John Wick and The Pleasures of Keanu
Taylor Peterson / University of Texas at Austin

He's back!
John Wick asserting that he IS back.

A few months ago, when I was visiting my family, my brother and I sat down to watch John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014). My brother had been raving about the movie for a while, and I finally acquiesced. After the infamous murder of John’s puppy, my brother turned to me and excitedly said, “And THAT’s the plot of the movie!” I then sat more or less bemusedly through the remaining 80 minutes, agreeing that this was, in fact, a pretty good action movie.

Over the next few months, I inexplicably became more excited about the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Chad Stahelski, 2019), which released in mid-May. At some point — and I really don’t know when — I decided I was obsessed. I watched The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) for the first time, in class; I saw My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) at repertory screenings in Austin. I caught up on John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) before going to see Chapter 3 in theaters. I immediately watched Constantine (Francis Lawrence, 2005) once I arrived home from seeing Chapter 3. I revisited Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003) and snapped up copies of Speed (Jan de Bont, 1994) and Much Ado About Nothing (Kenneth Branagh, 1993) at Half Price Books.

Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst
Iconic shot of Keanu expressing his angst in Point Break.

This level of excitement/obsession is not wholly unusual for me, but unlike an obsession with a single movie which is my historic trend, becoming a super fan of an actor unleashed a world of possibilities. And with someone like Reeves, who has an extensive, thirty-plus year filmography to work through, I had basically picked up a new hobby.

My obsession is also obviously not isolated to me. Anyone who has been online in the past few months has surely seen any number of memes, tweets, photos, or full-on articles about Reeves. I heard about the first-ever KeanuCon film festival in Glasgow from film writer Iana Murray on Twitter, and read her article she wrote about her experiences at the festival in GQ, and a friend alerted me about Keanu-Thon at Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre. I now find myself following a number of Keanu fan pages on Instagram (@ke_re_stan is my favorite). I encountered the work of Angelica Jade Bastién, who appears to be the preeminent Keanu internet scholar. In her piece on the persistence/continuation of Keanu’s star power over thirty years, she writes:

What has allowed him to remain a star, 30 years later, is a blend of virility, vulnerability, and an aura of mystery, hearkening to a bygone era of stardom that contradicts the current moment, which requires stars to seem endlessly accessible; his sheer joy for the medium that makes him a cinematic sensualist; his racial dimensions as a star; and his gimlet-eyed understanding of the female gaze. [ ((Bastién, Angelica Jade. “Why We Can’t Stop Watching Keanu Reeves, 30 Years On.” Vulture, 24 June 2019,]

I find this statement to succinctly sum up what I find so intriguing about this actor. A nice aspect of my newfound hobby is that there is already plenty of infrastructure to support my fandom. I can pick and choose what movies I want to watch; I have, again, decades worth of films to work through, which means I won’t exhaust outlets for my fandom for a while.

Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine
Photo of Keanu holding a Duke Caboom figurine, his character in Toy Story 4.

In this article I would like to further expand upon the je ne sais quoi about Keanu (it doesn’t feel right to use the formality of “Reeves”) that has made him seemingly suddenly so popular (again). Since my fandom is so tied to the John Wick movies, and I think that they clearly have helped put Keanu back in the zeitgeist, the franchise will be my jumping off point. How does a film about a murderous assassin spark the delight and desire of countless fans in a man whose defining characteristics as a star are his goofiness and vulnerability?

There is plentiful recent coverage on Keanu’s star image; besides Bastién’s work, Naomi Fry neatly distilled the Keanu internet phenomenon, including links to various recent Keanu articles and profiles. Fry proclaims that, “No matter what role he plays, he is always himself.” [ ((Fry, Naomi. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.” The New Yorker, 3 June 2019,] Fry posits Keanu as a salve to our difficult times, the “otherworldly” figure that fascinates and delights us, helping us briefly forget about more terrible things. Take his cameo in the recent Netflix film Always Be My Maybe (Nahnatchka Khan, 2019), where he plays a heightened version of “himself”:

Keanu’s iconic surprise entrance in Always Be My Maybe.

Murray suggests in her incredible ranking of every single Keanu film that the cameo “is so memorable and hilarious because it toys with our perception of who the actor is—wholesome and pure, but totally unknowable.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Every Keanu Reeves Movie, Ranked.” GQ, 17 Jul 2019,] Though unlike Always Be My Maybe or other notable Keanu films such as Speed, Something’s Gotta Give, or Much Ado About Nothing, the John Wick films are far from light-hearted.

The John Wick series begins by establishing the fact that Wick left the life of a highly successful assassin behind to marry a woman named Helen, who then died of some unnamed illness. She arranges to have a puppy sent to John once she’s gone, reminding him that he needs something to love in order to stay alive. When Russian mobsters break into his house, kill his dog, and steal his car, Wick starts on a rampage that sets into motion the next two films.

A meme featuring Winona Ryder and Keanu
A meme featuring Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018) co-stars Winona Ryder and Keanu.

I think that the success of the franchise and subsequent recurring obsession with Keanu can be attributed to two very basic factors: the movies are actually quite good, and Keanu is quite good in them. With further research into the press surrounding the films, I isolated a few more specific factors. I am attempting to identify the things that make me like this film in order to speak to the wider popularity of these films. I narrowed these reasons down to the films’ efficiency, the direction, and Keanu’s presence.

The films operate almost only with the most essential actions, dialogue, and sequences. There are hardly any quips or (cheesy) throwaway lines that come up so often in other action movies. The film is aware of its own ridiculousness — such as the fact that the catalyzing event for a three-movie-long murderous rampage is the death of a puppy [ ((“John Wick 2 Spoiler Special with Keanu Reeves & Chad Stahelski.” The Empire Film Podcast from Empire Magazine, 21 Feb. 2017,] — and it’s nice to watch an action film that does not fester in its self-seriousness.

A recent photo shoot of Keanu
A recent photo shoot of Keanu that accompanied his GQ cover story.

Being in on the joke — and being aware of the work that went into making the movie — can be part of the enjoyment. For the release of Chapter 2, Bastién explores the strengths of Keanu as an action star by drawing comparisons to kung-fu and gun-fu movies. She points out that in Chapter 2 we see “wider shots, longer takes, unfussy editing. This give the action room to breathe and amps up the tension.” [ ((Bastién, Anjelica Jade. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.” Vulture, 17 Feb. 2017,] This made me realize that that claustrophobic feeling — where it’s so hard to see what’s happening and you can’t figure out where to look — is one of the things I dislike about many action movies. The Wick films eschew this and give us a full view of the action.

Relatedly, Keanu’s training and performance are quite remarkable. My copy of Chapter 2 includes a mini-documentary about the training for the film, and though of course these people are all being interviewed for a special feature on the home release, the trainers, stunt coordinators, and stunt performers all seem to genuinely praise Keanu’s commitment to the training. [ ((“Training John Wick.” John Wick: Chapter 2. Directed by Chad Stahelski, Summit Entertainment, 2017.))] This commitment and performance are important parts of my enjoyment of the films. This was brought to my attention, again, by my brother, who directed me to these clips on YouTube of Keanu training that took my breath away:

Keanu’s firearms training for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

And besides this stunning physicality, there is the star presence of Keanu himself. Murray quotes Megan Mitchell, one of the co-founders of KeanuCon — “he’s an actor that has got an innate likability about him. There’s a connection there. Even with some of his sillier films like Constantine or Man of Tai Chi (Keanu Reeves, 2013), you know he’s having fun, so the audience is having fun.” [ ((Murray, Iana. “Inside KeanuCon, the First Keanu Reeves Film Festival.” GQ, 7 May 2019,]. Bastién muses that, “What makes Reeves different from other action stars is this vulnerable, open relationship with the camera — it adds a throughline of loneliness that shapes all his greatest action-movie characters.” [ ((Bastién. “Why Keanu Reeves Is Such an Unusual (and Great) Action Star.”))] His star persona shines through to his characters — like Fry said, “he is always himself” [ ((Fry. “Keanu Reeves is Too Good for This World.”))]. As I watch these movies, it’s impossible for me to watch them without identifying Keanu and delighting in his presence. The fact that the John Wick movies are so well-done makes this an easier task, and the fact that his filmography is as extensive as it is means that I have no shortage of good movies to dig into. Isolating fandom as a factor for enjoyment in a film is hardly a novel idea, but in this case, it seems to be the key factor at play for this actor in these movies.

If you’re now like, “wow, Taylor, I love Keanu,” then, you’re welcome, and here’s a photo set for you to look at.

Image Credits:

1. John Wick is back
2. Keanu in Point Break
3. Keanu with Duke Caboom
4. Keanu and Winona Ryder meme
5. Keanu in GQ

Please feel free to comment.

“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…”: Fandom, Learning and the Future of Higher Education
Josh Stenger, Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

In two recent articles for Flow, I’ve attempted to make the case that as colleges and universities take up the hard but exciting work of transforming higher education for the twenty-first century, fan studies offers a useful model for many areas of the academy that have begun to think seriously about alternatives to certain structures and practices long considered to be irradicable. This view derives in large part from the basic fact that, like most academic fields with comparably complex genealogies, fan studies exists despite rather than because of the entrenched institutional practice of organizing knowledge – and with it, curricula, research opportunities, and staffing decisions – in primarily disciplinary terms.

Obviously we want our students to acquire knowledge, and to develop skills, competencies, and ethics that prepare them not just for the classroom or the workplace, but for the world they will go on to shape. Perhaps there are some scenarios in which this is accomplished more effectively by fostering students’ disciplinary expertise than their intellectual curiosity and ability (to learn how) to learn, but I confess none come immediately to mind. Which brings me to the focus of this, the third and final installment of my short treatise on fan studies and higher education: namely, that participatory fandom is legible as a mode of integrative, often autonomous learning, one that presents higher education with a sui generis opportunity to help undergraduates identify the skills and habits of mind they have already developed as fans, then strengthen and apply these in intentional, edifying ways in more traditional academic settings.

screenshot of a tweet by Josh Stenger. The tweet reads “During one on one meetings with students in my first year seminar on #fandom: Student X: I’m not really a “fan” but I’m psyched we’re going to Rhode Island comic so I can wear my chain mail body armor, hemet and broadsword from #Merlin. Me: Let me stop you right there. . .

“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but . . .”

LARP: Learning As Role Playing

The Twitter exchange pictured in the screenshot above took place the day before the start of a first year seminar I taught last Fall called Fan Communities and Creations. It perfectly (and quite charmingly) anticipated a conversation I planned to have with the class the following day and that I suspect virtually everyone who teaches a course or a unit on fandom has with theirs, in some form or other, early on: What does it actually mean to be a “fan”? Working toward an answer to this question allows us to begin drawing links between fandom and fan studies, in part by identifying ways to close the distance between the affect commonly associated with young people’s media consumption and the intellect typically associated with higher education. To get the ball rolling rarely requires more than pointing out that seemingly simple questions often have very complex answers, and then asking, again, “What does it mean to be a fan?”

Screenshot of Video Autoethnography on Fan identity. Star Wars opening scroll with the text in yellow over a black background. The text reads: Yo! My name’s Sammy, and as you can probably tell, this is going to be about my identity as a fan of Star Wars. While I still consider myself a fan of shows like “Game of Thrones: or “Breaking Bad”, Star Wars . . .

Video Autoethnography on Fan identity

This is also an opportunity to have a discussion about the labels and/or roles with which we identify (or from which we distance ourselves), and how and why they matter. Here, the question becomes “What does it mean to be a fan?” This is a worthwhile conversation in any undergraduate fan studies course, but especially so in a room full of first-semester, first-year students on the first day of class. Before the conversation moves too far away from roles and role-playing, I ask everyone to consider what, if anything, might change – for them, for others – if they thought of themselves not as “students”, but as “learners”, especially if we stipulate the following:

Students study. Learners learn.
Students have teachers. Learners learn.
Students attend classes and schools. Learners learn.
Students write essays and take exams. Learners learn.
Students pass and fail. Learners learn.
Students graduate. Learners learn.

This exercise is not meant to besmirch being a student, but to make visible the fact that whereas learning can be undertaken somewhat autonomously, a student’s relationship to knowledge is impacted and arguably circumscribed by multiple, often mutually reinforcing factors. Thus, being a student does not necessarily prepare one to be a strong learner, but being a learner will very likely prepare one to be a strong student. Nevertheless, undergraduates seem firmly attached to their student identities, and just as reluctant to identify as learners.

It occurs to me that this dynamic may in fact be homologous to the one that I believe motivated my student to make clear that she was “not a ‘fan’” only to immediately (and unselfconsciously) enthuse about the chance to don her Merlin-inspired chain mail body armor, battle helmet and broadsword. Why reject the “fan” label one minute then embrace the accoutrements of fandom the next? Was it because she could disappear into the latter but had to declare and own the former? Was it because wearing chain mail was ‘just’ cosplay but being a fan was an identity?

My sense is that there is a strong but misunderstood parallel here with respect to considering oneself a “student” or a “learner”. The educational system and its institutions, to say nothing of the popular culture, have so thoroughly naturalized the role of “student” for young adults that by the time they arrive to college, it is almost inconceivable that they could be anything else. If they are students IRL, learning becomes relegated to a kind of role-playing, a very different version of LARP. Unfortunately, this is quite backwards. Students are students within an academic context, yes, but what about when they are interns, employees, athletes, tutors, friends, partners, parents, and so on? There is ample room in all of these roles to be a learner, though, just as one can be a fan regardless of what book one is reading or what show one is watching.

Learners and fans have much in common, beginning with the decision to identify as such. Unlike being a student or a consumer, to identify as a learner or a fan is to name oneself rather than be named. Whether or not it registers as such immediately, it is also an assertion of agency, one that both requires and reflects a degree of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is a declaration of intellectual curiosity as well as of a desire and capacity to become autodidactic. It is an acknowledgement that every person has a right to make meaning, and to access and produce knowledge. And as the closing section below illustrates, it has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one is enrolled in a college or university.


In mid-June 2015, anxious that a Congressional review of U.S. copyright laws might result in changes that would have a chilling effect on fanworks, The Harry Potter Alliance took preemptive action in the form of Fan Works Are Fair Use. During the weeks that followed, groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works and the Supernatural Wiki expressed their solidarity, promoting the campaign at the San Diego Comic Con and providing signal boosts on social media.

Image of a Fanworks are fair use promotional card. The text on the blue and yellow card reads:

Introducing Fan Works Are Fair Use at San Diego Comic Con

Rather than rely solely on the name of the campaign, organizers of Fan Works Are Fair Use encouraged online supporters to “[show] the world how valuable fanworks are by using the hashtag #FanWorksTaughtMe.” At first glance, one might read the wording here as counter-intuitive insofar as it emphasized personal anecdote over organized action. To do so, however, would be to overlook the way in which #FanWorksTaughtMe strategically drew together the individual (‘me’) and the collective (‘fanworks’, and by extension those who create them). Crucially, the relationship between them is structured not around the former’s affective attachment to the latter, but rather around their shared investment in and respect for the kind of informal education that regularly takes place within fandoms but that is rarely valued in traditional academic settings.

A Twitter search for tweets using the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag produced fewer than 300 results.[ ((This number reflects the results of a Twitter search executed in May 2019 for tweets published during the Fan Works Are Fair Use campaign (roughly mid-2015 through early 2016). It will not include any tweets posted by users who have removed their accounts or changed their Twitter handles, and thus the number of tweets returned by the search is virtually certain to be lower than the actual number of tweets that made of use of the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag.))] This is a modest number, to be sure, yet more than large enough to reflect a wide range of focus, voice, and even ostensible purpose and perceived audience. In tweet after tweet, users credit fanworks with teaching them to be a documentary filmmaker, a community organizer, a podcaster, a musician, to build worlds and share them, to give and take criticism with grace, to persevere, to respect others even in the absence of understanding them, that their stories and voices matter, that they are not alone, that their credentials don’t necessarily reflect their potential. The list goes on.

Voice bubbles with some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag. The bubbles read: 1. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think of scenes with different angles, tones, POVs, universes – to both demolish and salute a story’s sanctity. 2. #FanWorksTaughtMe that I don’t have to be passive. I can have a voice. I can be audience and the creator. 3. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to critically analyze narratives. Actively reimagining how stories were told helped me reimagine the real world. 4. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to edit and how to be edited. 5. #FanWorksTaughtMe that underserves markets serve themselves . 6. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think outside the box and to write the “what ifs.” 7. #FanWorksTaughtMe English as a second language, how to tell stories and write beautiful texts, how to be a community organizer.

Some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag

Diverse as they are, the individual voices in this conversation give rise to a unified and unifying message, one that celebrates creativity; defends individuals’ right to create, and thus to make, transform, and question meaning; and that attributes their respective and collective knowledge not to a college education, but to fans, fandom, and fanworks. In this, they recall Claire Pentecost’s concept of the artist as Public Amateur, someone who “learns outside the circuits of professional normalization and reward,” and who embodies

[…] a proposition of active social participation in which any non-specialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a non-institutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.[ ((Claire Pentecost, The Public Amateur, [n.d.].00))]

Like Lawrence Lessig’s discussion of read/write culture,[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), chapters 1 and 4.))] and Henry Jenkins’s application of collective intelligence and popular epistemologies,[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), chapter 1.))], Pentecost’s construct of the public amateur serves as yet another potent reminder of the growing importance of informal knowledge networks.

As higher education contemplates ways to coexist with these networks and how to implement the inevitable shift in undergraduate education away from a focus on disciplinary expertise and toward more dynamic and integrative forms of learning, it would do well to keep fans and fandom in mind. Consider, for instance, that although they may not always think of their fannish behavior in these terms, fans tend to have strong online research skills; know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources; are able to evaluate the reliability of information they encounter; regularly produce close, critical readings of texts; participate actively in online knowledge and affinity communities; and are prolific creators and sharers of digital content and transformative works. And that’s often before they even get to college. Imagine if, once there, their institution valued and helped to strengthen these skills rather than dismiss them as undisciplined, or inadequately disciplinary.

Image Credits:

1. Rhode Island Comic Con (Nov. 3, 2018); photograph by author
2. “I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…” via Twitter; author’s screenshot
3. Still of first-year student’s video autoethnography on fan identity; author’s screenshot
4. Image via Twitter user @TheHPAlliance (July 9, 2015)
5. #FanWorksTaughtMe tweets via Twitter; collage by author.

Please feel free to comment.

A Lego Theory of Academia & Fandom
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Lego Bricks

Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.

I am talking to a man about a piece of writing. He is concerned about the possibility that this piece of writing is perhaps not the final word on the matter. Perhaps someone with more power and authority than the author of this piece of writing will have a different interpretation of the thing on which the piece of writing is based. How will it account for that? It won’t, I tell him. This piece of writing is simply one possible take. Other people having different takes, and sharing them, and talking through their differences, is the point of the exercise. Nothing is final; everything is communal.

Academia, or fandom?

It’s academia! Your hint was that I rarely, rarely talk to men about fanworks unless they are already in fandom, in which case they do not need me to explain how fundamentally iterative transformative fanworks are meant to be.

One of the most consistent dings on fanfiction is the fact that it derives from a source text, the implication being that a piece of art can’t be worthwhile without that new-car smell. Fanfiction’s champions tend to argue for its legitimacy by citing undeniably canonical works from the history of literature: The Aeneid is a fic of the Iliad. Samuel Richardson corresponded with and encouraged a woman writing fic of his work. Byzantine literary culture had a whole genre around assemblage. For my own list in fan studies, I’m perpetually seeking out scholarship that expands the genealogies of fannish history as far back into the mists of time and into as many spheres and disciplines as humanly possible.

None of this is false or invalid, but as an academic gatekeeper for fan studies (among other things), I’d love for the legitimacy of transformative works to be proved by an avenue that doesn’t reinforce the concept of single authorship. The myth of the solitary genius rarely holds much water, examined too closely, but fanfiction’s very being calls it into question. Moreover, the insistence that thingswithwings is doing something quite similar to Virgil—while true!—elides one of the most central facts of transformative fandom: its emphasis on community and the shared ownership of the stories being told.

Flight from Troy

Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.

The best parallel isn’t literature at all but academia, which at its best is both derivative and communal in many of the same ways as transformative fandom. Derivation from work that has come before is central to the scholarly project. A piece of scholarship that fails to acknowledge its fellow scholars won’t get past peer review. Its ability to be in conversation with its community isn’t just a strength; it’s a necessity.

The concept that a text—or a history—is never closed, but is inherently multiple, is one of my favorite things about both academia and fandom. As a scholarly publisher, LSU Press strives to promote work that advances the conversation and pushes other scholars to think in a new way about the disciplines we think we know. You could make the argument that the humanities have no canon, only a series of ever-evolving headcanons taken up and discarded by the fannish community. Or you could say that the canon is reality, and there are no showrunners, just a series of BNFs (published scholars) periodically upsetting the applecart by tracking down brand new canon for all the fans to chew on. Medieval history has thoroughly upset the segment of fandom that yearns to nostalgically retcon Europe in the Middle Ages as an all-white space; Civil War historians are in the process of jossing the fanon of Robert E. Lee as a man of conscience who opposed slavery.

Fandom and academia share a communal ability to keep poking at a text, whether that text is the ever-growing oeuvre of the Russo brothers or the history of European colonization of North America. There is no single story, no final version with which everyone can be contented. Instead there is space to work/play with everything that has come before, in the hopes of finding out some new insight, some new version of the story that resonates differently or creates new connections. Anytime my press is considering a book we ask, “How does this add to the conversation? What makes this matter?”

The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

At the risk of throwing my metaphor-hat into an overcrowded metaphor-ring, I like to think of creating like playing in a vast pool of Lego bricks, where every Lego is an idea, and the things you and your pals can make with them are infinite. (My parents were very broke when I was growing up, and they did not like to step on Legos. I have played with Legos maybe once in my life ever, so please bear with me if I do not accurately describe the Lego-playing experience.)

The cult of originality likes to insist that their baller Lego fighter jet was created in complete isolation from community; they insist their jet has no component parts, no matter how clearly Peter Wimsey is descended from Bertie Wooster. At most they will concede that once they saw a Lego submarine with a similar kind of propeller as the propellers on their fighter jet. By contrast, fanfiction and academia show their work, and their participation in a community of thinkers, as an ineluctable part of the process. The square yellow brick is Hélène Cixous. The long thin red brick is a square from a Bingo Challenge. The builder loves like their own child possesses an affective engagement with their creation, while simultaneously hoping for it to be hacked up and reconstituted by other members of the community.

The wonderful thing is that nobody is ever alone with their Lego sets. Fundamentally, academia and fandom are both about community. They’re about many minds coming together to produce new ideas and help each other with new creations. To hell with the solitary genius. We stand on the shoulders of giant (Lego tower)s.

Image Credits:
1. Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.
2. Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.
3. The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

Please feel free to comment.

Undisciplined and Beyond Content: Teaching Fan Studies to the Academy
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)


Fanon Meets Canon: Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S 10, e05, November 11, 2014)

In a recent piece for Flow, I drew what may initially seem an unlikely connection between fans, fan studies and Cathy Davidson’s timely and compelling call for the reinvention of American higher education in order “to prepare students for a world in flux.”[ ((Cathy N Davidson. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).))] More specifically, I made the case that fan studies enacts several efficacious ways of working toward this goal, and has a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities to reexamine, perhaps even relinquish, some of the entrenched norms and practices that tend, however unintentionally, to hinder curricular innovation, pedagogical experimentation, and/or institutional reorganization.

To be fair, the scope of the important work that must be undertaken inside higher education is such that the ideas, input, and participation of each and every academic discipline, department, and program of study will be crucial. Insofar as this is the case, fan studies may seem an unlikely candidate to single out for inspiration or direction. After all, it’s not a discipline, but an interdisciplinary field of study shaped by other interdisciplinary fields of study such as cultural studies, film studies, media studies, and the like. In part because of its genealogy, one needn’t spend time looking a Department of Fan Studies or even a fan studies major on any college or university campus; there are none. However counterintuitive it may seem, though, these are also among the reasons fan studies can serve as a model for change within higher education generally, and within academic disciplines, departments, majors, and learning spaces more specifically.

Historically, the academy has categorized knowledge by discipline. There were and are compelling reasons to do so, but this has never been a purely epistemological distinction. On the contrary, it has significant pedagogical and methodological ramifications as well, effectively circumscribing what, when, where, how, and from whom students learn. Such an approach is increasingly, at times glaringly, antithetical to how people actually encounter, acquire, use, and transmit knowledge in the so-called “real world”. The problem is compounded by the fact that the academy has, by turns, either actively promoted or passively tolerated an erroneous equivalency between disciplinary expertise and the mastery of specialized content qua knowledge. This has left it rather clumsily positioned to explain the value of higher education in a world in which anyone with an Internet connection can easily and freely access more content than they could hope to read, view, or listen to in a single lifetime.

In what follows, I continue to make the case that although it is not alone either in facilitating change within higher education or in preparing undergraduates for academic and/or professional success, fan studies offers the academy a unique example of active, distributed, and integrative learning through an approach I describe, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as undisciplined and beyond content.

To call a fan studies approach to learning “undisciplined” is not to suggest that it lacks rigor, but rather to note that within the context of most fan studies courses, classrooms, assignments, materials, etc., rigor has nothing to do with the ability to recall accurately an arbitrary body of information, as one might in a Vulcan “skill dome”. Rigor may, but certainly need not be demonstrated through the mastery of discipline-specific knowledge. An “undisciplined” approach to learning leaves room for but is not reducible to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and in the undergraduate fan studies classroom, it allows students to engage in forms of academic rigor and to develop identities as intellectuals that needn’t conform to or demonstrate mastery of established disciplinary conventions and/or boundaries.

Vulcan skill dome

Not disciplinary, but disciplined: The Vulcan Learning Center’s “skill domes” in Star Trek (2009)

This concept of “undisciplined” learning merits a conversation with students. It not only invites them to reflect on the fact that “discipline” and “disciplinary” mobilize dual meanings – a branch of knowledge along one register, a form of punitive or corrective action along another – but to consider the ways academic institutions rely on the latter to enforce the former, as in the ubiquitous ‘checklist’ of major and general education requirements that structure discipline-based pathways students must take through the curriculum to earn a diploma. In my experience, once students begin to recognize some of the ways in which their relationship to knowledge and learning has been, is, and is expected to be “disciplined”, they often become intentionally and actively “undisciplined” in ways that make them more agile, provocative, and syncretic thinkers. This may not be a desirable outcome in all areas of study, granted, but it surely is in many, if not most.

One of the most daunting yet rewarding aspects of teaching fan studies is that unless the course topic is atypically specific, there is little to no chance for any one person – perhaps the instructor least of all – to match the aggregate knowledge that students bring to the table. Further, each student brings their own expertise and distinct form of fannishness to the room, all but ensuring there is no substantial body of shared prior knowledge. Add to this that time constraints make watching or reading an entire series or franchise, much less studying an entire fandom, a logistical impossibility. In each of these ways, we might say that the fan studies classroom exists in a realm beyond content. This is not a realm without content, but rather one with so much that whatever content does make it into the syllabus functions primarily as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Put differently, the focus quickly moves away from the content and toward the students’ ability to develop and/or strengthen skills and strategies that will enable them to responsibly and efficiently locate, identify, organize, summarize, synthesize, analyze, interrogate, and transform content. Within the learning space of a fan studies class, it is a virtual certainty that students will bring these skills and strategies to bear on specific content and in specific ways based less on what is important to a discipline and more on what is important to them and their learning.

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Keanu Reeves’s Neo “learning” kung fu in The Matrix (1999)

Lurking just beneath the surface of every conversation in the fan studies classroom is an unfathomable volume of media content and fannish knowledge. There is little value in expecting each student to ever know what other students know, but there is tremendous value in students learning (to learn) from their classmates in purposeful, intentional ways. We may not be able to download ‘knowledge’ directly into our brains a la The Matrix (1999); however, we absolutely can leverage the community’s collective intelligence to everyone’s benefit.

The concept of collective intelligence has enjoyed considerable purchase since the advent of Web 2.0.[ ((See Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software” (Sept. 30, 2005,] It is, however, worth taking a moment to recall how Pierre Lévy first defined it:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. I’ll add the following indispensable characteristic to this definition: The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.”[ ((Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Helix Books, 1997), 13.))]

Lévy envisions collective intelligence not as an abstraction, but as a real and potentially emancipatory humanizing force. He does not lament the impossibility of knowing everything; he celebrates it as the basis for individuality, and as the impetus for a model of community that enriches its own knowledge by enriching others’. This is distinctly at odds with what Peter Walsh identifies as the “expert paradigm.” Henry Jenkins explains the tension between these two views of knowledge by noting that “the expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 52.))]

The expert paradigm is, for all intents and purposes, the academy’s paradigm: in addition to emphasizing “bounded bodies of knowledge;” both use those boundaries to distinguish between who is inside and outside of the knowledge community; both endow disciplines with the authority to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge, as well as to enforce protocols for how it is acquired and shared; and finally, both emphasize the importance of credentials to verify one’s expertise.[ ((Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 53-54.))] It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that both of these seem increasingly out of step in a world full of smart, engaged, and engaging ‘amateurs’ who create original content and knowledge, then share it freely with anyone interested.

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Fan studies does not eschew the value or importance of expertise outright, but neither does it consider expertise to be the only form of valuable knowledge. By inviting students to create knowledge that is meaningful to them and others rather than requiring students to demonstrate competency in a subject area, I would argue that those who teach fan studies model a reality that many in higher education seem reluctant to acknowledge: namely, that our value is not defined by disciplinary expertise, but by a relationship to learning that we inculcate in our students. By doing this in learning spaces that are undisciplined and beyond content, moreover, fan studies offers one example (for surely there are others) of a “new kind of teaching” that Cathy Davidson sees as crucial to the future of higher education, “one that focuses on learning how to learn – the single most important skill anyone can master.”[ ((Davidson, The New Education, 14.))]

Image Credits:
1. Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S10, e05, November 11, 2014), author’s screenshot
2. Star Trek (2009), author’s screenshot
3. The Matrix (1999), author’s screenshot
4. Alana King, “FANDOM Q&A | YouTube, Supernatural, Conventions, College & More!” (February 18, 2018,, author’s screenshot

Fandom, Fan Studies, and the New Education
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

Students as fans

So much has changed in the eight years since Paul Booth claimed in this same journal that “the time has come for a critical reassessment of the value of fandom within the academy.” I believe he was quite right, just as I believe the academy has developed a fuller understanding of fandom’s value, thanks in large part to the dauntingly robust body of scholarship and curricular and pedagogical innovations of so many fan studies scholars. I would like to propose a different kind of critical assessment, or rather, a realignment, and a time-sensitive one at that. No one needs to worry whether or not higher education is going to be disrupted. SPOILER ALERT: It is. Whether the disruption is dramatic or traumatic will depend to some degree on whether the transformative changes it entails are adopted from within or imposed from without. In what follows, I hope to begin a conversation about the ways in which fandom and fan studies are distinctly well-suited to help effect some of the changes the academy needs to consider making if it hopes to proactively navigate the uncertainties ahead.

The New Education

“The college education we need today must prepare our students for their epic journey, the mountain and the cliff’s edge. It should give them agency, arm them to take on a difficult world, to push back and not merely adapt to it. […] To revolutionize the university, we don’t just need a model. We need a movement.”
Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education[ ((Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 12, 13.))]

The New Education

Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education

The modern American university came into being between roughly 1860 and 1925, and was designed, according to Cathy Davidson, to train and credential “the professional-managerial class in a time of rapid technological, scientific, social, and economic change.”[ ((Davidson, 40.))] We are currently about two decades into a period of comparably disruptive technological, scientific, social, and economic change. Despite this, as Davidson argues in The New Education, our institutions of higher learning remain stubbornly yoked to the past in a number of consequential ways, making the need “to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux” increasingly urgent.

If academics and academic institutions aspire to contribute meaningfully to our students’ ability to navigate and contribute to the world as it will (soon) be rather than as it (just) was, we need at least to be willing to let go of some of our most entrenched structures and practices. Davidson contends, for instance, that we must “redesign the university beyond the inherited disciplines, departments, and silos by redefining the traditional boundaries of knowledge and providing an array of intellectual forums, experiences, programs, and projects that push students to use a variety of methods to discover comprehensive and original answers.”[ ((Davidson, 13.))]

Achieving this will not be easy.

Most colleges and universities accommodate, and many actively encourage, some degree of change within existing disciplinary, curricular, and administrative entities – e.g., individual courses, major requirements, academic departments, and the like. However, the system as a whole has always favored continuity over disruption, and so structural transformations that ramify across, between, or throughout these entities, are often regarded as impossible, anathema, or both. This is neither accidental nor inevitable, and for over a century it has reified an educational model that privileges disciplinary bodies of knowledge and expertise.

In the proverbial “real world”, however, bodies of knowledge are promiscuous, unruly, and un-disciplined, and are arguably becoming more so all the time.

So where does all this leave higher education, and what does it have to do with fans, fandom or fan studies?

Fans, Fandom and Fan Studies

“Fandom as a practice has always existed in an uneasy relationship with its own academic study.”
– Paul Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy

“Purity”, via xkcd

“Purity”, via xkcd

If, as Paul Booth observes, there is an “uneasy relationship” between fan studies and fandom, xkcd’s “Purity” suggests there may be any number of uneasy relationships between certain disciplines and, well, other disciplines. Academics’ capacity for disciplinary self-importance notwithstanding, disciplinary hierarchies are a reality in higher education, though they tend to be shaped by external rather than internal dynamics. “Some disciplines are culturally valued higher than others,” Booth explains, making “the choice of what we teach and study […] limited by those that have value in our culture” as determined by “ideological validation” and associated market forces.[ ((Paul J. Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy” (Flow, Dec. 2012, ))] Over the last decade or so, the value of a given discipline, and indeed of a college degree, seems to rise and fall based not on factors like intellectual purity or specialization, but employability and professionalization.

It is worth noting that in either scenario, academics who teach and research certain aspects of popular media can expect occasionally to find themselves having to explain, or even to defend, their fields to colleagues or administrators, just as our students can expect occasionally to encounter skeptical family members eager to know why someone would go to college (‘just’) to study fandom or video games or television. Such interactions may be motivated by doubts about these fields’ intellectual rigor, academic legitimacy, or pre-professional worthwhileness. And whether initiated by a senior professor keen to protect and preserve the (“purity” of) traditional academic disciplines or by a parent anxious about the enormous cost of a college degree, they express a common belief that if a body of knowledge can be acquired without the specialized expertise of a university faculty it should be.

They also express a common anxiety about the ability of higher education to justify itself in a post-Internet world. We should not trivialize that anxiety, but neither should we disregard the value of forging thoughtful, intentional connections between academic and non-academic knowledge, skills, and expertise. Analogous connections between knowledge communities happen online all the time, almost always resulting in opportunities for productive tensions to be explored and resolved through what Henry Jenkins usefully describes as “exercises in popular epistemology,” where the emphasis is “as much on how we know and how we evaluate what we know as on the information itself.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 44.))]

Fandom and fan studies have a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities reexamine, and hopefully even transform, how, whom, and why they educate. They are not alone in this, to be sure, but I believe they are particularly well-suited to the task. Consider, for instance, that despite (or indeed because of) the fact they have an “uneasy relationship,” fandom and fan studies have a long history of interacting, collaborating with, and yes, challenging each other in ways that, more often than not, are mutually edifying.

Below, I offer several additional observations and examples of how and why fans, fandom and fan studies can contribute to the kind of “new education” Davidson describes, and invite readers to think of and to share how other disciplinary traditions and forms of knowledge might do so as well.

  • Fans are autodidactic. They can and often do acquire skills and specialized knowledge that rival what most undergraduates can expect to attain through formal disciplinary training. That they do so on their own and through interactions with other fans neither devalues nor delegitimizes their expertise; on the contrary, it models the kind of intellectual curiosity, initiative, perseverance, and capacity for self-teaching that are so crucial to success, regardless of one’s field of study or professional goals.
  • The fan studies classroom redefines expertise and models learning to learn. Fans are experts in their fandom(s). Just ask them; they’ll be happy to tell you. In the fan studies classroom, this presents numerous opportunities to validate students’ prior knowledge, but also usefully demonstrates the limitations of equating expertise with the mastery of content, which in turn demonstrates the limitations of equating teaching with delivering more content. As John Hartley writes, “The shift from teaching as transmission of knowledge to learning as production of knowledge means that an important responsibility for the [educational] system will be helping people learn to learn and to become motivated to learn.”[ ((John Hartley, The Uses of Digital Literacy (London: Transaction, 2011), 37.))] The fan studies classroom starts with a tremendous advantage here in that students who are also fans are, as noted above, likely autodidactic to some degree, but any classroom can shift the focus from teaching content to learning to learn.
  • Fandom is read/write culture. As part of his important work on remix and fair use, Lawrence Lessig argues that as new technologies produce new opportunities and demands for new literacies, we must develop a read/write (RW) culture that complements and pushes back against an entrenched read-only (RO) culture. Though “critically important both to the spread of culture and the spread of knowledge,” RO culture “teach[es], but not by inviting questions.” RW culture “ asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains.”[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 84, 85.))] Fans create an enormous amount of transformative creative work, each instance an opportunity to develop and democratize the kind of digital literacy skills that are crucial to cultural citizenship in the twenty-first century.

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Fangirl and white hat hacker Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day) in Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo,” S07e20)

Last but not least, and in conclusion, fandom and fan studies are just so ‘meta’. That is, they tend to be deeply self-reflexive pursuits wherein even well-established epistemological, methodological, ethical, and community norms are regularly reexamined, refined, and renegotiated as needed. This at once results in and from—and to a certain degree requires and rewards—a relatively high degree of active participation, engagement and communication among members of these communities. At the risk of seeming either cynical or glib, one suspects there are lessons here for faculty and administrators as well, for if there is any chance of revolutionizing higher education, we must be willing to reevaluate everything, and to listen to and work with everyone who shows up.

Image Credits:
1. Tapping into students’ fannish literacies, author’s screenshot
2. Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education
3. “Purity”,
4. Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons & Dragons Tattoo,” S07,e20), author’s screenshot.

3 Ways that BTS and its Fans are Redefining Liveness
Michelle Cho / McGill University


The South Korean K-pop group BTS accepting the Best Social Artist Award at the BBMAs, May 20, 2018

Despite TV’s migration onto the web, live broadcasts of televisual events (sports, award show performances) still seem to confirm liveness as the essence of the medium. However, as many have observed, liveness and sharedness are also fundamental features of social media and internet use. [ (( e.g., Tara McPherson’s “Reload: Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, eds. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2006), 199-209. ))] Accompanying the new norm of consuming television online, simultaneous engagement on social media about what one is watching and how one feels about it is a crucial dimension of a televisual event. Hence, liveness extends beyond instantaneous transmission and reception to the currency of sharing viewer experiences across platforms, apps, and networks. Fans’ efforts to multiply and expand forms of mediated liveness are already challenging national and medium-specific frameworks of popularity and publicity. To elaborate, I present the case of South Korean boy-band BTS, and the part played by their viral appearances on American music awards show broadcasts in developing their diverse, international fandom.

If you use Twitter, YouTube, or Spotify with any regularity you will probably have heard of BTS, since media coverage and social media mentions of the group have surged over the last year, after they won the 2017 Billboard Music Award (BBMA) for Best Social Artist—an award category decided by a combined tally of fan votes and overall social media engagement numbers. BTS just won the award for the second time, and are topping both North American and South Korean pop charts with their new album, released on May 18th. The music video for their latest single was streamed 41 million times on YouTube within the first 24 hours of its release, and BTS debuted its official “comeback” on a live broadcast of the 2018 BBMAs on May 20th. [ (( A “comeback” refers to the live-broadcast, choreographed stage performance of the lead track of a new album that is a staple of the Korean music industry. Televised performance is key to pop music distribution and consumption in South Korea, with no less than six live performance shows produced per week, one on each major broadcast network and three on cable networks. ))] As fitting the winners of a social media influence award, their performance was a viral event, with TV and the web co-creating an extensive field of social interactions. Fans mediated the broadcast’s liveness through tweets and posts, in the process remediating liveness by amplifying their experiences through this meta-discourse.

Here are three ways that BTS and their fans are expanding and redefining liveness across the thresholds of TV and social media:

1. Producing Real-Life Contents: Since their debut in 2013, BTS has produced and distributed behind-the-scenes video footage in short clips of backstage antics, dance practice videos, member vlogs, and gif-length video selfies via their group Twitter account and their BangtanTV YouTube channel. Some of the content has also taken the form of reality web-series, most recently Burn the Stage, distributed by YouTube Red. Other shows include Bon Voyage I and II, serialized travelogues featuring the band vacationing between tour stops, and Run BTS!, an ongoing series modeled on Korean variety show formats. [ (( Run BTS! cites the long-running SBS variety show Running Man. ))] The latter are both produced and distributed by the Korean media company Naver through their VLive streaming app. VLive is specifically designed for celebrities (mostly pop idols, but including some indie and rap musicians, actors, and comedians), to directly address their fan-followers. The large, conglomerate-owned Korean cable music network Mnet also distributed two of the group’s series: Rookie King (2013) and American Hustle Life (2014). [ (( American Hustle Life focuses on the group’s introduction to the history and politics of hip-hop. Members meet and are mentored by figures like Warren G, Coolio, and LA-based hip-hop choreographers. The show has been criticized as appropriative, and the donning of hip-hop culture as mere commercial style is unfortunately a common offense in hip-hop inflected K-pop. This topic merits further consideration, but without space to do so here, I want to point out that some of the best discussions of racism and exploitation in K-pop take place among fans, many of whom are members of racialized minorities, as clearly demonstrated by the audience at the BBMAs. See, for example, The Jess Lyfe’s Vlog, “It’s Hard Being A Black Kpop Fan”; or Heidi Samuelson, “The Philosophy of BTS: K-pop, Pop Art, and the Art of Capitalism.” ))] Across these varied platforms (Twitter, YouTube, VLive, cable, and network television), BTS has delivered a steady stream of “real-life contents” (in the words of the group’s leader), inviting fans to engage on an intimate, quotidian basis, and granting a sense of having witnessed the band’s personal and professional growth over time. Many fans attribute their intense attachment to BTS to the regularity, frequency, and candor of the group’s transmedia contents.


Screenshot of BTS leader RM doing a solo VLive stream. Vlive broadcasts are recorded and archived on the group’s channel page for repeat viewing

2. Archiving Liveness in Reaction Videos: Fans of BTS (and other K-pop artists) are also prolific video content producers, with a particular penchant for reaction videos. The genre of the reaction video, which is native to YouTube, emerged as a means of capturing shock, often in response to a horrifying or repulsive display. However, a growing proportion of reaction videos are focused on excessive delight, a structure of feeling that might characterize fandom. [ (( In “What’s Behind our Obsession with Game of Thrones Reaction Videos,” Laura Hudson pinpoints shared fan affect as the crux of what’s pleasurable about watching and re-watching reactions to even hyper-violent spectacle. ))] Reaction videos capture liveness as both the claim to the “first time” watching, and as a spectacle of spontaneous affective experience. Fan reaction videos recast media consumption itself as transformative participation—fans are often primed to like the things they are reacting to, and their fan interventions are performances of identity that, in turn, help constitute the object of devotion. [ (( Abigail De Kosnik, “What is global theater? or, What does new media studies have to do with performance studies?” In “Performance and Performativity in Fandom,” eds. Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol 18 (2015). ))] Reaction videos create an archive of “first times” that new fans can binge, to create a compressed time sense that affords viewers fan nostalgia by proxy, the vicarious experience of history with the fan object through shared fan highs. [ (( Paul Booth defines fandom as nostalgia driven in Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age (Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press, 2015), 19, and Mark Duffett discusses the notion of “imagined memory” common to fans, as a means of accessing the past of their fan object, here and in Understanding Fandom: An Introduction to the Study of Media Fan Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 229-230. ))]

The other important impetus for Kpop reaction videos is the centrality of dance to the K-pop genre. BTS is one of the most accomplished dance performance groups in the industry, in addition to being recording artists, and their choreography often draws gasps of awe from fans in their filmed reactions. Dance is said to create a sense of shared bodily experience. Artists can exploit the affective power of dance, as a powerful embodied mnemonic or to implicate the spectator in unsettling ways, particularly when it comes to the semiotics of race, gender, and sexuality in popular media. [ (( Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). ))] While some critics complain that Kpop’s emphasis on visual spectacle is a tactic for attracting audiences through superficiality, dance also impels a corporeal, participatory culture. We see this in dance cover videos that are common to K-pop fandoms.


Reaction video compilations are meta-reaction videos that visualize shared fan love as a community bond. Screenshot from “BTS performs Fake Love at BBMAs 2018 Reaction mashup (정국 복근 반응 포함)” posted May 21, 2018 by Digital Art

3. Multiplying Liveness through Screen-sharing and Fancams: BTS’s appearance on the BBMA’s led Mnet to license the content to make it available to Korean audiences, as it was otherwise exclusive to NBC/ and geo-blocked outside the US. The stream was also broadcast on TNT Latin America, with network commentators providing Spanish translation. Since I was trying to watch the show from Montreal sans cable subscription, I accessed the show through fan-posted streaming links on Twitter and Facebook. Fans used the Facebook Live feature to share their screens in relay, as streams would time out or get taken down for copyright violation after, at most, 10-12 minutes. I finally found two relatively stable streaming links where I could view both the Mnet and the TNT Latin America broadcasts. The contrast between the three feeds—Mnet, TNTLA, and NBC—highlighted the audience’s multi-sitedness; the pacing and commentary showed that BTS’s comeback performance was the primary draw for Mnet, a prominently advertised bonus on TNTLA alongside the “Latin” music artists (Luis Fonsi, Camila Cabello, Jennifer Lopez) who were the main attraction, and a curiosity for the NBC broadcast, the bulk of whose viewers might not be familiar with BTS or K-pop. The constant switching between streams affirmed the many fans, united in common cause, who were actively trying to facilitate access for other fans. Immediately after the broadcast ended, fans began posting their filmed reactions to BTS’s performance on YouTube, most using the Mnet broadcast clip (using NBC footage would result in a strike against the poster’s channel). These videos serve a nostalgic purpose, allowing viewers to revisit the moment of BTS’s unveiling on the show, whether they also watched the performance live, or are catching up after the fact.


The fan who shared the TNT broadcast stream writes in a scrolling message onscreen, “I share this broadcast so that no ARMY (the name of BTS’s fandom) goes without seeing BTS!!!”

A recurring complaint in these videos is the frequency and duration of crowd reaction shots, which interrupt the display of BTS’s intricate choreography. Fans who attended the live show quickly posted their own fancam footage, and shortly thereafter fans uploaded “fixed” versions—combined edits of the broadcast footage with fancam footage inserted in place of the offending crowd shots—to retain the broadcast clip’s superior sound quality and mobile camerawork. This suggests that fans enjoy spectacles of reaction when they’re fan-produced and they supplement rather than replace performance footage, and that a fabricated, optimized version of the performance boosts liveness by gratifying fan desires.


Posted by maria jose ramirez miranda, May 20, 2018


Posted by Korean Girls AA, May 22, 2018

BTS have thrived as “global artists” by cultivating a data-savvy, affectively bonded participatory fandom that is driven to translate a sense of being-in-common across transnational, transmedia “zones of consumption.” [ (( Anna Cristina Pertierra and Graeme Turner, Locating Television: Zones of Consumption (NY: Routledge, 2013). ))] Despite cultural, linguistic, racial, and geopolitical differences, the group and its fans converge on multiple platforms, urging us to consider how liveness connotes a desire for collectivity that nonetheless registers the pluralism of our present, mediated life-worlds.

Image Credits:

All images in column are author’s screengrabs.

Please feel free to comment.

Soundtrack Album Fandom and Unofficial Releases
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”

I am a fan of soundtrack albums. I like score albums, compilation albums, and albums that feature both score and popular music. I own, and enjoy, the soundtrack album for (at least) one film I have never seen. Some of my earliest and most powerful music-related memories involve soundtrack albums. To my pre-teen brain, the backseat of a 1981 Honda Civic wagon, especially at night when the only light came from the dashboard, could be almost anything. For example, James Horner’s Star Trek II soundtrack album could make it feel like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. That cassette (and others) eventually became a series of squeaks.

In my previous Flow columns, I have argued that soundtrack albums are worthy of more sustained attention. That analysis of soundtrack albums requires an address of their visual and textual information: covers, marketing materials, liner notes, and credits. [ (( And this area is as complex as anything having to do with soundtrack albums. For example: The packaging for Nero’s Welcome Reality gives every indication that the work is tied to a film. But there is no film. The packaging misleads at least some folks. The album was in the “soundtracks” section of Ralph’s Records in Lubbock, Texas in late 2017 until I bought it (having enjoyed the use of “Doomsday” to promote Borderlands 2). ))] Having already claimed that soundtrack album audiences are not consumer dupes, I want to use this third column to consider unofficial soundtrack albums and fandom. To analyze soundtrack albums is to think about who makes them and the reasons for creation.

Fan-made cover art for audio cassette transfer of “Space Seed”

In my youth, I was also fortunate to witness the audio preservation of television. Much like those who created audio documents of Doctor Who episodes (whose work has now become the sonic spine for an animated episode), my brother Karl created his own version of Star Trek. My family did not own a VCR in the early 80s, and as children we did not have access to our own television, but we did have cassette players. Study of the TV schedule allowed decisions about which episodes to preserve. He placed a microphone in front of the TV speaker to transform (ephemeral) television into a (permanent) sonic Star Trek. Then he used a typewriter, a Xerox machine, a Star Trek: The Motion Picture poster, a library book and his terrific creativity to create artwork (above). This is a Star Trek he could control (and less scary than some official audio versions). This is a Star Trek that he co-authored. He did not do all this work for glory or profit. He did it all because he was a fan of Star Trek.

If we define a soundtrack album as one featuring at least 51% music [ ((This distinguishes the soundtrack album from radio dramas, audiobooks, and sound effects collections.))] and with overtly signaled ties to another text (audio-visual or not), audio transfers of Star Trek and Doctor Who do not fit within these parameters. These recordings, like the programs they remediate, favor dialogue over music. They are transfers of a text’s complete audio contents. Importantly, they also follow an industrial practice, albeit a less common one, of releasing albums of the full sonic material from films, plays, and films based on plays. And here is the holy grail for some soundtrack fans: absolute sonic fidelity to the other “primary” text.

But even if we exclude my brother’s Star Trek from the category of soundtrack album, it does not mean it should be excluded from conversations about soundtrack albums. This text also highlights the fact that soundtrack albums remain under-examined in both fan studies and studies of audio piracy.

Probably not actually from Romania, and certainly not official

It seems reasonable to state that movie and TV fans buy soundtrack albums. I would also claim that many fans, when the market does not meet their needs, access bootleg soundtrack albums. Furthermore, some fans create soundtrack albums. By this I do not mean to suggest that fandom should ever be conflated with the illegal exchange of media. I do, however, want to argue that fandom drives the creation of soundtrack albums by corporations and individuals.

On the amateur side, soundtrack fandom pursues two frequently overlapping goals: 1) to create something that does not already exist, or 2) to “correct” the official release(s). The various albums associated with Blade Runner (1982) readily demonstrate both goals. Some facts: there are as many official soundtrack albums (three) as theatrically released versions of the film (three, not counting the “workprint”). But there are far more (official and unofficial) soundtrack albums than versions of this famously unstable text. Another installment of “spot the soundtrack (album)” on these albums could encompass far more than my allotted word count. But here is a greatly condensed account.

There have been Blade Runner soundtrack albums circulating since 1982. Though the film’s end credits promise a Polydor soundtrack album of Vangelis’s music, that album did not, and has never, appeared for reasons that remain murky. That year did include the first soundtrack bootleg (on cassette), and an official album of others playing the film’s music. The latter release, and the inclusion of some of the film’s music on a Vangelis compilation a few years later, did not nothing to stem the rapidly rising tide of unofficial releases. An official album of Vangelis’s film music belatedly arrived in 1994, featuring dialogue, sound effects and new music. It concludes with “Tears in Rain” rather than “End Titles.” This too, did not meet the needs of fans, who continued creating music-only albums like the one pictured above. [ (( The inside cover of the CD booklet features an image of Deckard visiting Holden in the hospital, though the image is not labeled. The image is enticing. It reminded me of the bottom of my Star Wars lunch box (red handle version) which showed a Stormtrooper on a big lizard. I could not remember seeing such a creature in a film that I thought I knew very well. The bottom of my lunchbox promised a larger and deeper world. But while this was an official promise, the images on my Blade Runner album were unofficial, illicit, and apparently illegal. ))]

The most famous, and best-loved, release is the two-disc “Esper Edition.” (it even has a “follow-up” release). More than one webpage features comments that purport to be from “(THE REAL) ESPER PRODUCTIONS.” The authors object to how the term has been used by others for profit, and emphatically state: “let us stress that our intention was always to make this a project by fans for fans. It was created out of love for Vangelis’ music‚ not money.” [ (( and See YouTube for the proliferation of “Esper” versions that, at least there, are not for sale.))] The 2007 Blade Runner Trilogy is the most recent official release (other than subsequent re-issues). It includes the 1994 soundtrack album, another disc of music from the film, and a third disc of new music with vocal work from Edward James Olmos and Roman Polanski. On the second disc of “previously unreleased” material, Vangelis names a cue “Dr. Tyrell’s Death” that since 1982 fans have called “The Prodigal Son Brings Death.” The “official” name is unlikely to catch on. More importantly, despite the promise of “The ground-breaking soundtrack in its complete form” (see the sticker below), this release is not a complete offering of the music from (any version of) the film. [ ((News of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s rejected score for Blade Runner 2049 made me immediately wonder when (not if) I can hear that music. And another composer’s unused work for that film is already being put to use.))]

Three discs of official material. But still not the “complete form”

Blade Runner invites, and receives, devotion. Yet why does the scholarly literature on the film’s fandom have so little to say about the albums? [ ((Insightful volumes such as Will Brooker’s edited collection The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic (2005) and Matt Hills’s monograph (2012) for the “Cultographies” series neglect the albums (and say little about the film’s score). Media analysis, in large part, favors the image track over the soundtrack. But studies of media fandom do not have to follow this same path.))] More generally, why do fan studies scholars—who surely access legal and illegal soundtrack albums—overlook them? Is the labor of creating Blade Runner bootlegs categorically different from the labor of fans in creating filk songs, vidding, or composing fiction? The “Esper” curators, and others, create (fake) record label names, song titles, album art, and choose not only what sonic and visual material to include but how to arrange that material. All of these decisions create meaning.

Soundtrack album creators often profess, and fans request, fidelity to the film or TV program. Clinton Heylin, in his history of bootleg recordings, argues that fans wanted “original film soundtracks on record,” rather than re-recordings of the music. [ ((Clinton Heylin, Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 37.))] Providing the exact audio material from a film may not appear to offer a “creative transformation” in the same way as other forms of fan labor. And their work is often associated with a vacuum in the market. But note that bootleg soundtracks have circulated through the same channels as other fan productions: conventions, tape trading and file sharing systems. Fans have created pirate recordings for themselves and other fans.

Expanding our sense of film music, fans can also impact our sense of their labor. As Nancy Baym recently noted: “Nearly, if not all, musicians are fans. Many fans make music.” [ ((Nancy Baym, Daniel Cavicchi, and Norma Coates, “Music Fandom in the Digital Age: A Conversation,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, Eds. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (New York: Routledge, 2018), 151. ))] To this I would add that composers are also fans. Elmer Bernstein is responsible for the first album of Bernard Herrmann’s rejected score for Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966). Bernstein was a fan of his peer, and his Film Music Collection series (1974-79) created recordings of music he admired but was not readily (or legally) available. [ ((See Gergely Hubai, “Mending the Torn Curtain: A Rejected Score’s Place in a Discography” in Partners in Suspense: Critical Essays on Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock, Eds. Steven Rawle and K. J. Donnelly (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2017): 165-173.))] In the following years, labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Intrada appeared in the U.S. market to help officially meet the desires of film music fans. These are small entities catering to a niche market, and take on the production risks that major media corporations deem unworthy of their time.

John Hughes once asked a silly question: “[W]ould kids want ‘Dankeschöen’ and ‘Oh Yeah’ on the same record?”

The Blade Runner releases are typically described as “score” albums, though nearly all include the 1930s pastiche “One More Kiss, Dear” (or the Ink Spots’ “If I Didn’t Care”). And while the soundtrack market favors score albums like those created by Bernstein, compilation albums are a staple of amateur production. Some, like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, eventually become official releases. The La-La Land Records’ album pictured above was released in 2016, “following 30 years of cobbled-together mix-tapes, YouTube playlists, Japanese bootlegs, and awkward negotiations with Swiss synthpop musicians.” [ ((Sean O’Neal, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack arrives after skipping the past 30 years,” The A.V. Club,] Unlike most other John Hughes productions, the film never had an official soundtrack release, in part because the writer-director explained: “I just didn’t think anybody would like it.” [ ((William Ham, “John Hughes: Straight Outta Sherman,” Lollipop,] Hughes was wrong, as the numerous (never only Japanese) bootlegs demonstrated over the years (though these releases seldom include Newborn’s music). The film’s use of particular mixes of (somewhat) obscure songs created a welcome challenge for fans to create their own albums. The belated official release is, unsurprisingly, incomplete [ ((The official description includes this disclaimer: “Due to licensing restrictions, a few of the film’s songs could not be included on this CD, but they are available elsewhere.” Of course, the “elsewhere” includes unofficial releases of the album.] and so keeps alive the conversation between industrial and amateur production.

The BEST songs from the WORST Movies
Or: some fascinating songs from some fascinating films

As long as films have featured music, audiences have enjoyed experiencing that music outside movie theatres. One music critic in 1986 wrote of soundtrack albums: “the record summons up once again the memorable scenes from the movie and sometimes even stirs the same emotions you felt in the theater.” [ ((Tom Popson, “At Last, A Soundtrack Album for People Who Enjoy Bad Movies,” Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1986: np. ))] This remark opens a review of The Golden Turkey Album: The Best Songs from the Worst Movies, which, he argues, caters to the “bad-movie brigade,” an audience heretofore neglected by soundtrack releases. This same audience is one that scholars such as J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies (1983) were already lauding for their active responses to films.

This “brigade” is a creative, and active, audience: individual fans and clusters of fans who talk about and sing along with films. A group including audience members, artists, musicians and composers. Fans who record television, create art, crate-dig (literally or virtually) for specific versions of songs, and curate albums. There is more to be understood about the intersections of fandom and soundtrack albums, whether operating legally or illegally, whether creating or sharing, whether copying or buying.

Image credits:
1. Cover art and scan of art provided by Karl W. Reinsch. Included here with the artist’s permission. Permission to repost not granted.
2. Cover art and scan of art provided by Karl W. Reinsch. Included here with the artist’s permission. Permission to repost not granted.
3. Author’s scan of CD booklet.
4. Blade Runner Trilogy
5. Official release of the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack album
6. The Golden Turkey Album: The Best Songs from the Worst Movies

Please feel free to comment.

Monetizing the Maze: How the Internet Covers Westworld
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University

Westworld Podcasts

A selection of podcasts discussingWestworld

While a ratings and critical success, Westworld is perhaps most obviously a “hit” for HBO due to the sheer volume of “content” the series has generated. This includes a deluge of reviews and interviews from trade and enthusiast press outlets on Sunday nights when episodes finish airing, along with over forty podcasts (pictured above) devoted to analyzing each episode of the series. And while this type of coverage and analysis is common for “hit” television series like The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones, both of those series were built around existing media franchises instead of a mostly-forgotten film from over forty years ago, making this a primarily self-starting phenomenon. At some point within the show’s first few weeks, Westworld became the type of series that floods social media with theories and reports about those theories and videos about those theories, and my question is this: Why?

Is Westworld designed as a giant puzzle? Did HBO use trailers or other promotional materials to frame it in these terms? Or is this a case where audience demand for specific forms of Westworld content is encouraging reporters to supply that content? Puzzling over the puzzling over of Westworld is not about finding a definitive answer to this question (the answer is some combination of the above), nor is it about trying to suggest there is one singular, correct way to read the series. Rather, it’s about thinking through how Westworld exemplifies shifts in how television is covered, reshaping the web of television, its audience, and the journalistic engines that serve as an intermediary.

Westworld YouTube Screenshot

This screenshot comes from Westworld | Theories! Different planet? Simulation?,” by YouTube user Mesh Flicks. As of November 2016, it has garnered over 42,000 views.

John Fiske argues in 1987’s Television Culture that there are three primary layers of television textuality. [ ((Television Culture, and other formative works by Fiske, were reprinted by Routledge in 2010. See John Fiske, Television Culture. 2nd edition. Routledge: 2010.))] The first, the primary text, is the series itself. The second, the secondary text, is what’s written about that series in magazines and newspapers, or through formal publicity. The third, the tertiary text, is how viewers respond to the series, whether in personal conversations or in letters to their local critic or favorite fan magazine.

There has always been a relationship between secondary and tertiary textuality: writing about polls creating a sense of community in fan magazines, Fiske argues that “these magazines do not create this activity, but they know it is there, encourage it, and give it a public status…in order to enhance the pleasures of the active viewer.” [ ((124.))] While textuality becomes more complicated in an online environment, we can see how critics and reporters embraced the emergence of forms of what Jason Mittell refers to as “forensic fandom” around shows like Lost, with writers like Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen emerging as key theorists in that show’s fan community. Critics writing episodic reviews also created spaces where fans could congregate and speculate, with a focus on activating—and monetizing—those communities within online environments.

However, in the context of social media proliferation, this relationship has shifted. Rather than generating content to create spaces for community, the outlets generating hundreds of articles about Westworld each week are attempting to tap into the existing communities on Reddit or Twitter or Tumblr. Content is created for an internet governed by logics of spreadability, and increased concerned over search engine optimization as ad blockers and shrinking ad revenue threaten online journalism writ large. [ ((For more on spreadability, see Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Josh Green’s Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture: NYU Press, 2013.))] They are also created in an environment where tertiary texts are increasingly shared as secondary texts, with formal reviews shared on Twitter alongside elaborate Reddit posts or detailed Tumblr theories, creating intense competition and blurring the lines between the two categories. If online users once looked to spaces like Entertainment Weekly or isolated message boards/wikis in order for their active viewership to be encouraged, social media has made such encouragement readily available, and reshaped the interplay between these agents of textuality.

The result is that Fiske’s notion that authors of secondary texts “don’t create this activity” has grown out-of-date. In the case of Westworld, the dictates of press coverage of the show were determined in advance of the show’s premiere: when it debuted on October 2nd, Vulture’s immediate coverage included both a traditional recap alongside “Our Biggest Questions After Westworld, Episode One.” published a slideshow—the peak of online journalism monetization—that structured their “recap” of the episode around “Top Theories and Explanations.” [ ((This coverage was posted immediately after the episode finished airing on the east coast, made possible by HBO posting online screeners to outlets. The first four episodes were made available in advance of the show’s debut.))] Such coverage is based on these writers’ reading of the text, but the framing is also predicting and hoping to shape audience reaction—by the next morning, outlets like The Huffington Post were mixing their own theories with aggregated content from Reddit, and by the end of the week sites like Slashfilm were collecting theories that were in part generated by fans, but also included posts from sites like Hitfix.

Google Trends chart tracking appearance of “Westworld Theories” after the show’s premier

These early secondary texts did not generate a theory-driven conversation around Westworld out of thin air, but Google Trends shows that the specific idea of Westworld theories” was not something that predated the show’s premiere, garnering little-to-no search activity in the weeks leading up to its debut. This discourse’s presence in pre-written coverage represents an effort by websites to turn Westworld into another consistent traffic-generating series in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Treating the show as a puzzle justifies not only weekly reviews and interviews when episodes air on Sunday, but also updates throughout the week aggregating fan theories from Reddit, responding to theories presented on other outlets, or generating new theories entirely. That the decision was made before the show premieres points to the role secondary texts played in shaping discourse around Westworld: while fans have embraced mysteries and theories as modes of reading the text, that market was in part generated by journalists prospecting for page view gold.

Screencap of Westworld Articles

Two articles connecting Westworld directly to Lost, from Vulture and Polygon

The forms of fan engagement emerging around Westworld are, as noted, familiar to fans of Lost, which makes sense given that both are produced by J.J. Abrams, noted lover of the “mystery box.” [ ((Westworld is developed by showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy—Nolan also has a propensity for puzzle narratives, as evidenced in his work on brother Christopher’s Memento and The Prestige.))] The forensic fandom that emerged around that show has now developed into a generalizable set of fan practices that can and have been applied to other texts aiming for a similar effect. This has been facilitated by the formalization of tertiary textuality through sites like Reddit, and through the shift in secondary textuality toward generating content that feeds that community.

However, are Westworld and Lost that similar? They are both what Mittell identifies as “drillable” texts, but whereas Lost creates very basic mysteries—what happened, where are we— to structure its narrative, Westworld is not as open in foregrounding these questions. Its pilot is much more interested in philosophical inquiries about humanity, and corporate culture—in my capacity as a critic, I watched the first four episodes of Westworld in isolation in advance of their premiere, and never saw them through the lens of mystery or theories, and was surprised to see the discourse shift so heavily toward those elements in the weeks that followed. I understand where the reading originates from, and the show’s subsequent twists and reveals further encourage such theorizing, but it reinforced how much these discourses were amplified in spaces beyond the show itself.

Writing in the New York Times, James Poniewozik draws a contrast between the two shows, arguing that while Lost “also developed an ensemble of characters with distinctive and rich personalities,” Westworld is by comparison “a story about stories, a puzzle about puzzles, a game about games.” And while this distinction between the shows rings true to a point, how differently might Lost have played out if it had been immediately subjected to the same type of theory-based scrutiny as met Westworld, instead of able to gradually grow into that fan community? While these theories reflect the perspective of a subsection of Westworld’s viewers, and the economic interests of websites generating secondary texts, their predominance in coverage of the show reveals how logics beyond the text itself shape the way Westworld and future shows of its ilk are experienced online.

Image Credits:

1. Podcasts, Author’s Screen Grab
2. Theories, Author’s Screen Grab
3. Google Trends, Author’s Screen Grab
4. News Articles, Author’s Screen Grab

Please feel free to comment.

Tumblr’s GIF Economy: The Promotional Function of Industrially Gifted Gifsets
Lesley Willard / University of Texas at Austin


Traditionally, fandom has operated on a gift economy. Rather than money, fans exchange gifts – time, effort, creative works – to express affection, solidify social bonds, and reciprocate previous presents. As Lewis Hyde notes, such an economy is characterized by reciprocity, effectively creating and maintaining a cohesive communal structure through social obligation. [ (( Hyde, Lewis. “The Bond.” The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. 66-67. ))] Much like the commercial economy, fandom’s gift economy has migrated online in recent decades. With Tumblr serving as fandom’s de facto online hub, the platform’s technological affordances have encouraged a different iteration of the gift economy. On Tumblr, gifts are often graphics based and shared through posting and reblogging. Tumblr’s iteration has also afforded the television industry an opportunity to easily (and in some senses, organically) infiltrate and participate in fandom’s gift economy – most recently through Tumblr’s ubiquitous GIF.

GIFs have long been popular with fan communities on Tumblr. Fans create them, share them, and remix them, for a variety of purposes and contexts. Some fans use GIFs to “relive the best moments of that week’s episode or to closely analyze a sequence,” while others use them as comic reactions or to create fanworks. [ (( Warner, Kristen. “ABC’s Scandal and Black Women’s Fandom.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, and Ladyporn: Feminized Popular Culture in the Early Twenty-First Century. Ed. Elana Levine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 43. ))] Fans even create GIF fics, in which individual GIFs are combined to imply narrative causality. As Louisa Stein demonstrated in a recent issue of Flow, fans utilize vidding conventions to compile and combine GIFs in various ways to highlight characters, demonstrate themes, and/or illustrate relevant songs. These gifsets – carefully curated and purposefully arranged collections of GIFs – can be arranged in a grid for thematic and aesthetic reasons or posted in chronological order for narrative purposes.

While fan scholars such as Paul Booth, Nistasha Perez, and Louisa Stein have studied gifsets primarily as fan phenomena, we must also consider their provenance: fans are no longer the only parties creating gifsets. [ (( For more information on GIFs as fan practice, see Paul Booth’s Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, Nistasha Perez’s piece in Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who, and Louisa Stein’s Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age. ))] In recent years, the social media promotional teams supporting millennial-focused networks like CW, MTV, and Freeform have begun creating GIFs from excerpted television footage and posting them synchronously with the episode’s broadcast. This practice is called live-giffing, a term coined by MTV’s off-air creative team in 2012. Rather than being solely created by fans, for fans, via torrented episodes, gifsets are now also created by the networks and shared via their official Tumblr accounts. This small change marks a significant shift in Tumblr’s gift economy: as advertising materials, the official GIFs that circulate through Tumblr fandom now connote both communal and commercial value.

Teen Wolf Screencap

The official Teen Wolf Tumblr introduces live-giffing on July 30, 2012

Like the contemporary practice of livetweeting, live-giffing involves posting GIFs in real-time via the show’s official social media account. Unlike livetweeting, however, live-giffing evolved out of and largely operates within the established fan practices on Tumblr. By posting high-quality gifsets on their official Tumblrs (essentially gifting them to fans and followers), networks are effectively co-opting fandom’s gift economy. These gifted GIFs are often branded with the networks’ logo so, as they circulate through Tumblr fandom, they function simultaneously as fanwork fodder and promotional material. Enabling and encouraging the dissemination of these GIFs allows for a more targeted circulation of advertising materials than traditional top-down promotional practices could achieve. Not to mention it’s free.

MTV’s Teen Wolf may have been the first show to embrace live-giffing, but others soon followed. In fact, most of the shows on the CW, MTV, and Freeform post GIFs occasionally on various social media platforms; some even post them in time with their episodes, though they usually reblog GIFs and gifsets originally created by fans. [ (( The shows that post GIFs sporadically tend to do so through Twitter, which allows for circulation but forecloses further fan practices. Unlike Tumblr, Twitter does not allow users to save posted GIF files to their hard drive, a necessary step in the creation of fan gifsets ))] Of the twenty-eight currently airing shows on these networks, thirteen engaged in live-giffing practices during the 2015-2016 season. [ (( My research was limited to these millennial-focused broadcast and cable networks because their target demographics most commonly overlap with Tumblr’s user-base. ))] Freeform, more so than any other network, has embraced this emerging practice: their promotional teams currently live-gif eight of their nine scripted shows. One of their newest shows, Shadowhunters, is emblematic of both the industrial logics and fannish consequences of these industrially gifted gifsets.

Shadowhunters Screencap

The official Shadowhunters Tumblr kicks off their series premiere with live-giffing

While shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf adopted live-giffing practices mid-run (sometimes mid-season), Shadowhunters episodes and gifsets premiered simultaneously on January 12, 2016 – the same day ABC Family officially dropped “family” from both its moniker and target audience. Freeform’s rebranding was spurred by President Tom Ascheim’s desire to reach “Becomers,” a network-coined term for the 12-to-34 year old demographic that covers the younger swath of millennial viewers. According to Ascheim, the name was chosen to reflect the digital literacies of “Becomers”:

Media is oozing onto all sorts of different screens and platforms and it feels kind of free form in the way that people find it. Our audience doesn’t see themselves as consumers, but as makers so we wanted a name that felt participatory — they would be part of the process. [ (( Tom Ascheim in Wagmeister, Elizabeth. “ABC Family to Rebrand Network ‘Freeform’ in January.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 6 Oct. 2015. ))]

Freeform, like the other millennial-focused networks, is cultivating a participatory, collaborative relationship between producers and consumers. By live-giffing their episodes on Tumblr, Freeform can leverage their multiplatform promotional efforts to encourage and direct, if not control, fan engagement.

Essentially, the industrially gifted gifsets function as native advertisements for potential audiences. As fans repurpose and reblog the official GIFs, their followers – who may or may not be aware of the show – will be introduced to Shadowhunters via the branded, network-provided GIFs. Creating and distributing gifsets on Tumblr increases market penetration with desirable demographics (the “Becomers”) while decreasing advertising costs. Networks are able to leverage digital technologies and the portability of television to collapse production hierarchies and outsource advertising labor to fans. Co-opting the extant fan practice of freely circulating GIFs allows promotional teams to tap into their fandom’s established distribution channels at little-to-no cost. While these practices don’t preclude fans from creating and using their own GIFs, they are indicative of industry’s increasingly active and influential participation in fan spaces and practices, as well as the eroding boundaries between commercial and gift economies.

Stavos-hale’s post illustrates the incorporation of official GIFs into extant fan practices

For example, here a Tumblr fan has posted two GIFs (from Teen Wolf and Shadowhunters, respectively) to celebrate and support their favorite TV (relation)ships across fandoms. Under each GIF, attribution is given to the source from which they were reblogged. Notably, neither mentions the official Teen Wolf or Shadowhunters Tumblr. With each reuse and reblog, the provenance of the GIF is further obscured – unlike the network’s branding, which can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the Shadowhunters GIF. [ (( It is worth noting that, unlike Freeform and the CW, MTV does not brand their GIFs with network or show logos. As such, it is more difficult and less conclusive to trace their diffusion through Tumblr fandom. This choice, however difficult logistically, does hint at a fannish literacy that its competitors have yet to develop. ))] As this post demonstrates, Tumblr’s rhizomatic reblogging allows these industrially gifted GIFs to circulate ever further from their industrial origin while maintaining their promotional potential. As fans continue to express their affection through gifts and GIFs, networks continue to benefit financially.

Providing industrially gifted gifsets is neither universal nor obligatory for television networks. However, the practice is gaining traction among millennial-focused networks, both broadcast and cable. As these viral marketing strategies continue to collapse production workflows, textual boundaries, and industrial authority, we must consider how they also collapse fan-producer boundaries and blend commercial and communal value. Just a year after they began live-giffing on Tumblr, Teen Wolf began directly outsourcing their gifsets to fans like qhuinn and Neptunepirate – a model of professionalization that has only spread in the interim. Fandom has, by nature and by necessity, functioned via a gift economy. As television fandom is increasingly monetized and its fans are subsequently professionalized, we must consider how industry’s incursion into fannish spaces imbalances the gift economy and complicates the fan ecology.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s GIF
2. Post from the official Teen Wolf Tumblr announcing live-giffing (author’s screen grab)
3. First GIF from Shadowhunters’ maiden live-GIF session, posted on Tumblr during the premiere (author’s screen grab)
4. Stavos-Hale’s Tumblr post

Please feel free to comment.

On Vine Vids and Videographic Criticism
Louisa Stein / Middlebury College

Vine App

Vine application

Starting in 2012, microblogging sites began featuring short form video with accompanying audio options. Vine introduced moving images with sound in 2012 as its primary form, and was shortly thereafter bought out by Twitter. Vine, Twitter, and Instagram all now allow viewers to post videos and to toggle soundtracks on short videos on and off. The resulting audiovisual forms in these different sites (site specifically and collectively) are in their nascent form(s). (See, for example, the Vine account “Vidder Vines.”) What are the current realities and future possibilities of short form fan audiovisual authorship on Vine, Instagram, Twitter, and, by extension through embedding and crossposting, the fan-favored interface, Tumblr?

Vine Vids as Self-Reflexive Depiction of Vidding Process

Perhaps not surprisingly, fan video on Vine and Instagram mostly offer extensions of or paratexts to vidding as the central form. Nonetheless these Vine or Instagram short videos also exist as their own discrete works, playing on the interfaces they have been released within, looping by design, limited to 6 seconds (Vine) or 15 seconds (Instagram). Often signposted by the hashtag #vidding and/or #fanvid, many of these Vine or Instagram vids function in part as documentation of a vidder’s process in the making of another, longer-form vid. For example, the following Vine by BatB Vines, with the accompanying text “when I’m bored,” showcases the vidder’s use of particular filter and transition techniques and highlights the technical choices being made:

Since this video consists of a video capture, it also shows the metadata that accompanies the making of a vid, depicting in image the editing software and thus including the advancing frames, frame rate, and aspect ratio/frame size.

Sometimes Vine vids depict the moment when everything goes wrong—the pain that comes with the labor of production, as in this Vine vid with the accompanying text “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s fucked up and lost it all.”

This Vine vid includes its own musical track that is likely not that of the lost vid, but rather a playful evocation of the drama of technological meltdown.

These short vid-in-process excerpts are part of the attention being paid to the labor of authorship via digital social media tools. These Vine vids exist in part to allow vidders to share work in progress rather than waiting until a work is completely done to share it with others. They also exist as self-branding and transmedia positioning for the vidder, highlighting their ongoing creative labor. Just as actors tweet from sets and writers tweet from writers’ rooms with tantalizing details of a TV series’ or film’s production, so to do vidders release moments of their works-in-progress as teasers for the full videos (or as advertisements upon the video’s release).

For example, the Vine vid “Monster” is an excerpt of a key transitional moment from an already released vid of the same title, and the text accompanying the Vine lists the vidder’s YouTube name and says “YouTube |Dexter || Monster|” thus referring to the vid being excerpted and directing the viewer to YouTube to view the full vid. The vidder’s name is not coincidentally the same on Vine and YouTube, thus rendering their YouTube and Vine part of a purposefully self-branded transmedia spread, with the Vine vid serving as advertisement for the vid as a whole.

The Evolving Aesthetics of Vine Vids

Although in some cases—such as shared works-in-progress, and short form teasers—we might consider these short videos secondary or tertiary texts, nonetheless these 6-15 second videos also have their own distinct independent life. They exist as discrete elements that circulate within their home interface and moreover, anywhere in which they are embedded, including new streams and multiauthored contexts in Tumblr etc. Thus, what of the Vine, or Instagram video as an independent form or aesthetic? One could certainly argue that the documenting of editing labor is its own aesthetic, one that calls attention to fan intervention and power via digital tools. But the 15 or 6 second limit and on/off audio toggle offer their own stimulating/formative creative limits. Like the drabbles or comment fic I referred to in my previous post, or like the 100×100 pixel icon art form that Kristina Busse and I wrote about in “Limit Play,” the Vine vid and Instagram vid offer restrictive constraints that can force creators to pare down and concentrate, to make a point or argument within a tight audiovisual economy. But despite the formal limits, the conceptual possibilities are still abundant and multiplicitious, a la the infinite scroll I talked about in my last post. That is, editing tools can weave together multiple textual references within even a six second Vine vid. For example, Brian Rovia’s “Murder Dads vs. Dadstiel,” which combines and parallels the TV series Hannibal and Supernatural.

That such Vine vids may be excerpts of fuller vids does not undermine their status as objects of their own with their own formal and cultural demands. Not every six seconds of a vid will work as an independent module, looping on its own. I found this out in a very tangible way. Initially for this blog post, I planned to make a Hannibal/The Lodger fanvid that I would also release as a series of six second Vines as I went, with each Vine drawn from a single episode. I found out very quickly that the demands of a six second Vine are quite different from the pacing and build of a three minute video, and the two sets of expectations fought one another. I may still continue with this experiment, but I am less confident that both can be simultaneously equally successful. I was able to make one Hannibal Vine vid that I am reasonably happy with. However, to keep up on this level of audiovisual pacing would, I think, make for an exhausting vid. At least that’s my hypothesis. But this points us to the evolving aesthetics of Vine vids, even those that are excerpts of longer vids, in that they need to effectively flow in a continuous loop, creating a sustained visual impact, inviting viewers to ponder the repeated visuals, effects, and audiovisual relationships. To me, a successful Vine vid is in part mesmerizing; watching one is a meditation on another’s meditative reworking of a source text.

Vine Vidding and the Videographic Essay

While the formal limits of the Vine vid or Instagram vid may be fairly restrictive, this doesn’t mean that they can’t evolve particular aesthetic expectations (as discussed above) or make sophisticated critical arguments. I want to focus for the remainder here on the latter: the potential for the short fan video form to make complex and/or purposeful critical interventions. In doing so, I’d like to put forth a connection between the Vine vid (and for that matter, “full size” vids as well) with another evolving aesthetic form—the videographic essay or videographic criticism. With the introduction of the journal [In]Transition and the increased incorporation of works of audiovisual scholarship by media studies academic in, for example, on a panel on “New Directions in Videographic Criticism” at the upcoming Society for Cinema and Media Studies, media studies academics are increasingly bridging the assumed divide between authoring about media and authoring with media. [In]Transition’s call for “papers” defines the form in broad terms as follows: “The work, which can be of any length, should produce new knowledge about its subject, or about film and moving image studies, through its audiovisual form.” Where videographic essays create new knowledge about the subject or moving image studies, vids and Vine vids create new knowledge about their media source and/or the shared knowledges of fandom and audience culture.

For example, Brian Rovia’s “Murder Dads vs. Dadstiel” not only combines Hannibal and Supernatural, but makes a pointed comparison between the alternate family structures that fans recognize on both series, spelling out how not only that fans see Hannibal and Will as unlikely #murderhusbands but also “Murder Dads” as they attempt to care for Abigail; likewise, fans read monster-hunter Dean and angel Castiel as having not only reached the status of old married couple, but so evidenced through their care for teen girl Claire. This short 6 second Vine vid argues for the presence of these arguably queer, alternate family structures in both shows, and more largely points to this alternate family structure as a trope reaching beyond a single text. Thus this Vine vid creates “new knowledge” about the media sources invoked, about the preoccupations of contemporary television, and about fan investment in the tropes of contemporary television.


Although not identical forms, the vid, the Vine vid, and the videographic essay coexist in an ecosystem in which their authors use audiovisual editing to critically engage with media texts, digging deep into individual texts and mapping out the relationships between them. Moreover, through these seemingly divergent forms, authors also articulate their own positioning within a multi-textual culture and within communities of readers, be they academic, popular, fannish, or a mix of all three. Rather than relegating them to separate realms of culture, I encourage us to think about the potentials for conversation between these evolving popular and academic forms of video remix culture.

Image Credits:

1. Vine App

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The Limits of Infinite Scroll: Gifsets and Fanmixes as Evolving Fan Traditions Louisa Stein / Middlebury College

Tumblr's posting functions

Tumblr’s posting functions

As fan communities shift their favored interfaces, the tenor of fan communication and creativity changes. Fans may choose interfaces because they better fit the mood of a particular fandom or the evolving aesthetics and foci of the larger multifannish culture, but at the same time, fan aesthetic traditions evolve in response to the affordances and limitations of particular interfaces. Kristina Busse and I wrote about this a while back now, in our essay “Limit Play,” specifically focusing on Livejournal and LiveJournal specific forms such as the 100by100 pixel icon and comment tree fan fiction, which as forms celebrate and depend upon the constraining limits of the LiveJournal interface. [ (( Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse, “Limit Play: Fan Authorship between Source Text, Intertext, and Context” Popular Communication 7.4 (2009), 192-207. ))]

The favored interfaces and resulting evolving aesthetics of contemporary fan culture are perhaps harder to pin down. LiveJournal and Dreamwidth still offer the same frames for creativity as LJ did back in the early 2000s. But the ubiquity of fan culture on the visual microblogging site Tumblr, and also the introduction of other interfaces, such as the music streaming site 8tracks, highlight an aesthetic of abundant multiplicity and multidirectional flow. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in Tumblr’s “infinite scrolling.” Where the interface limitations of Tumblr are many, and can make it feel very opaque and confusing to newcomers, at the same time Tumblr conveys a sensation of limitlessness; no need to click on an arrow or the word “next” to see what else fans have created, just keep scrolling and the Tumblr posts keep coming; (although there may indeed be a limit to how much we can take in as we endlessly scroll…) Likewise, 8tracks, while showcasing fan-created playlists of often 8-15 songs, autoplays from one playlist to the next, and after the first play of a given playlist, shuffles order of the songs (for licensing reasons), thus presenting any single playlist in infinite combination.

In this post I examine two aesthetic forms that have evolved within this interface emphasis on multiplicitous plentitude: the gifset and the fanmix. These fan aesthetic forms did not emerge from nowhere; that is, they’ve evolved out of already existing fan practices, and it is useful to think of them both in relation to previous fan creative traditions and as evolving forms of fan authorship in their own right.

The Gifset

Let’s start with gifsets: sets of images, sometimes animated, sometimes not, arranged in a grid of sorts to communicate as a whole. Fandom gifsets as a form have evolved primarily on Tumblr, where the interface allows for easy juxtaposition of multiple animated or still gifs. Fans use Photoshop and other image editing tools to make gifs, which they then upload to Tumblr to create gifsets. Various mobile device apps also facilitate gif and gif collage creation, meaning that fans can create gifsets on their computer, phone, or mobile device.

Gifsets that incorporate lyrics have a clear corollary in the practices of fan vidding. Indeed, these gifsets with lyric overlays function much like early vids that used still images edited to follow one another against a song’s audio background, with editing choices usually driven by the progression of the lyrics. But moreover, I’d argue that fan gifsets in general can be usefully read through the lens of vidding in the sense that, like vidding, they select particular moments from the source text, some highly recognizable, some not, and recontextualize them among one another, in so doing revealing or establishing new visual and thematic patterns, offering distilled readings or new meanings born of new contexts and juxtapositions. [ (( Vidder kiki_miserychic spoke in a workshop we held at Vividcon about how gifsests could serve as vidding inspiration, research, and brainstorming.Kikimiserychic, “Meta – Vividcon 2013 Infinite Diversity in Vidding Combination Panel (tumblr),”, Paul Booth explores “GIF fics,” in which the combination of images in a gifset tell a story. Playing Fans (University of Iowa Press, 2015), 25-52. ))] From this perspective, gifsets are like little minivids minus the musical track, played out across space rather than (or as well as) time. Gifsets that incorporate lyrics introduce the imagined shared audio of the song that the lyrics come from, provided the lyrics and song are familiar to the viewer. For example, Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…” includes only two still images, both of Martin Freeman’s John Watson looking distressed at his desk, overlayed upon which are simple white capital font with lyrics from Fun’s “Some Nights”: “But I still Wake up/I Still See Your Ghost.”

Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…”

With a relatively succinct visual and textual economy, this Gifset references a particular moment—when John thinks Sherlock is dead following the events of Sherlock’s “The Reichenbach Fall.” Rather than reproducing extensive lyrics and a complex play of associations, this gifset asks us to activate through memory the full emotional source of Fun’s “Some Nights” through minimal citation of lyrics, and also focuses our interpretation through the small selection of lyrics included. Typography is obviously important to this form, for gifsets create meaning not only through the presence of the words themselves, but also through the aesthetic choices of font style, size, color, opacity, and positioning. In this case, the minimalist modern white caps (accompanying as it does the desaturated almost black and white images) uphold the quick impact of this gifset.

Other gifsets sprawl further in their visual and verbal associations, with perhaps more extensive quoting of lyrics, or the inclusion of many more images. Some gifsets combine multiple visual sources together, weaving them through juxtaposition into one universe, or highlighting their commonalities or differences (thematic or visual). Sometimes, multifandom gifsets incorporate lyrics to render their comparative interpretation, and sometimes the audio invoked through lyrics (or even through image) is in itself the fannish object. For example, these West Wing/Hamilton gifsets layer Hamilton lyrics over West Wing imagery, or West Wing dialogue over Hamilton imagery, cumulatively orchestrating a multimodal conversation between these two fannishly beloved sources that represent American political issues and history.

The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr

The Fanmix

Like gifsets, fanmixes have the potential to evoke associations narrow and broad, through audio and visual combination, and like gifsets, fanmixes in their current evolving form reflect the changing tenor of fan culture and the interfaces fans are currently deploying. First, a brief definition: fanmixes are fan musical playlists dedicated to a series, character, relationship, or sometimes to a particular fan-authored universe or fanwork. Fanmixes are like the inverse of lyric gifsets. Where gifsets ask you to recall and superimpose the remembered internal audio on the imagery, fanmixes and playlists ask the listener to bring their recollection of the visuals, narrative, storyworld, and characters to their listening of a given fanmix. In both cases, gifsets and fanmixes can encourage a conversation between the fan-beloved source and other media texts, fannish and non. [ (( Indeed, Bethan Jones argues that fanmixes shape listener’s future readings of the source text. “The Fanmix as Fan-adopted Paratext.” Contemporary Screen Narratives Conference, University of Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, 17 May 2012. ))]

In the past, fanmixes were predominantly shared in locked communities like those on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal, where fanmix authors provided links to (or sometimes direct downloads to) the music in their playlist, in combination with album cover art and sometimes snippets of lyrics or even fanfic. The locked communities offered perceived protection from the copyright issues involved in remixing and redistributing full songs. Fans also distributed fanmixes in the form of lists of songs and album art without the songs themselves, so that the playlist existed as a map or instructions for the potential listener to create the audio flow themselves.

However, these fanmix distribution practices are increasingly being replaced by fans’ use of newer interfaces for creating “playlists” on line, using sites like the fan-popular 8Tracks. This shift in interface impacts the fanmix as a form. Previously meaning was in significant part constructed by the flow of the mix, with the order of songs potentially telling a story or progressing an arc. However, with the popularity of 8tracks as home for fanmixes, the importance of a playlist’s linear architecture has shifted; any mix on 8tracks is destined to be auto-remixed, so to speak, that is, played in a different order for licensing reasons after the first playing of the mix. So if a fanmix track author has an intent regarding the build of the songs, they craft it knowing that hearing the mix in that order will be an ephemeral and limited experience, and that the playlist must/will also communicate meaning in its cumulation and any accompanying art and author notes.

8tracks screengrab

8track’s search listings

Where the order of the songs cannot be assumed as a constant in this new version of the fanmix, album art imagery, author notes, hashtags and resulting recommendations on 8tracks further offer interpretative frame, identifying not only the fandom but pairing (The Unexpected Romance of Sherlock and Molly), character (Morstran), tone and genre (Teen!Lock), and perhaps even particular fan fiction universe invoked (The Paradox Series: The Soundtrack). As with gifsets, the order of edited songs matters less than the cumulative impression of the juxtaposition and synthesis, and the overall impact of the playlist as it can be (and if you love it, likely will be) played over and over again, sometimes within a longer flow of favorited playlists, other times on its own as a singular (albeit also multiplicitous) object.

And yet, the fan desire for control of the creative dimension inherent in song ordering still remains, as articulated by the fanmixer morethanonepage: “For me, putting the songs in the ‘right’ order is just as important as picking them.” [ (( Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “The Evolution of Fandom Mixtape Culture,” The Daily Dot, July 15, 2013, ))] Fanmixes, perhaps with order delineated but playback not, come to join gifsets in the infinite scrolling of Tumblr, where they together commingle with creative forms from other fandoms, and alongside images and memes and conversations that we might not label as fannish at all. These larger contexts, and the individual ways in which they are experienced by particular users and fans, also determine the evolving aesthetic forms of fan works.

Image Credits

1. Tumblr’s posting functions
2. Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…”
3. The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr
4. The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr
5. 8track’s search listings (author’s screen grab)

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How To Save a Beauty Pageant: Donald Trump, Steve Harvey and The Memeticization of Miss Universe 2015
Manuel G. Avilés-Santiago / Arizona State University

Steve Harvey Miss Universe

Steve Harvey’s mishap at Miss Universe 2015

Be it Miss America or Miss Universe, there is a point at which TV critics and academics intertwine. They both contest that beauty pageants are sexist, outdated formulas built upon clichés that promote highly questionable platforms of women’s empowerment. In an attempt to update pageants, TV networks along with pageant organizers have worked relentlessly to transform these events into a more relevant and attractive format.

From a structural and narrative perspective, pageants have evolved from the traditional formula of a swimsuit-evening-gown-final-question type of event to a more reality-based style of competition. From an audience standpoint, pageants like Miss Universe have opted to capture the Latin American and U.S. Latino/a markets with the incorporation of their symbolic capital into the production, distribution and circulation of the pageant (e.g., Latin American venues, Latino/a celebrities as host/judges, etc.). This is what I refer to as the Latinization of Miss Universe.[ ((] The process started in 2001 with the celebration of the Miss Universe pageant in Puerto Rico in a prime-time homage to Latinidad that had Ricky Martin as special guest and Miss Puerto Rico winning the pageant.

Donald Trump and Olivia Culpo

Donald Trump and Miss Universe 2012, Olivia Culpo

However, this Latinization reached its highest peak in January 2015 when the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) announced a new alliance with the Spanish network Univision. Former pageant owner, Donald Trump, made this unprecedented announcement right after the crowning of Miss Colombia, Paulina Vega, as the new Miss Universe at a pageant that was celebrated in the Latino/a cultural hub of Miami, Florida. With this new merger, Miss Universe cut ties with the NBC-owned Telemundo in order to house the pageant at the number one Spanish-language network in the U.S. As pageant president Paula Shuggart stated, the alliance would “bring unmatched entertainment to the most passionate, loyal audience that Univision offers to one of the fastest growing and important demographic communities in the U.S.” [ ((]

The Inevitable Overlap of Pageants and Politics

But this Latino love affair ended abruptly when in June 2015, presidential Republican candidate and then-pageant owner Donald Trump said during his presidential announcement that: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”[ ((] The comments became a social media storm not only among Mexicans but also of Latinos of all nationalities. One by one, major sponsors canceled their association with the MUO, which resulted in the biggest blow the pageant ever had. It ended up with Univision backing out of a $6 million contract with Miss Universe and NBC dropping the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. Shortly after, the city of Bogotá withdrew the bid to host Miss Universe 2016, and several contestants from Latin America stated their disgust with the comments and threatened not to participate in the upcoming edition of the pageant.

Things changed in October 2015 when WME|IMG bought the pageant from Donald Trump, and, several weeks after the transaction, Fox Network announced that they had acquired the rights to air Miss Universe in December 2015. With Donald Trump out of the picture, the MUO had only two months to plan an event that needed a major public relations plan. However, their approach was to use the same space where the Trump storm started for their own benefit and turn social media into a haven for the pageant.

As I was conducting participant observation and online ethnography during the most recent celebration of Miss Universe in Las Vegas, Nevada, I was able to identify four social media strategies implemented by the MUO:

1. Social Media Ranking and Take-overs
Upon their arrival, the 80 contestants were asked by members of the MUO to share their social media handles. Then, the MUO gave the delegates with the most followers the opportunity to do take-overs for a day of one of the MUO official accounts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and/or Snapchat. Some of the contestants selected to do this task were the delegates from Australia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, India, Philippines, Thailand and USA. The contestants would announce their participation on their personal social media before taking over one of the MUO official accounts. All of these contestants (with the exception of Miss India) were semifinalists.

Clarissa Molina's Instagram

Miss Dominican Republic Clarissa Molina’s Instagram account

2. Contestants as Content Producers and Curators

All 80 delegates were asked to act as content producers and curators. They were emphatically encouraged and guided on how to produce videos and pictures and use the #hashtag when uploading pageant material. From the first day, they were encouraged to use #missuniverse, #confidentlybeautiful and to include the major sponsors of the pageant. They were also told to include the tune-in information in both, English and Spanish.[ ((TUNE-IN to the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant LIVE Sunday December 20, at 7/6c on FOX. In Spanish: Miss Universe 2015 en VIVO. Sintoniza el dom. 20 de dic. A las 7/6c por FOX.))] In that regard, the contestants became not only independent storytellers, but also a global advertising platform for the pageant.

3. Live Audience Online Participation

Online voting is not foreign to beauty pageants. Since the advent of the Internet, Miss Universe has included online voting for special awards like Miss Photogenic. However, this year, the MUO gave special emphasis to online voting. From the beginning of the competition, the delegates were asked to request their followers to stay tuned for an online vote. The first rumor was that the audience would be in charge of selecting one of the semifinalists by popular vote. Then, the dynamic changed to the audience acting as one of the five judges during the live telecast. The online voting system was called the Miss Universe Global Fan Vote, and the scores produced were added to the vote of the celebrity judges Emmitt Smith, Niecy Nash, Olivia Culpo and Perez Hilton [ ((] .

4. The Possibility of a Viral, Memetic Moment

During the last decade and after the invention of YouTube in 2005, beauty pageants have become a central space for producing so-called YouTube moments. The live element of the pageant leads to situations like the failed attempt to answer the final question formulated to Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007 and the two-years-in-a-row misstep of Miss USA (2007 and 2008) that lead them to fall on stage.

This year’s Miss Universe needed to become a central scenario for a viral moment. The pageant added the figure of comedian Steve Harvey as a host who peppered the event with funny—often irreverent—comments throughout the competition. Also, there was not only one round of questions, but two. The first one revolved around controversial topics such as gun control, drug trafficking, terrorism, the legalization of marijuana and the U.S. military presence around the world. However, up to the final round of questions, no YouTube moment was produced.

It was not until the crowning moment that probably one of the most memorable YouTube moments in the history of beauty pageants was prompted by Harvey announcing that Miss Colombia was the winner and then realizing he had made a mistake. She was actually the first runner-up, and Miss Philippines should have been crowned. The situation was even more complicated because it confronted two of the biggest factions of beauty pageant audiences: Colombians, who wanted a back-to-back win, and Filipinos, who were looking for their third crown since 1973. In fact, the Philippines produces not only the largest but also the most passionate audiences. For example, the annual video of the live-reaction of Filipino fans during the pageant has become a YouTube sensation generating millions of views.

Something similar happened with Steve Harvey’s incorrect announcement. The video of the live mistake has not only generated millions of views but has also achieved memetic spreadability, which means an “extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche, mash-ups or other derivative work.” [ ((Shifman, L. “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme.” New Media & Society 14.2 (2011): 187-203. Print.))] Social media exploded with images from the event, and thousands of memes, Photoshop jokes and other graphics on Imgur have been circulating for weeks. As never before, Miss Universe achieved occupying a prominent space in traditional forms of media by becoming the hot topic in the news and other variety shows with an unprecedented massive coverage of the event. Everybody knows who the winners of Miss Universe 2015 were.

Steve Harvey memes

The Memeticization of Steve Harvey

Low Ratings but High Spreadability

The Miss Universe pageant did not manage to produce more ratings in comparison to the previous edition. Fox’s telecast had 6.2 million viewers and a 1.7 rating among adults 18–49 on Sunday night, which represented 15 percent less in the demo and 18 percent less audience compared to last year. However, #missuniverse became a trending topic, and the pageant is still a topic of conversation almost a month after the event. The social media spreadability of Steve Harvey’s mistake has made the 2015 Miss Universe one of the most memorable and memeticized live events in the history of television. While writing this column, it was confirmed that the MUO invited Steve Harvey to host the 2016 Miss Universe competition, which is expected to take place in the Philippines.[ ((]

Image Credits:

1.Steve Harvey’s mishap at Miss Universe 2015
2. Donald Trump and Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpo
3. Miss Dominican Republic Clarissa Molina’s Instagram account
4. Collage produced by the author

Please feel free to comment.