What is Fan Culture?

Digital Fandom

BOOK REVIEW  by Mélanie BOURDAA  •  Published 27.07.2012  •  Updated 03.08.2012
Paul Booth, Professor of Media Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, sheds fresh light on the study of fans and fan communities, and suggests a re-assessment of the importance of these analyses in a broader approach to media studies.

Title: Digital Fandom

Subhead: New Media Studies

Author(s): Paul Booth

Editor(s): Peter Lang Publishing

Release Date: 29.07.2010


In Digital Fandom. New Media Studies, Paul Booth, Professor of Media Studies at DePaul University in Chicago,  sheds fresh light on the study of fans and fan communities, and suggests a re-assessment of the importance of these analyses in a broader approach to media studies. He explores four avenues that provide an insight into the changes that have been and can be wrought in fan community studies: an analysis of the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) phenomenon, a development of the producer/consumer relationship, a presentation of the link between the reward economy and fan activities, and the emergence of a new form of identity expression through the social networks.

This book is based on a number of examples from popular culture (series such as Lost or Heroes), promotional ARGs (I love bees for the video game Halo 2, or The Beast for the film A.I.), fan activities (the creation of the Lostpedia, the wiki of the Lost series, or the writing of fan fictions around Battleship Galactica  and the creation of Myspace profiles for the characters in Veronica Mars or Gilmore Girls.
Trailer for I Love Bees from the game Halo 2

Highlighting a sentence from The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte in each chapter, Paul Booth attempts to demonstrate that fan culture is present at all levels and that it is not purely a male preserve and confined to science fiction or fantasy alone.

The ARGs, these hybridtransmedia entities

Paul Booth emphasizes the fact that fans are users of the new interactive technologies in which they find pleasure and play around. They are what are known as “innovative users” As he sees it, the ARGs are an important subject of study, since they represent a mixture of fun (the players play) and work (the players collaborate to complete the ARGs). For him, they are “they are ubiquitous, multimodal and worldwide”. They provide immersive experiences that enable thousands of players to work together and play at solving enigmas posed by the puppetmaster. These ARGs are hybrid “because they are game-like narratives played both on and offline and which use many modes of mediation to immerse the player in the narrative”. The ARGs are accordingly transmedia entities, since their universe and their stories are dispersed over several media platforms and they encourage immersion, participation and engagement on the part of the players and fans. The ARGs are an interestingly ubiquitous media, in Paul Booth's eyes, which must be analysed  and decrypted to understand new fan activities in interactive environments.
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A new producer / consumer relationship

Paul Booth seeks to get past the standard producer/consumer relationship that, to his mind, produces the negative image of fans who do no more than consume texts without stepping back to reflect or engaging in any productive activity. He proposes using the term produser that seems more appropriate in a media environment where technologies are omnipresent. The produser uses the new technologies to create and share media content in a semi-professional way. The produser possesses characteristics which bring him closer to creative fans: he is at the same time a producer and a reader of media content, he belongs to a community, he is a participating pillar and collaborates through what Paul Booth calls “inter-creativity”.

To illustrate this new active fan and this new metaphor of the produser, Paul Booth describes the phenomenon of the fan fiction blog. The blog is a collaborative job, work in progress from within a community of fans. The important thing, in Paul Booth’s view, is the comments that follow each post and which represent the jump-off points for debates within the community. Using an analysis of the messages left on Battleship Galactica fan fiction blogs, Paul Booth defines the blog as an encounter of the intertextual and the intratextual. The intertextual perceives the text as being “open”. The intratextual perceives the text as a closed complete entity defined by the connections between the internal features”. Six features of the intratextual can be analysed: “self-reflexivity, organisation, the direct address, meta-knowledge, playfulness and recursive expansion”.
The fan fiction blog is truly representative of this mash-up: fan fiction is a kind of re-write of an extant media text, drawing upon different aspects of the cult text. A whole community takes part in its development through comments and debates on this joint project.
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The new gift economy

In order to delve further into the paradigm shift occurring between the production and consumption of media content, Paul Booth introduces two fundamental concepts: the Digi-Gratis Economy and the Web Commons. The Web Commons is representative of this fan community culture: it uses the Internet as a (re)source for the community and is the symbol of joint and participative action in this community. It can be described by three characteristics collective action, collaborative self-governance and social capital which is of benefit to all the members. If we follow this definition, Wikis are the best example of what the Web Commons can offer the fan community.
Wikis are “interactive texts, developed using the concepts of collaboration and cooperation from the Web Commons”. They contribute archives, narrative databases compiled by fans around a media text. They also call on “collective intelligence”, as defined by Pierre Levy, as they contribute to the collective knowledge of the community. The Wikis are particularly important for the ARGs and complex narration series because they constitute an encyclopedic narrative whole for the transmedia universe proposed.
Working from the concept of a “hybrid economy” set out by Lawrence Lessig, Paul Booth develops the idea of the Digi-Gratis economy which implies a reward economy[+] NoteThis may come from the satisfaction of collaboration, interaction with the characters, or from the creative work shared with other fans (fan fictions, for example).X [1] and a gift economy for the fans. This new economy promotes social relationships in a digital world and amounts to connecting the production and consumption of media content on an equal footing. The ARGs are a good example of a mash-up between a standard economy (promotion of a media text) and the reward economy (community work and play).
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Identities and new forms of expression on the social networks

In a fourth and last section, Paul Booth conducts an analysis of identity role-playing around the series Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, Doctor Who and Torchwood. On the Myspace social network, the fans take over the characters, creating fictitious profiles and engaging in conversations or interaction with fictitious characters created by the production team on social networks. Paul Booth has analysed the phenomenon on Myspace but his conclusions can be applied to other social networks, particularly Twitter and Facebook. These strategies, which form part of the transmedia extension aproach on the production side and the performance approach on the fan side, contribute to blurring the borderline between fact and fiction.

As the author sees it, identity role-playing enables fans to construct an identity (for themselves), using profiles based on the series narrative but also on the experience of the fans themselves. With the Myspace profiles the fans perform an identity in three different ways: -“through fragmentation of virtual identities, through the reconstruction of narrative texts and through a person interacting with reconstructed characters”. Furthermore, this identity role-playing on the social networks is representative of the economic system Paul Booth proposes, the Digi-Gratis Economy. In this way, by combining features from the characters and their own personality in a single media text, fans make use of their favourite media text and create new media products for the community.
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Throughout the book, Paul Booth explains how media content should henceforth be appreciated in a new way: we must consider the relationship between the text, the medium and the technology. This brings about the paradigm shift that Paul Booth describes entailing fresh studies on the media. The author summarises his arguments as follows; “the blog is a mixture of tension between the work and distributed text; the wiki between narration discourse and between narration and interactivity; Myspace between the ontological facts and the ontological persons / personalities and between fact and fiction”.

The alternate reality game platform Why so serious ?

What is fundamental in the fan phenomenon is belonging to a community. This community is the strength of fandom, which is their main characteristic. Finally, Paul Booth demonstrates that there is always a link between the serious side (the work) and the fun side (the game). The ARGs highlight this link between collaborative work and playfulness. What is more, the success of the ARGs is also based on the establishment of an interactive, immersed, participative and collaborative community of players. “Whether it be serious games, narrative extensions like Why so serious ?, viral marketing like I love bees, or interactive features like The Lost Experience, the ARGs offer the players an active and meaningful community”. It is helpful to recall here one of the defining points of the ARGs, which is that they are played in a community and not alone. Finally, the ARGs are by definition ubiquitous, and the immersive mediation that they exercise is now essential to understanding the media and the fan phenomenon. The ARGs operate on a dichotomy: on  the one hand, they are hypermediatised and immersion is enhanced by this phenomenon; on the other, they hide behind this mediation by using real locations in their game system.

Translated from French by Christopher Edwards

Photo credits :
Screenshots of site www.whysoserious.com

  • 1. This may come from the satisfaction of collaboration, interaction with the characters, or from the creative work shared with other fans (fan fictions, for example).

Book title: Digital Fandom
Subhead:  New Media Studies
Author(s): Paul Booth
Editor(s): Peter Lang Publishing
Release Date: 29/07/2010
N° ISBN: 1433110709
Number of pages: 231 pages
Suggested price: 27 euros

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