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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.

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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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