Will the real fan please stand up?
March 8, 2013
PROJECTS: Leveling Up
In November, as I drove from L.A. to San Francisco, I picked up an audiobook of the Hunger Games. After all, I was starting an inquiry into teenage girls’ fandoms and fanfiction practices. Having read literature on fanfiction and learning, I felt prepared to hack into the very roots of popular teen fandoms. My audio-archival research did little good, however, since when I ventured into forums, fanfiction aggregators, and blogs, I discovered that the most popular fanfic topics were pop music artists and TV stars. Of particular prominence seemed to be One Direction, a boyband that gained its fandom by winning the vote-based contestant TV show the X-factor and mobilizing social media platforms. Boyband-themed fanfic, book covers, photoshopped pictures, and music remixes are many in this fandom, but are not equally distributed in all media ecologies.
As I mentioned in my first blog on this subject, different fan websites use different ways of connecting, circulating, and judging content of fan production. Between the websites that I looked into in-depth — tried and true fanfiction.net and up-and-coming wattpad.com — they sent contradictory messages to their userbases about the topics of fanfic and the ways writers could connect to each other. For starters, Real Person Fanfiction (RPF) is not allowed on fanfiction.net, but is prolific on Wattpad. Writing about “real” people is a contentious issue in fan communities, sometimes viewed as unethical and uncouth. In fact, the boys from One Direction had disparaging words to say about the practice of ‘shipping’ (from relationship or imagining relationships in character pairings), which caused some rifts in the fan community. Shipping or pairing first gained traction within the X-files fandom, where Mulder and Scully were often imagined as a romantic couple. However, in an all-male boyband, shipping two boys, whether as ‘besties’, a bromance, or a sexual pair, brought in all kinds of negative attention, from other fans and from the stars themselves. “It was horrible,” Sanya1, a long time fan, explains, “That [incident] ruined it for all of us good Directioners.”
Notions connected to what it takes to be a good or a bad Directioner circulated through Wattpad, Tumblr, Twitter, and by word of mouth. The distinction between faithful and trouble-making fans of the boyband was layered upon a previously existing distinction between die-hard fans (Directioners) and poser-fans who just know one or two names or hit singles (Directionators). Social media sites were mobilized to draw attention to terms and practices to delineate real fans from fake ones (e.g., “s*it Directionators say” post going viral).
According to Wattpad, about two-thirds of their user base access the site via mobile devices. Sanya told me that when she sees something funny or “really true” about the Directioner identity, she quickly retweets it or texts it to her friends. At the same time, if she doesn’t like something, she can repost it on Tumblr with a sarcastic message. One currency that has risen in value with both her online and IRL (in real life) Directioner fans are 1D memes. Conversation, on and offline, center on various aspects of social technologies. The teens I’ve talked to seem very savvy in figuring out the technologies that best fit particular purposes; for instance, Twitter for celebrity-watching, Tumblr for funny memes and risque captions, and Facebook for connecting with existing friends. The 1D fandom organizes itself through different networks, focusing on particular social technologies and linking fans across geographical regions. The young women I was in touch with in the U.S., Australia, and Indonesia talked of 1D as a real point of connection between their friendship networks and social media affiliations. The teens explained to me that they were mindful of what they shared and with whom; fanfic was explicitly for Wattpad, maybe Twitter on their fan-name handle; Facebook chat and in-person friendships gained fodder from juicy gossip and memes. In fact, the girls told me that most of their school lunch is spent pulling up memes spread via social media on their cell phones, laughing about them and modifying them. These self-reflexive practices stand testament to the power of openly-networked design and interest-powered learning opportunities. The teens I talked to navigated and leveraged different media platforms, online and offline networks, and institutions in their love for the band.
At the same time, the fandom imposed limits on itself and how connected it could be. One limitation was that the network rarely tapped into relationships with parents and schools. In part due to the good/bad fan distinction perpetuated by the fandom and in part due to societal expectations about good/bad learning. That is, fanfic writers that focused on shipping type fiction (especially male-male relationships) felt ostracized in their own fandom and did not extend their interest-driven network to family members or schools; fanfic was what the bad fans and the unserious learners did. Directioners on Wattpad expressed to me that they would be embarrassed if their parents or teachers found out about the extent of their participation in the fandom and mortified if their fellow fans found out they were engaging in “bad” fan practices such as writing fanfic about made-up relationships. These boundaries make it hard for the fandom to crisscross many social institutions important to the learners and also restrict the social and academic relevance of fanning practices (in contrast, for example with the Harry Potter fandom, which found ways to integrate with not only peer-to-peer media, but also schools, after-school clubs, family and friendship lore). And these social policing practices make it harder for us researchers to track the networks: as Jessie tells me, her school writing did get better with her involvement in the fanfic community, but her school teachers might never find out why.
1 All personal names used in this blog are pseudonyms.