From Degenerates and Socially Awkward to Valuable Co-creators of Brand Image

One “problem” (of many, it has to be acknowledged) with discussing fans and fandom is that the term “fan,” and the meaning of it, is difficult to define. Since this is not a book looking at fans of a particular media text, art form or sport, it is quite impossible to provide a satisfactory “this is what we mean by fans in the context of this book” statement. However, we cannot completely shy away from this particular “problem,” since the topic of the book is fans and fan cultures. In 1982, The Human League sang about the “Mirror Man” who “says he’s a people fan.” In this song, the term “fan” is undoubtedly used in a casual manner—“he’s a people fan”—much like the term is used by Scarlett Johansson’s character Kelly Foster in We Bought a Zoo (2011): “I’m a big fan of people being exactly who they are.” This use of the term does not imply any particular fandom, because it is not considered remarkable to be a fan of “people,” and fans of people are not part of a group or community behaving in a certain way. However, the growth in popularity of social media has shown that fandoms also have to deal with casual fans and people proclaiming that they are a “fan” of this and that without having much knowledge of, or a deeper connection with, the object of their attention (after all, as we saw above, one “can be a fan of almost anything”).

Facebook did, in 2010, abandon their initial “become a fan” option, which has instead been replaced by a “like” function. The meaning, however, is actually much the same in the context of particular Facebook pages, and what it entails for the artist, organisation or brand in charge of it, in terms of augmentation and potential reach, and for the customer who “likes” a page the digital consequences are therefore also the same, the difference being that it feels like less of a commitment to “like” something rather than officially becoming a fan of it. Still, Facebook’s utilisation of the word “fan” has arguably contributed to the broader and more holistic use of the term, and thus promoted—for better or worse— a more casual approach towards fans, fan cultures and fandom.

This more casual approach translates well to the world of sport fandom. There is a traditional saying, uttered in this manner by French footballer Eric Cantona (2009) in the film Looking for Eric: “You can change your wife, change your politics, change your religion. But never, never can you change your favourite football team.” However, even football fans are becoming less loyal and more demanding, thus following the wider trend concerning consumer behaviour and customer expectations. In a global and digital world, the distance is shorter between all kinds of products and experiences, and it is much easier to make comparisons—even if the products compared are in completely different areas. Much like the “Supermarket of Style” concept in subculture and fashion (Polhemus 1997), there is also a supermarket of football teams to choose from, and Kuper and Szymanski (2014) have shown that many football fans support several teams at the same time.

The comparative acceptance of fans as legitimate citizens goes hand in hand with the broader use of the term—not in the sense of the use of the concept by The Human League or We Bought a Zoo—but rather in the sense of the strategies of Nike, Apple, and other corporations calling their customers fans (and the customers also identifying as fans). Viacom urges their young Comedy Central viewers to take a more casual approach towards being a media fan—stating that “this isn’t your parents’ fandom” (Guerrier 2015). This is an important statement. Like so much else in life, boundaries are constantly renegotiated, and the meaning of concepts and ideals are redefined. At the moment, the “fan” is an attractive demographic for any manufacturer of goods, services or experiences—and therefore it is made attractive to be a fan. Especially a fan of something which is successful and attracts a lot of other fans. As we have already touched upon—and which will be explained in more detail later—not all kinds of fans are popular with the dominant producers of popular culture, but the urge to be a “good” consumer is widespread and encouraged through various forms of discourse reinforcing that our power as consumers is constantly increasing.

One of the main differences in the development of fandoms is the increasing top-down approach, where the object of fandom (e.g., a pop artist) or the producer of the fan media text (e.g., a broadcaster) takes ownership of the fandom. Sometimes a fandom is created even before there is an artist to be a fan of, as many commercial artists come “readymade” with a seemingly strong following of labelled fans (e.g., Canadian star Carly Rae Jepsen and her “Jepseners”). While social media arguably facilitates “organic” development of fan groups and fan clubs, it appears that the opposite is often the case. The ideal fan for a brand (including TV shows) is a balanced person, and not a fanatic who cares “too much” (like football fans who protest against corporate powers making questionable decisions about the future of their club) or “too little” (like someone who does not “share” information about the brand). The balanced fan is an “influencer” with a big social media network—online is the key here, as it makes it easier for the brand to measure the engagement—who is active (but not too active, and certainly not too “creative” with copyrighted material) and “loves” the brand without being “obsessive” about it. A “raving” fan is thus not the same as an obsessive fan.

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