Fan Culture and “Virtual” Communities

Critical Mass

I’ve written about Henry Jenkins in the past, he’s Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and writes constantly about fan culture or “fandom,” remix, and other contemporary cultural happenings. I didn’t know much about him until last year when my doctoral advisor recommended I read Jenkins book, “Convergence Culture” for a methods class I was taking. The book was astounding and has really impacted my recent research. In the book he argues that technology and mass media has moved to a more participatory “convergence” culture, where the traditional flow from producer to consumer has been disrupted. Now the consumer becomes the producer and creates the media he or she wants. Convergence culture allows small communities all around the world to gather around given topics and interests and produce information, media, etc., on those things. Fan culture is an example of the possibility for meaningful communities that are not limited to geographical space.

In his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture 1992 Jenkins was the first to celebrate fan culture as not something weird or cultish, but as something that has subversive tendencies that challenges status quo consumerism. ((Later he’s remarked that consumerism is also to be found within fandom but still maintains that fan don’t play by the rules of consumerism))Fans make their “primary” texts (or objects), examples are anything from Star Trek episodes to the Lord of the Rings trilogies to bicycles (critical mass, ((the image above is of a critical mass outing taken from Flickr, unfortunately I can’t find the original source but the image isn’t my own)) midnight ridazz, etc), resources to build on and have fun around. They don’t simply consume these texts but they reread them and produce new cultures out of those texts. Another example of this is fan fiction: in fan fiction people extend the original narratives and lives of the characters turning them into something that is their own creation.

In Convergence Culture Jenkins writes that fandom, as displayed within convergence culture, is characterized by these five things:

  1. Appropriation – A person appropriates in their own life a particular text, work, and practice relating to their fan object. Often these objects are reinterpreted in their own life.
  2. Participation – There is an openness for people to participate at all levels within the community. They are so inspired by it they write music, create events, etc.
  3. Emotional Investment – People become really invested in this this object, topics, etc. It is something they are really into and something they want to talk about.
  4. Collective Intelligence (rather than the expert paradigm) – There is room for everyone to have something to say and contribute to the collective understanding of the group. Collective intelligence doesn’t need credentials, degrees, etc., experiences and insights are beneficial to the community and conversation.
  5. “Virtual” Community – These are communities that are not necessarily built around face to face meetings. Some of these people know each other and some are unknown, but more often than not these groups will have times to meet face to face.

In his class on this subject Ryan Bolger argues that this is how we should evaluate communities, not just fan communities, but communities in general. That is to say that community within convergence culture is no longer relegated to dinner tables, not that it shouldn’t happen there as well, but that “community” is now extended in both space and time through the global flows of mobile technology. To reduce community down to a physical interaction betrays what we know of how people actually interact in our world today. We all have those things we get really excited about and build communities around, whether they are religious interests and concerns, academic interests, pop cultural texts, or a consumer product, our communities are now being shaped, reshaped and constructed in very different ways.

If you are interested in more thoughts on virtual community and convergence culture check out my two articles here:

Technology as a Powerful Practice (Part 1)

Gospel Order and Convergence Culture (part 2)