Fan fathoming

Heroes A last note on FoE conference at C3 at MIT.

The fan is a big topic at MIT.  Henry Jenkins discovered early that this creature is active, interested, engaged in ways that no one had recognized.  We are all now trying to figure out who this fan is and how to take advantage of his or her passionate engagement.  Narratives and brands will flourish or fail according to the way they address this problem.

Practically speaking, the fan is a blessing and a curse.  Passionately interested and attentive to a show or a brand, they become its emissaries, evangelists, apostles, actually.  Fans will go out and build an audience one conversation at a time. 

But there is a darker side to the fan.  This weekend, Heroes‘ Jesse Alexander implied that the Heroes team is sometimes haunted by the participative fan.  Fans take ownership of the narrative and woe betide the writers who betray their trust.  Stray even a little from the "canon" and the fans will make you pay.

The problem is the way fans build their identities as fans and the way they build the community of fans.  How do fans prove their status as fans? How do they discriminate themselves from mere viewers?  How do they sort themselves into a hierarchy? 

The fan solves these problems by mastering the narrative of the show and demonstrating this knowledge any time fans meet.  In sum, fans have a vested interested in getting to know the show in an almost obsessive way, and then protecting this investment, their badge of membership, by punishing producers for departing from the gospel.

What to do?  Alexander noted in passing that one of the ways Heroes builds the narrative is through a process of rapid prototyping.  This lets the writing team bring themes forward quickly and examine their options.  And I found myself thinking, "well, why not let the fans do this?"  First, they’d be really good at it.  They control the narrative.  Second, it would invite them to treat the narrative as something flexible instead of something written in stone, to see it under construction instead of something that appears only after the fact. 

Needham, the historian of science in China, said, the history of ideas is not the history of thought, it’s the history of men thinking.  Let us change the way we think about shows and brands in just this way. Let us make them not something that is finished and fired, but as something under construction and in process.  This is a way to reach out to our most devoted fans, our earliest adopters, our most passionate consumers.  It’s time to let them behind the curtain that once separated the cultural creation and the world.

7 thoughts on “Fan fathoming

  1. David Burn

    Grant, I wish I had known you were in Cambridge. Damn.

    Anyway, I noted that the Hollywood crew and the ad peeps present both struggled to let go the creative reigns, and I imagine we will continue to struggle (even while we sing co-creation’s praises). The only ones at MIT that totally embraced user genrated content were the academics who study fan culture.

  2. Eric Nehrlich

    I don’t know about enlisting fans as co-creators. Joss Whedon once quipped that he gives fans what they need, not what they want. Fans want more of the same, but that leads to the show being static. Fan fiction gives you an idea of the types of plots that fans want, and it ain’t a pretty sight.

    However, enlisting fans as continuity checkers might work. As you note, fans are obsessive in demonstrating their knowledge about the show. It always stunned me in my days as a Buffy fanatic that I knew more about the show than the writers – they’d put something in the show, and I’d be like “Wait, back in season 1, there was this incident that contradicts that!”

  3. Daniel Rosenblatt

    And of course fans have been doing this (co-creating) in ways that producers and brand owners likely very much don’t want for a long time. For example there is “slash” fiction, fan written pornography about characters in shows (and books). The name comes from “Kirk/Spock” about the pairing that started the genre. (Most slash fiction is queer, and many who write would say that it only counts as “slash” if it IS queer.) I had a student who wrote an undergrad thesis on this stuff recently concentrating among others on “Harry/Draco” fiction (Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy). As anyone who has read the books would know, this is an unlikely pairing on the face of it, and part fo the point and pleasure in the stories was to create a situation in which it could become plausible, and to play with what doing so might say about what is really going on in the original.

  4. srp

    The biggest thing fans can do is check the tendency of creators to violate not the nitpicky continuity but the Aristotelian probability of their stories. Creators do this because they are often fixated on engineering certain character and thematic conflicts. Fans get into the characters’ possibilities with a perspective unbound by the hobbyhorses of the creators and more bound by the internal logic of the story/setting.

    Heroes, which I enjoy, could really use some fan input. Individuals have all these powers but somehow never think to use them appropriately. Flying people just stand there and let themselves get hit, telekinetic lightning projectors somehow let bad guys get close to them, the master of time and space rarely uses his time-stop in the obvious way. The characters make unmotivated pivots from one course of action or alignment to another. The whole thing feels a bit forced, like the characters are being told what to do by some offstage voice rather than following their own motivations and possibilities.

  5. Obs

    I must Nehrich and Rosenblatt. The only thing more annoying than the fan’s ability to pinpoint continuity errors is the fan’s generally lousy fanfic.

    There is an interesting followup to be done on the number of pop-revivals we’re hitting as of late (Transformers comic books, Spider-Man movies, etc) where the previous generation of fanboy geeks is now sitting in the seat of creator.

  6. Mary W

    Big topic, requires two comments. *cracks knuckles*

    IMO Grant’s right on track — there will be an evolving relationship between media companies and “official” creators and the audience/fans. It’s already happening and will likely continue into the creative space itself (for some properties).

    There’s a great article in Wired about this: “Japan, Inc: Inside the Manga Industrial Complex”:

    Article in summary: although Japan has more stringent IP laws than the US, in the last 5 years the content owners and the fans have evolved an “unspoken agreement” where fans are allowed to create, sell and distribute derivative works openly (prices however must be at a low level — like $4-6 per zine — and are presumed to cover production costs only). Original content products and derivative fan products are sold in the same bookstores, and there are a couple of huge fan events a year where millions of dollars in derivative works are sold.

    The content owners give the following reasons why this makes sense to them (rather than continuing their old approach of opposing fanworks and driving them underground):

    1) customer care / customer relationships (these fan creators of derivative content are the biggest customers/fans of the mainstream products),

    2) a place for new talent to emerge (although most fans don’t want to go pro, some of them do, and some have crossed over and become very profitable sources of new content),

    3) cheap market research – what’s hot and what’s cooling off in the fan world, as measured by production and sales of derivative works, are pointers to market potential. When the fan derivative market is open / ie not driven underground by content owners — then it’s easily viewable and useable for market research purposes.

    IMO one big obstacle to this happening in the US is the challenge of sexual and/or violent content. A significant amount of fan-created derivative works have content ranging from PG13 to NC17. This isn’t a problem in Japan, where many mainstream materials have a similarly high level of sex/violence — but it would likely be an obstacle in the US, where we have a convoluted relationship with depictions of sex and/or violence. We already have “traditional values advocacy groups” that are pushing Facebook, LiveJournal etc. to police their user content more strictly; this would become a much more contentious topic if Japanese-level content were widely seen in the US.

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