Conference Presentation: LangRhet 2017


When people discover love for a story, or a universe in which a story takes place, they sometimes form into communities of fans called ‘fandoms’ and use their passion to interpret that narrative. They remix it into other genres, refocus it for other audiences, and sometimes reimagine it so that it includes and amplifies marginalized voices.  

When authors and others in positions of authority (like producers, show runners, etc) in a fandom witness these re-imaginings they react in a variety of ways. Some accept it and utilize their fans’ insights to improve their art and craft, some vehemently reject it, some willfully misunderstand it, and a great many leave it well alone hoping to avoid any criticism or conflict.

This presentation explores those differences, it offers no insight other than a general call for groups who would build or contribute to online discourse platforms to be mindful and plan accordingly in their design. My hope is in the future to expand what I have gathered for today into an exploration of how the online spaces I will highlight (Amazon, message boards in the mid 2000s, Tumblr, and Facebook) influenced these interactions. Working through these examples I hope will inspire some of you to examine power dynamics within your own digital spaces.

‘Do not trust Anne Rice’

One extreme example of an author rejecting any critique or discourse surrounding their work is Anne Rice, who famously found her way into the Amazon comment section of the final book in her Vampire Chronicles series.

Her comment was coined by fans “The Paragraph that Never Ends” for in her enraged state she posted a 1222 word comment rejecting all negative reviews, attacking the social and academic status of her fans, and claiming several times that her book was perfect, that the main character, Lestat, had ‘guided’ her through writing it. 

On the next two slides I have chosen some representative excerpts from her comment.

‘Get a life’

Another example of such ill will towards fans takes the form of a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live featuring William Shatner as himself, or rather as a version of himself who is able (briefly) to express how he really feels about fans of Star Trek called Trekkies.

This sketch, while insulting, is somewhat helpful to participatory culture scholars today because it surmises many of the stereotypes of that time. Specifically the well known cliche of an overweight social outcast who is disconnected from reality, obsessed with cultivating and circulating what the shows’ creators deem ‘useless’ knowledge, they are also desexualized and infantilized through implications that they have ‘never kissed a girl’ and are just children still living in their parents’ basement.  It is also vital to mention that representations of this fandom are almost totally male and erase the women who were, and are, central to the movement.

If you’re curious and would like to watch the skit, it’s available here:

NBC – Saturday Night Live “Get a Life” Skit feat. William Shatner

While this last example is not an online discourse, as much of the Star Trek fandom formed and functioned on paper and in person, the ideas and stereotypes associated with those fans truly laid the groundwork for creator/fan relations like that of Anne Rice and her readers.

In fact, the way I first came to this topic was by seeing a widely circulated post on tumblr titled “Do Not trust anne rice” pictured here. You’ll notice upon reading that the purpose of the post is not just to complain about how Anne Rice treats her fans, but specifically to warn younger fans who hadn’t witnessed the earlier flash points. This is fans watching out for fans. The dynamic of fan communities, especially in those where a central figure (such as author, artist, etc) is involved, hinges on a mutual trust between those two parties.

I have a few examples of trust here: they consist of Amanda Palmers’ complete trust and involvement with her fans, a team of podcast hosts knowing when to decentralize themselves, and an author who specifically seeks feedback and fan discourse.

Three brothers host a comedy podcast called My Brother My Brother and Me, this podcast has a history of listening to fans. The brothers have a history of learning from their fans. They frequently express disgust over the alienating and insensitive things they said in the first two years of their show. It was at that time that they decided they could do humor without being mean and they could validate the concerns and suggestions that their fans offered. They recently followed up on this value by removing themselves from their Facebook fan page that has just shy of 40,000 members. Justin, the eldest brother, made a post detailing the decision, this decision was based on the fact that they realized their fans couldn’t be 100% honest if they felt like they were being watched by the hosts. The brothers’ replaced themselves with a team of 5 administrators and 6 moderators who have made a marked difference on how often and how quickly harassment and conflicts are addressed.

Shadow March was an episodic fantasy novel published online by Tad Williams, here we have a quote from the website showing how clear he was about listening to, valuing, and applying his fans’ feedback. This not only validated this group of people but rewarded them for their participation. This screen capture is from 2004, the same year Anne Rice posted ‘the paragraph that never ends’. This shows that it’s not just about media or broadcasting at a certain time, there have always been people like Tad Williams, willing to work with people and collaborate.

Amanda Palmer is a musician, and although music is positioned closer to the binary of producer and passive audience, Palmer’s fan community is one of the most active and participatory fandoms I’ve ever witnessed. She has spoken and written extensively on the trust she has built up with her fans, from crashing on their couches to asking them for help writing songs, she has an established bidirectional relationship with this group of people and it shifts as she introduces new projects and travels to new places.

A snapshot into the formation of this dynamic is the Belly Solidarity Campaign started by supporters on the Dresden Dolls forum in 2009. It was in response to Palmer’s record label telling her that they would reshoot the video for her song Leeds United. In the song Palmer sings with an open shirt so that her stomach is exposed for extremely brief glimpses throughout the video. Her record told her that they knew what men want and that her belly looked too fat so they had to reshoot. Fans took to the message boards posting pictures of their own stomachs, sometimes writing on them, things cursing the record label or drawing hearts in support. These were sent to the record label and the reshoots did not happen.

I use these examples to make a call for those of us that will explore the affordances of collaboration and community in online spaces to understand this one variable that can and will affect the success of those platforms. Even professionals in User Experience design must consider the implications of the presence of authority in those spaces and how that changes things.  Misrepresenting culture is a central issue to cultural and rhetorical studies.

Just as we examine the classroom and the writing center, we can turn our eyes to spaces often hidden from us by convenience. We can search for unusual examples and working models of what trust and open creative collaboration look like. There were many examples I wasn’t able to include but I hope next time you log into Facebook and look at your groups you consider the dynamics I have posited here today. These examples, and many others like them, have been and will be studied by rhetoricians and participatory scholars, but my goals moving forward will be to apply what I spoke about today to establish theory about how the online platforms discussed influenced those interactions.

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