Review

Fans and fan cultures: Tourism, consumerism, and social media, by Henrik Linden and Sara Linden

Lesley Autumn Willard

University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Brand fandom; Commercialization; Consumer culture; Digital fandom; Fan tourism; Media fandom; Music; New media; Sports

Willard, Lesley. 2020. Fans and Fan Cultures: Tourism, Consumerism, and Social Media, by Henrik Linden and Sara Linden [book review]. In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1927.

Henrik Linden and Sara Linden. Fans and fan cultures: Tourism, consumerism, and social media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, hardcover, $152 (234p) ISBN 978-1-137-50127-1.

[1] Over the last two decades, as digital fandoms have grown and spread, we have witnessed the increasing (and increasingly visible) commercialization of fan cultures and practices. Fans and Fan Cultures: Tourism, Consumerism, and Social Media seeks to address that shift by modeling a broader and more interdisciplinary conceptualization of fandom through the lens of consumer culture. As scholars predominantly focused on cultural tourism and consumerism, Henrik Linden and Sara Linden productively expand their scope beyond media fandom to include music, tourism, brands, and sports. That breadth allows for macro analyses of the qualified power, circumscribed agency, and neoliberal ideologies wielded by consumers in the entertainment and experience economies—regardless of their specific fandoms or industries.

[2] From that macro positioning, Linden and Linden grapple with the discursive dichotomy of fandom in a capitalist paradigm: fans as deviant liabilities versus fans as ideal consumers. In so doing, they situate and deconstruct the enduring stereotypes that have shaped perceptions of fans in popular discourse, industry strategy, and academic study. From fans as pathological narcissists to fans as subcultural activists, Linden and Linden reassess these representations in the context of contemporary consumer culture—how constructions and expressions of fan cultures have (or have not) shifted in the wake of open platforms and industrial cultivation.

[3] This book offers more of a realignment than a revision, (re)considering cultural, digital, and fan studies literature in conjunction and conversation with marketing perspectives and parlance. Linden and Linden aim to "find some kind of synergy between seemingly disparate fields of scholarly and professional practice, and their take on fans and fan cultures" (38). This synthetic approach (along with its macro perspective) allows Fan Cultures to serve as a primer that explores power, agency, and ideology through the act of consumption. In an era of unprecedented fandom expansion and co-optation, mainstreaming and surveillance, consumption and commercialization, the authors map the new normal and how that shifting valence and valuation impacts the perception of fans within industry and academy alike.

[4] The monograph is comprised of ten chapters, separated into two main sections: the theoretical framework and the application of that framework to a variety of fan cultures. The organization of the book is particularly well suited toward pedagogical ends. In each chapter, Linden and Linden provide extensive synthetic literature reviews on a constellation of topics—divided by subheadings—and apply those lenses to abbreviated examples like Comic-Con and West Ham United. The authors also include a brief summary at the conclusion of each chapter, emphasizing the key takeaways and reiterating the importance of consumer culture analyses in fan studies. This organization, along with the thematic nature of the chapter structure, renders Fans and Fan Cultures: Tourism, Consumerism, and Social Media modular, accessible, and teachable, especially at the upper division level.

[5] Chapters 2, 3, and 4 set the "theoretical 'scene,'" chiefly focused on challenging and expanding traditional understandings of fans to address contemporary (and often conflicting) consumer ideologies and industrial classifications (5). Chapter 2, "Fans, Followers and Brand Advocates," sketches the complex and fluid web of designations and hierarchies adopted by marketers—from fans to followers, advocates to influencers, niches to fandoms—and their implications for industrial co-optation and immanent commodification in digital spaces. In addition to putting industrial and academic definitions in conversation, this chapter highlights the terminological slipperiness of such classifications, claiming marketers are intentionally blurring the boundaries between fans and consumers to encourage increased loyalty and engagement.

[6] Chapter 3, "Fans and (Post)Subcultural Consumerism," builds on this work to argue that as the boundaries between fans and consumers continue to erode, so too do the subcultural subjectivities and transformative potentialities of fan cultures. Linden and Linden seek to qualify the agency and activism often ascribed to fans in fan studies literature: "While most fan scholars would like the opposite to be true, it appears that fans are not able to carve out an alternative to the pursuit of consumption as duty, but attempts at doing so merely heighten the fact that we live in a consumer society where even the everyday and mundane needs to be elevated to meaningful experiences" (49). They argue that social media, open platforms, and neoliberal ideologies have granted brands the opportunity "to spread their net further through the commodification of the alternative and 'independent,' and through immersing contraculture into the mainstream—effectively rendering contraculture impossible" (44). In this conceptualization of contemporary fandom, subcultural incorporation and neoliberal individualism have essentially reduced the active agency of fans to the act of consumption.

[7] Chapter 4, "Text and Representation: The Community and The Individual," continues this thread, arguing that the visibility afforded and commodified by social media technologies has neutered the politics and normalized the representations of fandom. Here, social media is a double-edged sword: it simultaneously grants fans enough visibility to wield limited consumer power and commodifies that visibility as gratis promotion on public, searchable, and traceable platforms like Instagram. Thus, fans are atomized, quantified, and normalized as idealized neoliberal consumers. This chapter clearly establishes how and why corporations have reappraised fans operating on digital platforms, progressing from fearing their transformative potential to courting their promotional potential. Linden and Linden argue that while the discursive dichotomy persists in industry doctrine—with fan cultures assessed based on perceived threat to intellectual properties and public relations—fan representations are more positive than in previous eras. They note that "the cause for this normalisation in perception and representation of fans is linked to the acceptance of consumer culture and, perhaps, also the acceptance of neoliberalism as a natural order" (75). While marketers certainly do normalize, legitimize, and leverage some aspects of fandom for promotional purposes—as Linden and Linden argue here—it is important that we qualify these claims and acknowledge that this strategy is intentionally limited to a narrow segment of fan practices, communities, and identities. Without qualification, such discursive construction can lead to universalized, myopic, and ultimately misleading representations of contemporary fandom(s).

[8] The remainder of the book applies their theoretical framework to a refreshingly broad swath of fan cultures, ranging from traditional subjects like film and television fandoms to growing areas of inquiry like sports and music. In Chapter 5, "Celebrity Culture and Modes of Participation Through 'New' Media," the authors provide a brief history of film stardom in Hollywood and establish the context of digital (micro)celebrity. In both instances—classical Hollywood and contemporary Twitter—Linden and Linden posit that "the rise of mass celebrity culture was made possible thanks to new technology" (102). While citing material technologies like film stock, this history also highlights the role played by social technologies like fan magazines and social networking sites in modeling consumption and promotion practices. Undergirding the argument that technologies shape fan engagement, this chapter illustrates their earlier claims about the persistence and vicissitudes of fan representations, vacillating from savvy consumers to pathological fanatics and back again over the last century.

[9] The following two chapters address comparatively understudied areas within fan studies: tourism and sports. Chapter 6, "Fans and Tourism," proposes a particularly broad conceptualization of fandom and/as tourism. In addition to fan pilgrimages like Forks, Washington and Platform 9¾ the authors widen their purview to include events and places that attract international attendees like art exhibitions and party destinations, as well as the technological and industrial forces that promote and perpetuate such tourism. For instance, they emphasize the crucial role that Instagram, travel blogs, and DMOs (destination management/marketing organizations) play in helping "local attractions and institutions to promote their destination as fan friendly" (125).

[10] Conversely, Chapter 7, "Football Fans: Representations, Motivations and Place," pitches much narrower. Focusing primarily on English football, Linden and Linden detail the escalating tension between corporate and fan interests. As sports institutions—clubs, teams, leagues, sponsors, networks, stadiums—leverage their global brands and reach, they effectively lessen the power and ownership of their core fanbases. This chapter aptly showcases the limits of corporate benevolence, as loyal fans quickly become liabilities when one or both parties overstep the tenuous (and unwritten) terms of engagement between franchise and fandom.

[11] In the final two chapters, the authors further explore the role of social media through a broad-based investigation of popular culture fandom. Chapter 8, "Popular Culture Fandom: Broadening the Picture," focuses primarily on auditory fandom, ranging from musicians (Morrissey) to reality shows (Eurovision song contest) to radio personalities (Terry Wogan). Demonstrating the importance of social media in contemporary auditory fandom, Linden and Linden argue that "sites such as Facebook provide opportunities for fans to interact with each other in a more casual manner than specialist fan forums" (173). Referencing the migratory nature of open platforms and the rejection of fannish identities, this chapter feints toward a more nuanced look at the countless ways contemporary fandoms operate and affiliate. Chapter 9, "Social Media: Millennials, Brand Fans and the Branding of Fans," further outlines the process of forging and maintaining relationships with fans (especially millennials) through social networking sites. It is through these sites that brands and consumers collectively and continuously negotiate the meaning of authenticity, as millennials are "independent consumers who know what they want, yet they need other millennials to tell them if something is authentic or not" (196). Together, these chapters highlight the essential nature of social networking technologies and digital promotional strategies in Linden and Linden's framework.

[12] Throughout the book, the authors synthesize marketing perspectives and cultural studies to offer a corrective to utopian web 2.0 rhetoric, concluding that "the superstructures of social media" encourage, shape, surveil, and commodify participatory digital cultures to the extent that "fans in consumerist society are deprived of real agency" (209). In this consumerist paradigm, any individual or communal motivations are unbalanced by corporate gain in an inherently asymmetrical exchange. The only way to win is to not play. With the limited power they possess as consumers—as "perhaps the most important market segment"—fans are only "able to affect popular culture media content as long as it does not threaten the dominant structures and hierarchies" (215–16). This qualification of fan agency is predicated upon the argument that real agency can only be exercised within the strictures of the market. Beyond undermining nonmonetary compensation, this approach to agency also undertheorizes the role communal structures play in shaping fan cultures and norms (Busse 2013). Industrial perspectives are a key component of contemporary fan studies, but limiting agency to the machinations of and impacts on the market—not addressing fan pleasures or communal benefits—artificially limits the scope and stakes of both fandom and fan scholarship.

[13] Fan Cultures endeavors to map the contours of the structure versus agency debate in the digital fan ecology with a productive focus on marketing and business management interests. Indeed, one of the key strengths of this project is its inclusion and examination of industrial perspectives—what groups and practices marketers deem fannish and/or commodifiable, why, and how. This is a perspective that is often (and intentionally) glossed over in fan studies. However, without corresponding empirical research and/or prolonged study of fan motivations and perspectives, the project remains somewhat one-sided. The value and necessity of top-down, structural research lie in its ability to render the big picture. While Linden and Linden capably articulate the industrial perspective, they do so without directly engaging key stakeholders. In order to sketch that big picture and assess agency in the digital consumer culture, we must also include the voices and agendas of fans, communities, and social media companies.

[14] This book illustrates that the increased visibility of contemporary fandom via social media is a double-edged sword. However, that maxim applies to researchers as well as to fandom and industry. While the newfound salience renders fans, practices, and trends more accessible for scholars, it also slants analysis toward the elements and contingents of fandom that are most visible and best suited for industrial co-optation. For example, Linden and Linden argue that "Comic Con [sic] is all-absorbing and constantly growing as an industry vehicle, rendering alternative readings and expressions harmless" (62). As they note, Comic-Con is an industry expo dressed in the trappings of a fan convention, packaging and promoting a highly curated (and largely sanitized) version of fandom. While Comic-Con is a rich case study—especially for industrial analyses—situating it as a metonym of fandom obscures the diversity of people, practices, and politics in fandom(s). In this paradigm, it is easy to see why the authors doubt the transformative potential of fandom, especially without the countervailing force of fan voices.

[15] Fan Cultures is designed to offer "an overview of some of the possibilities available to scholars, fans and brand managers alike" (5). As with any broad-based survey, the project can, at times, trade specificity for universality. That breadth is certainly a boon in terms of their conceptualization of fan cultures—in which they address brand, travel, music, and sports fans without privileging any one culture as the ur-fandom. However, this universalizing impulse becomes an obstacle with regards to representing diversity, both in the variety of fandoms and the identity of fans. Linden and Linden adopt a universal approach to digital fandoms, using consumer culture as a lens to unify disparate industries and ground fan studies in the realities of the market. While much can be gained from this macro perspective, the breadth of their framework also collapses and circumvents the distinctive rhythms, cultures, norms, and hierarchies at work in each fan culture, much less the overlapping fandoms that comprise them.

[16] Between a universal framework and a focus on highly visible fandoms, Linden and Linden run the risk of essentializing the multitudes of fandom down to assumed young, white, Western, middle-class, neoliberal subjects. This risk is magnified by a lack of engagement with race, gender, sexuality, and ability in their theoretical framework and analyses. While Linden and Linden do address issues of age and class—through the vector of millennial consumers—and gesture to the gendered nature of fandom, a more thorough investigation and theorization of identity and positionality would mitigate some of these risks. Without that critical engagement, the assumption of a universal subject—in academia as in industry—whitewashes and sanitizes fan activities, bodies, and ideologies. This forcible realignment to the center may be indicative of consumer culture's construction and exaltation of fans as idealized consumers, but it also perpetuates fan studies' own uncritical approach to whiteness (Pande 2018; Stanfill 2011). Nuancing a comprehensive consumer culture framework with fan perspectives could certainly broaden our approach to fandom without erasing community, identity, or positionality.

[17] Grappling with industrial co-optation, neoliberal ideologies, and social media, Fans and Fan Cultures: Tourism, Consumerism, and Social Media provides a broad survey of contemporary fan cultures that highlights the similarities they share as intersecting market segments. While we must also attend to the diversity of fans and fan cultures, a macro view of fandom's role in the broader consumerist paradigm charts an interdisciplinary roadmap. Tracking the consistencies between media, brand, sports, tourism, and music fandoms, this book connects and contributes to ongoing debates in marketing, business management, digital media, media industries, and star studies. In terms of fan studies, Henrik and Sara Linden remind us that—regardless of how we characterize fan agency—critical examinations of power must remain at the heart of cultural studies, especially as the scale and scope of modern fandom continue to escalate.

References

Busse, Kristina. 2013. "Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan." Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 10.1. https://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/6%20Busse%2010.1.pdf.

Pande, Rukmini. 2018. Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Stanfill, Mel. 2011. "Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0256.