Still Flying: Making Participant Activities Visible

Participants in digital spaces are learning to engage online in ways that will support their communities. For those of us who study writing, design, and rhetoric, it is useful to pinpoint these activities as a way of making visible these otherwise invisible activities both for our research and teaching. Tracing fandoms can offer us a “powerful model for understanding how widespread grassroots creativity may persist despite (or perhaps even because of) limited opportunities to directly profit from one’s own labor” (Jenkins, 2013b, pp. xxx–xxxi). The case study in this webtext is focused primarily on such widespread creativity in fandoms—their use of writing, their ability to connect with others in their community, and, to a certain extent, how they push the limits of their participation. Through their use of the social web, these fans are enacting their fandoms and supporting each other’s work.

An early scholar in fan studies, Lawrence Grossberg (1992) noted that fans interact with the texts in their fandoms to create “connections to their own lives, experiences, needs and desires” (p. 52). This can be evidenced in their prolific writing in fan communities and social web spaces such as Twitter, tumblr, and LiveJournal. In talking about more recent fan engagement, scholar Cornel Sandvoss (2005) noted that we have shifted our understandings of fandoms from “the macro questions of power, hegemony and subversion to questions of self and identity in fandom” (p. 42). The fans in the Firefly community situate themselves within this fandom. Their fandom is part of their identity across these digital and physical spaces.

In the 20th anniversary edition of Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins (2013b) reflected on his foundational work and the current state of fan culture in his interview with Suzanne Scott. In this interview, they revisited Jenkins' work and discuss the state of fan studies and fandoms. Jenkins (2013b) described the recent moves in fandoms: “The ‘digital revolution’ has resulted in real, demonstrable, shifts in media power, expanding the capacity of various subcultures and communities to access the means of media production and circulation” (p. xxiii). These moves are evidenced in this webtext’s case study. Here, the means of production include crafting, sharing content, selling objects, and rallying a fandom—all of which can be connected through digital spaces.

Social media often suffers what is referred to as a “transparency problem” (Jenkins et. al., 2009). This problem can also lead to issues of assessment of digital writing (Katz & Odell, 2012). It is important that we make social web activities visible and consider how social media contributors use participatory, digital spaces to circumvent traditional consumer channels to support their communities. The activities surrounding the Jayne hat incident illustrate how participation is a hybrid of strategies and tactics. Working with the goal of sustaining their fandom, these participants share information, craft artifacts, write news articles, and circumvent the corporation’s attempts at control. It is through this participation, communicating through numerous spaces, that the fans of Firefly are able to support crafters and each other across various social web spaces. By making these moves more visible, we can explain why this kind of social web participation is a significant site of study for digital rhetoric, one that can help expand and enhance how we teach social media writing practices to our students.