For this project, I specifically sought to analyze the moves made by each participant in this fandom network through various kinds of writing across a multitude of digital spaces. To do this level of analysis, I drew on research in fan studies, actor–network theory, and my own experience in fandoms and digital spaces. It is that last point which I will address first, as it has a significant impact on this research project.
As researchers, it is important to be reflexive in our own choices, as scholars, and to be honest about what we are studying and why (Baym, 2009; Markham, 2009). We, as academics, have largely moved away from early ethnographic practices of witnessing “others” performing activities for us as researchers. Many Internet researchers embed ourselves in the spaces we are studying, an approach that is central to my own research approach (Potts, 2014). These approaches are not new so much as becoming more normalized.
As an Internet researcher, I am familiar with various digital spaces, having watched their emergence in the 1980s, the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the spread of social media in the 2000s. Having had a long relationship with technology as well as the fandom examined in this case study, I came to this project with an understanding of how writing happens and how digital spaces operate. To know the interworkings of a particular community, culture, and group is to have a much better understanding of why certain moves are made and why activity takes place in particular spaces. The more we can recognize these kinds of participation, the more we can recognize the value and diversity of these spaces both as sites as studies and sites of learning.
I am a fan of the Firefly ’Verse. I am also an academic scholar studying how people use social web tools to communicate with each other. Some might, then, label me as an academic fan, or acafan as Henry Jenkins (1992) called us, or even a scholar fan or fan scholar as Matt Hills (2002) referred to us. There is already a well-established body of literature on academic fans, beginning with Jenkins’s original work in the first edition of Textual Poachers (1992) through work from Hills (2002) as well as Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (2006). Hills’s discussion of fan scholars and scholar fans is of particular use to those of us who study these kinds of communities where we find ourselves active in both spaces. The work of Busse and Hellekson has informed my research practices for this webtext. Specifically, I am leaning on the ways in which they consider refactoring autoethnography. As we find ourselves shifting from fan scholars to scholar fans, there becomes “more, rather than less, of an investment and ... an awareness of our subject positions that creates a stronger, not a weaker, affect” (Busse & Hellekson, 2006, p. 24). While my research is not autoethnography in the sense that I was not a major participant in the case study presented, I do consider myself part of the fan community that I am studying. Here I am representative of Busse and Hellekson’s (2006) perception that scholar fans are “both fans and academics who are invested in both worlds and are able to speak both languages” (p. 8). It is through this kind of participation that the researcher can begin to understand the context in which these spaces exist. In describing Internet ethnographic work, Christine Hine (2009) stated that “the key idea is that the researcher should become immersed in the social situation being studied and should use that experience to try to learn how life is lived there, rather than coming in with a particular pre-formed research question or assumptions about the issues that will be of interest” (p. 6). While none of this should be new for writing teachers and scholars, it is important that we recognize our own participation in these spaces as a way to understand the structure in which the research takes place. In doing so, we can also help our students equip themselves for studying and working in spaces in which they have a stake in the fandom of certain worlds, brands, and spaces.
In examining fan cultures, we can lean on a growing body of research—both from fan scholars and scholar fans. Comprised of multiple waves, fandom studies have made several moves towards understanding issues of power, identity, and community. In describing fan participation, Henry Jenkins (2006) stated that “fans are the most active segment of the media audience, one that refuses to simply accept what they are given, but rather insists on the right to become full participants” (p. 131). Across digital spaces, fan participation has accelerated. That participation has brought with it a considerable investment in intellectual and emotional effort on the part of the fans and fan scholars. This investment is one that “often makes for a contentious relationship between the writer/producers who create and control a popular story and the fans who not only consume the official narrative but also use the narrative to foster their own creativity” (Cubbison, 2012, p. 135.). In particular, the Whedon Studies Association is an organization that has focused on the work of writer, director, and producer Joss Whedon. Since 1999, over 300 scholar fans and fan scholars have joined together to present research, share ideas, and conference together (Cochran, 2014).
It is within these spaces that this piece situates itself, examining issues of participatory culture, fandom, and digital genres. Ever since the first fan groups started on the dial-up bulletin board GEnie in the 1980s, fans have moved across digital spaces, exchanging texts, videos, podcasts, images, sounds, and other materials (Busse & Hellekson, 2006). Moving to Usenet, LiveJournal, blogs, and now tumblr, fan communities have worked to create repositories across websites to archive these materials. At conventions, they gather to enjoy each other’s company, cosplay, and meet the stars, writers, and crew from their favorite shows. Much of the research on fandoms focuses on the fanfiction they create and their interactions online discussing these writings; less work has been done on how fans are negotiating their newer roles as co-producers of content, and the tensions that exist for participating in these spaces. That is the focus of this webtext.
In discussing fan fiction, the term transformative is often used to denote how these materials take the canon of a television show, movie, novel, etc. and change it in some way that brings a new dimension to the work. Canon is thought of as “the events presented in the media source that provide the universe, setting, and characters,” while fanon is “events created by the fan community in a particular fandom and repeated pervasively throughout the fantext” (Busse & Hellekson, 2006, p. 9). The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) was founded to “provide access to and preserve the history of fanworks and fan cultures” (n.d.). On the surface, this might point only towards works of fan fiction, but OTW has also supported writers of fan non-fiction—works that do not alter the original canon, but instead make visible the original canon in different ways as derivatives of the fandom. It is through organizations such as OTW that fans can hear about issues other fans are having with copyright, digital rights management, and other legal issues surrounding the making of transformative works.
While the objects in this case study are not fiction so much as derivative works created by fan crafters, it is their very existence that garners the attention of copyright holders. In doing so, what transforms is the ways in which the participants use the genres and how they rally support from others. With the growing popularity of DIY (do it yourself) culture, and the more participatory notion of Jenkins’s (2010a) concept of DIO (do it ourselves), we have seen a growing interest in maker and crafter culture. In discussing these kinds of activities, Jenkins (2013a) has gone so far as to call these activities a kind of hacking by extending the work of Mirko Tobias Schäfer (2011). In his work, Schäfer discussed how participation transforms cultural production for users. In his interview of Schäfer, Jenkins (2013a) noted that Schäfer is interested in “the ways that technological designs constrain or limit our participation, rendering it less meaningful, commodifying it, in ways that run directly counter to the explicit rhetoric about expanding participation and empowering users” (n.p.). Looking specifically at the DIY culture within the Firefly community, all of these issues are present. However, it is through their modification of how given genres work and the use of fandom-specific terms that broaden participation and empower their community.
In the case study in this article, fans worked to support each other, creating a shared identity and sense of community, and pushing back on the corporate ownership of their fandom. The fan communities for Firefly are of particular note because of their shared values with regards to the show. Because the episodes were originally shown out of order and the shows were not air consistently, fans relied on each other to understand the timeline. Fans helped each other untangle the stories and share information across various digital spaces. This kind of participation was embraced by their fandom, and the fans even collaborated with the show’s producers early on, creating a website to centralize knowledge about the show (FireflyFans.net) and participating in activist causes (Can’t Stop the Serenity, n.d.).
In this webtext, I discuss how crafters, fans, actors, and producers are collaborating in ways in which they can circumvent traditional means of production and distribution, supporting each other as a community. Examining the activities taking place during this event, this webtext illustrates how various social media tools were deployed across multiple digital spaces as an example of how we, as writing instructors, can understand and instruct our students in these kinds of media literacy practices (Daer & Potts, 2014). Often referring to themselves as Browncoats, these fans and allies communicated on Twitter using hashtags such as #jaynehat, posting updates to Facebook, and writing articles in geek culture news websites such as io9 (Woerner, 2013), BuzzFeed (Hall, 2013), and The Mary Sue (Pantozzi, 2013). By deploying various social media strategies, the crafter fans were able to sell their “cunning hats,” gain support from their fan community, and encourage ThinkGeek to donate their proceeds to the fan-related cause (ThinkGeek, 2013b).
Examining these genres of social media, we can consider the work of Amy J. Devitt. Drawing on the previous work of Mikhail Bakhtin in her book Writing Genres, she discussed the concepts of genre repertoires and genre sets. The genre repertoires are made of multiple sets that “define the work of a relatively coherent group, people with complex goals and often well-developed or long-standing ways of achieving these goals” (Devitt, 2008, p. 57). Devitt (2008) defined these communities as groups that spend a lot of time together and are homogenous (p. 42). These repertoires are established and in use throughout the community, helping them achieve “all of its purposes” (Devitt, 2008, p. 57). In contrast, the genre sets are more “loosely defined” for only a “limited range of actions” (Devitt, 2008, p.57).
Genre sets are used by collectives, or groups that “form around a single repeated interest, without the frequency or intensity of contact of a community” (Devitt, 2008, p. 44). Devitt was flexible in how groups can move across the two concepts, but she considered established groups to adhere to repertoires, while collectives work through sets because of their focus on single tasks. She then entered a cursory discussion of early digital social networks. While limited in scope, she acknowledged that the genres that emerge from these kinds of groups might be “different” (Devitt, 2008, p. 45). As Clay Spinuzzi (2004) has pointed out, “genre sets’ focus on (conflated) individual perspectives has been a point of criticism” (p. 112). Leaning more towards his concept of genre ecologies from that same article, we can consider how the genres presented in this case study are “constantly importing, hybridizing, and evolving” (Spinuzzi, 2004, p. 113).
Comparing this vision of genre and community action to Michel de Certeau’s (1984) concepts of strategies and tactics, these social media writing practices point to a third concept that Jenkins and others have suggested: participation. Rather than focusing on repression or expression, this activity sits centrally between both concepts and focuses on co-creation of experiences and materiality for group participation. Such activities are also critical to our writing classrooms, where we are attempting to create these kinds of communal spaces using social media (Kaufer et al., 2011), and in industry where network building is critical (Swarts, 2011). The examination of fan use of these technologies can also point out the digital literacies and skills that many of our students may already possess because of their participation in fandoms. Drawing on prior research on how fans and musicians use social media to co-produce content (Potts, 2012), this webtext examines how fans deploy digital literacy practices to work with each other, the makers of the show, and their editorial allies. It is this concept of participation and ecology that can help us consider how to best map this case study.
When people communicate online, they have a variety of tools at their disposal. They could send a tweet on Twitter, post an update on Facebook, share images on tumblr, or pin an item on Pinterest. While each of these tasks may exist in a single digital space, they are evidence of participation across an ecosystem of digital spaces as users exchange information and share knowledge. This activity can, at times, seem chaotic and unwieldy. But to the participants, this information can be assimilated and an argument built across each space by using various genres as both tactic and strategy by these actors.
For an in-depth look at media engagement and the spreadability of content, recent work from Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green (2013) is key. Both in their book (2013) and on their website (n.d.), these three authors join forces with other area experts in describing how participation can be meaningful, relevant, and engaging for brands and their audiences. In their book, they argue for a better understanding of the shift from "a culture shaped by the logics of broadcasting toward one fostering greater grassroots participation" by an analysis of "how people are playing a more active role in shaping the flow of media for their own purposes in an increasingly networked culture" (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. xiv). It is to that last point in particular that the case study in this webtext addresses.
Arguments made online are rarely presented in a linear way; they are part of an ecosystem where information is flowing across time and space. The analysis and discussion section of this webtext was constructed to replicate this kind of ecosystem. In envisioning the diagram, I wanted to create an interactive version of the actor–network theory (ANT) diagrams I created for my social media and disaster research (Potts, 2014). Pinpointing these humans, genres, and technologies can help us make visible the otherwise invisible activity of the social web. To visualize these networks in a simplified manner can help research teams, product developers, and policy makers better understand the ecosystems of their participants.
The purpose of this mapping is twofold. First, I wanted to visualize the participants’ agency within this ecosystem. I wanted to situate their rhetorical moves in a more interactive space than paper could provide. In here are genres as well as humans, all actors in an ecosystem. Second, I wanted to tell the story of these participants through this map, extending my prior work and placing them in an interactive space context. In each actor’s story, I created hyperlinks to other actors’ stories. By creating these physical links, I sought to point out the key actors and unite their narratives, much in the same way that these participants did within their social web ecosystems.
The map helped me accomplish two specific tasks. First, the map created a boundary around the project. Visually, the map would only be useful with a small number of objects. Add too many objects, and the map would begin to look like a social network analysis diagram, which is not the goal of ANT diagrams. Second, the map helped me understand the agency of each participant, and how that agency was distributed, pulling forwards some of my prior research on ANT (Potts, 2014), and extending earlier ideas about ANT (Latour, 1987). By this I mean that this interface required me to imagine the narrative in object-oriented space rather than a linear, progressive space. This map is why this project needed to be digital; this level of interaction could not be attained through a traditional print article. Using ANT diagrams in this manner—both for creating boundaries and understanding agency—can help writing instructors assist students in making similar moves and help researchers do the same in their own work.