10] This system of reporting is common for TD members, who may discuss antagonistic discourses, typically occurring elsewhere, in the relative safety of their community and may choose whether or not to engage on more public and personally identifiable platforms. It is apparent from this system that while some TD members may feel comfortable engaging on other platforms, Tumblr remains their rallying base. Yet while Tumblr does offer users agency over their anonymity and viewable content, it is not an entirely safe space. Busse (2013) writes of "geek hierarchies" in which "wherever one is situated in terms of mockable fannish behavior, there is clearly a fannish subgroup even more extreme than one's own, and it is that group that one can feel secure in not being part of" (78). Evidence of such hierarchies is present in any Walking Dead fan space, but TD's location on Tumblr inadvertently makes Tumblr an equally appropriate space for anti-TD accounts. Indeed, Hillman, Procyk, and Neustaedter (2014) find that fan groups cite "anti" blogs and behaviors as the "largest negative aspect to Tumblr fandoms" (5). One method of trolling TD using Tumblr's interface has been described previously; more frequent methods include augmenting screenshots of TD posts with mocking commentary and submissions of insults and even threats directly to TD members. Such behaviors, described by Johnson (2007) as "fantagonism," are an inherent component of fandom, but particularly fandom subsets with controversial or unapproved interests (Jones 2016a). Yet while Tumblr's lack of moderation means that fantagonism will not be censored, TD members have utilized Tumblr's block feature to limit their visibility to antis and tag categorization to create a cautionary database of such accounts. With both sides of this informal fan war constantly adapting their tactics, Tumblr is a simultaneous community enclave, site of mobilization, and battleground for this (and similar) fandoms.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] At the time of this writing, there is some doubt regarding TD's future. Disappointment after The Walking Dead's seventh season finale ran high, and while in previous years, members following actors' social media accounts believed they had gleaned evidence that Beth scenes were secretly being filmed, Emily Kinney's public summer 2017 schedule has made such conspiracy-based beliefs difficult to sustain. A number of previously active TD members have changed their affiliation to Teams Fence and Acceptance. Although TD has sustained itself for over two seasons without their theories manifesting in the series, it seems possible that the Team may move away from conspiracy fan theories and further into a truly postobject fandom.

[7.2] Some limitations of this study must be acknowledged. As this research was conducted entirely through observation of TD as facilitated by the online features described in this article, some fannish practices were not as visible as others. For instance, while Tumblr is used for the dissemination of links, some transformative works, such as fan fiction, are still primarily situated on other sites such as AO3. In addition, as Tumblr allows for private direct messaging, many interactions between users are not publicly available. Discussions of interpersonal conflict between TD members and antis appear to only partially occur in publicly viewable space, leading to public accusations of offensive behaviors that cannot be verified through mere observation (note 9). Although efforts have been made to present this group as objectively as possible, those efforts are hindered by Tumblr's public/private dichotomies. What this study reveals, then, is what Tumblr itself makes most readily discoverable.

[7.3] Regardless of the seeming unlikelihood of TD's theories manifesting on The Walking Dead, it is clear that this small fandom has carved a digital space for itself that warrants scholarly study alongside more prominent postobject fandoms. Tumblr has indeed emerged as a platform conducive to fan practices, and it is through negotiations of the site's features and peculiarities that this group has forged a fluid community that is often unwelcome elsewhere. Moreover, that the group's origins can be clearly traced through Tumblr's public archives lends it a significance in studies of the site outside this fandom's speculative subject. Members have, without moderation or external assistance, collaboratively created directories, archives, and analytical compendia that, to return to Jenkins above, are on par with or even exceed academic treatments. In this way, TD's Tumblr presence digitally exemplifies the possibilities for counternormative, conspiracy, and postobject fandoms, especially those that lack support in larger fan communities.

8. Notes

1. To protect fans' identities, I have omitted usernames, blog names, and other information that could be used to identify specific parts discussed in this article.

2. This fluid movement is facilitated by the show's creators, who occasionally make verbal or imagistic references that can easily be interpreted as pertaining to Beth. While it is possible that such references are entirely unintentional, their execution and timing do lend credence to the possibility that the creators are baiting TD members (or, as TD believe at the time of this writing, planting clues signaling Beth's return).

3. It is not within the scope or purpose of this paper to comment on the validity of TD's interpretations. I will, therefore, not propose that they are correct nor will I discount them.

4. The original post, created the same day, was written by a Beth fan who is not a member of TD who, in 2016, voiced support for the TD fandom. As reblogging itself constitutes a form of textual production on Tumblr and Beth's age is a frequent topic of TD discussion, I have cited the TD member's reproduction of the post here.

5. Some TD members insert spaces into hashtags while others do not, thereby creating two possibilities for each tag. For convenience, only one version is presented in this discussion.

6. At the time of this writing, unlike likes and reblogs, added tags are only made visible in a post's notes if the viewer uses certain extensions on their browser. Tag commentary, therefore, still allows most users to avoid unwanted scrutiny in notes.

7. For example, in the summer 2016 hiatus between The Walking Dead's sixth and seventh seasons, Norman Reedus posted, then quickly removed, a photo that subtly contradicted promotional material regarding the cliffhanger with which season 6 had ended.

8. As of July 2017, Funko has yet to release a Beth figure in its flagship Pop line, though recent requests for one are still posted on their website. The only Beth figure they do offer at the time of this writing is a blind box miniature; according to the official product information, purchasers have a 1/36 chance of receiving Beth. Funko's 2017 In Memoriam line, which exclusively featured deceased Walking Dead characters, failed to include Beth.

9. Lending some credence to the idea that some TD members have been the subject of unprovoked discursive attacks, however, is the fact that when I publicly voiced an interest in this fandom subgroup online, I soon received a threatening message from an anti.

9. References

Asquith, Daisy. 2016. "Crazy About One Direction: Whose Shame Is It Anyway?" In Seeing Fans: Representations of Fandom in Media and Popular Culture, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth, 79–88. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ballinger, Dean. 2014. "'Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Good-Looking Conspiracy': Celebrity Death Conspiracies." Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 3(2): 173–89.

Bell, Lenore. 2013. "Trigger Warnings: Sex, Lies, and Social Justice Utopia on Tumblr." Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA-PGN 6(1).

Booth, Paul. 2015a. "Fans' List-Making: Memory, Influence, and Argument in the 'Event' of Fandom." Matrizes 9 (2): 85–107.

Booth, Paul. 2015b. Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Booth, Paul, and Peter Kelly. 2013. "The Changing Faces of Doctor Who Fandom: New Fans, New Technologies, Old Practices?" Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10 (1): 56–72.

Bothe, Gemma. 2014. "'If Fandom Jumped Off a Bridge, It Would Be Onto a Ship': An Examination of the Conflict that Occurs Through Shipping in Fandom." Paper presented at ANZCA, Melbourne, Australia, July 8, 2014.

Bourdaa, Mélanie, and Javier Lozano Delmar. 2016. "Contemporary Participative TV Audiences: Identity, Authorship and Advertising Practices Between Fandom." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 13 (2): 2–13.

Busse, Kristina. 2013. "Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10 (1): 73–91.

Chadborn, Daniel, Patrick Edwards, and Stephen Reysen. 2016. "Reexamining Differences Between Fandom and Local Community." Psychology of Popular Media Culture: 1–9.

Cohen, Jonathan. 2004. "Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity." Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21 (2): 187–202.

Collier, Cassandra M. 2012. "The Love that Refuses to Speak Its Name: Examining Queer-Baiting and Fan-Producer Interactions in Fan Cultures." Master's thesis, University of Louisville.

Davis, Charles H., Carolyn Michelle, Ann Hardy, and Craig Hight. 2014. "Framing Audience Prefigurations of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: The Roles of Fandom, Politics, and Idealised Intertexts." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 11 (1): 50–87.

Deller, Ruth A. 2015. "Simblr Famous and SimSecret Famous: Performance, Community Norms, and Shaming Among Fans of The Sims." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8.

DeSouza, Megan. 2013. "A Case of the Red Pants Mondays: The Connection Between Fandom, Tumblr, and Consumption." Major Papers by Master of Science Students. University of Rhode Island.

Dewey, Caitlyn. 2015. "2015 is the Year that Tumblr Became the Front Page of the Internet." Washington Post, December 23, 2015.

Gibson, Anna. 2017. "Safe Spaces and Free Speech: Effects of Moderation Policy on Structures of Online Forum Discussions." Proceedings of the 50th Hawaiian International Conference on System Sciences.

Goodman, Lesley. 2015. "Disappointing Fans: Fandom, Fictional Theory, and the Death of the Author." Journal of Popular Culture 48 (4): 662–76.

Hillman, Serena, Jason Procyk, and Carman Neustaedter. 2014. "alksdjf;lksfd': Tumblr and the Fandom User Experience." Paper presented at the Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, Vancouver, BC, Canada, June 21–25, 2014.

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

Hills, Matt. 2013. "Fiske's 'Textual Productivity' and Digital Fandom: Web 2.0 Democratization versus Fan Distinction." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10 (1): 130–53.

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

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. "The Guiding Spirit and the Powers that Be: A Response to Suzanne Scott."In The Participatory Cultures Handbook, edited by Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, 53–58. New York: Routledge.

Johnson, Derek. 2007. "Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions, and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom." In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 285–300. New York: New York University Press.

Jones, Bethan. 2016a. "'I Hate Beyoncé and I Don't Care Who Knows It': Towards an Ethics of Studying Anti-fandom." Journal of Fandom Studies 4 (3): 283–99.

Jones, Bethan. 2016b. "'I Will Throw You Off Your Ship and You Will Drown and Die': Death Threats, Intra-Fandom Hate, and the Performance of Fangirling." In Seeing Fans: Representations of Fandom in Media and Popular Culture, edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul Booth, 53–66. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Leavenworth, Maria Lindgren. 2014. "Canon Authors and Fannish Interactions." Journal of Fandom Studies 2 (2): 127–45.

McCulloch, Richard, Virginia Crisp, Jon Hickman, and Stephanie Janes. 2013. "Of Proprietors and Poachers: Fandom as Negotiated Brand Ownership." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10 (1): 319–28.

Mogilevsky, Miri. 2014. "A Brief History of the War Between Reddit and Tumblr." The Daily Dot, May 23, 2014.

Scott, Suzanne. 2013. "Who's Steering the Mothership? The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling." In The Participatory Cultures Handbook, edited by Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer Jacobs Henderson, 41–52. New York: Routledge.

Stanfill, Mel. 2013. "'They're Losers, But I Know Better': Intra-Fandom Stereotyping and the Normalization of the Fan Subject." Critical Studies in Media Communication 30 (2): 117–34.

Tsay-Vogel, Mina and Meghan S. Sanders. 2017. "Fandom and the Search for Meaning: Examining Communal Involvement with Popular Media Beyond Pleasure." Psychology of Popular Media Culture 6 (1): 32–47.

Williams, Rebecca. 2011. "'This is the Night TV Died': Television Post-Object Fandom and the Demise of The West Wing." Popular Communication 9:266–79.

Williams, Rebecca. 2015. Post-Object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Zubernis, Lynn, and Katherine Larsen. 2012. Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.