A fan is someone who is more than an ordinary, occasional television viewer, book reader, Internet user, music listener, or movie-goer. The etymology of “fan” is the Latin word fanaticus, which is also the source of the word fanatic. Bielby et al. (1999, 35) state, while being a consumer of a medium is one thing, “to be a ‘fan,’ however, is to participate in a range of activities that extend beyond the private act of viewing and reflects an enhanced emotional involvement” with the narrative.
Fandom is a community of fans, a sub-culture of fans, who share common interest, empathy, and enthusiasm for a popular culture product as well as camaraderie and communication with each other. The origins of the concept are often associated with the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention (aka Worldcon), the longest running science fiction convention, which continues today. Fandom, however, is a sub-culture that goes well beyond the science fiction/fantasy genre. While Trekkies (fans of the television series and movie versions of Star Trek) are perhaps the most often referenced group (as well as parodied on television programs such as Saturday Night Live), others include Harry Potter devotees, romance novel readers, celebrity fan clubs, soap opera viewers, and team sports fans. With the arrival of reality TV series, fans have organized for communal viewing around programs such as The Bachelor and American Idol.
The totality of fans dedicated to a particular object or subject is referred to as its “fan base.” The concept of this interconnected base started with sports fans but the same phenomenon quickly became apparent in behavior ranging from symbolic appreciation to extreme parasocial interaction, when a fan’s interest extends beyond accepted boundaries of viewing and behavior associated with a particular celebrity, television show, film, video game, author, or details about them. Responses fall along a continuum, ranging from “normal” adoration to “extreme” obsession, in the form of stalking and harassment. Jenkins (1988, 86) argues, “Fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined, and unrepentant, rogue readers.” The 1971 film Play Misty for Me is a classic example of a female radio listener’s obsession with a DJ (played by Clint Eastwood). Examples of other fan fixations include repeated break-ins to late night talk show host David Letterman’s home, the tragic 1989 fatal shooting of My Sister Sam star Rebecca Schaeffer by an obsessed fan, and the 1995 murder of Tejano singer Selena by the president of her fan club.
Participating in the community of fandom involves more then active consumption of media; it also involves “doing”. Some fans are active on related Internet sites, posting opinions on television programs, commentary on characters, or playing games and downloading images. Others write fan fiction and critiques, produce art, scratch videos, construct websites, and share their enthusiasm with like-minded others. The activity of fiction fans who rework storylines, find continuity errors, or construct alternative endings is called fanwank. Fanzines are another popular expression, originally in printed form but today increasingly found on the Internet. Fans also hold conventions dedicated to topics, genres, titles, or characters, such as a 2004 academic conference dedicated to what is known as Buffy Studies. Groups also dress in costumes and clothing associated with an event or cast such as fans of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
As a result of the size of groups and purchasing potential, fans constitute an economic base of great interest to product marketers and advertisers. Sports fans are an emotionally invested group and buy millions of dollars worth of team-related, logo-laden t-shirts, hats, jackets, mugs, and related paraphernalia. Fans of particular television programs not only buy show-related merchandise, but also other products advertised within the time the program airs. Not all fans organize spontaneously, however. Creating communities around particular media phenomenon is frequently the result of public relations and advertising campaigns designed to organize consumers.
Advertisers focus on this self-selected audience in hopes of building brand loyalty to the program and to products associated with it, hence creating a brand community. Examples include product placements such as in the HBO hit Sex in the City of Absolut Vodka, Barneys Department Store, and Manolo Blahnik shoes, and advertisers “surrounding” programs, such as General Motors’ ads during the CBS reality television program Survivor. Public relations firms capitalize on the interactivity of the web by inviting visitors to join clubs or fan groups, and take online quizzes. The website for the television program Desperate Housewives invites viewers to shop for show-related merchandise, take the “Which housewife are you?” quiz, and watch recent episodes.
Defining who is a fan and the degree of fandom requires engaging with definitions of audience. Beyond discussions of active versus passive consumers, level of involvement, degree of enthusiasm, and questions of consistency in relation to media use or symbol consumption are also assessed. Sandvoss (2005) argues for the importance of the polysemic (multiple meanings) readings of fan texts and the relationship between that and audiences’ ability to evade, resist, or participate in acts of social and cultural power.
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