Fan Culture: Time to Get a Life or An Overlooked Opportunity to Educate?

In a now famous skit from Saturday Night Live, William Shatner told a room full of Trekkies to "get a life." Like Shatner, highbrows tend to dismiss fan culture as frivolous and some researchers have warned  that fan culture is a damaging distraction from other forms of media use that have the potential to educate and inform.

But especially now in the digital age, with fan culture taken to new levels of depth and interaction, are we overlooking several possible positive outcomes?  In particular, do fan communities represent an opportunity to engage wider segments of the public on science, sponsoring learning as well as direct participation?

In reaction to a post yesterday on the fan culture surrounding HBO's forthcoming Game of Thrones, Alice Bell in a follow-up guest post provides deep analysis of this possibility. Bell is a lecturer in Science Communication at Imperial College London, and an influential blogger on the intersections among science, technology, and culture.--Matthew Nisbet

Yesterday, Age of Engagement featured a post from culture correspondent Patrick Riley on the relationship between modern fan culture and marketing. As I come to the blog via Mathew Nisbet’s work on science communication, I couldn't help but connect the two issues. I asked: can an awareness of tensions and connections between fan culture and entertainment marketing have applications for work aiming to connect members of “the public” with scientific ideas and communities?

It’s not a new question, or one I can make much claim to. Indeed, someone has already written a book on the topic. Indeed, she wrote it in 1997: Constance Penley's Nasa/Trek. The / being "slash" of “slash fiction”.

For those unfamiliar with slash, it is a romantic/ sexual sub-genre of fanfiction or “fanfic.” (Fanfiction = stories written by fans using the characters, setting and elements of plot of some established story, usually a series of television, books or film). Yes, people do spend their time producing, editing, critiquing and reading this stuff.

You may choose to find this “sad” or you might prefer to view it as literary criticism come of age. Either way: it’s here, it’s often “queer”, and it’s huge. Go on, google the title of your favourite television show and the word “fanfic”. I dare you. (See for example Battlestar Galactica’s fanfic following.)

Plenley’s desire to celebrate the fans' engagement isn't for everyone's taste. I’m also not sure how convincing her argument that sharing porn is necessarily a way for the public to deal with the emotion of space science is, or rather how widely applicable it is outside of the contexts of the 1986 Challenger disaster. Still, Nasa/Trek is a study of some slightly unusual people doing unusual things with science and technology in culture, and I think it's worth keeping attuned to such phenomena.

Arguably, Nasa/Trek is a bit outdated now in terms of media technology, as Plenley is talking about a largely pre-web fan culture: a matter of posting paper-based ‘zines. However, the early fanfiction communities acted in ways that webby ones do now (in all sorts of areas). So, as a case study of peer-to-peer exploration of matters surrounding science, it has a fair bit to make us think about.

Another scholar of online media who has been heavily influenced by his studies of fan communities is Henry Jenkins. He is worth mentioning not only as the big name in the area, but because I have found his ideas especially applicable to science communication questions. I've written elsewhere about expertise and monitorial citizenship, a concept from Michael Shudson I took via Jenkins’ broader reflections on online political engagement (more details here).

Moreover, Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture is a very useful introduction to thinking about engagement not only as a matter of “the public” having access to those in power, but peer to peer debate which involves “publics” taking materials and ideas generated by high profile politicians, scientists or media outlets, and using this as material to talk to each other. Building on these peer-to-peer discussions, our notion of “interaction” in web2.0 is not necessarily about getting access to those in power, it’s about them not mattering quite so much anymore.  Instead, audiences can entertain and inspire each other.

I supervised an MSc dissertation last year which looked at the way science stories were shared on the social bookmarking site Digg. The student wanted to compare so-called “news values” of what journalists use as a feel for what stories count as news with what factors seemed to be driving readers. He found that journalists are more likely to take up a story that is negative in stance (“bad news is good news”), while peer-to-peer sharing of science on Digg seemed to promote positive stories.

Work from the University of Pennsylvania studying the New York Times list of “most-e-mailed articles” (reported in the New York Times last February) kept finding Science was doing better than expected, as people seemed to like to share articles that inspired awe, that were long and signalled clever-ness. Whether they have read and digested this is another matter, and simply pressing an “I digg this” button is rather different from the reflective remakings of content we see in fanfiction. But I do think it is interesting.

So, back to those fanfiction writers. I did a small bit of work with students over a year ago on the idea of fan communities either as a form of public engagement with science and technology (PEST) or for creating a PR buzz around science. We found a community for Eddington/ Einstein fiction inspired by a BBC docudrama. The show had been a one off, but they wanted more of the story, so we were making it for themselves.

I thought of this was particularly relevant in terms of Riley's points on narrative, and indeed, I'd say that the reason a lot of fanfiction emerges around narratives such as Star Trek or Harry Potter is that they are series. They thus come with a lack of completeness in narrative which keeps us watching till the next episode, but it also frustrates. The will-they-wont-they of Ross and Rachel (Friends), Josh and Donna (The West Wing) or Sheldon and Penny (The Big Bang Theory) being easy examples of this.

In the era of fanfic communities, audiences can produce some sort of narrative satisfaction for themselves (though they might prefer to pair Sheldon with Ross, possibly why Joss watches). This sense of filling in missing or yet to come narrative only rarely fits science reporting, though maybe “rule 34” suggests there is internet porn about the hunt for the higgs boson somewhere (I really don't want to know, please don't email me links).

Something else worth noting from this tiny Einstein/ Eddington case study is the way members of this community were sharing historical sources about the two "characters" to help build realistic stories. It is, I believe, a fascinating example of people using academic resources as they made and shared their own entertainment, creating fictional worlds and yet also exhibiting a desire for factual materials in order to develop that interest.

Small communities of Einstein groupies aside, we can see an awareness and desire to utilize online "nerd communities" to both share and do science-based activism and PR of scientific work. Some recent anti-homeopathy campaigns and the various retweetings of CERN’s exclamation marks being, respectively, good examples of this (some reflection on this in this How Science Became Cool feature, from the Guardian last April). A feature on science writing in the Times Higher this week includes some interesting points from UK-based science bloggers.

Ben Goldacre repeats an argument he is well known for: that there is a “revolution in science reporting" taking place as various “nerds” (professional scientists and science fans) mediate themselves to find small interesting ways of talking to small interested groups of people. The Times Higher feature also repeats an interesting idea of Ed Yong’s: let the bloggers do the “uninspiring” output of basic research news so often seen as “churnalism” in science reporting (they’ll be more interesting about it anyway), and this will free journalists to do more investigative work.

It’s easy to get carried away by a wave of techno-optimism around these areas, and I think it’s important to keep a sceptical eye on how just apparently grass roots actions are really top down marketing campaigns.

For example, many children’s literature scholars argued that Harry Potter marked the point where adverts and favourable press reviews started to mean less; it was all about what people were taking about in the playground. Perhaps for the first Harry Potter this was a matter of unmediated audience discussion, but there are examples of where publishing companies have co-opted personal recommendation of books as part of marketing campaigns. They leave pseudonymous comments on blogs saying how cool something is, they leave free copies at “bookcrossing” outlets, television shows may leak clips to video-fanfiction communities to spark excitement. This isn’t necessarily all that new.

Indeed, Martin Barker’s analysis of comic book fandom (e.g. in this 1993 book) as a form of marketing strategy provides a useful background. Barker eschews the image of the fan as the counter-cultural independently minded individual many in cultural studies celebrate it as. Instead he argues fans are simply ‘a cartoon drawn’ by the production companies (Barker, 1993: 180). Yes, Harry Potter fanfiction may be slightly subversive in insisting characters described by JK Rowling as straight are actually gay, but it is still reliant on the basic sketch of her characters. Moreover, the people writing this fan fiction often buy not only the books but a wealth of other merchandise alongside feeding their interest with self-made media. We might say similarly about science blogging. And if people worry that science journalists are too close to the scientific community to provide an objective critique. Again, see discussion the Times Higher piece, or some of the debate surrounding the launch of

That's not to say science fans are (or will be) dupes of the science PR industry. The power relations are complex and it's all terribly Foucaultian. But these tensions involved in fan mediation, in all their complexity, is something those interested in fostering grass roots science communication campaigns would do well to consider.

--Alice Bell

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.