May 17, 2007
Fan Behaviors: Five Ways of Understanding Modes of Fan Engagement with Media Texts

I am always interested in categorizations of fans, a list breaking down fan "types." I've seen several helpful category lists that help explain and understand fan behaviors. No one list makes perfect sense and explains everything, but this type of research at least provides a framework for understanding and talking about fan behaviors. In some of my recent work, I've been drawing on some of my own previous work on fan communities and categorizations I derived from an ethnography of wrestling fandom.

My own research breaks fan behaviors into five categories, looking at HOW fans engage with a show. This process was based on my observations in the pro wrestling arena, looking at how fans respond and comment on their behavior at live events, but I think this applies particularly well to Internet fandom as well. I wanted to present those categories for C3 readers both for any help it might be but also to see what you might have to challenge them.

Those categories are:

1.) Fans as spectators (or consumers). This is the traditional passive view of fans and an important part of understanding fandom in general. In short, fans consume texts, and it's hard to be a fan of something if you never partake in anything surrounding it.

2.) Fans as critics. Almost all modes of engagement with a product involves more than just being part of the show. Most of the discursive activities surrounding a show do not just involve being within the willing suspension of disbelief but commenting on, discussing, arguing about the show, the acting, etc.

3.) Fans as theorists. Owing to the theories of Thomas McGlaughlin, fan writing and discussion contains a great deal of wisdom about a product that has often been called vernacular theory, and fans are often quite introspective and articulate about their own behaviors, the nature of consumption, the draw of the particular media product, etc.

4.) Fans as performers. As fans engage in these critical and theoretical observations, and in a variety of other ways, fans are performing, both for each other and for the text itself. In the wrestling arena, this type of behavior is particularly easy to see, but the performative aspect of the online fan community is quite noticeable as well.

5.) Fans as a community. The social aspects of fandom cannot be ignored, and each of the other four modes of engagement play directly into them. A great deal of fandom, however, can only be understood in relation to the communal whole of a particular fan community and how these modes of engagement have as much to do with relationships among community members as they do with the text itself. In my understanding of both pro wrestling and soaps, both have to be understood as social texts, and their power and artistry make much less sense removed from the fan relationships that they empower and which, in turn, empowers them.

The essay in which these categorizations come from is still pending publication and has been under review/revision for some time. In an effort to share the information, though, I wanted to post it first here in hopes that it might be useful to other researchers or, conversely, that any problems others might have with these categorizations could be discussed.


On May 17, 2007 at 4:12 PM, David Feldman said:

I guess my question to you, Sam, is whether these categories refer to what these fans DO or to WHAT WE CAN OBSERVE?

I'd argue that most "ones" who are anything but the most casual fans are almost automatically "twos" and "threes," too. Why do people enjoy watching the same, often relatively formulaic, TV shows time after time, or reading procedural mysteries?

I think all of us, whether consciously or not, are working out all kinds of aesthetic issues, if not political or moral ones.

It's a lot easier to study folks who are articulating their "criticism," whether in postings on blogs or newsgroups. The subject that interests me is what about the folks who wouldn't think about writing about why they like a video game, but are attuned to every nuance of the game.


This is an interesting way of approaching the problem of explaining fandom, as it allows for more detail than the two-ended spectrum (basically, hardcore/casual) implied by some work.

I'm curious, though: where do you fit fans who are particularly interested in collecting? Some comic fans, for example, know plenty about what happens in comics and regularly read their favorites (classified here as spectatorship/consuming), but also have comics that they keep sealed and untouched.

There's certainly a social element surrounding that practice, given how they interact at stores and conventions and such, but it could be confusing to conflate the socializing with the actual object appreciation. It's not quite criticism, either, considering that the (exchange) value of the sealed comics may have less to do with aesthetics and more to do with history (e.g., Death of Superman, or first cameo appearance of a character who becomes popular later).

I don't know if there's an analogous habit among TV fans, but that's the first thing that came to mind when I saw this typology.


I agree with the five you've got but I'd add Fans as Promoters.


David, you raise interesting questions. In my study, which I would be glad to share in full for anyone who wants to get in touch with me, I actually went and interviewed fans between matches.

What amazed me is how they could switch from mode to mode fairly fluidly on some occasions, acting as a performer and then turning and articulating how they felt about their performance. Other fans could ONLY talk to me between matches and had to mentally shift gears when another match started, in that they couldn't have that meta conversation. In other words, some of these interactions were limited by talking to people "mid-performance," but I'm interested in the fact that they COULD talk about it mid-performance as well.

In the end, though, the fact that this involved my observations and their own explanations about what they do means that there is that bias, both in my own interpretive lens and in their self-reporting.

I think you are quite right, though, about "ones" being "twos" and "threes" as well. The categories are completely fluid and not at all mutually exclusive. That is why I would consider them modes of engagement rather than TYPES of fans. Some fans never engage with the show through some of these modes, and some people in the arena use none of these modes of engagement--I would argue that they aren't fans.

Some fans are completely engaged in criticism and very little as spectators actually following the story, meaning they have an emotional removal from the performance. For the most part, though, one is the passive mode of engagement everyone partakes in, and it's required for some of the others. Some fans were engaged in all five modes during the time I talked with them, although "theorizing" was mainly because I was asking some of these "meta" questions of them and probably not something they would have shared with those around them. Generally, then, that would be an internal rather than external process.

I think your point is well taken, though, that most people are engaged in more than just watching at any point.

As to your last point, that is why I wanted to engage with the fans in the arena rather than going on message boards, discussion groups, etc. As you point out, you expect something different of people in critical mode than you do catching people in the moment of performance, in that live event setting.



I think the key here is that, instead of trying to define types of fans, I am defining modes of engagement, which means that fans can "BE" of many of these categories and can switch back and forth in the way they relate to other fans and to the product. I think the "hardcore/casual" spectrum is good for a basic explanation, but not much farther than that.

As for your question, it's why my categorizations are limited stemming from the study of a live event. There are some behaviors that didn't take place in live wrestling performances that take place in wrestling fandom in general, including archiving and collecting.

I've actually being doing a lot of studying of tape trading and the "pack rat" nature of our culture lately. You are right that there is a social element to it, so that it falls into the "community" mode of engagement, but it also falls into the "spectatorship/consumer" category as well, but not cleanly.

They aren't actually CONSUMING the product if they are collecting it as a valuable and leaving it sealed...You are also right that it is not really completely about critical appreciation, either.

I think that tape trading, although those tapes are consumed and not kept for "collectors edition" the same way comic books or toy collections are, fits into this category, as do DVD collections, boxed sets, and various types of TV memorabilia.

Because my study was limited to the live arena, there is not a clear mode of engagement that involves archiving, but I think that both archiving (and proselytism, which I will get to in response to Nancy), are very important parts of wrestling fandom...

In the case of archiving, I would say that it fits into spectator/consumer to a degree, into criticism sometimes, definitely into community and into performance, i.e. performing your love for a brand by collecting it...but you are right...the appreciation for the object is still at the root of it, and that doesn't have to be a social process. Perhaps in other cases, archiving itself is a mode of engagement? Any thoughts?


Nancy, as I alluded to in my previous comment, I wanted to address fan proselytizing, grassroots intermediaries, viral marketers, or whatever we want to call this type of behavior separately. I am assuming that this is what you mean by "Fans as Promoters," and it is especially interesting language in a genre like pro wrestling where promoter is a part of the language to describe the producers of the show.

I've spent much of the last year studying fan proselytism and the importance of fan communities in gaining and sustaining viewership, in relation to my research on soaps. I think the same thing happened in the live arena setting, but in a different way. The fans there were already at the show, but there is still this aura in the wrestling arena of sharing your passion with others to deepen others' engagement. In relation to proselytizing, it is the idea of preaching to the converted or "preaching to the choir," in that it might not convert but rather will bolster the passion and dedication of those already in the fold.

When I engaged with fans as theorists, for instance, many of them talked about their own engagement as a performer as a way to bolster the experience of others there, which I would consider a type of proselytizing.

Most explicitly, though, these behaviors manifest themselves in the arena setting as "community-building." Fans share their own knowledge of characters and storylines with those setting around them who might not be as deeply engaged with the text, etc.

You are right, though, that this behavior in many ways exceeds community in fandom in general, just as the archiving Jason pointed out exceeds community or spectatorship or criticism. Considering the specific roots of this "modes of engagement" research in being at a live event, they didn't really seem prevalent enough to be their own mode, but I think both archiving and promoting arise as important aspects of fandom that don't cleanly fit into the modes I outline, even if they touch on several of them.

Further thoughts?

On May 27, 2007 at 11:56 PM, Dave Feldman said:


Have you done any work yet on whether the fan behaviors of on-site spectators is different from those watching on TV alone, or TV with others?


I'm not sure I get why you're putting fan proselytizing in a separate typology. I'm wondering if it's connected to your focus on narrative sorts of texts rather than music where fan as promoter is very prevalent (look at the rise of mp3 blogs!).

In lots of music fandom, getting turned on to an unknown band and then getting your peers into them as well is a major mode of engagement, and one that differentiates hardcore fans from other appreciative listeners.

It's not just about being part of the band's fan community, it's about bringing it outside of that community. For a lot of sorts of music fans, once a band has a sizable following, their attachment has to end. I'd argue that a big piece of this is that being able to turn people on to a band they haven't heard matters so much that once everyone's heard them, that piece of the pleasure is gone. It's more complex than that, of course. I know I get more excited about bands when no one's heard of them because I know I'll get the joy of winning them new fans, and I've been known to count how many copies of a band's cds might have sold on account of that.

Music fans have been promoters for years through street teams (which I've written about on my blog), and when I spoke recently with the CMO of (an interesting music networking site), he talked about three levels of fans -- the ones who listen, the ones who buy, and "the promoters" who will join your street teams and spread your music and promo materials around the web.


Nancy, I think you misunderstood my comment. I'm not saying that it belongs in a separate typology, just that, while "Fans as Proselytizers" touches on parts of the other categories I've listed, that it should have its own separate category rather than falling within one of the others, just as "fans as archivists" should as well.

They didn't show up becuase fans weren't promoting and archiving AT the shows I visited, but I agree that both make sense as separate categories, especially considering that my most recent work has been on archiving and proselytizing in tape trading fan communities.

Fans as promoters is actually quite prevalent in wrestling fandom, just not in the live arena...although the ways in which fans provide encouragement and information to less-involved fans at those events emphasize that these types of promoter behaviors are happening here as well.

"It's not just about being part of the band's fan community, it's about bringing it outside of that community." I think that's a key point, and that's one that I found in some of my research on how music is used in a dorm setting. Proselytizing are about both gaining and retaining fans.


Dave, I haven't done any organized comparison, but I would think all three types of watching are quite different. There is a type of performance involved in the live viewing experience that is much different than the home viewing experience, and solitary wrestling (or anything) viewing is quite different than watching with a group.

I think a lot of the behaviors I found at the live event setting can be prevalent in communal viewing of pro wrestling as well, but of course the performance is quite different in the group home viewing than in the arena setting, considering you are actually "on-stage" in a different way in the wrestling arena if the show is being broadcast.