The next wave in participatory culture: Mixing human and nonhuman entities in creative practices and fandom

Nicolle Lamerichs

Creative Business, HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht, The Netherlands

[0.1] AbstractDisruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data will radically change the interactions and media that fans rely on in their communities. The membership of fandom will also change by the participation of nonhuman entities such as chatbots. New interfaces and technologies will soon create a more data-driven fandom, which I predict will lead to participatory culture being shared with nonhuman entities and to a celebration of creative products created by nonhuman entities.

[0.2] KeywordsArtificial intelligence; Characters; Chatbots; Future thinking; Holograms

Lamerichs, Nicolle. 2018. "The Next Wave in Participatory Culture: Mixing Human and Nonhuman Entities in Creative Practices and Fandom." In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

1. Introduction: A future scenario of Pleakwood Pines

[1.1] Imagine that fandom in the future is not a space where we celebrate stories after we consume them. Rather, it is a prefandom. Through careful data analysis, we already know that we will like a certain show, because it fits our profile. Both the show's creators and its potential fans know that we will instantly love Pleakwood Pines because it was a perfect match with our media consumption pattern.

[1.2] Pleakwood Pines starts not as a story but as an experience. This next generation of Twin Peaks (1990–91, 2017–) follows the citizens of a remote town, but it is more than a text. It is a tailor-made, highly personalized, and never-ending live stream. Endowed with artificial intelligence (AI), the characters of the show appear in our living room as holograms. The cast is open to our input. In fact, we share long conversations. The characters' AI is not completely perfect, but they learn and develop, just like us. Each of us experiences the text differently. What the characters tell me might not be what they tell you. Based on dialogues with us, they may trust us more or less.

[1.3] My favorite character is Laura, who is vaguely inspired by Laura Palmer, but more mysterious and mature. Laura is a famous character who not only appears in film and television, but also writes stories herself. That's right—she writes her own fiction, set in the universe of Pleakwood Pines, in which she adds to her own history. Remix culture is essential in the Pleakwood Pines franchise. While characters create their own stories, users do too. The characters learn from this, and they adopt fan creations as part of their language and history.

[1.4] The lore of Pleakwood Pines is vast, most of it written by the characters and fans. The designers curate the AIs from time to time, but the characters themselves created the village in which this murder mystery/soap opera is set. The AI-driven characters share a canon, and certain key events are televised for the world to see. However, the franchise is highly personalized. When I talk to Laura outside of televised events, I get different conversations than you do. Some of us make a habit of "casting" (live streaming) these intimate conversations to get more clues about the canon and its murder mystery.

[1.5] We fans call ourselves Pinies, which refers to the titular pines but also to a sense of pining. We long for more content; we obsess over it. This show is our life. We appreciate the text's fluidity and the fact that we feel that no one truly owns it—it is a database rather than a story. We constantly remix it. We do not feel like followers but like owners of this product. The cast itself is part of our fandom and has befriended us. Still, some fans do not enjoy remixing and participating this actively in the story. They enter the experience more as spectators, and their favorites and views are monetized.

[1.6] You and I met in this fandom, and we have a deep connection. I tell you what Laura said to me, and you cast your moments with her. We follow the data like breadcrumbs as we try to unravel this mystery together. Perhaps one day we will solve it.

2. Approach

[2.1] Fandom is changing rapidly. Our age can be characterized as a media-driven fandom, revolving around copyrighted texts owned by big players in the creative industries, but this age will be disrupted when the inevitable shift to the user occurs. These possible futures, as well as the Pleakwood Pines scenario I opened with, are the outcome of forecasting. By watching trends and thinking about the future based on current trends, it's possible to predict that fans and audiences will be the most important nodes in the business of creating content. They will be the investors, curators, and creators of stories, but also of large data sets. This new age of data-driven fandom will be fueled by algorithms and self-learning machines that expand our knowledge, creativity, and taste.

[2.2] Futurists such as Alvin Toffler (1970, 1980), who predicted the global village and trends related to the information age, and Wired author Kevin Kelly (n.d.; 2016), who examines current trends and what drives them in order to create plausible scenarios about the future, provide a model for thinking about the future that business and academia are now increasingly turning to. The Institute for the Future ( publishes studies that combine trend watching and forecasting for health care, education, and employment; staff member and game designer Jane McGonigal (2017) makes the point that by imagining the future, we can make it happen.

[2.3] Forecasting helps us see possible futures and, more importantly, evaluate them and take action. The future cone model may be used to portray alternative futures (Hancock and Bezold 1994) (figure 1). The cone is based on a taxonomy of futures by Henchey (1978) that outlines four categories of futures that ought to be kept in mind when future casting: possible, plausible, probable, and preferable. By envisioning if something is likely to happen and if we want it to happen, we can think critically about the future.

A diagram showing a cone composed of several colored lines, labeled 'Preposterous, impossible, won't ever happen' 'Possible, Future, Knowledge, might happen' ' Plausible, Current Knowledge, could happen' and 'The Projected Future, the default extrapolated baseline business as usual future'

Figure 1. Future cone by Joseph Voros ( Used with permission.

[2.4] This model makes it possible to analyze current trends in predictions about the future, and by using it, I predict two essential aspects of fandom of the future, each of which is signposted in the Pleakwood Pines scenario: we will share participatory culture with nonhuman entities; we will celebrate creative products created by nonhuman entities.

3. Sharing with nonhuman entities and tools

[3.1] Although of course fandom has a long history, new interactive tools made it easier to form digital communities around these subcultures. Social media made the audience an active participant in media reception and creation rather than a passive consumer. This digital fandom is shaped by online communities and social media (Booth 2010). Participation is the norm today. Fans and users have combined production and consumption practices, celebrated as "prosumers" (Toffler 1980). Indeed, fandom is a pivotal example of a participatory culture with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement" (Jenkins 2009, 5). Key values in such a culture are providing informal mentorship, creating and sharing content, and feeling connected.

[3.2] A participatory culture like fandom is social and creative. Thanks to new technologies, a new form of participation will emerge that involves nonhumans as important actors—a shift that has already begun. Entertainer Hatsune Miku, a fan-driven hologram and interface, deploys character, interface, and technology. All the music she sings is fan created, crowd sourced, and remixed (Le 2014). Performances such as operas are curated by a wide range of creators (video 1). As the world's first virtual idol, Hatsune Miku's success depends on openness, a revised idea of ownership, and co-creation. These elements pave the way for an open, crowd-sourced, collaborative future.

Video 1. Opening of Vocaloid opera "The End" in Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris (2013).

[3.3] Humans are growing increasingly connected to nonhuman devices: AIs, chatbots, and personal assistants such as Siri or Alexa provide new interfaces, with the latter relying on voice rather than text. Amazon's Alexa, inspired by Star Trek's computer (Green 2017) and first used in the smart speakers Echo and Echo Dot, plays your favorite music, audiobooks, or podcasts; forecasts the weather; and syncs with our other devices. Alexa assists users in their daily habits. To activate Alexa, we simply speak her name, thus addressing her personally—and blurring the line between human and nonhuman. Relatedly, in Japan, tech company Vinclu has developed Azuma Hikari, a small hologram in Gatebox, a smart device that also functions as a personal assistant. The device comprises a clear projection tube that shows the computer-animated AI character. Vinclu is planning multiple avatars and personalities for the Gatebox, which is a portal to these other dimensions (Gallagher 2016). As Alexa and Azuma Hikari indicate, our spaces are no longer run exclusively by humans anymore, and this trend will only escalate. Technology allows the characters we know and love to become increasingly real—first a voice through a speaker, then a computer-animated image—and soon they will communicate with us in fan spaces.

[3.4] From personal assistants, it is only a small step to affective relationships. Azuma Hikari is also presented as a possible object of love: users can marry her by submitting a registration form on the official website, a union categorized as a tokoukyoku marriage. The mobile dating game Love and Producer (Elex, 2017), which provides virtual companions, is a big hit in China: "Since its launch in December 2017, the game has been downloaded 7 million times, with females representing 90 percent of the downloads" (Feng 2018). Players date fictional boyfriends in an ongoing story. Players can have a happy, romantic ending with their character of choice; they can experience a simulation of love. An ongoing trend in the future will be fandoms surrounding these heavily personified interfaces. The fandom and the user base cannot be separated from the designers and the character itself, who speaks to its users and can even officially become their partner. Fandom will change when characters become so real that we can marry them, admire them as holograms, and make them our waifu (Bayle 2017). In the imagined future—in our fandom of Pleakwood Pines—we can have romantic relationships with characters as well, and they will respond accordingly. They are still simulations, but we care about them deeply and on a personal level. We want to believe that their love is real.

[3.5] Another way in which we can already become more intimately connected to characters is through chatbots. This technology is already used for marketing and media purposes to automate customer services. Some companies have already realized that there is more potential here. What if fictional characters could talk to us? Marvel experimented with this by creating Spider-Man and Star Lord chatbots. Although narrow in their responses, they pave the way for the future. To try them, go to "" to address Spider-Man on Facebook Messenger, or send a Twitter direct message to @Marvel or @Spiderman. Recently a team of researchers from the University of Leeds created a system capable of learning to generate talking avatars of characters appearing in TV shows, which could make these fictional characters "virtually immortal" (Charles, Magee, and Hogg 2016). Their work on a chatbot based on Joey from Friends (NBC, 1994–2004) was especially well received. Microsoft Research also launched a self-learning Twitter bot, Tay, in 2016 (@TayandYou), although it became controversial because by analyzing Twitter messages, the bot learned to behave like a troll, posting rude messages. This was partly because trolls had attacked the bot and thereby trained it to behave like this.

[3.6] These bots are just the beginning of an increasingly complex participatory culture. Subcultures will eventually be filled with different interactions with and by technologies. This shift is hugely important—and happening right now. Participatory culture started from the bottom up, with producers separated from consumers, and relied on peer-to-peer relationships, but based on current technologies and how companies continue to expand into participatory virtual ventures, this will change. Sock puppets, trolls, and algorithms will shape our fandoms—indeed, they have already begun to do so. Events like the Trump and Clinton US presidential campaigns in 2016 made us aware of how easy it is to spread fake news and persuasive messages based on emotion instead of facts. Sock puppets' fake accounts allow them to post strategically, thereby involving others in their cause (Lamerichs et al., forthcoming). Bots and algorithms can be used to spread (mis)information even faster and further because they can be trained to automate this process. Microsoft's Tay showed us how easily trolls can manipulate a bot to send out hate speech; AIs can and will spread corrupt data because humans teach them to do so. We must develop strategies to cope with this, perhaps by putting systems in place to regulate user behavior, including ethical guidelines and technological gatekeeping.

4. Celebrating new automated forms of creativity

[4.1] AIs, chatbots, and bots today are highly curated and not yet very smart or creative—but they soon will be. They will get more creative in the future, creating fiction and media that are also likely to gain followers. These bots may earn fandoms of their own. We are seeing a rise of fandoms around nonhuman creativity already. For instance, the deep learning algorithm Aiva became the first recognized nonhuman composer in 2016, acknowledged by SACEM, an authors' rights society. On YouTube, Aiva's music is truly celebrated. As YouTube user Ben Powell states in a comment to video 2: "This is terrifying for HUMAN composers…"

Video 2. "Aiva—1Hour Movie Collection," posted by Aiva (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) (August 15, 2017).

[4.2] In 2016, IBM's computer system, Watson, used machine learning to analyze a database of film footage and create a film trailer: "Using machine learning, Watson modeled the scenes visually and emotionally, then analyzed hundreds of other movie trailers for other films in the same genre, in order to learn relevant lessons to create the trailer. Watson didn't have final cut on the trailer, however, and functioned more for organizing scenes and moments that would then be analyzed and polished by a final editor" (Haine 2016). The result was an AI-created trailer for the film Morgan (2016), a film that fittingly has AI as its main theme.

[4.3] Writing is another area where nonhumans perform remarkably well; some have already gained fandoms of their own. For example, using a database of Harry Potter books, Botnik Studios (2017) generated a predictive text for a new volume in the series. It immediately went viral. The short chapter "The Handsome One" is both eerie ("a great black ceiling, which was full of blood") and absurd ("Ron's Ron shirt was just as bad as Ron himself"). Although the story is not well written, fans appreciate the awkward language, which lends it an edgy style and out-of-the-box dark humor. No human could have come up with this. The chapter reads like an extreme piece of fan fiction; already it is a cult favorite in line with other badly written Harry Potter pastiches, such as the infamous fan fiction My Immortal (2006–7). Tumblr celebrated the bot story; fans posted beautiful and witty art under the hashtag #beefwomen on Twitter.

[4.4] The emergence of media created by AI will feed into fandom and change creative business as we know it. In Pleakwood Pines, for example, the characters add to their own backstory, becoming the coauthors of their history and biography. Soon creative business and fandom will be among the first social spaces with human and nonhuman participants. Diversity in fandom will not gesture toward nationality, gender, or age but rather will be related to the differences between humans and nonhumans. As a result of these technological changes, fandom will celebrate not fixed stories but rather characters and technologies created by mass media and human authors. The very technologies that have empowered us will soon start self-creating, thus changing what it means to produce art, stories, and characters.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Fandom started as a form of appropriation and poaching (Jenkins 1992). Fans took properties of the media industry and remixed them. We are comfortable in our fan spaces; our space is less contested, and we are no longer engaging in copyright wars with Fox or J. K. Rowling (Jenkins 2006). But we need to be wary. Our spaces will soon be colonized by platforms that pretend to act in our best interest, begging us to buy their goodies and like their content. As fans, we will have to come to terms with the fact that participatory culture will not only comprise like-minded individuals but also humans, nonhumans, businesses, data, and interfaces. Fan practices will change as a result.

[5.2] The Pleakwood Pines scenario highlights what will affect fans when humans and nonhumans co-create large story worlds and exist together in one fandom. These different agents will influence relationships and intimacy in participatory cultures. No machine can mimic the DNA of fandom, which is fueled by genuine affect that machines and algorithms cannot feel. We may fall in love with fictional characters, but they do not (yet) love us in return.

[5.3] Affect is central in fandom, and as we know, it does not always go both ways. We may love a text, character, or celebrity, but the relationship is usually one-directional (or parasocial). The cast of Pleakwood Pines may interact with us, but they will never care about us. However, we will care about them; our whole fan experience will be shaped by them. We will write stories with them and learn from them. Still, they can never truly empathize with us. Fandom is about affect, care, and love. Can we love a text or a machine, regardless of reciprocity?

6. References

Bayle, Alfred. 2017. "Marriage to Anime 'Waifu' Recognized by Japanese Company with Perk of Monthly Financial Support." Lifestyle Inquirer, November 23, 2017.

Booth, Paul. 2010. Digital Fandom. New York: Peter Lang.

Botnik Studios. 2017. "The Handsome One." Chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.

Charles, James, Derek Magee, and David Hogg. 2016. "Virtual Immortality: Reanimating Characters from TV Shows." In Computer Vision: European Conference on Computer Vision 2016 Workshops, edited by G. Hua and H. Jégou, 879–87. Cham: Springer.

Feng, Jiayun. 2018. "Love and Producer, the Chinese Mobile Game that has Millions of Women Hooked." Supchina, January 16, 2018.

Gallagher, Sean. 2016. "The Holographic Anime 'Robot' That Will Keep House for Lonely Salarymen." Ars Technica, December 18, 2016.

Green, Penelope. 2017. "Alexa, Where Have You Been All My Life?" New York Times, July 11, 2017.

Haine, Charles. 2016. "How IBM's Watson Used AI to Edit the Trailer for Upcoming AI Thriller Morgan." No Film School, October 13, 2016.

Hancock, Trevor, and Clement Bezold. 1994. "Possible Futures, Preferable Futures." Healthcare Forum Journal 37 (2): 23–29.

Henchey, Norman. 1978. "Making Sense of Futures Studies." Alternatives 7 (2): 24–28.

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

Jenkins, Henry, with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation.

Kelly, Kevin. n.d. "1,000 True Fans." Revised from original 2008 essay. Technicum.

Kelly, Kevin. 2016. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. New York: Random House.

Lamerichs, Nicolle, Anna Lange-Böhmer, Mari Carmen Puerta Melguizo, Dennis Nguyen, and Radmilla Radojevic. Forthcoming. "Elite Male Bodies: The Circulation of Alt-Right Memes, and Framing of Politicians on Social Media." In "Toxic Fan Practices," edited by Bridget Kies and William Proctor, special issue, Participations.

Le, Linh K. 2014. "Examining the Rise of Hatsune Miku: The First International Virtual Idol." UCI Undergraduate Research Journal.

McGonigal, Jane. 2017. "The Future of the Imagination." Aspen Ideas To Go Podcast, June 7, 2017.

Toffler, Alvin. 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.

Toffler, Alvin. 1980. The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books.