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Fan/Celebrity symbiotic social relationships: A participant-observer ethnography of fan clubs.

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Abstract

Many individuals look for a community of like-minded people with whom to form connections. For some, the media fan community becomes this social network. Contrary to the popular media and some research literature that depicts fan/celebrity interaction as obsessive on the part of the fan and a potential nuisance to the celebrity, studied fan subcultures were characterized by fan/celebrity interaction that was reciprocal and symbiotic, collaborative and mutually beneficial. Observations from 20 years of participant/observer ethnography in multiple fan subcultures will support these concepts and a positive interpretation of fan communities.
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Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships:
A Participant-Observer Ethnography of Fan Clubs
Running Head: Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
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Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
Abstract
Many individuals look for a community of likeminded people with whom to form
connections. For some, the media fan community becomes this social network.
Contrary to the popular media and some research literature that depicts
fan/celebrity interaction as obsessive on the part of the fan and a potential
nuisance to the celebrity, studied fan subcultures were characterized by
fan/celebrity interaction that was reciprocal and symbiotic, collaborative and
mutually beneficial. Observations from 20 years of participant/observer
ethnography in multiple fan subcultures will support these concepts and a
positive interpretation of fan communities.
2
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Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
Your adult neighbor mentions that she is a member of a prominent
celebrity's fan club. You react with surprise, associating fan club membership
with adolescence. But in our media oriented society, where the Internet plays an
increasingly larger part in social interaction (Beaulieu, 2004; Bury, 2005; Darling-
Wolf, 2004; Haythornthwaite, 2005), fan communities of adults have become as
common as their teenage fan club counterparts. Even casual observation reveals
that those who participate are numerous. Witness a recent Las Vegas Star Trek
convention where more than 15,000 fans from over 38 countries and every single
American state gathered in one place to celebrate 40 years of this television
phenomenon. What drives this activity, and what benefits do participants glean?
People today feel some disconnection from others, and are looking for a
community with whom to form friendships. For many people, the fan community
becomes this social network.
The popular media and psychology research literature depict the
fan/celebrity interaction as obsessive on the part of the fan and a potential
nuisance to the celebrity. However, fan subcultures are just as likely to be
characterized by symbiotic and collaborative interaction between a celebrity and
his/her fan following. This paper presents examples collected over the 20 years
during which I have studied fan subcultures to support the following points:
1. Social benefits exist for both the fan and the celebrity.
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2. Fan subcultures afford an opportunity to develop skills that can later
translate into valuable careers or avocations.
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Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
3. Fans acquire a way to travel and see the world that is not usually afforded
to people who lack a national/international network of contacts.
4. Fans participate in community service produced by collaboration between
fan and artist. Large sums of money are raised for charities.
5. A dialogue between artists and the patrons of their work gives the artist
valuable feedback and gives the fan a sense of contribution to the ongoing
career of the artist.
6. Fandom provides an escape from routine and boredom in the daily lives of
people who are seeking a little more excitement in their lives.
Definitions
Due to the number of media in our culture, many special interest groups
are formed around these media. For the purposes of this discussion, the media
fandoms studied refer to groups of people who have formed a community around
a common interest in a specific media celebrity. While there are other types of
media fan groups, I will present only data on the celebrity-driven fan group as a
specific case or type of fan subculture. As a social developmentalist, my interest
is in the interactive relationship between fan and celebrity as a social
construction. Other types of fan subcultures exist wherein the interaction is
between the fan and a text, most often involving para-social attachments to
characters rather than real persons (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Harris, 1998; Hills,
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2002; Jenkins, 1992; Sandvoss, 2005; Tulloch & Jenkins, 1995). Those fan
communities will not be addressed in this paper.
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Fan/Celebrity Symbiotic Social Relationships
Considerable discussion occurs in the literature as to whether or not fan
groups qualify as "subcultures." Sardiello (2000), in his study of Grateful Dead
fans, indicated that a preferred term is "fan community" as a subculture has
specific identified properties. But he also points out, "The term `subculture' has
been widely used in both the popular and academic presses and is more or less
accepted, even if it is not clear exactly what it means" (Sardiello, 2000,p. 269). It
is beyond the scope of this paper to present this more theoretical discussion so,
for the sake of convention, I will refer to the groups studied as both fan
communities and fan subcultures, using the terms as synonyms. A further
discussion of the fan community as a subculture can be found in Kozinets (2001).
Kozinets (2001) has drawn the distinction between media fans and media
consumers. Consumers of a media "have `no larger social identity' as fans (p.
71)" while fans do have such an identity. He also discusses a wider fan
population called "followers." My study and this paper are a discussion of "fans"
and not followers or consumers. The participants in my research were all self-
identified members of a distinct fan subculture.
Reviewing the Literature
Psychology and Sociology
In her book about fans, journalist Caudron (2006) noted:
Read the journal reports and you get the distinct impression that
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researchers find fanatical fans a bit off. Celebrity worship, they say, is at
the top of a slippery slope that can lead quickly to depression, anxiety,
psychosis, social dysfunction, loneliness, and a distinct need for spiritual
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sustenance. As conventional wisdom has it, fanatics are either
impressionable fools or dangerous stalkers (Caudron, 2006, p. 148).
Caudron's summation of the social science literature on fans reflects current
thinking by most psychologists and sociologists.
In 1988, the year I began my graduate studies, the emphasis in the
psychology literature was on pathological people who were dangerous to
celebrities. The "big three" of delusional fans, Robert Bardo (who killed television
actress Rebecca Shaeffer in 1989), Mark David Chapman (who killed John
Lennon), and John Hinckley (who shot President Reagan to attract the attention
of actress Jodi Foster), captured a great deal of attention in the media. The
emphasis in both psychological research and in the popular press was on
troublesome people who pursued celebrities in a negative sense (Dietz et al.,
1991). Today many articles still center on erotomania and other pathological fan
obsessions (Kelly, 2005), on stalkers and other criminal fans (Dietz et al.,1991;
Ferris, 2005, 2004, 2001; Kinkade et al., 2005; Miller, 2001; Schlesinger, 2006).
Sociologist Ferris (2001) paralleled fan behaviors to those of stalkers and
described fans' attempts to encounter celebrities in both staged and unstaged
settings. "Is she a stalker? She very well may be, but not by her own account (p.
43)." The implication of this study is clear. Fans who attempt to get close to
celebrities are difficult to distinguish from stalkers. They may even be stalkers.
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Beginning in the early `90s (Author, 1991a), the study of para-social
attachment made its way from communication studies into psychology (Haspel,
2006). A para-social relationship is a relationship between a spectator and a
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celebrity where the celebrity is known very well by the viewer but is not known
very much, if at all, by the celebrity. Horton and Wohl (1956) first used the term to
discuss public reaction to television personalities. Para-social attachments occur
frequently in our media-based culture. Author (1994) looked at the motivations for
para-social attachment. Fan involvement happened at a number of different
levels ranging from casual interest to pathological obsession.
Being a fan can facilitate adolescent identity development (Adams-Price
and Greene, 1990; Boon & Lomare, 2001; Giles & Maltby, 2003; Greene &
Adams-Price, 1990; Le Bart, 2004). These studies paint the adolescent fan as a
lonely person seeking imaginary relationships in the absence of real ones,
describing, in addition, adolescent struggles for identity achievement by the
modeling of celebrities.
A number of psychology studies portray fans as obsessive celebrity
worshipers (Ashe et al., 2005; Houran, et al., 2005; Maltby et al., 2006; Maltby et
al., 2004; Maltby et al., 2005; Maltby et al., 2001; McCarley & Escoto, 2003;
McCutcheon et al., 2003; McCutcheon et al., 2002). One problem with these
studies is the lack of definition for "celebrity worshipper" and the absence of
scores on the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which would indicate that a participant
met criteria for celebrity worship. A more recent study (Author, under review),
found that a large percentage of active fans in two sampled fan communities,
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Star Trek (85%) or Josh Groban (42%), didn't meet any of the criteria for
celebrity worship. While further work is needed, clearly "celebrity worship" and
"fan" are two different constructs.
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In his discussion of a research agenda for parasocial attachment, Giles
(2002) talked about the need for a study of "the contributions of other users in the
shaping of the relationship" (p. 299). In his model of parasocial attachment he
mentions, "discussing the figure with others" but this socially interactive element
is a newly developing part of the model.
A collection of research studies written by faculty and graduate students
on The Grateful Dead (Adams and Sardiello, 2000) addressed some of the
qualities of the Deadhead community as related to themes in that fan subculture.
One observation was the almost unanimous perception that the Grateful Dead
fan subculture was viewed by surrounding communities as deviant, and that
being a Deadhead was marginalized. "Deadheads were freaks who ignored
America's values of monetary success and status. They were seen as a threat to
the American middle-class way of life and to the general norms of a community"
(Adams and Sardiello, 2000, p. 185). Specifically the behavior that defined one
as a Deadhead was the act of following the band around on tour, something that
approximately 3000 fans did. Fans who left and then rejoined the tour
represented themselves as not real Deadheads. Paterline (2000) called himself a
"Clark Kent Deadhead" as he had a job and only joined the tour on weekends.
Paterline explained that the larger communities that surround a fan community
define deviance and that Deadhead behavior was perceived to be deviant. One
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reason for this perception was the normative use of drugs by Deadheads.
The model of "fan subculture as deviant" seemed to have been solidified
by both the Deadhead subculture itself and also the fact that it was one of the
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few fan subcultures that had been studied extensively and by multiple
researchers. Indeed, when journalist Caudron (2006) wanted to describe the
Grobanite (Josh Groban) fan subculture, she used the descriptor "...postmodern
menopausal version of the Deadheads" (p. 138). Caudron's analysis was based
on a very small subject pool so her conclusion is suspect but it is notable that the
Deadheads were the group she chose for her comparative base.
Communications Studies
Work from communication and mass communication studies focused on
parasocial attachment with an emphasis on the individual fan in isolation
characterized by loneliness (Babrow, 1987; Levy, 1979; Perse & Rubin, 1990;
Rubin, Perse & Powell, 1985; Rubin & McHugh, 1987). More recent articles still
focus on the fan as a lonely person, a social isolate. Fans pursue parasocial
gratification in their own homes individually in isolation (Annese, 2004; Canary &
Spitzberg, 1993; Cohen, 2003; Green et al. 2004; Hoffner and Buchanan, 2005;
Papa et al, 2000; Rubin, 2000; Schiappa, 2005; Sood, 2000).
Popular Culture Studies
Lewis (1992), in a collection of writings on fan culture, makes the following
comment:
We all know who fans are....How is it, then that they have been
overlooked or not taken seriously as research subjects by critics and
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scholars? And why are they maligned and sensationalized by the popular
press, mistrusted by the public? ...the popular press as well has
stigmatized fandom by emphasizing danger, abnormality, and silliness.
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And the public deny their own fandom, carry on secret lives as fans, or
risk the stigma that comes from being a fan.
Since Lewis wrote this, popular culture scholars have studied fan communities
and much of their work counters the notion of "fandom as pathology" (Jenson,
1992). In 1992, most social science researchers had not looked at fans as topic
of research. Indeed, Adams (Adams & Sardiello, 2000) revealed that pursuing
tenure in the area of fan research was difficult and she subsequently changed
her research to another area. Author (1990) found that her thesis committee,
because of the "pop culture" nature of the work, did not look upon pursuing a
thesis in fan psychology favorably.
The best research on fans was bound to come from popular culture
researchers and, indeed, much of it has. In a groundbreaking study of soap
opera fans, Harrington and Bielby (1995) found that being a fan involved sharing
the experience of viewing the soaps with other long-time viewers. As part of the
study, soap opera actors were interviewed for perspectives on the fan-celebrity
relationship, and it was pointed out that sometimes actors and fans developed
long-term friendships over a period of many years. Soap fandom is identified as a
female fan community where activities include social networking, publishing fan
responses to the primary text of the soaps, meeting and pursuing relationships
with the actors, and developing lifetime friendships. They discussed ways that
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being a fan is marginalized by society and how fan activities resist dominant
society. "Fanship has negative connotations, especially for fans of a genre that is
among the lowest on cultural taste hierarchies and is targeted at a female
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audience. Well aware of their stigmatization by nonviewers, soap fans become
skilled at managing and neutralizing it" (p. 182).
Scholars saw fan study as being about "purposeful political intervention"
(Gray, Sandvoss & Harrington, 2007, p. 2) and characterized fan audiences as
evaders of the dominant ideologies and meanings of the mainstream media.
Early fan studies focused in part on Star Trek fans in the writings of Jenkins
(1992), Bacon-Smith (1992), Penley (1989), and Tulloch (Tulloch & Jenkins,
1995). These studies focused on fans' interaction with texts and much of the
writings involved analysis and discussion of fan fiction.
Feminist issues also dominated fan studies in popular culture (Benshoff,
1998; Bury, 2005; Cicioni, 1998; Dell, 1998; Gosling, 2007; Green, Jenkins &
Jenkins,1998; Harrington & Bielby, 1995; Lewis, 1992; Penley, 1989; Scodari,
2007). Fan texts are a place where fans can challenge traditional conceptions of
gender and fan fiction was a place where women authors found an audience
(Bacon-Smith, 1992) in an era when publishing and also Internet fandom was a
male domain (Bury, 2005). Women writers always dominated fan fiction and this
made it an obvious arena for the study of women's issues.
Bury (2005) found that female fans form their own separate spaces on the
Internet for interaction with others. Early Internet Usenet groups were male
dominated, causing women to migrate to both private e-mail lists and also
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website message boards.
A fair amount of literature in fan studies addresses the issue of narcissism,
observing that the performance of fans in relation to the object of their fandom is
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a common manifestation of fan identity. As such, one's fandom becomes an
extension of the self (Sandvoss, 2005). The celebrity worship scholars also
investigated narcissism and found links as well (Ashe, Maltby, & McCutcheon,
2005). Using the absorption-addiction model of celebrity worship, they found
positive correlations between 4 out of 5 scales of the Narcissistic Personality
Inventory (NPI) and at least one of the subscales of the Celebrity Attitude Scale.
Author (1995, 1991a, 1991b) found that fans perceive their celebrity's personality
type to be similar to their own in a study done using the Myers-Briggs Type
Inventory where fans completed it once for themselves and then a second time
as they thought the celebrity would. Adams-Price & Greene (1990) found that
adolescents' attachments to their favorite celebrities were more likely to be
attachments to their own internal representation of the celebrity. They called this
a secondary attachment, because the primary object was not the true object of
attachment. In four very different papers, each found that the interaction with the
celebrity was really an interaction with a reflection or projection of the self. A
question is, "Are the levels of narcissism involved necessarily pathological or do
they simply reflect healthy engagement in the development of identity and a
sense of self?"
The Social Context for Fan Subculture
Modern life is transient, and people rarely live close to their extended
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families. People are less likely to know their neighbors, or to attend church, and
have difficulty forming connections in their communities, particularly when those
communities are large and urban (Aden, 1999; Habermas, 1962, 1989; Sennett,
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1977). To fill the social gap created by transience and disconnection from the
community, some people turn to special interest groups to form new significant
social connections (Gardner, 2004). The media fandom is such a social group
and is a gathering place for fans who wanted to form their "own small town" (an
analogy made by a Bruce Springsteen fan) or community (Author, 1994).
Why are many fan communities made up of adults? Opportunities for
social networking for teens in our society still abound (mostly through schools). It
is the adult community that has lost its interpersonal connectedness.
Methods
Procedures
There has been discussion in the literature as to the role of the researcher
as both a participant and an observer (Adams & Sardellio, 1990; Atkinson &
Hammersley, 1994; Hills, 2002). Ideally the researcher is able to both immerse
himself or herself in the subcultures studied while maintaining a critical distance
to do a fair analysis of what is being observed. Halnon (2006) referred to her role
in heavy metal fan research as that of an intimate outsider. In a collection of
writings by Adams and Sardiello (2000) most of the researchers admit that they
were "Deadheads" before they began their research. My participant-observer
status would fall somewhere between these two approaches. I was not a
member of any fan subculture before beginning my studies, and when finished
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studying a group (current groups aside), I did not remain a member. For
example, in 1988 I was not a Michael Jackson fan and knew nothing about his
career. In 1991, I had not yet seen Star Trek: the Next Generation, and watched
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5 years worth of episodes in the space of several months to bring myself "up to
speed." My goal was to become a full participant in any group that I studied. I felt
that there were layers of meaning in these groups that could not be accessed by
a cursory or peripheral analysis. In addition, there were several fan groups that I
collected data on for my dissertation without becoming a full participant. Those
supplementary data were used to support conclusions from the primary groups
focused on. There was a distinct moving away from Michael Jackson fandom in
1992 as data collection concluded. Participation in Star Trek fandom had a
longer tenure (1991-2003) because I stayed involved in charity work the group
was doing. By 2004, I no longer watched Star Trek and only participated in a
peripheral way.
Groups studied included Lord of the Rings (LOTR), as well as single actor
fan groups including Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, and Craig Parker from LOTR,
as well as Jake Gyllenhaal, and Josh Groban. I was a participating member in
the fan groups of Michael Jackson, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9), LOTR,
and several of the actors from the movies, Star Trek: Enterprise, Jake
Gyllenhaal, and Josh Groban. Within Star Trek and LOTR, I was a full participant
in the fan clubs of Alexander Siddig, Rene Auberjonois, Nana Visitor, Chase
Masterson, Armin Shimerman, Andrew Robinson, Dominic Keating, and Orlando
Bloom. I was an "intimate outsider" (Halnon, 2006) in the fan groups of Paul
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McCartney, Prince, Madonna, Janet Jackson, George Michael and Bruce
Springsteen, as well as a number of additional LOTR and Star Trek actors.
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Participants
Included in this discussion are the 158 fans (108 females, 50 males) who
wrote documents for my dissertation study (Author, 1994), 35 Josh Groban fan
interviews, and field notes and survey data from 20 years of study (Author,
2008a). Surveys included the Celebrity Appeal Questionnaire (Author, 2008b,
1991a), given to 390 Jackson fans, 412 Groban fans, and smaller groups of
Madonna, Springsteen and McCartney fans. The Celebrity Attitude Scale
(McCutcheon et al, 2002) was given to 87 Star Trek fans and 105 Groban fans.
In addition, 388 fans took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and provided
additional demographic data (Author, 1995, 1991b, 1991c).
In the fan groups studied, the artists are actors or singers. Their ages
range from 20's to 70's. Many of the target celebrities were male but females
were included (i.e. Janet Jackson, Madonna, Chase, Masterson, Nana Visitor).
The number of fan-related events attended was well over 200. Six
different Internet based fandoms were part of the study: Star Trek, Alexander
Siddig, LOTR, Orlando Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Josh Groban. For five of
those six web based fan groups, I met people away from websites and
interviewed them in person, on the telephone, or both.
One aspect of my work has been the opportunity to interview celebrities
and also people who work in Hollywood with celebrities on a daily basis. During
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the course of my graduate studies and immediately following, I interviewed 22
science fiction actors and eight key support staff (i.e., producers, managers,
production assistants, magazine editors).
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All inquiry has been informed by the grounded-theory method (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967), which focuses on an inductive approach to data with concepts
emerging from the data itself. The six concepts below were taken directly from
my observations and are supported as well from data.
Findings
While it has been observed that every fandom studied thus far has fans
who fit the categories depicted in the literature, i.e. those who are lonely and
isolated, or negatively affected by their involvement, or who may suffer from a
variety of mental disorders, the majority of participants appeared to benefit from
their involvement. Examples will support the following points:
1. Social benefits exist for both the fan and the celebrity.
2. Fan subcultures afford an opportunity to develop skills that can later
translate into valuable careers or avocations.
3. Fans acquire a way to travel and see the world that is not usually afforded
to people who lack a national/international network of contacts.
4. Fans participate in community service produced by collaboration between
fan and artist. Large sums of money are raised for charities.
5. A dialogue between artists and the patrons of their work gives the artist
valuable feedback and gives the fan a sense of contribution to the ongoing
career of the artist.
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6. Fandom provides an escape from routine and boredom in the daily lives of
people who are seeking a little more excitement in their lives.
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Social Benefits for both the Fan and the Celebrity
Many celebrities liked the opportunity for extensive interaction with the
audience. One Star Trek actor asked his fan club president, "When I'm at
conventions, I barely get to say hello to anyone. I sign an autograph and smile
and then it's on to the next one. Isn't there a way to have an event where I can
actually talk to some people?" This request was the catalyst for annual fan club
events where fans would first eat a meal with the actors, and then have an
autograph/photo session where each fan had a few minutes with each actor, one-
on-one. This kind of interaction allowed the opportunity for the actor to connect
with his or her audience. Of the actors on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, five of the
principal cast members and another dozen or so guest cast members
participated in this kind of fan interaction. Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek
Enterprise also held similar events. This can happen because the fan group has
become a community where individuals are known and the actor feels safe.
The same observation was made for Josh Groban. Groban has built his
fan following on grassroots interactions. Reports of these interactions abounded
on his website. Events called "Meet and Greets" were held where Groban met
fans, signed autographs, and posed for photos. Looking through photo archives,
it was clear that the same individuals participated repeatedly and became familiar
to the artist. People come and go, but there is a stable base of participants who
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create a familiar core audience. Groban has spoken about this connection he has
with his "Grobanites":
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"Who are the Grobanites? They're...a very dedicated, very, very loyal,
very energetic group of fans.... They're the best. And they're mine....and
I'm theirs. There's a mutual respect and love for one another. They've
been very, very helpful. They're the main, hardcore, die-hard fans, and
they will be with me for the rest of my life, I'm sure. (CBC Canada,
February 18, 2003)."
On August 31, 2006, a tribute dinner for Groban honored him for his
contributions to humanitarian causes and support of education. Sixty-five of 110
attendees represented the heart of his fan base. Groban moved easily among
these people, chatting comfortably, signing autographs, and posing for photos. It
was clear from his actions and attitude that he felt he was among friends.
These examples are representative of observed interactions between
celebrities and their fan communities over 20 years of study. Examples could be
added for most of the other celebrities observed....the list of examples uncovered
for this complex social interaction between celebrity and fans was extensive and
represented an alternative view to that commonly presented in the literature, i.e.
that contact with the fan community is somehow distressing to the celebrity and
that all celebrities have or should have an inherent mistrust of their fan base
(Dietz et al., 1991; Ferris, 2001; Lewis, 1992).
The social benefits to the fans were equally significant. One fan told me
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that she didn't have very many friends before she found the Josh Groban fans
but now she has lots of friends. Most participants see the fan group as a
community and welcome people as they would someone to their neighborhood.
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A veteran fan posted the following comment on the Internet Groban fan board:
"Grobania really is filled with some of the most beautiful, caring, generous people
in the world right here in this tiny little home. To the new members......ENJOY
and WELCOME!"
An informant from Star Trek fandom expressed a similar idea:
First of all when talking about the social benefits of fandom, I was newly
single and this was an incredible way of meeting new people and
developing new friendships at time in my life when everything was
changing. I met people from all over the country, different backgrounds,
lifestyles, interests and it was wonderful. There was a true sense of
community that seemed strange at first as it started on the Internet. I
traveled by myself for the first time and found I loved it. It was gratifying to
be helping to raise money for charity. For a while most of the friendships
kept going and some of us even met for things other than the fandom for
which we met. At the time I became involved in the fandom, my self-
esteem was at an all time low. Interacting with new people, going to new,
fun places, helping with celebrity auctions and events, all helped build my
self esteem back up.
People are looking for a community of likeminded people with whom to
form connections. For many people, the fan community becomes this social
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network, and the social networking is extensive. Star Trek has both local and
national/international fan groups. The DS9 single actor fan clubs were born
during a transition time where some fans were on the Internet and some were
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not. As the Internet became more widespread, these fans availed themselves
more and more of this opportunity for networking. E-mail and fan discussion
boards became vehicles for fans finding one another and forming lifetime
friendships. One fan, a mature woman in her 30's, had never been away from
home by herself and wasn't sure about traveling with people she had only met on
e-mail. Several fans encouraged her to attend the event, and she forged a strong
connection to the group, becoming a regular at events. She eventually held a
leadership position and remarked that her life had changed in a significant way
as a result of finding the friends she had made in the fandom.
Within Michael Jackson fandom, one of the fan clubs held annual events
where people met to enjoy their common interest in Jackson and his music.
Attending Michaelfest in both 1988 and 1989, I saw fans who had traveled from
France, England and all over the U.S. to be a part of this celebration. Again,
significant social connections were formed and friendships were forged.
While I did not participate extensively myself in the Bruce Springsteen fan
group, over 50 of those fans participated in my graduate research and one of
them shared her entire mailing list of members of her fan group. I had 100%
return on my questionnaires from this group. One person, writing to me about her
involvement in this group, referred to the Springsteen group as "Our own small
town." She told me that all her best friends were in this group and that they tried
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to get together regularly. During pre-Internet fandom, contact was by telephone
or letter, and members used these modes of communication extensively.
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The recurring theme in the fan subcultures studied was that significant
friendships were formed within the group, those friendships persisted, and while
they were initially based on a common interest in one artist, it was usual to find
other shared interests with these people who were perceived to be likeminded.
Skills for Careers or Avocations
Many fans develop skills that they might not have been motivated to
develop had they not wanted to make a connection with their celebrity and with
other fans. Internet web sites featuring celebrities and run by teenage girls are a
staple of celebrity fandoms of young attractive actors like Orlando Bloom and
Jake Gyllenhaal. These fan web sites look professional and the successful ones
are as good as any official web site, in fact often better. Characteristics of these
fan web sites include moderated message boards where appropriate rules of
behavior are enforced (and users are removed if they don't comply), media
archives with television clips archived for new fans, photo archives (the
Gyllenhaal fan site, www.iheartjake.com, has an archive of over 25,000 photos),
news article archives, and links to other sites of interest. These fan-run web sites
rival professional ones because they get updated more regularly and the owner
is interactive with users, causing a better sense of community.
Adult fans develop and maintain web sites as well, again of professional
quality or better. Web sites like www.thatjoshgrobanguy.com and
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www.grobanarchives.com are good examples of outstanding fan run web sites
that look professional. Www.sidcity.net and www.nanavision.com are web sites
that have been part of DS9 fandom for 9-12 years and are run by a fan who
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earned bachelors and master's degrees in English became a professional in
Internet consulting upon graduation.
Other fans developed skills in charity fund raising and managed large
sums of money, organized auctions, and recruited volunteers. Fans developed
publication skills by developing and distributing newsletters and editing stories.
Recently, fan newsletters moved to being published on Internet and distributed
via e-mail which involved a whole new set of skills.
In this context, fans often cross over from fan activity to professional
activity. Susan Sizemore is a professional writer of both Victorian historical
romance novels and vampire novels who started her career writing fan fiction.
Joan Marie Verba, now a professional writer/editor, started writing fan fiction. A
number of Star Trek Pocketbooks novelists also began writing as fans.
Fans who organize conventions sometimes moved into professional
convention organization and sometimes ended up making a career of that. Adam
Malin and Gary Berman, two Star Trek fans, founded Creation Entertainment,
easily the most recognized and successful media based convention company.
Originally only Star Trek conventions were held but these eventually expanded to
Science Fiction conventions and today they hold conventions for fans of
Xena/Hercules, Stargate, LOTR and many other media fan bases.
Take the case of Dan Madsen, who began the first official Star Trek fan
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club, went on to edit The Star Trek Communicator, the official Star Trek
publication for many years, and then ran the official Star Wars and LOTR fan
club publications. Madsen began his work as a fan but continued his involvement
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as an industry insider and professional. These fans represent a much broader
sample of people I met who turned their fan interest into a career in the
entertainment industry.
One informant had this to say about her involvement in fandom:
I truly believe that this specific time in my life, being involved in fandom,
helped boost my confidence, which in turn made me a better employee. I
also rekindled an interest in acting and took acting and directing classes at
a local theatre. I am now the director of a small drama team and love it.
Ultimately it helped me with skills that led to my new job, which has a lot of
responsibility, requires more initiative, and the skills of working with the
public. As funny as it may seem to some, my involvement in fandom
played a big part in developing those skills.
Seeing the World
Fans report that they travel and see parts of the world they never would
have dared see before their involvement with fandom. This is a recurring theme
with all these groups. Fans meet people from other places and then have the
basis to travel to that place because they "know someone." One Josh Groban fan
told me that she had traveled across the country to see him perform even though
she had never taken a trip like that by herself before. "I knew I could do it
because all my friends would be there."
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I traveled to England in 1992 and stay with fans over a period of three
weeks. We traveled together to the Michael Jackson "Dangerous" concerts in
small groups who had previously only met through letters and/or telephone. An
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American young woman of 22 who met up with me in England was able to do the
same thing. Fans we knew in England were able to do the same thing when they
traveled to the U.S. This was before the Internet.
Conversations with Groban fans have illustrated this same principle at
work. It is not unusual to travel long distances to stay with other fans who often
have only met on the Internet. Archives on the fan web site report the first time a
particular group of fans met up with Groban at a radio station for breakfast, the
fans were also meeting each other for the first time. They were already friends
though from their interaction on Groban's web site.
Charity Work
In the fan groups studied, fans had an opportunity to make significant
contributions to charities. The Star Trek Deep Space Nine clubs, over a period of
10 years, raised over $350,000 dollars for the various actors' charities. In its first
four years, Grobanites for Charity raised close to a million dollars. Charity efforts
are not the exception for fan communities. Most studied fan groups raised money
in some way, often having small fan-run events in order to do so. And larger
organizations like Creation Entertainment, a fan originated professional science
fiction convention company, raised significant sums of money as well.
Feedback to the Artist from the Fans
In a discussion with a Star Trek actor, I observed that celebrities seem to
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like the feedback they get from the fans. He agreed, observing that the reason
Star Trek actors "get" fans so well is because most of them are theater actors. An
actor who performs on the stage in front of a live audience has a better
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understanding of the audience members and what their feedback provides.
Conventions, live performances, and other opportunities to interface with
the fan subculture give artists appreciated feedback for their work. Star Trek
actors told me that performing for a TV camera is a lonely business and one
doesn't know how one is being received. Standing in front of a convention
audience, hearing that roar of approval, actors know that the work is appreciated.
Josh Groban, in numerous media interviews, has stated that he loves touring and
the chance to perform live for his audience, a very different experience from
recording in a studio.
Escape from Boredom
Going to new places to visit with other members of a fan subculture, and
the possibility of meeting an admired honoree are things that infuse the fan's life
with excitement and break from routine. The chance to get away, interact with
new people, and participate in something exciting like a concert or convention is
an important part of the fan experience. However, when a big event is over, there
is often a "post even letdown," resulting in some mild depression. I saw this at the
end of the Michael Jackson Bad tour in 1988-89. Fans who had attended multiple
concerts on the tour had a hard time accepting that it was over.
Conclusions
This paper has provided an overview of the relationship that today's celebrities
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from specific genres have with their fans. The overarching point of the discussion
is that fan communities interact with their honorees in much the same way that
subordinate members of other social groups interact with leaders of those
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groups, with the same kinds of positive and negative consequences. Prominent
figures in any social setting run the risk of being stalked, and can, for various
reasons, have to deal with people who are mentally ill. This is not a situation that
is unique to fan communities. The emphasis on issues of stalking and mentally ill
fans in media and in the literature has created an unbalanced approach in the
social science treatment of this topic. Popular Culture research has done a better
job of recognizing that being a fan has nothing to do with being mentally ill or
being a stalker. It becomes a traditional "chicken or the egg" kind of question.
There is no evidence to suggest that being a fan causes mental illness or stalking
behavior to emerge from an otherwise healthy individual. The correlations that
some researchers have found between things like narcissism and celebrity
worship could be explained by an attraction hypothesis. The limelight of
celebrities attracts people who already have narcissistic personalities. There is
no evidence that becoming a fan leads to these kinds of problems.
Much of fan community can be explained as a shared social construction of
meanings in a social setting. Part of the connection between celebrity and fan is
the shared knowledge of these meanings. I recently attended an event where
Josh Groban was being honored for his contributions to the South Central
Scholars, a charity that mentors low SES high-risk college students with a 95%
success rate for a student population that usually completes college at a rate of
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50%. During the event, Groban directed specific remarks to three tables of fans
in attendance and, joking with these fans, said, "I don't think I can be a
Grobanite, seeing as I'm the King of Grobania." I suspect that the other 370
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people in that room could only guess at what he was talking about. The 20 fans
shared the joke, that there dwelled on the Internet, a virtual place called
"Grobania" where Groban is King. The fans constructed this playful fantasy and
Groban shares the joke with them. This kind of intimate exchange fuels the
symbiotic relationship between fan and celebrity. It fosters a sense of community.
Groban's manager was overheard telling a group of fans who had encountered
him before a concert: "We're really all just one big family..." On another occasion,
a Groban representative told officials at a television show taping, "Please try to
get all the fans inside for the taping. These are our Grobanites. They are special
to us." Similar examples could be shared from Star Trek fandom, Michael
Jackson fandom, Siddig's fandom, LOTR fandom etc. Orlando Bloom prepared a
special video when his fans gathered to have a charity celebration with the
release of Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Nana Visitor met frequently with groups of
fans when they came to see her on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Rene
Auberjonois had room parties with 25 or so of his best fan friends during large
Star Trek conventions. Not all of fan community is fueled by relationships that are
completely mediated. This assumption is one that needs to be continually
challenged as we advance our knowledge about fan communities and the
celebrities they honor and follow.
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Aden, R. C. (1999). Popular stories and promised lands: Fan cultures and symbolic
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Annese, S. (2004). Mediated identity in the parasocial interaction of TV. Identity, 4 (4):
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Forming attachments to those people proximal to the individual was the only option prior to mass media. In an era of mass media, individuals become acquainted with media personae, expanding greatly the pool of available attachment objects. This increases the possibility of a parasocial attachment, defined as a nonreciprocated attachment to a familiar other, and from whom one derives safe haven and felt security. This paper addresses 2 questions: From an evolutionary perspective, what is the expected way that viewers should perceive and react to attractive and familiar media personae? Second, as human beings evolve socially in a mediated environment, will parasocial attachments be adaptive or will they encourage, as a result of confusion over “real” versus parasocial relationships, some measure of dysfunction? Based on data collected during participant observer ethnography within active fan groups, parasocial attachment to celebrities would be a likely outcome of repeated exposure to those celebrities in visual media. The Media Equation (Reeves & Nass, 1996) states that human perceptions do not differentiate between those that emanate from the real world and those that come from media, helping explain the strong feelings that some media viewers develop for personae only encountered through media. The conclusion is that attachment to celebrities and even celebrity worship itself is to be expected, rather than being an abnormal and an aberrant manifestation of human behavior. Although most case examples of parasocial attachment appeared to support positive functioning, in some cases parasocial attachments can be problematic.
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