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.