Fan users and platform studies

Maria Alberto

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

[0.1] Abstract—An analysis of the issues and limitations inherent in platform studies considers what the field could offer fan studies despite such obstacles and notes some key concepts to keep in mind when considering a platform studies approach to fan studies work. Fan studies scholars may need to adapt certain elements of platform studies in order to suit both fan studies work and the wider cultural idea of what a platform is.

[0.2] Keywords—Ethics; Methodology; Reception

Alberto, Maria. 2020. "Fan Users and Platform Studies." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction to platform studies

[1.1] Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost introduced the term platform studies in 2007 during the first HASTAC conference in Durham, North Carolina, and formalized this concept two years later in Racing the Beam (2009), the first book in MIT Press's Platform Studies series. According to its creators, platform studies explores "the relationships between these systems [platforms] and creativity, design, expression, and culture" (4). Montfort and Bogost define platforms as "the hardware and software design of standardized computing systems" (2) and as one of five layers of technology present in all media, with code, form/function, interface, and reception/operation being the other four (146). Overall, platform studies operates from the idea that culture and computing have a close-knit relationship: cultural contexts shape platform development, and platform affordances and internal cultures enable different means of creating, sharing, and discussing creative content.

[1.2] Thus, platform studies already appears to share important features with fan studies. To begin with, both are interested in certain modes of production, but both also acknowledge that such modes neither exist in a vacuum nor can be separated from their larger cultural contexts. Similarly, both platform studies and fan studies require scholars to acknowledge the existence of communities with specialized knowledges, niche interests, and activities, which are often located within online spaces.

[1.3] Many important fan studies projects already build from the acknowledgment that platforms can influence, inform, or inhibit both fan works and the communities that make use of them. Because most platforms are for-profit technologies, they open up important questions about the possibilities of maintaining a gift economy such as fandom (Booth 2017; Stanfill 2019), the intersections between technological affordance and fannish practice (Stanfill 2019; Stein 2015, 2018), and the ethics of moderation (Gillespie 2018) and observation (Busse 2018; Jensen 2016; Stein and Busse 2009). In other cases, fan studies scholarship that acknowledges platforms' foundational role in new media fandoms is also acknowledging and appreciating fan users' central though still often "indiscernible" role (Apperley and Parikka 2018, 354) in the sociotechnical nature of that platform (Gillespie 2018, 18).

[1.4] However, despite the overlap, intersections, and dialogue between fan studies and the tenets of platform studies, there are few formal mergers between the two fields—an absence that could stem from a number of factors. In this brief essay, I explore some issues and limitations inherent in Montfort and Bogost's original conception of platform studies, discuss what platform studies could offer fan studies despite such obstacles, and note some key concepts to keep in mind when considering a platform studies approach to fan studies work.

2. Testing for bugs: Known issues and limitations of platform studies

[2.1] The very first issue regarding platform studies stems from its creators themselves: Montfort and Bogost conceptualize the term in two different ways, each with its own distinct connotations. For instance, in their HASTAC talk, they describe platform studies as "a rich approach that can provide a variety of insights about new media's evolution" (2007, 190, italics added), while in Racing the Beam, they use it as the plural of a term more analogous to case study (2009, 150), thus describing an individual analysis rather than an approach. Muddying the water still further, Bogost has claimed that "platform studies isn't a particular approach; you can be more formalist or materialist, more anthropological or more of a computer scientist…you'll still be doing platform studies, as long as you consider the platform deeply" (quoted in Jenkins 2009; italics added) and Montfort has insisted that the term doesn't denote "a methodology or even a method" (2018, ¶ 5). Thus, the term's creators themselves are often vague about what precisely platform studies entails, including whether they envision it as a tool, a concept, an approach, a field, or something else entirely.

[2.2] Despite this opacity, though, other scholars have taken up platform studies as a methodology, albeit with the common critique that "Montfort and Bogost primarily performed platform studies rather than explicate[d] its method" (Apperley and Parikka 2018, 350). Scholars in disciplines ranging from computer science to communication (Gillespie 2018), video game studies (Apperley and Parikka 2018), film and media studies (Anable 2018; Leorke 2012; Weltevrede and Borra 2016), cultural studies (Anable 2018), and even analog game studies with no digital component whatsoever (Bellomy 2017; Švelch 2016) have all drawn from platform studies' evaluation of creative content alongside the platforms that enable and house it, which is the same central concept that I imagine would be most productive to fan studies. The fan communities, cultures, practices, and works that are created and supported on one platform will be significantly different from those evident on another platform, and much of this difference comes down to what each platform's technological features enable users to do. Because exploring the attributes of a fandom already involves thinking about the platform (or, less commonly, offline space) where these attributes are observed, formalizing this implicit treatment through a platform studies methodology can increase a fan studies project's transparency while also decreasing potential biases and assumptions.

[2.3] The second known issue with platform studies as it stands is that Montfort and Bogost work from a technically limited definition of the term platform, using it in strictly computational terms. Indeed, in their "Frequently Questioned Answers," Bogost and Montfort (2009) commit an entire "Misconception" segment to the idea that "everything these days is a platform" (1, 3). However, others have pointed out that the definition of platform has been expanded to more "conceptual" meanings (Gillespie 2010, 352) that are deployed knowingly, politically, and strategically (Gillespie 2018) so that private companies can try to deny responsibility for the content they host (Judd 2019, ¶ 83).

[2.4] It might be easier, then, to follow Weltevrede and Borra (2016) in thinking of platform studies as divided into two camps, with Gillespie and his peers focusing on platform politics while Montfort and Bogost, and their followers emphasize "platform as architectures" (1). While both of these perspectives do "recognize how platforms preconfigure specific practices through designed features and functions" (1), they approach this shared admission from divergent angles: Gillespie (2018) finds that it is "too late" (20) to avoid the widely-accepted "sociotechnical" definition of a platform (18), while Montfort and Bogost continue to conceive of platform studies in computational terms. Fan studies can certainly draw from either camp, as Casey Fiesler's work demonstrates in its range from discussions of fandom migrations (Dym and Fiesler 2018) to a case study on the incorporation of feminist human-computer interaction (HCI) values in on AO3's design (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016): the former focuses more on the cultural or political ramifications of fans' moves across different platforms, with their varying conceptions of public space, while the latter emphasizes the more architectural aspects of AO3, such as its open-source code. So the platform politics and the platform architectures factions each offer something different but valuable to fan studies projects, depending on whether scholars are more interested in the cultural or the technical side of exploring how and why a fan community or fan work exists on a particular platform and in its particular relation to a canon text.

[2.5] A third known issue with platform studies comes from scholars who point out more theoretical limitations in Montfort and Bogost's work. Some note that platform studies implies a teleological linearity and that the MIT Press Platform Studies series "risks reducing platform studies to a generic formula that limits, rather than expands, the approach's contribution to studies of digital culture" (Leorke 2012, 258), while others worry that the singular focus on computing could exclude interdisciplinary scholars from other fields (Jenkins 2009). Still others point out that Montfort and Bogost's initial concept tends to underrecognize users' own roles in that vaunted relationship between creative content and platform (Apperley and Parikka 2018), particularly by ignoring bodies and experiences as additional "systems differently encoded by race, ability, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, and sexuality" (Anable 2018, 136). As Apperley and Parikka note, ideally users should be considered "central to platform studies" (354)—and I maintain that fan studies as a field would have an incredible advantage in doing so.

[2.6] Put another way, fan studies can address one of platform studies' most outstanding initial limitations by focusing on fans in their role as platform users: fan users, we might say. The shortcoming that Apperley and Parikka (2018) note above is that users play a particular role in bridging the spaces between a platform and the creative content on it; they argue that Montfort and Bogost don't consider this role enough. Fan studies, however, is already inherently invested in such users, and can even bring new insights to the politics-versus-architecture conversation specifically because fan works are so rarely the type of creative content that a platform was initially created to support, facilitate, or host (note 1).

[2.7] Fan studies scholars should be aware of these three issues—ambiguity about what platform studies is, different definitions of what constitutes a platform, and theoretical limitations of the concept itself. Nevertheless, as I demonstrate below, fan studies is already doing important work on platforms using a combination of the platform politics and platform architectures approaches, even if the term platform studies itself is largely absent from this work. These existing connections make it important to consider what a more formal platform studies approach or methodology might look like within fan studies, and why it might take these particular forms.

3. Reimagining a platform studies (approach) for fan studies (work)

[3.1] As mentioned above, much important fan studies work builds major arguments regarding field-specific methods, ethical issues, and their impacts upon the term platform (Booth 2012; Busse 2018; Jensen 2016; Stein and Busse 2009). So does significant scholarship on fan practices and fan production (Ellcessor 2018; Hills 2017; Hinck 2019; Morris 2018; Scott 2019; Stein 2015). Within these bodies of work, fan studies scholars often mention that a platform's visibility and accessibility to nonusers, as well as that platform's features, ownership, and culture(s), all influence what kinds of fans and fan works can be found there; likewise, these platform-specific factors all impact how scholars should approach those fans and fan works. To take two examples from among many, platforms are central to the ethical stance that the fan work "is never just 'a text' but [also] connected with the community surrounding [it]" (Jensen 2016, 262) and also to the realization that the work produced within fan spaces is intended only for certain publics (Busse and Hellekson 2012).

[3.2] Taken together, the scholarship that I've traced in part above, plus the ways in which fans tend to be early adopters of new technologies (Ellcessor 2018; Jenkins 2006), all signal that fan studies' interest in platforms will not diminish any time soon, and rightfully so. Similarly, the trajectories and interests discussed above also demonstrate that fan studies already "[considers] the platform deeply" (Jenkins 2009, ¶ 5) from a variety of platform politics and platform architectures approaches, even if these specific terms are not always in evidence.

[3.3] Unfortunately, the realization that fan studies could continue to benefit from a platform studies approach does not automatically translate into a clear-cut methodology to replace Montfort and Bogost's own rather opaque one, which mainly promotes "the investigation of underlying computing systems and how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them" (Montfort and Bogost 2009, vii). At the same time, though, the flexibility inherent in adapting this opaque approach may actually prove to be a strength when, as Karen Hellekson argues, "any methodology created in a field as fast-moving as fan studies would be obsolete within months" (Brooker, Duffet, and Hellekson 2018, 69). Ultimately, then, it may be more productive to sketch out important considerations for a fan studies–platform studies approach than it would be to outline hard-and-fast rules.

[3.4] First, a platform studies approach in fan studies work should consider and demonstrate how the project will deal with those three challenges named in the previous section: ambiguity, differing definitions, and theoretical limitations. That is, the fan studies project should make its own relationship to these three obstacles clear: whether it accepts/engages/builds from Montfort and Bogost's (2007, 2009, 2009b; Jenkins 2009; Montfort 2018) initial ambiguity, which of their differing definitions it has stakes in, and whether it engages with any of the limitations other critics have described.

[3.5] Second, a platform studies approach to fan studies work on platform "content providers" (Gillespie 2018, 19), such as Tumblr, Twitter, AO3, or, might also clarify whether this project draws more from the platform politics angle à la Gillespie or the platform architectures position assumed by Montfort and Bogost. That is, what will the fan studies project be considering more deeply—the computational-slash-technical side of the platform and how it works, or the more social and community-oriented part and how/where/why fan users employ those features? Or perhaps both in equal measure?

[3.6] Third, a fan studies project going this route is probably best served by outlining its own specific platform studies approach. As I hope to have shown with this brief essay, there are a whole host of interesting and productive concepts at play within platform studies more generally, such that the fan studies project can engage with ideas including "online content providers" (Gillespie 2010, 347), moderation as commodity (Gillespie 2018), larger cultural impact and influence (Montfort and Bogost 2009), simplification of delivery and development (Bogost and Montfort 2008), and more. Whatever the researcher's selections, though, it will be crucial to outline the fan studies project's specific methodology and engagement with platform studies concepts.

[3.7] Here, the flexibility and transparency with which we approach the ethics of fan studies work can also summarize my recommendations regarding a platform studies approach: "Within this complex environment, fan studies researchers must continue to interrogate our own research goals, motivations and protocols each time we enter a fan community or examine a fan work" (Zubernis and Davis 2016, 304). The three general considerations I've outlined above can be distilled to articulate a comparable suggestion: because each platform that fans utilize has its own forms of accessibility, ownership, features, and culture(s), the platform studies approach to each one should take the existence of such differences into account, even as platform studies itself can also broaden fan studies' capacity to study these differences.

4. Note

1. Archival platforms like AO3 and are counterexamples, since hosting fan works is their main purpose, but fans were not the only or even the main audience of purported users for social media and communication platforms such as Twitter and even Tumblr. Streaming platforms and mainstream publishing platforms complicate matters further, since their design for fan-users is intentional but limited. On these platforms, fan-users are expected to access, consume, and rate content, and sometimes even to curate it in limited ways, but there tends to be little explicit architectural or cultural support for other forms of engagement, particularly transformative ones.

5. References

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