Fractured Fandom in Online Spaces:
Problematic Communication in Communication-Inscribed Places
This blog post represents a presentation I gave at the 2017 Central States Communication Association Conference, and is based on research I am doing on my Fractured Fandom project. This project is an online self-interview study conducted in 2015. The larger project is being written up as a book; this presentation reflects some thoughts on a specific subset of the overall sample: those people who experienced problems with other fans, fan communities or fandoms in primarily online situations.
In the study, using Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology, people were asked to recall a time when they experienced such a problem, and to relay what happened before, during, and after that situation (if the problem had, in their opinion, ended). The study collected stories of such experiences from a range of people around the world, representing various fandoms. These stories are being analyzed for what caused the fractured fandom experiences, how people responded to these experiences, and how these experiences were “resolved” — with resolved being a lose term to apply to any method by which the situation came to an end, even if that ending was not beneficial for all peoples involved in the situation.
Out of 101 self-interviews being analyzed in this study, 49 dealt with problematic situations involving online spaces. These 49 people, identified in this image by assigned pseudonyms, indicated that most if not all of the problematic experiences occurred in an online space, such as a discussion board, a blog, or a social media platform.
Online spaces only exist through people’s interactions with one another through some mode of communication, such as text, image, sound, and so forth. The network of computers that comprise the Internet allow for such interactions to occur, but these online spaces would not have any function and thus existence without people engaging with one another through the network. The online spaces would be empty, hollow, forgotten and unneeded should people not interact with one another in them.
The analogy is a city’s town square: it exists as a physical space, but it is not an important space without human interaction. The problem with this analogy is that human interaction in a physical town square isn’t solely dependent on a mode of communication, unless physical violence is classified as a nonverbal behavior (at which point, what isn’t communication?). In online spaces, human interaction becomes possible only through typing, speaking, showing videos, using emojis and the like.
Thus, in this study, almost half of the respondents reported having such problems in spaces that are only manifesting as a place of interaction through people’s communication activities. My contention with this fractured fandom project is that these experiences exist due to communication problems; as such, the course to resolving them should also involve communication activities. The fact that so many of these situations occurred in places where interaction is dependent on various communication modes helps to demonstrate the centrality of communication problems in fractured fandom.
From the larger study, five reasons were identified to explain why fractured fandom experiences occurred. Three of these reasons are classified as communication problems: Defensiveness, Miscommunication, and Differences of Opinion. Two of these reasons appear to be due more to people making power moves: Power Plays and Policing Boundaries.
In considering this subset, 1 person indicated their own Defensiveness as causing the problem, 6 people reported Miscommunication problems, and 26 people reported Differences of Opinion on some aspect of the fandom. Furthermore, 13 people reported Power Plays done to them or by them, and 12 people indicated Policing Boundaries, from themselves to others or from others to them. In these online encounters, it appears that more problematic experiences involved communication issues than power moves, which also supports the contention that fractured fandom heavily involves communication problems.
One of the biggest concerns with fractured fandom is the potential — and all to real actuality — of people experiencing harassment as part of the problematic experience. Indeed, of this subset, 24 people experienced some form and level of harassment. Furthermore, when comparing this subset to the group of people who said their experiences were primarily offline, harassment was more likely to occur in online situations than offline situations. According to the statistical test (Pearson Chi-Square 6.18, p=0.013), if the person had a problem in an offline situation, then they experienced less harassment than expected. The reverse was true if they had an online situation; that group experienced more harassment than expected.
Now, sometimes people reported a fractured fandom situation that had multiple reasons for the fracture to occur; sometimes, communication problems related to power moves. Of this subset, the only Defensiveness also involved Power Play and Policing Boundaries. All of the reported Miscommunications were related to other problems: 1 Miscommunication + Power Play and 2 Miscommunication + Difference of Opinion. Almost 2/3rds of the Differences of Opinion related to other problems, including 2 Difference of Opinion + Power Play and 2 Difference of Opinion + Policing Boundaries.
The fans also reported Harassment relating to different reasons for the fractured fandom experiences, such as 3 Miscommunication + Harassment, 4 Power Play + Harassment, and 5 Policing Boundaries + Harassment. The most Harassment, however, occurred with Different of Opinion, as 12 people reported that combination, meaning that almost 1/2 of the Differences of Opinion involved harassment. In this group, harassment online appears more related to communication problems than power moves.
Furthermore, analysis suggests these fractured fandom experiences are not due to any specific sociodemographic or other identity categorization, such as the type of fandom the person identifies with. The statistical tests indicated almost no differences in presence of communication problems, power moves, or harassment in relation to gender, current age, ethnicity, or fandom. The only exceptions occurred for testing the person’s age when the situation happened and how many years it has been since the experience with Power Play. If the person had been a teenager, then Power Play occurred more than expected; but if the person was a young adult, Power Play happened less than expected (Pearson Chi-Square 12.96, p=0.024). Also, if the experience happened 6-7 years ago, Power Play was more likely to be found than expected (Pearson Chi-Square 23.496, p=0.015). These findings only occurred in this subset and not in the entire sample, indicating a potential issue with younger people being online, especially during the era of social media, and experiencing these problems.
Another way of categorizing these people is based on the type of fan activity they were engaging in when the fractured fandom occurred. Using the entire sample, the following categories of fan activity were developed: Identification, Attendance, Discourse, Production and Performance. These categories are listed here to reflect the amount of invested work required to perform the activity, from Identification being the least amount of invested work to Performance being the most.
When using this categorization scheme, the type of fan activity showed three relationships with the cause of the fracture. If the situation involved Identification, more Defensiveness occurred than expected (Pearson Chi-Square 4.537, p=0.033) and more Policing Boundaries occurred than expected (Pearson Chi-Square 10.606 , p=0.001). If the situation involved Discourse, less Policing Boundaries occurred than expected (Pearson Chi-Square 6.640, p=0.01). Only the relationship between Identification and Policing Boundaries was true of the entire sample. I am not completely sure the reasons for these results, other than recognizing how the simple act of identifying oneself as a member of a fandom can be enough to cause people to seek to negate that identification.
As part of my process to understand what causes the fractures and what happens because of them, I am developing maps that show the connections between the various codes I am applying as I work to make sense of their stories. These maps are meant to both see one person’s story’s details as well as show connections across different stories, even when those different stories represent different fandoms, activities, perspectives, and ideologies. Such mapping could also help reveal patterns to illustrate the good and bad communication practices involved and enmeshed in these situations. What follows are the maps I have created to show the links between the types of fan activities, the causes of the fractures, and the experience of harassment. With each image, I offer my initial reading of what the map tells us about these stories.
In these online situations, Identification appears more related to Difference of Opinion and Policing Boundaries directly, and then more Policing Boundaries because of Difference of Opinion and Defensiveness. So simply identifying oneself as a fan of something led to conflicts over interpretations of the fandom as well as power issues of defining what is appropriate for the fandom — and then both of those fractures devolved into Harassment. Thus, even the basic act of being a fan can lead to online harassment.
Attendance to some fan-related event was not commonly reported in these online situations, but the two incidents of it involved the same issues as when people just identified as being a fan. Only one incidence of harassment was reported with these online situations, which is not surprising given the small number of such fan activities in this group. The one time it did occur, it was related to a communication problem.
As a fan activity, Discourse involves discussing any aspect of the fandom with others, whether fans or non-fans. Since these situations occurred in communication-inscribed online spaces, it makes sense that this fan activity would be the most reported as related to the fractured fandom experiences. Furthermore, the higher presence of Miscommunication and Difference of Opinion than Power Play and Policing Boundaries is also understandable due to the nature of the fan activity. The higher presence of this fan activity also helps explain the higher presence of Harassment. What is not surprising — only sad — is that all it takes are problems in communicating for harassment to occur. When in such online spaces, simply saying something the wrong way can lead to being piled on by others. Rather than talk through differences or misunderstandings, people resort to communication-based acts of reprisal — perhaps because they are easier to do than communicating to understand.
Production deals with people creating something for their fandom, such as fanfiction or fanart, both of which are commonly shared in these online spaces. Similar to Discourse, this fan activity also involved more communication problems than power moves, with the communication problems also relating to more Harassment. Thus, communication involving misunderstandings and different interpretations about things like fanfiction and fanart cause the same type of retaliatory actions.
Performance involves expressing a fan identity through some form of activity like cosplay. These activities occurred in online spaces when people reported their performances from physical spaces, such as fans discussing and sharing their cosplays. As with Attendance, Discourse and Production, Harassment here apparently came about after communication problems.
Overall, in online spaces, Harassment appears more likely due to communication problems for all fan activities except for Identification. This pattern suggests that the communication-inscribed nature of these online spaces both promotes certain types of communication problems to occur. Then, rather than work to resolve such communication problems, people’s first response appears to be to exacerbate those problems to the level of some type of harassment.
So, that all sounds horrible, but also not surprising, given what years of computer-mediated communication studies have taught us about communication in such online spaces.
The next question is, what comes from their experiences? Bad and good things, really. Some people discussed horrible experiences, involving feeling ostracized and alone; or having mental, emotional, and physical distress; or even lingering trauma, sometimes for year or more. However, others discussed being able to learn from those experiences about themselves and how to better handle such situations, or even where to find better communities and uses of their time.
Furthermore, in experiencing harassment, negative reactions did occur, but the presence of harassment did not prevent people from eventually having positive outcomes. Saying so is not meant to downplay the very negative ramifications people experience because of harassment, but instead to suggest that there is hope for those who do have such negative experiences. What I need to do more analysis on is how people turned their negatives into positives, with that hope that learning those processes can help others do something similar.
Which leads me to my last question: What can be done about having a fractured fandom experience?
What I hope to learn is how to make suggestions for better communication practices by looking at people’s actual experiences and what they said they would do if they could wave a “magic wand.” In both actual and hypothetical situations, people said what helped was being more self-reflective, open-minded, and thus engaging in dialogic communication activities. Where I want to go with this project is to provide tactics to control or prevent these situations through communication practices, potentially to help achieve more of a Habermasian public sphere for rational, democratic practices.
At the same time, what I am learning from people and their stories is that we also need to allow for recognition of when not to communicate. We need to allow people the agency and power to control their situation by not communicating with people they see as causing them problems. We need to be okay with giving people the freedom to ignore others and to stop trying to communicate when it is not working.
As a person interested in fostering dialogic communication, I find this resolution harder to do, but I am starting to see the need to not position “let it go” as a failure but as a power for people to not allow others’ pain to affect us. I think people are dealing with a lot of pain in their lives, and in these online spaces they are given the ability to communicate it, sometimes without thinking about it as lashing out at others and/or realizing the pain their doing so causes. It’s almost like these communication-inscribed online spaces allow for pain as a social contaminant through communication activities — and to stop the contamination, you have to stop the communication.
Sometimes, the best communication in a situation is none. Sometimes the communication-inscribed online space needs to be dismantled, and that’s okay. Sometimes we need to stop communicating in one situation to try communicating better in another situation. We need to recognize that the communication problem is situationally based, and perhaps we just need to step away and try again in a different situation.
To allow for people to resolve their fractured fandom by nondialogic means, we need to see relationships as fluid and dimensional, not as stable and categorical. We are always in-relationship with others, even with others we don’t know — just in different types or levels of strengths — and these relationships constantly change because people constantly change. Fractured fandom is about relationships going bad — then maybe getting worse — then many not changing — then maybe getting better. But they are changing, within that situation and across situations.
If we want to get rational discourse, then we need to do more to recognize irrational discourse not as bad or as an ending, but as a moment for pause, reflection, cooling down. The ending of an in-situ relationship does not negate the relationship overall, or the possibility that that in-situ problem applies to all situations. The ending of an in-situ relationship just changes the nature of that relationship, and we need to allow for it to change again. Stopping the communication in the online space for that situation does not mean the relationship cannot be rebuilt through communication in the online space in a different situation.
If we consider these online spaces as relying on communication to exist, then that means they also rely on relationships to exist. Online spaces are determined through how we view our relationships, which are expressed through how we communicate. If we view our relationships in these spaces as negative, then how we communicate will also be negative — and if we view the relationships as positive, then the communication will be positive. Conversely, if we communicate positively, then we can come to see the relationships as positive. And sometimes, to communicate positively, we need to stop all communication in that moment to hopefully communicate better in the future.
The next step for me is to fold all this thinking back into the main project, and to see how much these thoughts help to explain the offline situations. Any thought others can provide on this train of thought would be greatly appreciated.