Echo Chambers and Fandom

Okay, first, let’s talk about echo chambers.

You may have heard this term, especially since the 2016 presidential election. In media studies, an echo chamber is a community, usually one that is online, where the members of that community all have the same interests, values, and beliefs. This group of like-minded individuals talk with one another and share information meant to reinforce those interests, values, and beliefs. Contradictory information is either not shared or is quickly dismissed.

Thus, you can have people on Twitter who support Donald Trump using the hashtag #MAGA and only seeing positive information about Trump or information that supports their beliefs about him; on the opposite side of the political spectrum, you can have people who do not support him using the hashtag #Resistance and tweeting about information that contradicts Trump’s accounts of events. You know you are in an echo chamber when your Twitter feed only sees one of these hashtags and thus one type of information and not the other. People in different echo chambers have their perspective on the world filtered through their belief systems, and thus do not have their belief systems challenged.

echo_chamber_1_600_391_80
From http://davidbyrne.com/journal/the-echo-chamber

I bring this up as something to think about in relation to the two news articles discussing the creation of online social networks for specific fan communities.

McIntyre (2017) discusses the formation of a social network specifically for music fans – and, even more specifically, concertgoers – to have a place online to basically geek out about a concert without annoying the non-fans in their social network. According to McIntrye, the creator of this site, Fans.com, thought that fans needed a particular place to go given the amount of commitment such fans have and their desire to share their enthusiasm with others: “A fan isn’t a casual concertgoer, but one who is involved and invested. That might not be the general public, but those who fit into the ‘superfan’ group (broken down to simply ‘fans’ on the website) are exceptionally passionate.” Thus, the social network is meant to be a specific type of echo chamber for a specific type of fan, giving the fan a safe space online where they can be themselves.

Tepper (2017) discusses a similar type of social network being constructed for baseball fans: the MLBPA’s app Infield Chatter. The difference here is that the organization creating the app is guaranteeing that players will be a part of this community along with their fans. Thus, this social network is being promoted as focusing on the interaction between the players and their fans as one of the app’s selling points. Indeed, the story from the organization is that this social network is driven by the players: “The MLBPA says that the app was built at the request of the players themselves, who wanted a more personal way to interact with fans, and presumably develop their personal brand in the process.” Whether or not that is true, I cannot say, but it is a good story to use to sell the app to fans.

Both of these fan-specific social networks relate to issues regarding the formation of online fan communities and the power of fans. Pearson (2010) provides an overview of the later in discussing how the relationship between fans and producers have both changed and not changed over time. The idea of fans being active and influencing producers, what she calls the “symbiotic relationship” (p. 87), does go back decades. Remember, we even saw this in regards to Sherlock Holmes, and how the outcry from fans supposedly led to Holmes coming back in The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

What has changed with the emergence of social media is the amount of such interactions, and the way producers can capitalize on it: “The ground rules may remain the same from analog to digital, but the latter offers many more opportunities to enter the corporate walled garden, as producers seek to profit from the mass of user-generated content the new technologies engender.” (p. 89). The formation of these fan-specific social networks – especially the one by the MLBPA – demonstrates how individuals and corporations can profit off of fans’ interests and activities. I liken it to collecting lightning in a bottle — doing so allows the companies to profit off the fans’ enthusiasm.

To me, what is important here is considering that these fan-specific social networks are made to connect what a person does in the physical world with what they do in the virtual world of cyberspace. For Fans.com, you basically go to a concert and then discuss your experience with it; for Infield Chatter, you are a fan of baseball, and hopefully can go to an actual baseball game, and then talk to the physical players you admire. These are different fandoms than, say, a TV show fandom, where you cannot actually go to Riverdale or Gotham City or Metropolis – all of those places and the people in them are fictional, and thus virtual.

I bring this up to point to the method “connective ethnography” discussed by Ardévol and Gómez-Cruz (2014). In their description of this method, they make it clear that such an ethnography does not see people’s online behaviors as being wholly unconnected with their offline behaviors: “Instead of studying Internet cultures as separated and independent features from the real world, these authors begin to speak in terms of online/offline as a form of recognition of the multiple connections and the close relationship between these two social grounds.” (p. 6) Such a distinction is important to make, I think, in such a study of these fan-specific social networks.

Fans who use either Fans.com or Infield Chatter do so as a way to augment and even heighten what they do in the physical world; such social networks and fan communities are not meant to replace their offline activities, but to enhance them. Companies are betting that people will want to have such an enhancement opportunity by giving fans these types of spaces, and then making money off these fans when they engage in these spaces.

Furthermore, the creation of these fan-specific social networks may increase the fan’s chances of being in an echo chamber, interacting only with those who support their world view. On an open social network like Twitter or Facebook, they may be confronted by people who have other opinions about the concert, musician, or baseball player. In these social networks, they may not encounter such individuals. Sanderson (2013) discusses how important the issue of a specific identity is to sports fans, and how they react when they feel that identity is being threatened, either by events or by others. If they feel their identity as fans is threatened, they can lash out.

Such in-group/out-group dynamics can be intensified because of echo chambers. Think about it this way: if you never have to engage with fans who disagree with you, then you do not learn the communication and interpersonal skills needed to handle such disagreements. Without experience, the skills and thus maturity to handle difference may not be obtained. So, instead of positive communication like dialogue, you may resort to negative communication like defamation.

6261818307_d8ff169bc4
From https://www.flickr.com/photos/fpaynter/6261818307

All of which is to say we should look at fan-specific social networks like Fans.com and Infield Chatter with an eye towards their benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, they provide a safe space for fans to express their interests and engage with their fandom without being ridiculed. On the other hand, they may create echo chambers that make it harder to fans to deal with difference and disagreement.

Sources

Ardévol, E. & Gómez-Cruz, E. (2014), “Digital ethnography and media practices.” In Valdivia, A. N. (Ed.) The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies (1st Ed) (pp. 1-21). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

McIntrye, H. (2017, March 17). “Concert lovers now have their own social media platform with Fans.com.” Forbes, retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2017/03/17/concert-lovers-now-have-their-own-social-media-platform-with-fans/#274bbb063250.

Pearson, R. (2010). “Fandom in the digital era.” Popular Communication, 8, p. 84-95.

Sanderson, J. (2013). “From loving the hero to despising the villain: Sports fans, Facebook, and social identity threats.” Mass Communication and Society, 16, p. 487-509.

Tepper, F. (2017, April 18). “MLB players are launching a new social network just for their fans.” TechCrunch, retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/18/mlb-players-are-launching-a-new-social-network-just-for-their-fans.

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