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Online Communities: Fandom the Origin Story

As research for my social media campaign I began by looking at the social media strategies of real publishing companies and I liked the way in which many of them directed their social media promotion at the kind of audience that is engages with online literary culture. This led me to explore the internet for literature based online communities. I particularly liked Eat Sleep Read, a Facebook based online community with 505,707 likes aimed at the age group 18-24 based around a love of reading. When designing my campaign my ultimate goal was to create a brand that was also an online community, something that was a hybrid of what I saw in the Penguin Classics social media presence and Eat Sleep Read content. While the scope of the assignment did not allow me to fully recognise this concept it did ignite an interest in online communities, and the way in which they are similar and different from offline communities. Therefore, for my final I have done a further investigation into online communities with a particular focus on Fandom.

The Oxford Dictionary defines community as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” (oxforddictionaries.com). With online communities “living in the space place” becomes being part of the same online space, thus using the same social network site or cites, becomes like living in the same neighbourhood. Social network sites are defined by Hinton and Hjorth as “the interface between people and social media” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.38). However, since internet technologies bridge the gap of distance online communities tend to form around intellectual proximity rather than physical proximity.

Hinton and Hjorth describe social network sites as “exemplars of the Web 2.0 ethos and the shift in focus from users as audiences to users as networked publics” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.39). A networked pubic is a “collective of individuals who have come together under a common set of principles, affinities or beliefs that bind and define the public” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.47). An online community shares a similar basis, however, tends to expend beyond just a basic sharing of information into something that far more closely resembles an offline community with its own values, social hierarchy, social etiquette, and history.

This ability to connect people around intellectual similarities rather than ties “based on geographic proximity” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.46) is one of the triumphs of Web 2.0. These connections are made even easier and more fluid with the “rise of smart phones that allow users to move ambiently between social media like Facebook and Twitter at all times of the day” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.38). The way in which these technologies have become such a prevalent and arguably necessary part of everyday life has not only made these kinds of online connections easier but they have almost become a natural part of contemporary socialisation. As a result of this, people belong to online communities almost as readily as they belong to physical communities. Additionally, there is often a connection between offline and communities online. Offline communities can become online communities for purposes of communication or promotion, as in the case of the Disney Company’s created fan community D23 which was created as a promotional tool to unify Disney fans after a publicity scandal. Interestingly, we are now seeing the reverse where online communities become offline communities as a result of the online world taking such a place of prominence in the offline world.

Fandom is a great example of a well-developed online community that also operates as an offline community. Hinton and Hjorth says that online communities are often based on the offline lives of their members, true in the case of Fandom because the online communities form as a way for people to express and share their offline passions. In fact, Fandom predates the wide spread use of the internet. Contemporary Fandom began with Star Trek fans or “Trekkies”, creating fan magazines and fanfiction mailing lists. This version of Fandom was based around fan conventions and therefore was based around, at least initial physical proximity. The internet and in particular Web 2.0 and the prevalence of social network sites eliminated the proximity problem, the effect of this was an explosion of Fandom and fan culture. Because connections in Fandom are based almost purely on intellectual compatibility and shared passion it perfectly lends itself to being an online community.

harry-potter-01

Fan Art – Disney characters drawn as Harry Potter characters.

The Fandom or more specifically the Fanfiction community became massive around the site FanFiction.Net (FF.net). According to FFN Research there is more than six million stories on FanFiction.Net. Although, many of these stories had a very low readership each specific Fandom has its cannon of popular authors, for example Cassandra Clair wrote the Draco Tribology in the Harry Potter Fandom and became so popular that she went onto publish a series of books call the Mortal Instruments loosely based on her fanfiction. In this example there is an interesting interplay between user created content and cultural production.

graph-HP-ships-labeled

This is a graph of Harry Potter fanfiction colour coded by ‘ship’, which is the romantic pairing of characters that appears in the particular story.

Harry Potter stories make up around 14% of the stories that have been posted on FanFiction.net since 2010. This infographic shows the immensity of content in Fandom. FanFiction.net is by no means the only site for publishing fan stories. There are also Fandom specific websites, for example the Harry Potter Fandom has Ridiculious for comedies and The Astromomy Tower for romance. In fact, in recent years due to FanFiction.net changing their rating system A03 – An Archive of our Own has become a new Fandom mecca.

Fandom is an extraordinary example of the potential of online environments “to create new kinds of communities” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.43). People use these spaces in highly individualized ways “to build connections with other people, to stay in touch, to find support and answers to questions, to reinforce common ideas and values, to share news and other information, and to be entertained” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.38-39). Online communities also become an “integral part of identity” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p.38) or some users. Not only those like Cassandra Clair and J.L. James for whom the Fandom community has led to offline success but for others who would not be able to connect with people with similar passion if it was not for social media.

In conclusion, the online community of fandom functions in many ways like an offline community it hs a history, a language, cultural production, a social hierarchy, different social groups, social conventions, social etiquette, and connections based on similarity. Perhaps it is more accurately describes as an online society and maybe this is a hint of what is to come, perhaps we are moving towards online communities but online societies.

References

Hinton, S., and Hjorth, L. (2013). What is Web 2.0? Understanding Social Media. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 7-31

‘Community definition’ 2015. Oxford Dictionaries (Online), available: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/community

‘Fan Fiction Statistics – FFN Research’, 2010. BlogSpot (Online), available:

http://ffnresearch.blogspot.com.au/2010/07/fanfictionnet-story-totals.html

‘Fanfiction, Graphs, and PageRank’, 2014. Colah’s Blog (Online), available:

http://colah.github.io/posts/2014-07-FFN-Graphs-Vis/

Taliesyn Gottlieb.

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