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November 5, 2006

The Phenomenon of Fans of Fans

This piece originally appeared in our C3 Weekly Update back in July, a forum for internal communication here within our academic and corporate partners. I wanted to share it with everyone else at this point.

An increasing amount of time, scholarship, and focus has been directed toward fan communities, which manifest themselves most often and in the most easily traceable ways online, through chat rooms, message boards, and e-mail lists.

However, a related phenomenon that has a significant impact on the way many fans experience media properties are through the phenomenon of fans of fans. These fans--although they have no official relationship with the media properties shows are focused on--often make important contributions to the ways other fans enjoy a property, or even whether those fans stick around.

This principle is actually something that crops up in many long-standing types of programs. One of these is sports. I first thought about the phenomenon when conducting an ethnography of pro wrestling fans. When I went to some of the events, I found fans were as often entertained by their fellow fans as with the performers in the ring. Everyone who watches wrestling know that the fan are often as significant or more significant a factor in the success of a show than the writers and wrestlers.

But fans even acknowledge or begin to follow certain members of the crowd. Often, wrestling fans will come to the show dressed as a certain villain and supporting them, to the delight/anger of the rest of the crowd. These type of fan-performers enhance everyone's enjoyment of the show, even as they often take attention away from the focus the writers and performers intend. For instance, see the research of Chad Dell and others on the fans who became famous at local arenas during wrestling's regional days, as audiences would as often watch those fans' reactions to matches as they would what was happening in the ring. Perhaps the most famous of these was Hatpin Mary, who would actually bring a hatpin to the ring and attempt to stick the villain wrestlers who came her way.

Even in the nationally touring wrestling organizations like the WWE, these fans can become well-known. Longtime wrestling fans are often well-aware of the Hulk Hogan lookalike who appeared ringside at many of The Hulkster's most important matches over the year. When Hogan first turned into a villain in the mid-1990s, a significant number of fans debated and wondered what Hogan's superfan would do. Would he support Hogan through his "heel" turn or would he consider it a betrayal?

Extreme Championship Wrestling used to have a fan that sat in the front row at most of its events. The man always wore a hat and became known as "Hat Guy" to the fan community. He became an important part of the shows in ECW's home arena in particular, and fans considered him a key part of the ECW mythology. When the organization closed in 2001, documentaries and books about the history of ECW always included Hat Guy as one of the important figures in the ECW mythology.

At the most local of focuses, the "fans of fans" phenomenon is evident at local sports games. I can remember high school basketball games often being fun not because of the game, which could be a blowout, but because of certain members of the local crowd. Just as a colorful wrestling fan can often make a show for the audience, these people become famous for their colorful taunts of the other team--or, most often, their diatribes to the officials. When the ref would make a call, the crowd would regularly turn to the seats of these few characters to see what colorful insults they would hurl.

The earliest traces of these fans gaining followings through their writing may come through fan reviews and fan fiction. It's no secret that many fans' opinions are guided by opinion leaders within the community. This exists both on the macro level, which can be seen in online communities, and at the micro level, through peer influence. Conversely, fan fiction has often helped keep franchises alive, even when no new official material is being produced, or when the official material does not meet the fans' demands. The support of many shows and products has been kept alive through continued fan content production.

To fuel this fan response, though, individual writers within the fan community must become opinion leaders and develop fan followings of their own. This certainly happens within online fan communities when fan reviewers write. Many times, fans seek further enjoyment of a show through the creative reviews of others. Similarly, fan fiction writers often develop strong followings and spark continued debate and criticism of their work, in a process not all that dissimilar from more mainstream writers.

The effect is similar to the discussion Ian Condry had with the C3 team at the retreat in April, about fansubbing. In his example, fans of Japanese anime provided subtitles for products not yet available in the American market. In the process, certain fansubbers developed stronger followings than others, based on the accuracy and expanse of the cultural information and translations provided. In other words, it was not just certain products from Japan but certain groups of fansubbers that gained significant followings.

This process has transferred into the online realm. In his upcoming book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins dedicates a chapter to the spoiler online fan communities. In this case, many fans often demonstrated their lack of interest in the show, if it had not been for the spoiler activities and debates they participated in online. Certain spoilers who claimed to have confidential information that they were passing onto the board, or who knew a friend of a friend, gained followings and sparked intense debate. Again, these types of fans are not a part of the official communication of the show but have a strong and direct bearing of the way a significant number of viewers watch and enjoy the show.

Similarly, on the As the World Turns fan boards I read and participate in, fans often gain followings on their own. On the Media-Domain board dedicated to ATWT, poster MaryHatch became well-known for her sarcasm and her one- line responses to dialogue in the show that she sometimes posts as the show is airing on the message board. Other fans now regularly write on the board, wondering what MaryHatch will think about a certain event or conversation on the show. And whole threads have even started in debate to MaryHatch's importance on the board.

Disgruntled fans are angered at the attention this one poster receives and pose the question to other fans as to whether the board exists as a place of discussion for the show or for MaryHatch. In particular, many fans have said that they have stuck through boring periods of the show just because they liked watching the show and then seeing MaryHatch rip certain parts of it.

This type of fan response is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these fans increase the enjoyment of others and make the fan community as a whole more involved in the entertainment property. On the other hand, these fans are not under the control of the content producers, and they are often very critical of the product--often, their reputation is made on how creatively they can riff or criticize the show.

Nevertheless, these fans are an essential part of the experience of the rest of the community, and the creative powers have to learn to live with that. Attempts to criticize these fans or to censor them may seem like the best way to gain control, but attacking a fan who has a following of his or her own often brings a great degree of ill-will toward the property.

Instead, cultural producers are better off letting these fans have some degree of free reign, especially since they often enhance the experience without pay. And, if producers would follow these "super fans" a little more often, attempt to understand why they gain such a following and why they are so important to the entertainment property, they may learn something new about their products.

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