Last month, long-running U.S. daytime soap opera As the World Turns aired its final episode, roughly a year after the cancellation of Guiding Light. I hadn’t been watching either soap, but I still felt a keen sense of loss — these were the soaps that I grew up with, that my mother and my aunt watched, that still featured characters that I remembered from my childhood. The memories persist, but the sense of continuity and endurance — the prospect of dipping back into them, and instantly reconnecting to those memories of not just the soaps, but my own family — has faded. C. Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby discuss how soap opera fans make sense of their fandom and their own lives in a new essay in the latest issue of Transformative Works & Cultures, Autobiographical Reasoning in Long-Term Fandom. They draw upon interviews with nearly three dozen fans who have followed their soap operas for over twenty years to explore the roles that soap operas play in how these fans construct and interpret life narratives — how soaps mediated their relationships with their family, got them through difficult times, and gave them perspective on their own lives. A lot of this resonated for me; even as I grew older, As the World Turns remained a bridge between my mother and myself. On visits home, I’d watch it with her and ask her to fill me in on the storylines, and it was always something I could talk with her about on the phone, even during periods of my adulthood where we struggled to communicate and find common ground. Harrington and Bielby offer a valuable perspective on thinking about long-term fandom — whether it’s for soap operas, sports, or Star Trek. I’m not sure I’d count as a soap opera fan — I’ve never watched any soap long enough or consistently enough for that — but I’m definitely a fan of the genre, and I attribute my early exposure to soaps to my preference for serial narratives. I’ve sampled a few soaps for various lengths of time over the past few years, and the genre still holds a lot of pleasure and promise. The relative decline of daytime soaps in the U.S. gets variously attributed to women entering the workforce in larger numbers, competition from cable television, decreasing cultural relevance and poor management and creative decisions. Some fans and critics point to the relative flourishing of soap opera-style serial narrative in prime time television to argue for the continued viability of the genre; others site the rise of web-based soap operas to argue that online video rather than network television will be the savior of soaps. More on this subject in an upcoming post about a forthcoming book, The Survival of Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era, edited by Harrington, Sam Ford, and Abigail de Kosnik.
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Henry Jenkins, ARGS, Fandom, and the Digi-Gratis Economy: An Interview with Paul Booth, author of Digital Fandom: New Media Studies (link goes to the first part of the interview; see also part 2 and part 3). Here’s a confession: I tend to think that ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention in transmedia and convergence culture circles relative to their significance (my pet theory is that academics like talking about ARGs because they experience academic research as an ARG). So the last thing I was interested in hearing about was ARGs as a model and metaphor for online fandom, and I’d originally skipped this interview when it popped up in my feedreader. But the third part of the interview caught my eye, with some interesting discussion on rethinking the gift economy model of fandom, gender, and database culture. And it turns out that the whole thing is worth reading, with some detours into Doctor Who, fan fiction, and mashups.
Matt Hills in Sherlocking, Sherlock, Knowledge and Fan Sites: Speaking of database culture (and Doctor Who), Matt Hills has a nice piece on perhaps the most contemporary aspect of the new BBC series Sherlock — the displacement of mastery of specialized categories of knowledge in favor of proficiency in tracking down relevant information on the fly. Hills of course says it better: “Because in a world where all forms of knowledge can be archived and accessed via cloud computing, Conan Doyle’s provocative hierarchies of knowledge melt into air. This Holmes doesn’t need to know in advance what he needs to know, because he’s networked – he can consult digitally at the scene of the crime.” All this, plus a bonus quote from a great Franco Moretti essay! Ironically, an ensuing debate in the comments suggests that Sherlock Holmes fandom still privileges the contrasting mode of authority through encyclopedic command of canon….
Louisa Stein in Antenna, Mad Men vs. Sherlock – What Makes a Fandom?: In a provocative piece, Stein notes the insta-fandom that sprung up around BBC’s Sherlock, “which, with two episodes aired at the time of writing, already has a full host of communities, fan fiction, vids, and fan art”, in contrast to the paucity of similar fanworks for Mad Men. Yet Stein argues that Mad Men fans have generated a wide variety of creative works which don’t fall easily under the more familiar fanworks model and arguably have a broader cultural influence.
Elsewhere, In Media Res hosts a theme week on professional wrestling. I totally blame the first piece by David Ray Carter, A History of Violence: politics, profits, and the changing face of the WWE, for drawing me back into watching WWE’s RAW this week after taking a post-Wrestlemania break. All of the posts are well worth reading, touching on issues around the production of performances, personae, and narratives that have broader resonance for media and celebrity fan cultures (e.g., Cory Barker’s Making the scripted more real? Pro wrestling and Twitter).
Meanwhile, Jason Tocci of Geek Studies examines the geek chic backlash in Scott Pilgrim vs. the Cultural Critique, while Kristina Busse looks inward in Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Good Fan/Bad Fan Dichotomy.
I wanted to write something about the recent online dust-up (micro-kerfuffle?) in media studies sparked by Ian Bogost’s post, Against Aca-Fandom, which riffed off of Jason Mittell’s essay On Disliking Mad Men and in turn sparked another post from Henry Jenkins, On Mad Men, Aca-Fandom, and the Goals of Cultural Criticism. But the more I tried to disentangle the various threads (in these posts, and the comments to them, and Twitter, and elsewhere) the less clear I became about the substance of Bogost’s critique and its relationship to Mittell’s essay. So I decided to go back to the beginning and look again at what Mittell actually wrote about Mad Men. I should probably caveat that I am a fan of Mad Men, and a semi-fan of Mittell’s work (dude kind of lost me with his posts on the final season of Lost).
So Jason Mittell vs. Mad Men: he starts by saying that on paper, he should like it as a fan of a certain brand of cable-style “quality TV” which falls within the genre of complex serialized narratives that he’s made a name for himself out of analyzing and championing. Moreover, his peer group of critics and academics all seem to love the show. Which leaves him at great pains to try to advance a critique of the show which is not a critique of its fans/his friends — “that I can offer my negative take on the series without implicating its fans in my critique” — by “highlight[ing] [his] own aesthetic response to shed some light on the mechanics of taste and televisual pleasure.” So far, so good, right? (Though I’m not entirely sure what he means by “aesthetic response”, which seems to be a synonym for affect, as he repeatedly links it to pleasure while bracketing off his respect for the caliber of the acting, writing, set design, etc. as objective qualities which fail nevertheless to provide him with pleasure.)
But he chooses an odd strategy to insulate fans from his critique, by articulating his “absence of pleasure” in Mad Men “dialogically, in comparison [with] what the show’s admirers find so enjoyable. In discussing Mad Men with friends and reading celebratory criticism, I believe the three core types of pleasure that they take from the show (and that evade me) are in the visual splendor of its period style, the subtextual commentary on American history and identity, and the emotional resonance to be found with the characters and their dramas.” Spoiler alert: each of these “core types of pleasure” end up eluding Mittell, and he never ends up reconciling his displeasure with his friends’ enjoyment of the show.
Mittell never makes clear the origin or status of the types of pleasure he describes — specifically, whether they’re inherent to the show, cultivated by the fans, or forged in complicity between the fans and the show’s creators. But his displeasure — his inability to find pleasure in Mad Men, to recognize himself amongst his peers as a fan of the show — circles around contradiction and ambivalence. He can’t find pleasure in the contradiction between the glossy veneer of the show’s period style and its cultural critique, in the ambivalent politics of “social critique [which] seems to promote a sense of superiority to the characters and the 1960s milieu, while simultaneously inviting us to return to this unpleasant place each week.” He’s left cold by the narrative’s “emotional distance”, the characters “we are seemingly supposed to find… both appealing and repellent at the same time”: Mittell “ultimately doesn’t care about these people.”
At one point Mittell, discussing Betty Draper in the first season, describes her as the character he found “most off-putting”, with her depiction in the show “making us complicit in her degradation and generating contempt for her frail character.” Yet later on he reserves special contempt (“disgust and disdain”) for the lead character Don Draper, who he deems less sympathetic than “quality TV”‘s murderous rogues gallery of Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, or Vic Mackey. Mittell cites an episode where Don ruins his daughter’s birthday party as cause for singular scorn: “as a father, I found this unmotivated behavior a step too far.”
In a suggestive phrasing, Mittell suggest that “[t]he missing ingredient from Draper and nearly all of Mad Men‘s characters is empathy, as virtually nobody’s behavior or situation invites me to place myself in their shoes. Instead, I watch the characters from an emotional remove….” But surely the lack of empathy that Mittell locates here resides in himself; he eschews complicity with Betty’s plight, and actively disidentifies with Don — a man with “the most agency” and “copious opportunities” who “created his own destiny”, “a charmed life of limitless professional and romantic opportunity.” I can’t speak to Mittell’s love life, but surely some of the phrasing he uses to describe Don’s achievements and capabilities could also apply to a certain degree to his own position as a tenured media studies professor with several publications and a solid reputation in the field — solid enough at least to be invited to contribute to a volume on a show that he doesn’t even watch?
My take on Mad Men is that the show operates in a deeply ironic mode — contradiction and ambivalence are features, not bugs. What Mittell identifies as incongruities and incompatibilities in his three core types of pleasure are in fact irresolvable and a continued source of tension for the viewer that alternately evoke empathy and distancing. The aesthetic of the show thus lies much closer to modernist novels than the “serial fiction of the nineteenth century” to which Mittell has frequently compared recent the complex serialized narratives of shows like The Wire which he favors. For me, the subtext of Mittell’s complaint is his refusal or inability to find pleasure in that ironic mode, to secure a pleasurable place as audience and potential fan within those contradictions and ambivalences that threaten to overwhelm him with complicity and contempt. The pleasures of Mad Men, and the experience of being a fan of the series, thus remain opaque to him as they don’t align with his own.
Yet I think the experiences that he describes, even as he rejects them — complicity, contempt, disidentification — can also function as valuable critical tools for the aca-fan. If aca-fandom is to extend beyond the purely celebratory, the range of affect in question should encompass more than pleasure. Perhaps what we really need is an aca-fandom capable of operating in ironic modes of critique.
A few days ago in my personal journal, I asked for thoughts about the rise of anonymous spaces in fandom (specifically, here and for the rest of this post, my corner of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth etc.-based media fandom). I received dozens of comments, both anonymous and posted under long-standing fannish pseudonyms. Persistent pseudonyms (such as my own, cryptoxin) dominate the parts of fandom that I’m involved in; posting or commenting anonymously is relatively uncommon. Anon memes — spaces where anonymous commenting is the norm — have popped up regularly for years on LiveJournal, but most were short-lived, dying out or being shut down fairly quickly. More recently, long-running permanent anon memes (many, but not all, specific to a particular fandom) have become increasingly prominent in fandom. The comments to my post provide a lot of different perspectives on their growing popularity, function, and dynamics.
What follows are the beginnings of my thoughts about the place of anon memes in fandom. I’m going to break my discussion up into multiple posts over the next couple of weeks, organized around five themes:
Burden of identity
Wrong on the internet
Below is the first installment, discussing anon memes as a distraction economy.
- Distraction economy
Many celebrate media fandom as a gift economy, where “goods” such as fan fiction and other fanworks are freely shared, exchanged and circulated. But fan communities also function as reputation economies, where the quantity and quality of friends, comments, etc. determines the distribution and circulation of social capital (popularity, influence, respect, etc.). The pseudonymous nature of fandom participation doesn’t diminish this dynamic; persistent pseudonyms accrue their own reputations over time, and fandom has a long memory.
Going anonymous in theory allows you to opt out of the reputation economy, at least temporarily. Within the meme, where everyone’s anonymous, reputation can’t stick to any participant: you’re only as wanky or stupid (or clever, or amusing) as your last anonymously-posted comment. Each new comment thread wipes the slate clean; this will not go down on your permanent reputational record.
Yet anon memes aren’t completely outside of fandom’s reputation economy — memes, and their anonymous participants, have their own reputation within fandom, and known or suspected participation on an anon meme can affect one’s reputation within pseudonymous fannish spaces. Moreover, anon memes often debate, reassess, or attack the reputational standing of pseudonymous fans — especially well-known BNFs — in negotiations that can spill over into broader fandom. So it’s perhaps more accurate to think of anon memes in a kind of underground or black market relationship to fandom’s “formal” reputation economies.
Reputation economies in fandom shape the fannish attention economy: with an abundance of posts, communities, fanworks, episode reactions, and discussions vying for attention, nobody can follow it all. So reputation becomes one filter shaping the flows of attention, influencing which stories get read, whose posts receive comments, what discussions get prioritized. To a certain degree, participation in broader fan communities requires paying attention, and distributing your attention appropriately. The culture of a fandom (fanon, in-jokes, jargon, influential fanworks, etc.) emerges from shared experiences, histories, attitudes, and frames of reference — in other words, the map and archive of fannish attention.
Anon memes have a symbiotic relationship to fandom’s “official” attention economy. Through links and discussion, they harness, amplify or redirect fannish attention — even as many in pseudonymous fandom would cast anon memes themselves as unworthy of attention and disavow allocating any of their own attention to them. Memes also provide an alternate filtering system driven less by reputation than relevance and interest: attention goes to anything capable of generating comments on the meme. But permanent anon memes that achieve heavy traffic and a constant stream of comments also present a different kind of fannish space, a culture devoted to distraction. Step inside an active anon meme, and you can easily lose hours; rather than budgeting your attention, you simply give yourself over to the anonymous flow. The distractions of being on the meme can be a vacation from fandom’s attention economy.
Up next: Anon memes as counter-public spheres
MTV’s The Hills is rapidly approaching its series finale, going out with more of a whimper than a bang. The reality show hit its cultural high-water mark in series 3, when the feud between Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag jumped from the screen to tabloids and gossip sites to daytime and late-night talk shows. Suddenly the show and its cast were everywhere, objects of fascination, derision, adoration, and parody in seemingly equal measures, while spawning endless discussion deconstructing the status of the “real” in reality TV and celebrity culture. But The Hills‘ zeitgeist moment has long since passed, even before being usurped by Jersey Shore last year as the latest unscripted jewel in MTV’s crown.
I’m (still) a fan of The Hills, even though I’ve transferred the bulk of my affection and investment to its spin-off, The City. Rather than a typical end-of-series post-mortem, I want to talk about The Hills in terms of its fan cultures. From what I’ve seen, The Hills was almost entirely ignored in my circles of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth-based media fandom, and especially within what damned_colonial (adopting obsession_inc’s coinage) has recently described as ‘transformational fandom’ — that is, predominantly female fan communities centered around fan fiction and other fanworks. Transformational fandom is used in contrast to ‘affirmational fandom’, conceived of as focusing more on exploring and celebrating the source material and its creators. Damned_colonial notes that ‘affirmational’ and ‘transformational’ represent not so much two separate camps, but rather two alternate modes of fannishness that can co-exist in a given fan and a particular community.
In this framework, The Hills would seem to skew heavily towards the affirmational fandom mode, if only because of the relative lack of broad engagement through fanworks, but I think something else is going on that neither concept covers. For a lot of the show’s primary audience, the pleasures of being a fan of The Hills was partly identificatory and partly aspirational. Comments in forums would talk about the cast as if they were part of their extended virtual social network, chiding them, offering support, giving advice, taking sides in fights. These dynamics aren’t uncommon in soap opera fandoms or among celebrity/gossip fans, but for fans of The Hills, there was a special implied proximity and intimacy — that the cast was more accessible to them, or that it was easier to imagine themselves transposed into the world of The Hills.
In social science, this style of virtual sociality is called parasocial relationships. Fans are often mocked for talking about a celebrity or soap opera character as though they were a close friend or family member (for example, in the U.S. version of The Office, there’s a scene when Jim returns to the Scranton branch after being away and asks Kelly what’s new with her, and she replies with a breathless update on Brad and Angelina’s relationship). But those jokes rely on the assumed conflation between fantasy and reality in the minds of fans presumed unable to make those distinctions. In contrast, a hallmark of The Hills’ success and the discourse about the show among fans rested upon mobilizing the tension and blurred edges in the fiction/reality divide. Fans of The Hills had their own version of a Lost-style forensic fandom, scouring DVD extras, gossip blogs, and cast interviews to untangle a ‘true’ story from the constructed narratives of reality show editing and promotional spin. Fantasy vs. reality becomes another game, fodder for discussion and a source of pleasure in itself. Fans’ parasocial relationships with Lauren, Heidi, and company are less a sign of delusion than a space of imaginative play and a locus for social relationships between fans.
One of MTV’s innovations was to channel and frame this fannish mode of virtual sociality through The Hills After Show, a live talk show immediately following The Hills. Events from the latest episode were debated, dissected, and dished over by the hosts and a panel of fan-surrogates in front of a vocal audience, with cutaways to comments from fans in viewer parties linked by webcam. Finally a cast member would come on the After Show for an interview/interrogation about what really happened and what it all meant, bringing the “characters” themselves directly into fannish space and discussion.
I don’t think this style of fandom rests comfortably within the affirmational vs. transformational framework. Perhaps it straddles both to some extent, but I’m more inclined to see it as a third mode of fandom. Until a better name comes along, let’s call it parasocial fandom, to reclaim the term and celebrate its emphasis on relational play and pleasures.