Notes: “What is a fan?”

My current musings are centred on what a fan actually is, and as with most things, there’s no right or wrong answer to this question; although for the sake of clarity I have to get some sort of definition sorted out before I take the plunge and actually start researching them in earnest.

Reading Hills (2013) has prompted me to note a short summary of how fans should be ‘divided’, if not strictly delineated as a single entity.  The general consensus seems to be that fans exist on a continuum.  Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) have posited the following:

CONSUMER    FAN   CULTIST  ENTHUSIAST  PETTY PRODUCER

Fiske (1992) thought that fans engage in three categories of fan productivity (although he conceived them as being analytical tools rather than iron clad sub-divisions):

SEMIOTIC : ENUNCIATIVE : TEXTUAL

Abercrombie and Longhurst sought to differentiate consumers from fans according to Fiske’s model of fan productivity:

CONSUMERS  Enunciative productivity

FANS  Textual productivity

Hills finds this too simplistic, especially in an era where “digital fandom collapses semiotic and enunciative productivity into hybridized or generalized textual productivity” (p. 150).  It’s worth bearing in mind that Fiske’s original model of fan productivity was formulated in 1992 when the internet had yet to go mainstream.  Therefore ‘fan talk’ – largely verbal in Fiske’s day – has seen a radical shift from the verbal to digital, non-face-to-face platforms.  Verbal enunciative productivity, of course, has not ‘disappeared’; but Hills sees the digital as having, to a large extent, collapsed the semiotic and enunciative into a more generalized form of textual productivity.  Therefore, he surmises, it is time to seek a new paradigm to explain the concept of fan productivity as a whole.

Hills also criticises Jenkins’ theory of participatory culture for being too broad in an age where Web 2.0 has afforded participatory activities on a wide range of levels by a large swathe of users; coupled with which, participatory activities have had a “long history in political theory, human geography, sociology, and design” (Wyatt et al., 2013).  He draws on the work of Shafer (2011) to construct a bipartite model of participatory culture which is more relevant:

EXPLICIT: the production of cultural artefacts by social groups which constructs and is constructed by group identity

IMPLICIT: the production of content which is not necessarily in the context of fan-based community

This is supported Busse and Gray (2011) and Wyatt et al., who also see fannish activities as taking place on a continuum, and remind us that such activities are not always the works of creativity so valourised by Jenkins and others.  It is worth then, not merely distinguishing fans as being uniquely engaged in participatory cultures; nor to focus on those fans which engage in ‘traditional’ forms of textual production such as fanfiction and fanart, as textual production of all types (e.g. writing wikis, guides, reviews or even comments) are part of the digital landscape of both fan and non-fan communities alike.

REFERENCES

  • Abercrombie, N. and Longhurst, B., 1998. Audiences: a sociological theory of performance and imagination. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Busse, K., and Gray, J., 2011. Fan Cultures and Fan Communities. In: Nightingale, V., ed. 2011. The handbook of media audiences, [online], Ch. 21.  Available at: Wiley Online Library <doi: 10.1002/9781444340525.ch21> [Accessed 27 November 2013].
  • Fiske, J., 1992. The cultural economy of fandom. In: Lewis, L. A., ed. 1992. Adoring audience: fan culture and popular media. London: Routledge. Ch.2
  • Hills, M., 2013. Fiske’s ‘textual productivity’ and digital fandom: web 2.0 democratization versus fan distinction? Participations: Journal of Audience & Receptions Studies, [online]. Available at:<http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/9%20Hills%2010.1.pdf> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
  • Schäfer, M. T. , 2011. Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, [e-book] Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Available at:<http://mtschaefer.net/media/uploads/docs/Schaefer_Bastard-Culture_2011.pdf> [Accessed 6 February 2014].
  • Wyatt, S., et al., 2013. Participatory Knowledge Production 2.0: Critical Views and Experiences.  Information, Communication & Society, [e-journal], 16 (2). Available at: Taylor Francis Online <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.746382> [Accessed 13 November 2013].
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My British Library Doctoral Open Day for Digital Research Experience

I am ashamed to say that Christmas and New Year’s was a very fallow period for me as far as reading and research went.  Luckily, my lovely family and friends bought me a whole slew of fan studies/information science related books (plus a book on Dewey, the Library Cat) with which to expand (or confuse) my mind in the coming weeks.  I will now have to force myself to go against the grain and not be the voracious reader, which is my general inclination.  I must learn to skim read properly now, otherwise I may well have a nervous breakdown.

Anyhow, in order to alleviate any feelings of guilt that may have welled up in me during my study-free holiday period, I attended the doctoral open day for digital research at the British Library, which proved to be enlightening on more than one level.

As soon as I arrived I was able to speak to some very interesting fellow researchers and academics who were happy to share hints, tips and experiences with me.  They always tell you networking is a huge part of doing your doctoral research, but honestly… I have never exchanged so many Twitter follows in one day as I did today.  It is amazing how much in common you can find with other students who are researching completely disparate fields from your own, and one another.  I really learned to keep my ears to the ground and my mind open.  You never know what you might find out that’s of potential use.  Serendipity is a great finding aid.

Of course the purpose of the day was to concentrate on digital research, and this involved some excellent talks and some group exercises that encouraged us to get into groups and come up with a project plan  based on some digital sources and tools.  The plan had to be formulated in 30 minutes and presented in two.  What was amazing was how quickly our group was able to pool our resources and skills in order to come up with a research project that all of us were interested in actually looking into.

It was also rewarding in that I finally got a straight answer as to what Digital Humanities actually is (via King’s Andrew Prescott).  To paraphrase him: “The digital humanities is concerned with the use of computing tools in the humanities and the arts.  It is the sociology of knowledge.  It is cross-disciplinary.  It is the way we use computers in the humanities and the arts.”

Some other impressions I got of DH:

  • It has fuzzy edges.  For example, it has embraced social media and videogaming into its midst, even though these are not traditionally humanities or arts subjects: DH is trans-disciplinary.
  • It integrates technology and theory; computers and people.
  • It incorporates all types of media.
  • It makes use of both traditional art and data visualisation.

I may be wrong about all this (which wouldn’t surprise me, considering the fact that I read the entirety of Introduction to Digital Humanities and still had a very nebulous idea of what it was).  But I feel I actually have a handle on what it is now.  This is a very good thing as my research question just happens to be cross-disciplinary and therefore DH should be quite pertinent to my studies.  Fan cultural artefacts are, after all, analogue as well as digital objects, although they are increasingly more digital than they were in the days of fanzines and newsletters.  For example – many pieces of fan art start life as a paper sketch; many born-digital fanfictions are printed out in an analogue form so that readers may have a physical copy.  Fan practices such as ‘gifting’ (creating fan-related works to give to other fans or friends) often involves the exchanging of physical objects.  Lastly, fandoms themselves are ‘multi-disciplinary’, covering everything from comics to cult TV to videogames and manifesting themselves both online (e.g. on social media) and offline (e.g. fan conventions).  Taken in this light, DH seems to be a good fit.

British Library Labs aims to aid scholars in their digital research by opening up their digital archives for exploration and investigation.  This includes audio and visual data, and I am quite interested to see whether fan works are a part of those digital collections, and whether the history of fan information behaviours can begin to be mapped.

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Announcing… My first ‘proper’ publication

Many thanks to the fantastic folks at The Comics Grid for reading, accepting and publishing my book review of The Adoring Audience.

For those interested in fan studies who haven’t read the book already, it is a recommended read.  I suppose I can’t ‘highly’ recommend it, as it’s about 20 years out-of-date.  But as a grounding in fan behaviour it is still entirely relevant, and is wide-ranging in its scope.  Not to mention which, it is one of the seminal fan studies text, so I suppose I should tout it as required reading, if that is your field of study, and particularly if you are coming at fan studies from a point of total ignorance.

Anyway, please do read the review if you’re interested, and I welcome any comments or thoughts you might have on the book.  And please do check out The Comics Grid if you’re interested in comics scholarship.

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The fascinating world of fan movies

Maybe I’m being optimistic when I say that most fans have heard of fanart and fanfiction.  At the very least if you put in a Google search with these terms, you’ll get many, many results (not all strictly benign).  Some of the sites turned up by such a search are well-structured, well-presented, well-funded and well-known.  (Take WattPad and deviantART, for example).  Both fanfiction and fanart have a large and well-established digital following; both are easy points of access for creators and consumers alike – there are few barriers to producing fanfic or -art, few hurdles to jump through in order to get exposure to a wide audience, and (thanks to the many great repositories available on the internet) very few hassles for the consumer searching for something they’re interested in.

But what about fanmovies or -films?

The bar is set rather higher for fanfilms because of production costs and perceived low returns.  Nevertheless fanfilms appear to run the gamut from good to bad to worse in the quality stakes.  Taking a little stroll through fanfilms.net, most of what one tends to find are the creative endeavours of a small group of friends or family, put together over a weekend.  Others are of higher quality, with decent acting and a good appreciation of cinematography off-setting the low (or non-existent) production costs.  And a few are surprisingly high quality.

My first brush with fanmovies was The Bentley Bros.  A small group comprising four brothers and their friends, their initial foray into filmmaking was with the Resident Evil franchise.  Whilst the equipment available to these amateur filmmakers was originally basic, I was surprised at the solid scripting, great editing, depth of vision and great comic-timing displayed by what were essentially kids.

Fast forward a few years and I got round to watching my next fanfilm – the rather aptly-named Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy (based on the series of games by Hideo Kojima for Konami).  Even if you have no interest in Metal Gear or even in fanfilms, I highly recommend watching at least a few minutes of this fan-made movie, just as an example of what produsers and participatory culture can achieve. Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy started out as a no-budget project by Hive Division, a group of Italian film students.  Yet the end-product is a high quality piece of cinema, complete with soaring soundtrack and state-of-the-art special effects.  Testimony to the impressive achievement of its creators is the fact that the project stalled several times, yet, through the passion and dedication of the filmmakers it finally made it to general (online) release in 2009.

What is doubly amazing about MGS:P is the fact that the creator of the franchise, Hideo Kojima, endorsed it.  To quote him through the group’s Facebook page:

“[…] It’s awesome. I felt like crying for their love towards Metal Gear. It’s also a well made movie. I can’t wait to see next part.”

In fact, MGS:P was so celebrated that it got enough encouragement (and funding) for a second installment.  One wonders if a Western production would get the same kind of endorsement from intellectual property rights holders.

That isn’t to say that it’s plain-sailing for everyone who wants to start up their own fan movie or mini-series based on Far Eastern franchises.  When Square Enix got wind of a planned kickstarter for a fan-made series based on Final Fantasy VII, they quickly squashed it.  But considering stories like this, it’s impressive what actually does get through.  Some even get specific permission from the rights holders to use their intellectual property.  A case in point – earlier on this year Japanese games giant, CAPCOM, granted a group of fans the rights to film their fanmovie based on the Street Fighter franchise, after the trailer became something of a hit on YouTube.

Then there are projects like Castlevania: Hymn of Blood, which attract actors such as Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: TNG fame:

Increasingly, getting into the whole fanfilm business is likely to give you substantial returns (and not just in social capital) if you manage to hit the right beats.  Last year, News Corp’s IGN – which has long been an aggregator of fan news and information, as well as user-generated content – launched their IGN START YouTube channel, which aims to cater to the “neglected” videogaming demographic.  Several of their long-running series (including Castlevania: Hymn of Blood) and featured shorts are the creations of fan produsers who are working on little to no budgets and a lot of passion for their chosen fandom.  Examples from their channel include Y: The Last Man and Splinter Cell.

So what’s the reason for me writing all this?

Really it’s just to make the point that now appears to be a good time to be a produser.  User-generated content is contributing to (and not merely remediating) pop culture, and it’s getting noticed too.  Make your own fanmovie, and you might just get a spot on IGN START or Machinima too.  Good luck (and let me know if you make it).

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Yes, I’m going to talk about it. Fanfiction.

Whilst mulling over what to write for my first blog post, I got to thinking about one of my favourite guilty pleasures – fanfiction.  The other day I was lucky enough to have a chat with Michel Hockx (@mhockx), lecturer and director of the China Institute at SOAS, about his research into Chinese cyberliterature; I was doubly lucky to have had a sneak peak at the new book he’s writing on the subject.  The topic is fascinating because of the casualness and acceptance that Far Eastern markets appear to have towards these types of amateur, remediation-based activities.

In the West, there is still something of a ‘cult of the professional’: a finely delineated line between the expert and the amateur.  Professional writers are put on pedestals; fanfiction writers are perceived as emotionally arrested geeks who probably still live in their parents’ basements.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a LOT of bad fanfiction out there: trawl through FanFiction.net (the largest fanfiction site in the world), and the odds are that 90% of what you read will be, ahem, unrefined drivel.  But there are gems in there.  You just have to know where to look (and have infinite patience).

In the Far East, fandom is not so much celebrated as merely a way of life.  In particular I’m thinking of Japan when I say this.  Take Mandarake, a chain of Japanese stores that sell anime and manga related products.  Each store has a huge section dedicated to doujinshi, comics written and drawn by fans (or sometimes a ‘circle’ of more than one fan) about their favourite characters.  And many if not most of these amateur publications are of an excellent, dare I say professional, quality.  What then is the real distinction between the expert and the amateur in such cases?

Doujinshi, Japanese fan-made comics. Photo by Danny Choo.

And then take China.  Michel Hockx pointed out a fascinating site to me, called Qidian.  Qidian features stories written by amateurs in a variety of genres, including fanfiction.  Sites like Qidian are far more sophisticated than anything you might find in the West.  Compare with FanFiction.net – Qidian offers downloadable content for mobile devices via apps, professional style ‘book covers’, and even pay-per-word reading models for some stories.  Some stories even make the jump into being published in special ‘web literature’ sections of Chinese bookstores. (Admittedly, Western sites like Wattpad are increasingly taking on the Qidian-style model; but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the stories featured on amateur sites to find their way onto the shelves of actual bookshops).

‘Network literature’ or web literature on sale in a Chinese bookshop. Picture by the Beijing Review.

Several years back, a friend of my sister’s, reafre, who’s from Thailand, sent my sister a present.  It was a lovely book, with a textured cover, beautiful font, and gorgeous illustrations.  It was in Thai, and I couldn’t understand a word of it.  But I could tell what the book was about from the illustrations reafre had drawn for the book.  They were depictions of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom as Aragorn and Legolas from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie.  The book was slash fanfiction – in other words fanfiction featuring same sex relationships.  I was stunned (and just a little bit jealous) that reafre was able to create such a beautifully presented and polished product – that it was even possible to do so.  It was the first time I’d encountered fanfiction as a product to be proud of, rather than something to be hidden away in the maze of mediocrity and relative anonymity that is FanFiction.net.

Don’t get me wrong.  Since Fifty Shades of Grey, the West is opening up to the possibilities of fanfiction as a legitimate literary genre.  Take Kindle Worlds for instance (whose motto is ‘New stories inspired by books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games people love.’).  Here amateurs are given free rein to write about their fandoms and publish them as Kindle e-books, thus glossing their work with a sheen of professional respectability (book covers, royalties, etc.)  The only downside is, your fanfiction can only be about the ‘worlds’ (or fandoms) that have been licensed by Amazon.  So only a handful of fans get the privilege of being ‘published’ in a more traditional sense.

Kindle Worlds. Fanfic for profit.

According to von Veh (2013) in her article, Kindle Worlds: Bringing Fanfiction Into Line But Not Online?, this is a sterile venture that fails to recreate the interactive and participatory cultures that typify other amateur writing platforms such as FanFiction.net and LiveJournal.  On these sites, there is a strong sense of community – the ability to comment, rate, critique and even affect the outcome of storylines; and there is the opportunity to make friends with other like-minded fans, be they writers or readers.   These are all traits that are preserved in sites like Qidian (which, like Kindle Worlds, also make money out of writers’ work), but appear to be absent from the Kindle Worlds platform itself.

Is this a bad thing?  Does the participation factor in fan communities necessarily make for a better product than those offered by a top-down publishing industry?  Does the chance to pool resources, trade hints and tips, provide critiques and work on collaborative projects with other fans, hobbyists and amateurs make any difference when compared to the solo output of a professional or expert, or even the faceless creative team behind the latest corporate endeavour?

I’m not sure.  But I certainly aim to find out.

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