I’m taking a course this term that looks at Audiences and the Media. Starting with a history of audience research, and how scholars have conceived of audiences through time, we’ve moved our way in 4 short weeks through studying Hall’s pivotal concept of encoding/decoding and how the audience is an active piece of the “reception” bubble. This week, we look at fandom. “What constitutes a fan?” our professor asked us. “Are you a fan?”
When I heard the assignment in class about thinking reflexively on whether I would consider myself a fan or not, I knew what I thought I wanted to say in that week’s online discussion. While I would like to think I don’t jump on bandwagons, I am the dedicated fan of things as varied as Taylor Swift, New Girl and the Washington Redskins (#HTTR!). For each of these, I follow their a) their career; b) plot lines and commercial politics; or, c) score cards and injury reports closely. I tell friends about their successes and failures, I defend them against those who don’t see their glory, and … well, that’s where it ends. In sports, I will sometimes tweet or post on Facebook about key plays or big news. For music, I sometimes share a music video with a friend on Facebook, and for TV I rarely — if ever — mention shows outside of face-to-face conversation. This was going to be my answer, when I heard the prompt in class.
Then I read both some of the assigned reading this week.* It’s strange how everything you think you know about yourself can change based on the words of others. In the Grey et al article, I was frustrated early on as they defined the terms of early phases of fan research in such a way that ignored “fans who merely love a show, watch it religiously, talk about it, and yet engage in no other an practices or activities” (Grey et al 3-4). Wait a minute, I thought, these people are excluding me! I am a self-declared fan (and have many an argument with friends to prove it), and yet, here I am, being excluded from fandom by researchers. (I was glad a few pages later when they explained that for this very reason, fan studies have expanded a bit.)
But, it made me wonder, am I a fan?
According to Jenkins, the very scholar whose books and musings led me into this field in the first place, I think I wouldn’t be. I don’t ever make spoofs of either songs, shows or sports. I am barely aware that fan fiction sites exist and I certainly don’t have any bookmarked in my browser. Do my opinions on TV shows, however strong, actually influence the commercial production at all? If I was a True Fan, in his sense of the concept, would they? Certainly, if I tweeted more, I might be able to engage in a conversation with the ‘movers and shakers’ of America’s TV networks, but really this seems unlikely.
How much do our own conversations with friends at lunch or on the tube influence the production of any nation’s popular culture by corporate and commercial media conglomerates? Jenkins sees the value in fan spoofs, and understands how they may contribute to a “hybrid” culture that allows a “grassroots dialogue with mass culture” (Jenkins 307). But how much public activity and conversation needs to take place before the audience moves from bystander to influencer, or–dare we dream–even contributor?
* If you want to learn more, feel free to check these works out:
Gray. J., C. Sandvoss and C. L. Harrington. “Introduction: Why Study Fans?” Fandom: identities and communities in a mediated world. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 1-16.
Jenkins, Henry. “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars? Digital cinema, media convergence, and participatory culture.” Rethinking Media Change. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007. 281-311.