Fandom within the Discourse of New Media

Fandom used to have a different connotation for me. Vietnam is one of the countries that have been immensely influenced by Korean culture. K-pop, K-drama, K-series, everything with the label “Korean” attracts a massive amount of avid fans.

Last summer this photo made headline in every publication back home: “Fan boy cries out of happiness”. The congress talked about it, teachers talked about it, even my grandparents talked about it during dinner. “Should fans cry for their idols?” even became one of the essay topics for many schools’ entrance exam. This was an undeniable proof to their generations that fandom is the root of “cultural degradation”, in the words of my mother. We associate fans with the end of this country, that they are all goalless souls wasting their privileges and resources to worship something intangible, something unrealistic, something out of the norms. Fans, to us, are the dysfunction of the society.

Fandom constitutes a significant part of our major. We talk about fandom as an important element of the new media discourse. Fandom is often used as a resourceful subject to analyze community trends in the digital age. Henry Jenkins accounts fandom as being essential to media convergence. I, however, was still perplexed after all these discussions because I still had a preexisted, somewhat distorted perception of fandom based on my experiences and based on how our society viewed it back where I am from.

This week’s reading, Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis changed the way I look at fandom. The book shares a very personal reflection of Larsen and Zubernis, a literary scholar and a psychologist who are both avid fans of the television show Supernatural.  They offer a detailed and extensive peak into their  fan community, where they build a virtual neighbourhood to support each other. They express their view:

In fandom, we found a community of others – a group of people who, like us, had always felt a bit different. Many people who end up fans – particularly media or sci-fi fans – have experienced this sense of difference. And most of us have never talked about it. So fandom, with its radically different norms for self-expression and its overt acceptance of “difference,” turned out to be as much about validation and acceptance. (20)

According to Henry Jenkins, fandom tends to be misunderstood as having “excessive and mistaken enthusiasm”. As society was outcasting these fans as being “lonely, desperate, delusional people who couldn’t form relationships in “real life” and had to count on imaginary ones instead”, these fans get together and form a kind of support group, often thanks to digital technology. Nacy Baym refers to fandom as “the collective of people organized socially around their shared appreciation of a pop culture object or objects”. This quote is particularly interesting, because it resonates with a discussion we had last semester in Digital Culture on the distinctions between pop culture and high culture. So if Baym argues that fans are appreciators of pop culture, is that statement mocking the values of fan community? It is implied that fandom is based on what is mainstream, low brow, and if you are fans of high brow arts like ballet or opera or the Anglo Saxon corpus, you are no longer considered the “freaks”. Larsen and Zubernis also discuss this:

Opera, ballet, and theatre fans have the weight of cultural approval on their side. But fans of television show, especially one that falls within the sci-fi genre, are often viewed as a disquieting breed apart (2)

Why are sci-fi fans are the “disquieting breed part”? I used to wonder what was so wrong about being fan of the future. Is this because they are thought of as being out of touch with reality? This infographic, however, proves that sci-fi fans were sometimes the ones who actually made the future happen.

Larsen and Zubernis account that our contemporary culture still has a clear discomfort with fans (3), but at the same time, it is interesting to see how fandom has risen up to be in many cultural discourses. At yesterday’s Tranforming Hollywood , a conference created by UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and USC School of Cinematic Arts, many critics agree than fandom is the future of emerging media landscape and they will hold the most power. BET Networks chief marketing officer Vicky L.Free said:

“We look at fans as a multiplier effect, fans are more likely to like, forward and share than the more casual consumer, and embracing that fan is absolutely critical in the current environment.”

At this point I always try to connect each reading to the bigger picture that we have drawn and discussed about in this seminar.  Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls‘s central argument of how fans are also smart, independent, capable women, resonates with our theme last week of Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age. Larsen and Zubernis refers to fandom as: a ““safe  space” and accepting community, can feel so compelling for women” (41). Is it similar to how women’s magazines are mostly considered an inclusive environment only for women, and if so, do women’s fan community and women’s magazines receive the same amount of scrutiny as not being serious enough? Where does women’s fandom find itself in the discourse of Film and New Media studies that we have been talking about in this class? The connection between fandom and franchising? Between fandom and marketing? Fandom and the rise (or fall) of television productions? Fandom as free labor or is it just a proof of participatory culture’s success? Fandom and Virtual Reality?

What is really comforting, after all, is that I have gotten a better understanding how much this community functions and understand why so many of my friends are avid fans and they are proud of it. Larsen and Zubernis argue that there is a “deeply held conviction of inadequacy” (20) among fans, but that does not hold true anymore. Fans prove that the audience are no longer passive recipients of information, but we react and we create content we want to see. Digital technology has given them that power to contribute (unfortunately, at certain times, exploited as well), to establish a better fans-producers connection, and most importantly, to construct community to gain recognition. The Journal of Fandom Studies was first published in 2013, proving how fandom is attracting more interest from scholars. Now I wonder if eventually in the future fandom will detach itself and no longer be part of the New Media studies discourse as it has steadily proven to be an essential element of contemporary culture.




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