Working with fannish intermediaries

Maria Alberto

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

Billy Tringali

Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Fannish intermediaries occupy a unique position between individual fans and industry stakeholders, since they have affective ties to the fan object as well as commercial interests in the ways that individual fans interact with that fan object and related content. These differences raise new questions regarding the ethics of fan studies work conducted in collaboration with such fannish intermediaries, as demonstrated by the reach and results of the 2021 Anime Con Survey.

[0.2] Keywords—Data collection; Digital research; Ethics; Outreach

Alberto, Maria, and Billy Tringali. 2022. "Working with Fannish Intermediaries." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In February 2021, we launched "A Survey of Anime Convention Attendance in Response to Covid-19," a data collection project that we hoped would capture a snapshot of how people were thinking about anime cons during a time when most of these fan-oriented events were either going virtual or else had been canceled altogether because of the Covid-19 pandemic (Alberto and Tringali 2021).

[1.2] Though we initially anticipated a response count in the double digits, we ultimately ended up with 1,191 valid responses. This was a tremendous turnout for a fandom survey, and these results are largely thanks to interested parties publicizing our efforts in specific ways. With this brief essay, we intend to offer our reflections on this experience of collaborating with a particular subset of fandom whom we are calling fannish intermediaries. We use this term to describe people who are simultaneously fans but also hold highly visible organizational, community, or even quasi-industry roles that are fannish in nature without necessarily being fan identities first and foremost.

[1.3] When we launched the Anime Con Survey, our limited social media reach meant that we had little success in reaching out to fan communities directly. However, stakeholders such as con organizers were also interested, and when they circulated the survey on our behalf, far more people responded. To us, this is worth noting because despite their highly visible fandom presence, these informal collaborators were neither quite big name fans (BNFs) nor entirely industry professionals at the level of the studios and corporations that produce anime and related products. Instead, their role in organizing community events and resources meant that while these people were fellow fans of anime as a shared "fan object" (Williams 2015, 2), they also had a certain amount of credibility and visibility that their participation then lent to the Anime Con Survey.

[1.4] This experience stood out to us because fannish intermediaries have both fan interests and market-oriented ones in the shared fan object. This positionality places them somewhere between two important lines of thought about working with fans: the first concerning researchers who work directly with fans, and the second regarding corporations who seek to capitalize on fan labor.

[1.5] The first approach often articulates its points in terms of either the ethics of such work (see Busse 2018; Deller 2018; Dym and Fiesler 2020; Kelley 2016; and Zubernis and Davis 2016; among others) or the researcher's own embeddedness in a fan community, often as an acafan (see Cristofari and Guitton 2017; Garner 2021; Lee 2021; Raw 2020; and Roach 2014; among others). Meanwhile, the second approach is exemplified by concerns such as those posed by Abigail De Kosnik (2009) regarding fan fiction and official publication venues, Suzanne Scott (2009) on ancillary content, and Mel Stanfill (2019) on corporations' treatment of fandom as a biopolitical entity deemed useful when companies incite "participation and production of value (emotional and monetary), but only in particular, circumscribed ways" (10–11). Broadly speaking, we might summarize these two approaches thus: the first is concerned about how fans can be exploited or misrepresented by researchers, while the second is apprehensive about how corporations have tremendous capacity to exploit fans and benefit from uncompensated fan labor.

[1.6] Fannish intermediaries, though, are not quite one or the other, even though their interactions with fans may evidence some similarities to those of both researchers and corporations. For instance, fannish intermediaries often do have interests in data-driven research about fans, because such insights can help them improve their own organizational strategies; however, they are not completing this research for scholastic or theoretical ends, and they tend to be highly visible to the fan communities they are embedded within. Likewise, fannish intermediaries almost always have commercial interests at stake in their interactions with individual fans, since this group is the target audience for products and services that are too specialized for most general viewership. At the same time, though, fannish intermediaries' solicitations of fan labor tend to take place on a smaller scale and depend on fans' clear knowledge and buy-in, since this labor is then drawn upon to improve the intermediary's offerings in ways that suit fans' own interests.

[1.7] Because of these differences, we maintain that somewhat different questions of ethics and reciprocity come into play when collaborating with fannish intermediaries like we did during the Anime Con Survey.

2. A brief look at the Anime Con Survey and our approach

[2.1] For context, the Anime Con Survey was an institutional review board (IRB)–exempted survey built using Qualtrics and circulated online from March 27 to September 1, 2021. It included thirty-four questions that collected limited demographic information, asked participants to select the pregenerated response(s) that best matched their experiences, or were fully open-ended so that participants could share whatever they wished. During the time that the survey was open, we collected 1,191 valid responses. Our full questionnaire and the qualitative data it collected are both freely available through The University of Utah's data repository the Hive ( We chose this route for hosting because the Hive was able to issue us a DOI, ensuring greater digital sustainability.

[2.2] As mentioned earlier, we planned this survey in the hopes of capturing a more objective snapshot of a phenomenon that we were seeing affect our own networks and friend groups in 2020 and 2021: the cancellation of anime conventions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Between our anecdotal knowledge on the one hand, and the ongoing news coverage of con cancellations on the other (note 1), we quickly realized that truly effective data collection would need to happen in the moment as much as possible, while people's impressions and experiences were fresh in their minds.

[2.3] This all sounded well and good, but we quickly found it was easier said than done. Recruiting qualified participants can be a challenge for any research survey, but in our case, we also found ourselves racing against the clock to reach fellow anime fans and con-goers during the months in which cons were being canceled.

[2.4] When we first launched the Anime Con Survey, we took to promoting it on social media using our own personal accounts, particularly Twitter and Tumblr. However, our own fairly limited visibility translated to a similarly low success rate, despite continued promotions and judicious use of relevant tags and hashtags. In fact, from March through April 2021, only eight respondents—including the two of us!—completed the survey.

[2.5] Our next step, begun in May 2021, was to advertise more widely in other online spaces, such as anime subreddits and forums. This was a modest success, netting us forty-nine additional responses. Later that month, we also began contacting sites that served as public-facing providers of content about anime and other popular culture texts. We used contact forms and listed email addresses to reach out with a pitch on our survey and an offer to write copy about our work. Our thought process here ran along two related lines: for one thing, these fannish intermediaries could reach larger swathes of fans more quickly; and for another, fans might be more inclined to take our survey seriously if the request was coming from such sources because they would already recognize these intermediaries' names.

[2.6] This is where we got our biggest break in the form of Project Anime, a business-to-business or B2B conference organized by the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation. After an enthusiastic response to our inquiry, Project Anime circulated the survey to over a dozen other con organizers, retweeted our content regularly, and published three pieces of our copy on its own website.

[2.7] Thanks to Project Anime's involvement, our results transformed overnight. Besides gaining hundreds of new respondents, we also finally began seeing the participation of anime fans beyond our own smaller social networks. While some degree of snowball sampling and its effects were inevitable here, this new reach would still help us gain a far more comprehensive picture of how anime con cancellations were affecting their usual attendees.

3. Initial thoughts

[3.1] All things considered, much of our tremendous success with the Anime Con Survey is directly related to the efforts that fannish intermediaries such as Project Anime put into sharing our work. However, this did raise certain questions on our side: What did we owe our unexpected and much appreciated informal collaborators?

[3.2] In some ways, we think, we were encountering a situation similar to Katja Lee's (2021) quandary following a study of adult Lego fans. For Lee, the desire to avoid "the researcher merely taking information out without giving anything to the community in return" (Cristofari and Guitton 2017, 727) led her to wonder, "Can sharing the research be a way to give back? And if so, how might that be done?" (Lee 2021, ¶ 1.1). As her study wrapped up, Lee decided to prepare "both academic and fannish gifts" (¶ 4.1) for her participants in order to reciprocate the time, knowledge, and community access that they had contributed to her work. Because of "a distinct absence of examples or methodologies for this in the scholarly literature save vague allusions to sharing research" (¶ 4.1), though, Lee instead turned to the kinds of expertise and interests that she had observed among her participants, referencing these to create artifacts that she hoped would be "appropriate, useful, and feasible" for this specific community (¶ 4.1).

[3.3] Though we only encountered Lee's work after the Anime Con Survey had concluded, and our respective studies differ in various procedural ways, we are still struck by the similar focus on sharing results as well as the comparable thought process behind this drive to share. Here, though, is another area where our work diverges from Lee's. For one thing, Lee's study entailed research conducted directly among a fan community and its normal activities, and her reciprocal gifts addressed community members' interests and community moderators' needs. For us, though, our work was conducted from beyond a fan community's normal spaces (cons, forums, etc.) and primarily asked them to participate in the irregular activity of sharing certain information. In addition, we were also interacting with two levels of participants: the fans who actually took the survey and the fannish intermediaries who often pushed it out to them, leveraging their greater credibility and visibility. So although we took a route similar to Lee in trying to think of what might be "appropriate, useful, and feasible" (2021, ¶ 4.1) to offer our various participants, we also faced the challenge of determining what such reciprocity could be, given that anime fans' and fannish intermediaries' stakes in both our research and our shared fan object are often so noticeably different. Also by contrast, Lee's question regarded only the moderators and participants of the same fan community, which is a significantly lesser difference of visibility and even power.

[3.4] Cognizant of the central role that fannish intermediaries have played in the success of the Anime Con Survey, we consider it essential to attempt some balance among the academic origins/methods, the industry distribution/channels, and the personal/fan interests that have driven this work.

[3.5] Most notably, when we began reaching out to fannish intermediaries like Project Anime in late May 2021, we also adjusted our data management plan (DMP) and redoubled planning for ways to share our data in open access venues. In these ways, we reasoned, our methodology would be fully transparent and our results would be available for anyone interested in the insights they could reveal. This data could be put to purely commercial ends, such as noting which fans are most interested in their local cons reopening, but it is also available for understanding people's concerns about these events reopening and for planning safety measures during the ongoing pandemic. We are also continuing to look into industry-specific promulgation methods such as white papers, given their faster time to publication and their differing impact for event organizers, planning committees, and distributors.

[3.6] As we continue this line of our work, though, we also return to stressing how the gifting impulse that often accompanies fan studies work may entail quite different outcomes for fannish intermediaries—a quasi-industry role—than it would for individual fans, and certainly for corporations. Still, we hope that our experience with and reflections on the Anime Con Survey can offer a preliminary basis for engaging with these kinds of questions.

4. Acknowledgment

[4.1] We would like to thank Meg Amo Tsuruda, whom we collaborated with at Project Anime to promote this survey. Without her, this magical girl transformation would not have happened.

5. Note

1. We were ecstatic to learn later that Benjamin Woo and a team at the Research on Comics, Con Events, and Transmedia Lab (RoCCET Lab) were also working to collect and analyze this information. We look forward to potentially comparing their findings from the industry and media side with ours from the fan side at a future point.

6. References

Alberto, Maria, and Billy Tringali. 2021. "Dataset for: Survey of Anime Convention Attendance in Response to Covid-19." The Hive, University of Utah. Last modified September 30, 2021.

Busse, Kristina. 2018. "The Ethics of Studying Online Fandom." In The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, edited by Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott, 9–17. New York: Routledge.

Cristofari, Cécile, and Matthieu J. Guitton. 2017. "Aca-fans and Fan Communities: An Operative Framework." Journal of Consumer Culture 17 (3): 713–31.

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2009. "Should Fan Fiction Be Free?" Cinema Journal 48 (4): 118–24.

Deller, Ruth. 2018. "Ethics in Fan Studies Research." In A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies, edited by Paul Booth, 123–42. Oxford: John Wiley and Sons.

Dym, Brianna, and Casey Fiesler. 2020. "Ethical and Privacy Considerations for Research Using Online Fandom Data." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Garner, Ross Peter. 2021. "Acafan Identity, Communities of Practice, and Vocational Poaching." In "Fan Studies Pedagogies," edited by Paul Booth and Regina Yung Lee, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no 35.

Kelley, Brittany. 2016. "Toward a Goodwill Ethics of Online Research Methods." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

Lee, Katja. 2021. "Acafan Methodologies and Giving Back to the Fan Community." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

Raw, Adrienne E. 2020. "Rhetorical Moves in Disclosing Fan Identity in Fandom Scholarship." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Roach, Catherine M. 2014. "'Going Native': Aca-Fandom and Deep Participant Observation in Popular Romance Studies." Mosaic 47 (2): 33–49.

Scott, Suzanne. 2009. "Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Stanfill, Mel. 2019. Exploiting Fandom: How The Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

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

Zubernis, Lynn, and Kelsey Davis. 2016. "Growing Pains: The Changing Ethical Landscape of Fan Studies." Journal of Fandom Studies 4 (3): 301–6.