This weekend I attended the Fan Studies Network Symposium (26-27 September 2014). It was an engaging conference, and I’d love to talk about it some more here about its main themes and sketch some future directions in which fan studies may develop.
Fan studies is a small field that connects scholars from a variety of discipline through their object of research – fans and audiences. The network has done a great job these years in connecting all of us. After finishing my Ph.D. thesis (Productive Fandom) earlier this year, I often thought about how different the field was when I began. Fan studies was not a field and at best, people had heard about Henry Jenkins. I met most of the FSN board members for the first time at Transforming Audiences, where we connected during a panel on fandom. The past years, more fan studies conferences have been emerging, and publishers are interested in what we do.
This year, for instance, we had a book launch and panel about the Ashgate Companion to Fan Cultures, to which I also contributed a chapter on fan conventions. The panel itself discussed several directions in which the field was developing and mostly connected the chapters and presentations through themes such as fan identity, fan spaces and becoming a fan. Especially the becoming a fan, and changing patterns of fandom, angle was promising and led to interesting methods. Ruth Deller, for instance, revisited the fandom of Bruce Springsteen and Belle and Sebastian that she had researched in 2001 for the first time. A similar study in the book is by Shenja van der Graaf who dove back into Keanue Reeves fandom for the sake of the book. This raises some interesting methodological questions, for instance about ethics and consent (Do we ask for consent again? Can we used old data in these ways? Or do we see this as a continuation of our older studies?) but I found these experiments brave. They also led to interesting data. In many cases, not much had changed at all and social media were used alongside forums, boards and mailing lists that were well-established. In her keynote on the history of the web, Rhiannon Bury also touched upon these matters.
Many of the panels reflected on fandom as a narrative of the self as much as it is about popular culture. I can of course relate to this very much, through my work on cosplay (which I frame as connected to one’s own identity as much as play). I was delighted to chair a panel on fandom and identity in which Simone Driessen reflected on long-term Backstreet Boys fandom connected to youth, nostalgia and to the celebrities themselves through a revival of the band. In this fandom, key components were not boards, but sites like Facebook, where Dutch women communicated. Ann Peirson Smith explored cosplay as identity work, and also went into the cultural differences of Chinese and Hong Kong cosplayers. Zoe Shacklock also tackled cultural differences, but through the popular podcast Welcome To Nightvale (a personal favorite of mine). She particularly read the debates on whiteness and color in WTNV fandom, which often showed ideas of white privilege. Eion Devereux, finally, looked into South-American Morrissey fans (including straight fans) who connected to Morrissey’s image as an outsider, and through his lyrics.
In similar fashion, Matt Hills emphasized that fan scholars should pay more attention to trajectories of fandom. How do we become fans? How does fandom begin and end? Fandom is a narrative of the self and should be examined as such, to gain better understand of what fans do, where and why.
What I also appreciated was the attention to different fandoms and media. It seemed that the field leaned towards television, movies and some music for a long time, but this conference we interrogated many different subcultures. While I spoke about subcultural/gaming capital in indie games, my fellow-panelists explored the role of capital in Wizard Rock (Catherine Williams) and in fanzines (Ciaran Ryan). Emily Garside gave an engaging talk on theater fandom of the immersive and interactive play The Drowning Man. There were talks on Disney fandom (sadly missed that one), several on soap fandom (Hannah Elison; Sofie van Bauwel). What I kind of missed, opposed to the conference in Oxford last year, was more attention to sports and leisure.
Indeed some of speakers, such as Abby Waysdorf, emphasized that fandom needed to be seen in a more diverse and flexible way. Participatory fandom is not the norm. For many fans, it can just be an individual experience of rewatching a show or enjoying something. Not everyone has the means or time to participate in, for instance, digital fandom. The productive fandom that some fan scholars investigate is certainly not the norm, but a demanding hobby and leisure activity. This is something that I agree with and also tackle in Productive Fandom – fan practices are one way to live fandom but for others fandom is more momentary and fleeting, or more related to the industry and affirmation, through collecting or organizing events. Other panels (that I sadly couldn’t visit) also drew attention to the role of language. Nele Noppe and Lori Morimoto participated in these, and also pointed out cultural differences that had to do with language and locality during discussions. Not every fandom is the same. Local traditions and online practices may differ very much if we pay attention to non-English speaking fandom online, or different local events, such as the Polish conventions that Agata Whlodarczyk investigated. Speaking of fandom, sadly, many fans still immediately think of a kind of global, English (… usually American) space.
This conference was also a call to arms. During his keynote, Paul Booth adressed our obligation as fan scholars to engage with fandom better, and educate fans. He was concerned partly with some of the recent debates in fandom and geek culture, such as #gamergate, and felt that we could stage an intervention. Scholars can profit from fandom in the classroom, talk about what they enjoy, and educate their students. However, shouldn’t fans also educate each other? And weren’t we in the best position to do so?
The toxic culture of fandom came up in many talks (Gary Sinclair talked about negativity in online heavy metal fandom; Ruth Deller on the anti-fans of The Sims 4). Clearly, fandom is no longer discussed as something that is positive at our conferences, but as a real community, with politics of its own. That is a good thing. Many scholars have made that argument for years, to study fandom with all its real aspects and trolling and bad behavior. Of course, for many of us, that also raises questions. Do we have an ethical responsibility to educate fans? Should we be this deeply involved in the communities that we study at all? Do we even have a special privilege as scholars to police fans? Many of us didn’t think so, and certainly wouldn’t want to overstate the role of academia in public debates nowadays. I do believe, however, that as scholars, we are also critics, and should popularize our work as well and communicate it to the fans. Whether they draw lessons from that at all, is not really my concern, but maybe accessibility is the first step towards a better dialogue between fans and other people, and the ivory tower that still characterizes academia.
As a keynote, we also had Orlando Jones, who is an actor in Sleepy Hollow amongst others, and an active fan. As an actor, he often participated in fandom and was quite outspoken about his attachment to the community. It is interesting to see how, in a way, he also struggled with the problems of his fan voice and his participation. He did this through his nickname, and with a different approach to each social medium that he was active in. This hardly caused him problems in the media industry, but he did admit that most of his colleagues didn’t care about fandom at all and hardly understood fan culture.
Overall, this conference was very refreshing. I cannot possibly go over all the talks, but there has been a lot of livetweeting on the hashtag #fsn2014. Other blogs you may want to read include Lori Morimoto’s recap, and that of Simone Driessen.