Generations, migrations, and the future of fandom's private spaces

Brianna Dym

Casey Fiesler

University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, United States

[0.1] Abstract—An exploration of old versus young fandom indicates that this divide is fueled by shifting norms encouraged by migration across online platforms, with changes that focus on conflicting norms around the publicness of fandom. Although fandom has become more public facing, fans are also more broadly participating in activism, forming communities for political action and media criticism, causing long-standing fans to worry that these changes could lead to a collapse between private and public spaces. However, what makes fandom important remains intact: fandom is and will continue to be a home for those pushed to the margins of media.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Fandom; Privacy; Social norms; Technology

Dym, Brianna, and Casey Fiesler. 2018. "Generations, Migrations, and the Future of Fandom's Private Spaces." In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

1. Wandering into the unknown

[1.1] Fandom is an ever-evolving community of nomads, migrating across platforms and constantly attracting new members across generations. With fandom stretching back further than the internet, it is a small marvel that the community has traversed online platforms together while maintaining core values that still persist in the community's ever-evolving spaces (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016). However, while the community has persisted, it is also not immune to change.

[1.2] Over the course of several research studies concerning the relationship of fandom to online platforms, we have heard from many long-standing community members about how fandom and its participants have changed over the years, especially in regards to generational differences. Sometimes these differences reflect shifting norms—for example, related to the increasing publicness of fandom. Migration across online platforms also leads to changing interaction styles and expectations among fans as a result of different technological affordances such as more or less granular privacy settings. Younger fans have also embraced involvement in advocacy and activism both within fandom and more broadly. These descriptions of how fandom is changing contribute to a theme we observed; there is a creeping sense among fans that private and public spaces online might be collapsing into one another.

[1.3] Online fandom is a space that is at once both very personal and separate from all things personal, as people bring with them to fandom the parts that might not be welcome in their daily lives while also leaving behind connections to their real identities. Meanwhile, public platforms, an overall more mainstream interest in fandom, and increased public engagement serves to peel away the layers between fandom and the rest of the world. Our research suggests that these changes are seen in part as reflecting generational differences, with young fandom being more comfortable with new interaction styles and norms. In this essay, we explore the reasons and consequences for these changes, and we ultimately argue that fandom is functioning and will continue to function as it always has: as a safe space for people normally pushed to the margins of popular culture if they want to be themselves.

2. Changing scenery

[2.1] Tongue-in-cheek complaints like "Kids these days, get off my e-lawn!" are meant in jest, but they speak to legitimate concerns about how fandom might change, particularly coupled with the increasing visibility of fandom and the blending of fandom into mainstream culture. The traditionally private nature of fandom is rooted in long-standing issues such as social stigma or anxiety over copyright law (Busse and Hellekson 2012), and even the spreading popularity of geek culture brings with it the danger of segregating remaining outsiders that might not fit easily into this more mainstream mode (Busse 2015).

[2.2] However, norms around direct interactions between fans and media properties or celebrities are increasingly eroding the line between public and private spaces online (Lacasa, Méndez, and de-la-Fuente 2016; McNutt 2018), and even the design of platforms themselves is influencing the relationship between fans and industry (Stanfill 2015). This shift is something that newer fans may be accustomed to, while older fans may experience tension with existing secrecy norms. Similarly, normative shifts toward commodification of free culture for other types of user-generated content (e.g., using Ko-fi or Patreon) leak into fandom spaces as well (Murdock 2017) but may directly conflict with long-standing values of gift culture, or further erode the distinction between public and private spaces by requiring real identities for transactional purposes. These lands are unexplored for many people in fandom, but they may be the standard and the starting point of fandom for newcomers.

[2.3] As privacy attitudes generally have shifted away from individual and more toward networked privacy (Markwick and boyd 2014), users on public platforms such as Tumblr increasingly rely on obscurity to maintain their privacy (Cho 2017). This obscurity is enforced through the kinds of norms that fans have relayed to us in interviews: always use a pseudonym, do not connect your fandom spaces with real-name spaces like Facebook, and ask permission before sharing fan content beyond fandom. Because fan communities rely on these kinds of norms to maintain traditional values around secrecy, perceptions that younger fans are more open about their personal lives cause some anxiety about what this might mean for the future of these private spaces.

3. Fording a technology divide

[3.1] Generational differences are often characterized by changes in technology—for example, digital natives are defined as those who grew up immersed in information and communication technology (Bennett, Maton, and Kervin 2008). Similarly, generations of fans have grown up in different fandom spaces, including those who came of age in fandom before the internet, those who became active during the LiveJournal era, and those who first discovered fan works on Archive of Our Own or Tumblr (Schwedel 2018). Accordingly, because platforms have a heavy influence on behavioral norms—reflecting, reinforcing, and also shaping them (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016; Stanfill 2015)—how fans first experienced fandom might influence what behavior they think is appropriate.

[3.2] For example, LiveJournal's granular privacy settings allowed users to control the visibility of each post, filtering content to be private, for friends or certain groups, or available publicly. LiveJournal also allowed users to create communities that filtered both content and members into smaller spaces. In contrast, Tumblr does not allow for users to control privacy at the level of individual posts; nor does it allow grouping into private communities. Therefore, fans might form different set of norms around privacy and personal information depending on which platform they most called home. Older fans who came of age on LiveJournal sometimes find Tumblr's lack of private spaces unsettling, allowing fandom activities to be broadcast across the whole internet, as opposed to previous sites, which felt more intimate.

[3.3] According to a recent Pew report, teenagers are most active on YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram (Anderson and Jiang 2018), reflecting larger trends around younger social media users moving toward more one-to-one and/or visual communication. Those who might be more vulnerable, such as queer youth, also feel safer on platforms like Tumblr than they do on Facebook (Cho 2017). Despite Facebook having more privacy controls, it has an inherent publicness because of connections to a real identity; Tumblr, in contrast, may be public in the sense of technological affordances, but it is pseudonymous and has a very different community.

[3.4] These complexities around affordances of different platforms play out in ways that look more like social engineering—for example, choosing a platform on the basis of who is there rather than how much privacy control one has, or using multiple platforms for different purposes. In our research, younger fans typically cited multiple spaces for fandom participation. They still need spaces with more control, meaning that apps like Discord and Slack become important fandom spaces for private activities like group discussions and personal conversations. Meanwhile, fans continue to use Tumblr for more public activities like sharing art and fan fiction, or organizing advocacy across fan communities. Discord channels do not signal a retreat from open platforms; rather, they reflect a strategy for dealing with this lack of privacy control elsewhere.

[3.5] Moreover, beyond the mainstreaming of fandom, there is an increase in more purposeful public fan engagement. These outward-facing platforms give fans more tools to advocate for themselves and to participate in impactful activism. While social media already has a history of being a crucial resource for political action (Eltantawy and Wiest 2011), fandom has only recently started using social media explicitly for catching attention beyond fandom for the purposes of advocacy.

4. Making space through activism

[4.1] Though political participation and interest among young people was declining by the end of the 1990s, this trend reversed itself in correlation with the rise of social media and other forms of online participation (Bakker and deVreese 2011). Fandom is increasingly becoming a site for political activism, with members of fandom turning fan spaces into political discussion groups as well as taking action on key topics. Groups like the Harry Potter Alliance focus their efforts on effecting political change by connecting political topics to themes from the Harry Potter novels. Henry Jenkins notes that a "striking feature of post-millennial politics is the ways in which pop culture references are shaping political rhetoric and movement practices" (2015, 208), or in other words, fandom participation might encourage activism (Neville 2018).

[4.2] Fan activism can involve large, outward-facing efforts that target major political change through encouraging voting, writing to politicians, or volunteering at nonprofits; or it can focus internally on critical media issues such as diversity. This flavor of fan activism benefits from public platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, and with Tumblr's focus on social justice, fans are able to impact media with their activism efforts more than ever before.

[4.3] One illustrative example was the fan reaction to the death of the character Lexa on the television show The 100 (2014–). With Lexa occupying space as a major lesbian character on a mainstream television show, her death (which eerily matched Tara's death scene on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1996–2003) sparked outrage among LGBTQ fans, who rallied under the Lexa Deserved Better hashtag and later moved to form the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement, an effort targeted at critiquing popular media's use of the "Bury Your Gays" trope to kill off LGBTQ characters for an emotional reaction from the audience (Ng 2017).

[4.4] In response, fans worked together to donate queer-friendly books to struggling fans who found the episode upsetting, purchased billboards that critiqued the show's decision, and raised over $140,000 for the Trevor Project (Misailidou 2017). The LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement pushed on to be involved in multiple protests and critical discussions; it even helped organize Clexacon, a now annual and well-attended convention specifically for LGBTQ fandom with an emphasis on queer women. So why would something like this not have happened over twenty years ago? What makes fandom the right space for this kind of action and protest on a global scale?

[4.5] It is precisely the public-facing nature of social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter that made LGBT Fans Deserve Better possible. The open nature of these platforms allows for broader reach and connection with different fandom groups across the world. While this open design can lead to uncomfortable clashes, it also serves the important purpose of providing a place for public protest (McNutt 2018). Fandom will always have an insular component to its underlying values, evidenced by fans utilizing apps like Discord and Slack to create small-group spaces—but online public spaces also allow fans to be more empowered than ever. This change means that overall, fandom is more present in the public than it has been, but the newer members of fandom have helped put this visibility to good use.

5. Remembering where we have been

[5.1] The new opportunities afforded by a more public-facing fandom are not without their own struggles and concerns. Privacy is still an important part of fannish identity, and the challenges that sites like Tumblr and Twitter create have prompted fans to build smaller, more insular communities on separate apps like Discord and Slack. As reflected by the nuanced privacy strategies often used by young people (Cho 2017; Markwick and boyd 2014), fans are able to control who is and is not involved in these spaces, sometimes restricting access to an invitation-only policy or requiring a screening survey before someone is admitted. Private and public spaces have not necessarily collapsed into one another, as older members of fandom may fear. Instead, the rooms for conversation have just been reorganized. However, the public side of fandom is still there, and fandom is using it to give voice to its marginalized members.

[5.2] Fandom has always been a highly resilient community, with its ability to adapt evidenced by initiatives like Archive of Our Own and Fanlore to preserve fan values and history (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016). Fandom will continue to change in ways we cannot yet anticipate, but these changes reflect the diversity and evolution of fandom rather than drawing divides. Just as the idea of digital natives has been critiqued as a distinction without a difference (Bakker and deVreese 2011), the concept of young and old fandom may not matter at all. No matter where we wander, fandom will continue to be home for those who need it.

6. References

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