Since 2014, MTV has sponsored an annual Fandom Awards television show, similar to their award shows for music videos and TV/film. While their earlier awards shows honored media performers and their work, the fandom awards were—and still is—a cross-platform celebration of media fandom with the people who celebrate pop culture: stans, superfans, fanboys/fangirls—the fuel that keeps pop culture engine running in the social media age. In 2016, Entertainment Weekly sponsored a “Fanuary” issue, which hosted a “best fandom” bracket, (highly contested) fan-fiction content, and a ton of fandom specific articles and interviews.
I’ve been in fandom long enough to remember the days of fourth wall enforcement (“don’t talk about fandom in public”) and battles between fan creators and media company legal departments, so the fact that we now live in a world of corporate embraced fandom activity, where companies like Viacom, (yes Viacom, owner of Paramount, that sent C&D letters to Star Trek fansites in the 90s) has an award show that gives awards online to fandom and features fandom-specific categories like “ship of the year,” blows my mind.
I’m not bringing up these examples to pull the usual “back in my day” speech to shame younger fans. First of all, that’s annoying, and more importantly, there are way more fans who have seen a lot more changes for the past 50 or so years of mass media fandom. I’m simply pointing out that lot has changed, in the past decade especially, in how we fans connect with media, how fans connect with each other through media, and most certainly, how mass media owners and producers connect with us.
Major media content companies took a long time to evolve their thinking towards acknowledgement of fan communities’ economic influence, and the outcome of that rapidly changed relationship looks very different from what some critics and scholars might have been anticipated. Back in 1997, a Wired article entitled “The War On Fandom” by Steve Silberman positioned an inherent oppositional relationship between fans and media owners:
“Both the fans and the media companies want to cheat a little. The media companies want to parade their Web savvy in the marketplace and they want to funnel all the ‘Net traffic into a few commercial sites. The fans want to have freedom of speech and assembly in sites of their own choosing and to have fewer constraints on the use of copyrighted materials than in any other medium.”
And in the 2007 book Unmarketable, Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote about the courtship of D.I.Y. zine makers by Lucasfilm to promote the Star Wars prequels, or Sony hiring street artists to “tag” buildings with brand-sanctioned stencils. Such alliances were, in Moore’s opinion, simply ways for media content companies to “borrow cool” from underground creative communities, while still largely ignoring the opinions and labor of fandom, which existed as a transgressive, oppositional force to media owners.
In 2018, content companies are certainly still borrowing cool, particularly from online communities of color. Want proof? Just check out the number of corporate brands on Twitter who regularly drop memes made by Black teens and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) like “let’s get this bread” or “my wig is snatched” on the daily. But, being well into the age of social media, defining the relationship between fans and media owners as a singular, binary conflict seems quaint in comparison to the past. Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr became an unexpected third party in this relationship and changed the top-down communication dynamics between fans and media content companies. While content companies are certainly more sophisticated about fandom behavior these days, fans are often still a step ahead when it comes to content, evolving with platforms and using tags, memes, and insider lingo to share ideas, insights, and humor among ourselves. Not only do fans comment on pop culture, we ARE pop culture, sometimes more interested in each other’s reactions to media content than the content itself. Many times, we fans are the content, and fans themselves develop fandoms. It’s like fan content Inception. As a result, modern fans don’t interact with media content companies as if they are gatekeepers in a traditional sense, but rather participants in a symbiotic relationship: you give us what we want, we reward with money/consumption of your product.
On the other hand, fandoms—and online audiences in general—have had to deal with more than a decade of permissive moderation of online communication from companies like Facebook and Twitter. While communication between fans and fan creators has become more democratic, lack of moderation on these platforms means that hate speech, harassment, and doxxing have become widespread there and also within fan communities. The conflict is now multi-pronged, within fandoms, between fandoms, between content creators and fans, between fans and tech companies, all competing for attention and eyeballs to monetize and use, for various reasons.
Media content companies still largely view relationships with fans as two-way, and interact with fandoms from a top-down approach, however. Companies view fans as audiences and fan labor as transaction. Media companies usually see the role of fan-created content as marketing, not as a relationship, and over the years, some fan-savvy companies have traditionally exercised various levels of tolerance towards fan communities and fan labor, to benefit their brands. In the 2013 book Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age scholar Alice Marwick talks about how Silicon Valley tech companies embraced a neo-liberal view of democratic media, looking to venture-backed tech startups as a conduit to distribute “free” content and information, largely supplied by volunteers. This lines up eerily with a long history of companies that have flirted with fan relationship building via street teams and guerrilla marketing. Back in 2007, the ahead-of-its-time viral marketing campaign for Samuel L. Jackson’s Snakes on a Plane attempted to engage and develop fandom through encouraging “user-generated content” like fake trailers, movie posters, and parody songs.
Today, media companies depend on content from audiences—tweets, hashtags, memes, etc.—as a cornerstone of marketing. Fandom has evolved from a niche audience for marketers to a full-fledged mainstream consumer vertical (of course, still making the assumption that the most desired demographic is still white, male, middle class, heterosexual, able-bodied, age 18-35). Even so, I never would imagined the embrace of fan culture on the level that we’re currently seeing, with media companies reporting about fan campaigns and trending topics in tones that used to only be reserved for politics and sports. Critics in the 90s and early 2000s (including myself) argued that media companies and creators didn’t take enough time to listen to the concerns of fans, and rather, saw fandom as a pesky annoyance. Today, there’s no way any content creator can ignore the input and influence of fandom for a second.
And, conversely, that influence has become normalized as a part of our daily public lives more than ever before. Fandom has always been an outlet for people to publicly express identity, and to build social solidarity and self-esteem. But these days, to be in fandom means developing not only daily relationships with other fans, but often direct interaction with celebrities and creators—the focus of our fandom—via social media. At the same time, participatory fandom has increasingly become a highly commodified rankings game. Debates over views, sales, box office rankings, polls, and lists have become the cornerstone of fandom discourse for many. The norm for fans now is to operate as pro-bono armchair marketing and creative consultants in our spare time; weighing in on trailers scene-by-scene, offering real-time feedback to creators, debating the impact of a change in creative staff or actors on a show. Fandom is about relationships, but it also, eerily, feels a lot like a job.
This evolution has meant an interesting shift in what it means to call yourself a fan and to be active in a fandom, especially as a fan from a marginalized community. Back when I co-founded the website The Learned Fangirl back in 2007, the title seemed arcane, an inside joke that we had to explain. A lot of people didn’t know what a “fangirl” even was, and if they did, it was seen as a gendered off-shoot term to the idea of the geeky comic book guy or gamer. (“Do fangirls even exist?” I remember a guy asking me once at a SXSW party.) The idea of being a “learned fangirl” was poking fun at the idea that fans—but especially female fans—were passive by default, lacking the capacity to be critical in consumption and creation, and that conversations of race, gender, class, and economics in fandom were verboten.
Of course, that is unheard of now, and conversation proliferates online and offline about fandom and representation and diversity in media, in fandom communities, and via content. The gender, racial, and ethnic diversity of online communities is an undeniable reality to those who cling to the white-and-nerdy default of fandom representation. So to be a “fangirl” today means being in the center of these conversations but also a target for potential harassment. It’s become a term that is both less stigmatized and more politically loaded. Even fandom-focused websites like The Mary Sue embrace the language of diversity, inclusion, and social justice, now positioning themselves as “where intersectionality and fandom meet.”
All of this convergence doesn’t feel completely positive to me. It comes at a point in digital media where metrics about our conversations, content, and consumption are tracked, monitored, and monetized like never before. It does make me uncomfortable that fan communities are encouraged by companies to embrace our online fannish activity publicly—discuss! create! share! vote! —at a point where our activity and content are easier to observe and use by the companies that create the pop culture we love. Because all too often, the content and support of marginalized fan communities, we who wrap ourselves in fannish love, who come to fandom for community, validation, a creative outlet, are used for free labor by many companies that would never hire us for actual paying work.
However for all my skepticism, I still remain optimistic. The combination of more direct outlets for fan feedback and audiences that are more sophisticated in their critical consumption has meant that marginalized fans are more organized and effective when calling out companies, creators, and content that fall short on diversity and inclusion. Take, for example, the immediate fan outcry from the Harry Potter fandom at the cringe-worthy casting of Korean actor Claudia Kim for the human incarnation of Voldemort’s pet snake, Nagini. In the past, such criticism would be relegated to message boards or fan letter campaigns. In 2018, fans can communicate their disapproval on Twitter and demand an explanation to creator JK Rowling directly. Or take ClexaCon, the popular conference for female LGBTQ fans, created by fans of the CW show The 100, after a popular queer character, Lexa, was unexpectedly killed off.
Grassroots movements of any kind can only go so far without significant structural and support, however. Pushing hard against the institutional structures that disenfranchise is hard work for anyone, and there should be room to just be a fan, without the expectation of monetization or labor. It’s OK to have just a hobby, and it’s OK to enjoy things simply because they bring you happiness and pleasure. Moreover, conflating fandom and activism without the due diligence of engagement in political and social justice organizing work doesn’t do any favors to important work of diversity, inclusion, and justice that needs to be done in media and fandom spaces.
But for fans who desire to rage against the corporate fandom machine and wish to build media landscapes more diverse and equitable than what we currently see, there are more opportunities and entry points for change than ever before. Though social media is problematic as hell, it’s fundamentally changed the way fan communities communicate, organize, and connect with each other, and with the powers that be. Secondly, fans are collectively more savvy about how the business of media, content, and fandom in general work, as we’ve evolved into semi-professional content creators as well as consumers. We’ve got more at stake than ever before so there’s ever-evolving room for us to interrogate—and change—how media and tech companies use and interact with the content and labor that fan culture is built on. What some critics see as “entitlement,” I see in the hands of marginalized fans as an opportunity to push back against the status quo of mass media, and gain influence and access that has traditionally not been afforded to all of us. So while what it means to be a fan is very different than it was, there’s still for fandom to be oppositional at its core, and even revolutionary, if we choose to be.
© 2019 Keidra Chaney