Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Digital Culture, Mediated Memory, Memory & Heritage

New Chapter: Fandom: Historicized Fandom and the Conversation between East and West Perspectives

Erika Ningxin Wang

The chapter I have co-authored with Dr Eleonora Benecchi, Università della Svizzera Italiana, discusses the transformation of the concept of “Fandom” before and after the digital age, and the conversation between East and West. It is included in the book Digital Roots: Historicizing Media and Communication Concepts of the Digital Age, part of the Studies in Digital History and Hermeneutics series, published by De Gruyter, funded by the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History, University of Luxembourg. 

The book analyses some of the most well-known and debated concepts of the digital age from a historical perspective, showing how many of them have pre-digital roots and how they have changed, and are still changing, in the digital era. The publication is divided into three areas – Technologies and Connections, Agency and Politics, and Users and Practices – and discuss 16 concepts related to digital culture, including Networks, Artificial Intelligence, Data(fication), Fake News, and Fandom. Overall, the book explains how concepts emerge and are co-shaped, circulated, used and re-appropriated in different contexts. It argues for the need for a conceptual media and communication history that reveals new developments without concealing continuities, demonstrating how the analogue/digital dichotomy is often misleading.

The chapter presents a comparison based on our fieldwork on local fan practices and the history of fandom in Italy and Taiwan respectively. In line with the main argument’s book, we argue that by historicising fandom, the practice of digital fandom is often traced back to the pre-digital era. We also examine why academics have been focusing on the “internet turn” to the exclusion of other shifts, by examining the key issue of fan productivity, one of the most popularized traits of digital fandom. Thereby, we suggest that, although fandom has changed with digitisation, the focus on “digital fandoms” has often led to an overestimation of the novelty of modern fan communities. Moreover, the chapter observes fandom as a sociohistorical practice, highlighting the longitudinal transformations of fan practices from a pre-digital to a digital environment, and considering different cultural and social contexts to decolonize fandom history. We show how fandom has evolved and shifted in specific contexts but also how much modern fan practices resemble traditional ones. This suggests that digitalization has transformed fan culture from being an underground and community-based activity to becoming a vibrant social platform operating on the Internet. This is particularly true and well documented when we look at fandom in Asia. Nevertheless, through the analysis of case studies from the East and the West, we argued that in the evolution of fandom the significance of digital media has not resided in forming new fan practices. Rather, digital media have played a role in changing the forms and scope of some traditional fan practices, making them more visible, and sometimes more acceptable, to a larger audience. In doing so, digital media also stretched some of the limits of fandom and made visible some of its hidden and often discarded tensions. In the case of Asian fandom, the deep affective relationship between fan and fan object has been built relatively consistently, while the means, but not the practices, of fan participation, have been changed by digitization. Asian fans showed the same transformative productivity before and after the digital age, as demonstrated by the case of the dōjinshi/tongrenzhi markets in Taiwan.

This collaboration is a valuable experience for me. It is not the first time I have been involved in a comparative research project between East and West, but it is the first time I have thought about the whiteness of the concept of ‘fandom’ and the perspective of fan studies. As we think about the concept of fandom and the productive interaction of fans with the media before and after the digital age, we need to consider different sources and perspectives. One of the problems with fandom histories is that they tend to be whitewashed histories of fandoms as the discipline has been lacking a voice from the non-West. Therefore, we will try to re-historicise the widely accepted definition of fandom to both “name” its western origin and to register the presence of different concurring definitions. In a second step, we will show how the traditional concept of fandom changes if observed by a non-white, in our case Asian, perspective. In the third paragraph, we point to the complexity of the material contributions of fans to fandom spaces, when observed historically, considering both a Western and an Eastern perspective to decolonise fan studies in the digital age. The analysis of different case studies will detail how specific fan definitions and practices were used before the digital age while showing that different kinds of fan traits might become visible if we look at non-white fans’ historical participation. Additionally, as already demonstrated, exploring transcultural/transnational fandoms where the source text is non-Western and in languages other than English can help destabilise the anglophone focus of our field.

The study, which draws on fieldwork I conducted in Taipei in 2016, shows that the practices and fandom histories of Taiwanese fans are not the same as those in mainland China. The one in Taiwan is inextricably linked to the history of Japanese colonisation and the cultural policies pursued by the Kuomintang after 1945, yet in mainland China, it is more complex. The fan culture (especially the dōjin/tongren culture) of Japanese origin passed through the transit point of Taiwan, where fan texts were translated into Chinese and flowed into the Chinese cultural market through online and offline piracy, and profoundly influenced the emergence of tongren fan culture in mainland China since 1980s. However, as a result of prolonged censorship and related cultural policies, Chinese fandom is now very different from Taiwanese one. The rise of nationalism has led the Chinese tongren fan community to deny its Japanese origins, preferring instead to look to history for its origins in traditional culture and high art. My PhD research further discusses these sophisticated phenomena.

The publication is accessible here.