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University of Iowa Press
Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age

Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age

by Paul Booth
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 2901609383199
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Edition description: 1
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Paul Booth is an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Digital Fandom: New Media Studies and Time on TV: Temporal Displacement and Mashup Television, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who. His research interests include fandom, popular culture, cult media, technology, and time travel. At home in Forest Park, Illinois, he is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

Read an Excerpt

Playing Fans

Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age

By Paul Booth

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2015 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-320-6



I described media fandom in the introduction as best understood within a shifting set of industrial and academic discourses, as a constant negotiation and dialogue within already-extant relationships. In this chapter, I focus on one specific site where this mutable set of fandom signifiers becomes actualized. The unique liminality of GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) fics provides a useful exemplar by which we can explore not what fandom is but what fandom is always in the process of becoming. Indeed, to pin down any ideological classification for fans or for the media industry rests on an inherently always-shifting play of contexts, paradigms, and ways of creating meaning. We must look at particular sites of interaction and draw inferences about moments of connection.

Given that site-specific analysis informs our investigation of fan/industry relations, I begin my discussion by examining the complex moments when fan creativity overlaps media industry messages. Specifically, I examine how fan pastiche of media textuality leads to an appropriation of media content within different moments within the same fan creative work. Through textual analysis, I examine SuperWhoLock digital fandom to uncover deeper revelations in our understanding of the shifting interactions of fan/industry relations. By looking at the play between semantic pastiche and syntactic appropriation, I describe the way SuperWhoLock GIF fics enact the liminal spaces of fandom within digital contexts. Through this comparison, I develop a meaningful articulation of the mutability of this relationship as a way of demonstrating how the hybridization of fan identity and practice within a corporate media environment marks a shifting emphasis of commercial interests as well.

SuperWhoLock is the name given to an amalgamation of the cult television series Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock, and the fandom that has emerged online, often on Tumblr. Perez defines SuperWhoLock as "one big fandom" in which "the lines between fandoms begin to blur." Generated from the interactive potential between fandom, digital technology, and cult media texts, SuperWhoLock GIF fics are short narratives constructed from animated GIFs that tell a story utilizing characters from all three series (and sometimes more). Each individual GIF fic is made up of multiple GIFs, usually arranged in columns like a graphic novel. A GIF is a digitized image file that allows for animation. An animated GIF file compresses a number of image files and layers them on top of one another—think of it like a zoetrope, an early cinematic animation tool, with each cell rapidly tiling over the previous, creating a fluid sense of movement. A GIF fic defines the combination of multiple GIFs together to create a story line. Although the narrative may be unique to the GIF fic, each of the images is a pastiche of a particular moment from the original text, often subtitled with fans' original dialogue. For example, in figure 1, the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) have a conversation about the Doctor's particular catchphrase, "Fantastic!" In print the images are still, but online all four of these images animate the characters mouthing versions of the lines written below. Each of these four images encapsulates that particular moment in the original text—when the Doctor says, "This is fantastic!," it visually happens in the original text as well as in the GIF fic. But the unique conversation between the Doctor and Watson is original to daftwithoneshoe.

The pastiche within SuperWhoLock is based both on semantic reproduction of textual elements and syntactic appropriation of ideological moments from a media text. Constructed from the images and words, GIF fics both mirror and subvert the original narrative through a nostalgic interaction with the texts. By reproducing not only the specific textual moments from the original text but also their ideological similarities as cult texts, SuperWhoLock GIF fics hinge on a transition from semantic pastiche to syntactic appropriation and represent a liminal state between fandom and the media industry. Although SuperWhoLock GIF fics are fan created, they rely on an understanding of the dominant messages of the original texts.

Pastiche is here a reproduction of a textual corpus (what Dyer has defined as "something that is like something else without being a direct imitation of it"). That is, the form this fan production takes is not just the appropriation of meaning or the transformation of ideology but also the most basic transcription of style. Media pastiche can have multiple meanings. Hills's discussion of mimetic fandom hinges on the specific copying of props, especially from science-fiction television and alternative music as a type of pastiche. But other types of mimetic fandom can occur, such as Hills notes in his discussion of horror fans in The Pleasures of Horror: "Horror fans' agency performed and displayed through interpretations and aestheticizations of horror texts—'textual agency' rather than 'textual poaching'—does not seek to appropriate characters or shift textual meanings per se. Instead, it is concerned with discursively positioning horror within temporal frameworks ... in order to discursively convert affective responses into knowledgeable reactions." In other words, Hills's horror fans seek to know more about a text through textually exploring rather than affectively changing it. They want to reproduce rather than rethink. They reference the past rather than look to the future.

For SuperWhoLock fans, GIF fics become a way of encapsulating the particular "cult" properties of all three shows as they relate to one another. The similar ideologies of all three texts meet through what Perez calls the common characteristics: characters that can travel great distances, "alien" or strange protagonists, the discovery of fantastic worlds that are made normal. These texts function to focus our understanding of the liminal relationship between fans and the industry. SuperWhoLock exists at the intersection of a number of ambiguous relationships: between fan fiction and fan vidding, between masculine and feminine discursive styles of fandom, between affirmational and transformative fandom. GIF fics embody multiplicity and thus are indicative of larger paradigms of discursive ambiguity within fandom as well.

GIFs, GIF Fics, and SuperWhoLock

Not all SuperWhoLock texts are GIF fics: fans have also written fiction set in the tripartite universe, made videos, even created fan art. In figure 2, artist semsiyemolsaislanmazdim has combined images from Supernatural, Doctor Who, and Sherlock to create a unique media text utilizing elements of all three: Hellhound of the Baskervilles makes reference to both the Sherlock story Hound of the Baskervilles and the Supernatural enemy, the Hellhounds. Much of SuperWhoLock fandom rests on intertextual connections between the three shows. In a fan-created video called "SuperWhoLock Trailer," the editor Wholockian diegetically connects the three shows via repeated allusions to similar tropes as they repeat across the texts. For example, in episode 6.18 ("Frontierland") of Supernatural, the protagonists Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) travel in time; when asked about it, Dean responds, "We've got a guy who can swing it," referring here to Castiel (Misha Collins), their angel colleague. Wholockian uses this line of dialogue to connect Supernatural to Doctor Who, in which the titular character is an alien time traveler. Similarly, Wholockian cuts from Supernatural's Sam saying, "Holmes himself" from episode 2.6 ("No Exit"), to John Watson, which diegetically connects those two shows as well. Beyond lines of dialogue, the trailer connects the shows via the trope of looking and shot/reverse editing. Watson looks out a window, and the trailer cuts to the TARDIS. Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson look at a computer monitor, and the trailer cuts to security footage of the Supernatural lads. Wholockian further connects the three shows by repeating moments when each show intertextually references the others: a minor character in Supernatural is reading Doctor Who Magazine; a character in Supernatural is named Amy Pond (at the point her name is mentioned, the trailer cuts to an image of Doctor Who's Amy Pond [Karen Gillan]). Finally, the trailer highlights moments from each show in which common semantic elements are presented: the famed Weeping Angels from Doctor Who match a statue that moves in Supernatural; the Leviathan squirming in Castiel's body from Supernatural is revealed to be Adipose creatures from Doctor Who; Sherlock meets the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) on a rooftop through crosscutting. The intertextual references in "SuperWhoLock Trailer" also move beyond simply the three shows. For example, in Supernatural 6.9 ("Clap Your Hands If You Believe ...") Dean says, "If aliens are real, what next, Hobbits?" The trailer then jump-cuts to John Watson from Sherlock, a character played by Martin Freeman who also appears as Hobbit Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit series of films.

The connections between the series occur not just because of the three shows' common elements (troubled main characters, supernatural or mysterious plots, similar semantic themes) but also because of the open-ended nature of each show's narratives As Perez describes,

SuperWhoLock does not have a strict canon. Since the crossover is a fan creation, there is no single writer, director, or powers-that-be to say what happened and what didn't happen. Such freedom creates an open universe for fans to work in, ones where Dean can be a sniper or characters are forced to go undercover. Open universes act as loose frameworks for fan creators who are then free to create their own unique canon: from a plethora of ideas comes unlimited universes.

Yet, even as these "open universes" create a "unique canon" of ideas, they still must stay tethered to the original text(s) in specific and meaningful ways. Although Dean may be a sniper in a particular SuperWhoLock GIF fic, there must be a moment in the original Supernatural text when the animated image semantically matches the moment in the narrative of the GIF fic. At the same time, such a moment becomes discursively constructed as meaningful only by the juxtaposition of the other animated images around the first. Meaning is constructed in the gutter between the panels.

There are three stages of SuperWhoLock narrative creation, and at each stage the dichotomy between semantic pastiche and syntactic appropriation manifests in different ways:

1. The individual image/word combination is a semantic pastiche of a particular moment from a media text coupled with fan-generated language;

2. The GIF creates movement within the text, imitating a syntactic connection to the ideological meaning of the original, and the juxtaposition of other images creates dissonance within it;

3. The GIF fic combination of different images highlights the fans' individual contribution to the meaning of the text.

That there is a continuum between semantically reproductive GIFs and syntactically transgressive GIF fics reveals the fluid nature of fandom. On the one hand, creators of GIF fics enact practices that, in the past, fan scholars might have identified as fannish—highlighting favored moments from a text and creating artwork and interactive texts that reveal a close knowledge and reading of that text. But those creators may not actually identify as fans. On the other hand, GIF fics seem to indicate some type of fan activity for which fans are enacting a new type of narrative play. SuperWhoLock is not just a fan community; it is also a particular practice from which we are able to discern fan work. What is telling about these three textual moments is not just the interplay between the fan text, digital technology, and fannish innovation but also the multitudes of ways fans both incorporate themselves within and distance themselves from the text.

In figure 3, "The Angels Are Coming," we can see a number of still images, although in the original digital text each image is part of a movable sequence that generates fluidity and aesthetic diversity. In each of the six panels, the combination of words and images highlights the creators' own interpretations of how a particular moment might reflect within a larger, diegetic world joining Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, Sam and Dean Winchester, and the Eleventh Doctor from Doctor Who. The individual image/word combination forms a semantic mimicry of a particular moment from a media text coupled with fan-generated language. For example, in the upper left-hand corner of the image, Dean Winchester says, "This better be good, Cheekbones. You made me get on a friggin' plane." Dean never said this in the show, although this image did appear. And the actual episode of Sherlock from which the upper right-hand image is drawn does not feature the detective uttering the line, "Have you heard of the Weeping Angels?" Both images are arranged so that we see the characters looking toward each other to create a sense of conversation, constructing a story at the heart of the GIF fic.

The still image represents a single, frozen point in time; the moving image, which shows Dean mouthing words that seem similar to the text, creates a moment that makes the text and image cohere. Fan-created language situates the moment within an ever-expanding corpus of SuperWhoLock canon: although no "authorized" crossover between the three texts exists, each fan-constructed narrative fits within its own profile of the SuperWhoLock paradigm. The middle right image of John Watson takes this coherence one step further but is impossible to convey in one still image, as the animated GIF reveals a shot/reverse shot juxtaposition. The animation first reveals a Weeping Angel, villain in the Doctor Who universe (figure 4), but then cuts to a reaction shot of Watson looking at the Weeping Angel.

GIFs, in this way, reflect spans of affective engagement with the media. They hinge on a sense of connection to the past—not just a past in the television series but a past of the fan viewing that moment. The GIF reflects engagement and a close connection with a nostalgic spectacle. But each GIF does this by semantic pastiche. Although the on-screen text may be written by the fan, and image manipulation often results in color correction or desaturation, the actual moments from the original television series remain. The juxtaposition of Watson and the Weeping Angel in figures 3 and 4 creates a new scene, but that scene is based on moments reflected from the series. The single animated GIF here is a combination of the semantic pastiche of those moments and the syntactic appropriation and juxtaposition of those moments in one file.

In an online video from the 2013 Media Evolution conference, Kenyatta Cheese describes the history of the GIF as a particularly nostalgic reminder of subcultural communities from the early days of the web. Cheese notes that the GIF—a relatively minor image format for the first two decades of its use—became a major component of the contemporary web because of the "power of people: People made it happen over years." In a similar vein, Leigh Alexander describes the GIF as an element of a nostalgic time before the instant access of digital technology: "If a constant flow of rich media is unavoidable, migrating toward a sort of video-shorthand seems a similarly natural response, occupying the urge for simple stimulation and freeing up our brains to be more selective about the actual long-form programming with which we engage." As newer and flashier web technology developed on commercial sites—including larger video and audio files, and proprietary animations like Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash)—the GIF maintained relevance to subcultural communities on sites like MySpace in the mid-2000s and especially Tumblr in the 2010s. Initially, GIFs were meaningful only within these subcultures, but now their use has become widespread across the web. GIFs, Cheese argues, are now common not because of some commercial push by the media industries but because of their global accessibility.


Excerpted from Playing Fans by Paul Booth. Copyright © 2015 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Playing Fans; Playing Fandom,
CHAPTER 1. SuperWhoLock, GIF Fics, and Fan Pastiche,
CHAPTER 2. Inspector Spacetime as Fan Pastiche,
CHAPTER 3. Hyperreal Parody: Mocking Hyperfans,
CHAPTER 4. Fan Spaces as Media Parody,
CHAPTER 5. Porn Parodies and Slash Discourses,
CHAPTER 6. Digital Cosplay,

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