Performance of Ideology
Fans perform ideology. In line with much of Louis Althusser’s work, in that he argues that our beliefs come from the practices we are involved with (rather than the other way around), fans form part of a larger system within which they operate. This means that—as is the case with Comic Con, to use an obvious example—fans are seen as buying into the wider ideology (re)presented by the media system and supporting it through their actions within and outside of the fan discourse. So, instead of a “grassroots” movement or fan-led enterprises, a top-down model is supported where everything is organised for the fans with the help of a number of corporate brands, incorporating numerous tie-ins and urging fans to behave in a certain way. Of course, fans are no “dopes.” They have spoken. They want this. This means that they also need to take responsibility for it and own up to their ideological choices. Many fan scholars, such as Hills (2002), Sandvoss (2005), Jenkins (2007) and Coppa (2014) argue that one of the important functions fandom and fan cultures serve is as forces of resistance against hegemonic structures. While the Internet has facilitated the increase in visibility for fan communities and enhanced methods of alternative readings of popular texts (and the spreading of fan-produced material, and the quantification of power of “the fan”), it has also made it easier for brands to take control of the discourse and enter into the conversation at various levels. Everything is marketing we are told, and everyone is marketed to, all the time. Social media provides almost total access to individuals and groups of consumers. Fans do, however, as Francesca Coppa (2014) notes, occasionally affect the ideological playing field. She states that fandom provides “opportunities for collective action” (Coppa 2014, p. 77) and that these fan networks have “huge real world effects.” What can be deducted from much of the literature on fans and fan cultures is that a fan is meant to be active in some sort of capacity, and that they make use of their fandom in the real world.
There are many sides to participatory culture, but in public discourse there may be an overemphasis on the need for audiences to be active. Of course, fans keep the conversation going, leading to interesting breakthroughs and collaborations and often result in authentic networks of creativity. But in the age of social media where we are all critics and cura?tors (Marwick 2013; Obrist 2014), it is questionable whether all forms of participation are equally meaningful. Coppa (2014, p. 78) writes: “We watch tonight’s episode with an eye to writing tomorrow’s blog post.” Further, she argues that this participatory fan culture is “this century’s equivalent of the sing-a-long, the backyard show, the community dance” (Coppa 2014, p. 78). This approach assumes that we need to leave a (preferably digital) footprint to show that we have been active and contributed to the discourse, that we have truly participated. When members of an audience (when everyone is doing it) take photographs or are filming what is going on, we know that the “here and now” aspect of the spectacle is just a small part of the experience. The concert organiser wants it, the artist performing wants it, the television network wants it. It is a win-win situation. Or is it? As Coppa notes:
If fannish participation is reduced to ‘likes’ and ‘reblogs’, if technology keeps drawing our attention to official Tumblrs and Twitters and YouTube channels (who will get paid for all the eyeballs they bring, and if even fan- made content becomes a source of industry revenues), if all of fandom starts to look like Comic Con, i.e. an industry convention disguised as a fan convention, we run the risk of reducing all fans to followers. (Coppa 2014, p. 80)
Mark Duffett (2014, p. 4) writes in the introduction to Popular Music Fandom: Roles, Identities and Practices that although fan behaviour has changed with the introduction of online technologies, for the most part digital platforms such as social media have predominantly reinforced behaviour that already existed in a predigital era:
For many of us fans, the net has offered new and better ways to more easily do what we previously did before. What has changed is that it is hard in the Internet era not to see and therefore to say that fans are, at best, communicative, imaginative, communal, expert, interesting and intelligent. Online social media platforms demonstrate this in a more public and visible way than, say, talking on a mobile phone. They have operated as a forthright challenge to the idea that electronic mediation is an alienating and impersonal process. Uses of the net have visibly brought music listeners together
(see, for instance, Hodkinson 2004). In an age of ‘geek chic,’ fandom seems to be at the forefront of an astute, techno-savvy consumer culture.
Writing from a music fandom perspective, Duffett (2014, p. 7) further states that “celebrity and fandom have been openly contested as research objects.” This is certainly not the case anymore. Fandom can of course be both collective and personal—and there are various types of fandom. Even the concept of “music fan” is difficult to define, as there are a multitude of motivations to take into account, as well as different music styles and genres—and there is a generational difference too, to name but a few of the components that constitute fans and fan values.
The (rather vague) recommendations presented in Zenith- Optimedia's The Pursuit of Happiness study are: humanise the brand, create meaningful assets, create purposeful value exchange, orientate on user experience, and share your customers’ stories (ZenithOptimedia 2015). How does this tie in with fandom? People increasingly turn to brands for unique “ready-made” experiences, and as we have seen above, millennial put a lot of trust in brands they “love” and like brands to interact with them via a multitude of media platforms. Jenkins’s (2006) concept of convergence culture takes on a slightly different meaning in the view of the above—as brands should “make the consumer pathway effortless. Brand experiences should migrate across different platforms and devices: Millennials expect brands to know them and remember their past interactions” (ZenithOptimedia 2015, p. 27). This further strengthens the theory that the contemporary consumer is satisfied with accepting the system as it is, and to view the capitalist consumerist society as natural. While it is more reassuring to think about the possibilities for agency in a technology-driven society that has not yet settled in its organisation of communication and information exchange, we run the risk of overestimating the political motives of “fans” and fandoms. When the consumer influence is all about how to make the customer experience better (which, of course, benefits the corporate interests as much as those of the fan) it is a “win-win” situation. From a neoliberalist business management and marketing point of view, this is exactly the argument. How can it be wrong to invite fans to improve a product if it makes everybody happy? The counterargument is that this approach, which is ideologically grounded, only serves to make the rich richer and the already powerful more powerful. Marwick (2013) rightly argues that scholars, media commentators and policymakers are not as positive towards Web 2.0 as they once were, and that the utopian hopes of a new world order where relationships and hierarchies are rebalanced have been significantly quelled.
Linda Tan, Strategic Insights Director at ZenithOptimedia, has described millennials as “very savvy, discerning and astute consumers” (Walsten 2015, p. 30). It is worrying, though, that the term consumer is used interchangeably with the term fan—and although the traditional dichotomy between fan and consumer does not exist, as we are all bound to be consumers if we are fans of something, the normalisation of the fan goes hand in hand with the advancement in status of the “consumer.” Even Suzanne Scott (2013) refers to the struggle of female comic book fans as being predominantly about becoming visible as a market segment. It is, then, quite difficult to see how any genuine transformative work is taking place—as the logic of the market follows the logic of the larger structures in society.