July 14, 2006


- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Sam Ford on Fans of Fans
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Stacy Wood on Involved Consumers

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's newsletter features an opening note by C3 graduate student media analyst Sam Ford, who discusses the phenomenon of "fans of fans."  The closing note is provided by C3 associated faculty member Stacy Wood, who was recently named the Moore Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Marketing for the University of South Carolina.  We congratulate Wood on her accomplishment.  Also, in the opening note last week from C3 media analyst Geoffrey Long, we mistakenly attributed his trip to the Convergence Culture Consortium, which was an editor's mistake.  Some participants in the trip are associated with C3, but the trip is not funded by money from the consortium. We hope, however, that the insights our team members obtain through their time in China will help give our research a more international scope over the coming year.  We also include our weekly update of what has appeared on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.  If you have any questions or comments about the pieces that run here or about the blog, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

The Phenomenon of Fans of Fans

By: Sam Ford

An increasing amount of time, scholarship, and focus has been directed toward fan communities, which manifest themselves most often and in the most easily traceable way online, through chat rooms, message boards, and e-mail lists. However, a related phenomenon that has a significant impact on the way many fans experience media properties are through the phenomenon of fans of fans. These fans--although they have no official relationship with the media properties shows are focused on--often make important contributions to the ways fans enjoy a property, or even whether those fans stick around.

This principle is actually something that crops up in many long-standing practices.  One of these is sports.  I first thought about the phenomenon when conducting an ethnography of pro wrestling fans.  When I went to some of the events, I found fans were as often entertained by their fellow fans as with the performers in the ring.  Everyone who watches wrestling know that the fan are often as significant or more significant a factor in the success of a show than the writers and wrestlers.  But fans even acknowledge or begin to follow certain members of the crowd.  Often, wrestling fans will come to the show dressed as a certain villain and supporting them, to the delight/anger of the rest of the crowd.  These type of fan-performers enhance everyone's enjoyment of the show, even as they often take attention away from the focus the writers and performers intend.  For instance, see the research of Chad Dell and others on the fans who became famous at local arenas during wrestling's regional days, as audiences would as often watch those fans' reactions to matches as they would what was happening in the ring.  Perhaps the most famous of these was Hatpin Mary, who would actually bring a hatpin to the ring and attempt to stick the villain wrestlers who came her way.

Even in the nationally touring wrestling organizations like the WWE, these fans can become well-known.  Longtime wrestling fans are often well-aware of the Hulk Hogan lookalike who appeared ringside at many of The Hulkster's most important matches over the year.  When Hogan first turned into a villain in the mid-1990s, a significant number of fans debated and wondered what Hogan's superfan would do.  Would he support Hogan through his "heel" turn or would he consider it a betrayal?  Extreme Championship Wrestling used to have a fan that sat in the front row at most of its events.  The man always wore a hat and became known as "Hat Guy" to the fan community.  He became an important part of the shows in ECW's home arena in particular, and fans considered him a key part of the ECW mythology.  When the organization closed in 2001, documentaries and books about the history of ECW always included Hat Guy as one of the important figures in the ECW mythology.

At the most local of focuses, the "fans of fans" phenomenon is evident at local sports games.  I can remember high school basketball games often being fun not because of the game, which could be a blowout, but because of certain members of the local crowd.  Just as a colorful wrestling fan can often make a show for the audience, these people become famous for their colorful taunts of the other team--or, most often, their diatribes to the officials.  When the ref would make a call, the crowd would regularly turn to the seats of these few characters to see what colorful insults they would hurl.

The earliest traces of these fans gaining followings through their writing may come through fan reviews and fan fiction.  It's no secret that many fans' opinions are guided by opinion leaders within the community.  This exists both on the macro level, which can be seen in online communities, and at the micro level, through peer influence.  Conversely, fan fiction has often helped keep franchises alive, even when no new official material is being produced, or when the official material does not meet the fans' demands.  The support of many shows and products has been kept alive through continued fan content production.

To fuel this fan response, though, individual writers within the fan community must become opinion leaders and develop fan followings of their own.  This certainly happens within online fan communities when fan reviewers write.  Many times, fans seek further enjoyment of a show through the creative reviews of others.  Similarly, fan fiction writers often develop strong followings and spark continued debate and criticism of their work, in a process not all that dissimilar from more mainstream writers.

The effect is similar to the discussion Ian Condry had with the C3 team at the retreat in April, about fansubbing.  In his example, fans of Japanese anime provided subtitles for products not yet available in the American market.  In the process, certain fansubbers developed stronger followings than others, based on the accuracy and expanse of the cultural information and translations provided.  In other words, it was not just certain products from Japan but certain groups of fansubbers that gained significant followings.

This process has transferred into the online realm.  In his upcoming book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins dedicates a chapter to the spoiler online fan communities.  In this case, many fans often demonstrated their lack of interest in the show, if it had not been for the spoiler activities and debates they participated in online.  Certain spoilers who claimed to have confidential information that they were passing onto the board, or who knew a friend of a friend, gained followings and sparked intense debate.  Again, these types of fans are not a part of the official communication of the show but have a strong and direct bearing of the way a significant number of viewers watch and enjoy the show.

Similarly, on the As the World Turns fan boards I read and participate in, fans often gain followings on their own.  On the Media-Domain board dedicated to ATWT, MaryHatch became well-known for her sarcasm and her one-line responses to dialogue in the show that she sometimes posts as the show is airing on the message board.  Other fans now regularly write on the board, wondering what MaryHatch will think about a certain event or conversation on the show.  And whole threads have even started in debate to MaryHatch's importance on the board.  Disgruntled fans are angered at the attention this one poster receives and pose the question to other fans as to whether the board exists as a place of discussion for the show or for MaryHatch.  In particular, many fans have said that they have stuck through boring periods of the show just because they liked watching the show and then seeing MaryHatch rip certain parts of it.

This type of fan response is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, these fans increase the enjoyment of others and make the fan community as a whole more involved in the entertainment property.  On the other hand, these fans are not under the control of the content producers, and they are often very critical of the product--often, their reputation is made on how creatively they can riff or criticize the show.

Nevertheless, these fans are an essential part of the experience of the rest of the community, and the creative powers have to learn to live with that. Attempts to criticize these fans or to censor them may seem like the best way to gain control, but attacking a fan who has a following of his or her own often brings a great degree of ill-will toward the property.  Instead, cultural producers are better off letting these fans have some degree of free reign, especially since they often enhance the experience without pay. And, if producers would follow these "super fans" a little more often, attempt to understand why they gain such a following and why they are so important to the entertainment property, they may learn something new about their products.

Sam Ford is a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Department at MIT and a media analyst with C3.  He is working this summer as a journalist at weekly newspapers and a magazine in Kentucky, and is publishing research on the hero in professional wrestling, an ethnography of pro wrestling fans and ethics in journalism.

----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

ABC Family's Fallen to Incorporate Online Game in Storytelling.  A game that includes elements of an ARG will help further the storyline of the Fallen franchise between next Sunday's TV movie and further Fallen programming next year.


TV 2.0 in Action--The Sci-Fi Channel's The Amazing Screw-On Head.  Jason Mittell explores the online distribution of the pilot of the cartoon, as the channel tries to use fan response to decide whether the show is added to its lineup.


Three New Examples of Media Convergence.  HBO is making programs available to Cingular consumers.  Atlas Video-on-Demand is preparing for a full-court press for VOD ads.  And CinemaNow is getting significant new funding for its online distribution.


Debate about Video Game Criticism.   C3 Director Henry Jenkins looks further at

the state of video game criticism and the degree to which games are embraced as art.


Magna Global Attacks Nielsen Commercial Ratings.  While the networks are moving cautiously ahead with the commercial ratings for the fall, advertisers and their buyers are questioning whether the Nielsen numbers will be accurate.


TNT Signs a Deal with Veoh.  The online television network will promote TNT programming, while the cable network will provide Veoh access to its movie library for online distribution.


Dan Rather Signs on to HDNet.  As Mark Cuban's HD channel moves its image from technological to content, the disgruntled former CBS anchor brings his reputation--for good and bad--to the growing cable network.


MSN Creates Online Interactive Baseball Reality Show.  Fans will get a chance to follow the lives of a minor league baseball team through part of a season through the online show Fan Club: Reality Baseball.


Couple Travels to Iowa to Get Married on Field of Dreams.  Sam Ford writes about a local Kentucky couple who made the trek to get married on the baseball field where the movie was filmed, demonstrating ultimate fan devotion.


Debates on Convergence in Journalism in J-Schools.  Sam Ford writes about his experience at Western Kentucky University, where the department debated their future and the importance of convergence in the school's curriculum.


WWE Converges Monthly Publications into Lifestyle Magazine.  World Wrestling Entertainment has combined its Smackdown and RAW magazines into one WWE Magazine targeting young adult males, as the company attempts to extend its wrestling program into a lifestyle brand.


The Convergence Newsletter.  A newsletter associated with the University of South Carolina focuses on convergence issues in journalism.  The current issue focuses on a current debate as to the importance of convergence in the newsroom.


Soap Fans Debate How to React to Actor's Death.  When As the World Turns' Benjamin Hendrickson committed suicide, the fan community both consoled each other and had intense debates about how the show--and the fans--should appropriately react to the actor's death.


--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.net/weblog/

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

A Word on Involved Consumers

By: Stacy Wood

Many of my friends and family have a slightly suspicious attitude toward my job.  I am a marketing professor and, to the layperson, that translates into something pretty scurrilous.  I don't brainwash people but I teach others how to brainwash...or so they think. This leads to a very common occurrence when, say, Aunt Edna will grab my arm and proclaim that the latest cell phone ad is absolutely hysterical. But, she adds, it would never impact what she buys and, (and this is the most common phrase,) she doesn't even remember who the company was!  This last bit is stated proudly, defiantly, as a consumer uninfluenced by the evil temptations of marketing...be it humor, sex, or any of the other things that grab our human attention.  I hate to (ok, I secretly love to) tell her that it is just because she doesn't remember the brand or company that she is most likely to be influenced by the funny ad.  I warm up to my lecture mode and begin, "It all has to do with involvement..."

Involvement, as a marketing term, refers to the level to which consumers are motivated to process product-related information.  One might easily (and many marketing practitioners do) assume that you always want consumers to be highly involved when they process your product's ad or information.  After all, high involvement is the basis for effective learning--better attention, better rehearsal, better recall.  Thus, many practitioner guides show how to get consumers involved in the marketing message.

This approach is not wrong, but it is a specific strategy that only works in specific situations.  It seems counterintuitive, but there are many occasions when too much consumer involvement makes the marketing less persuasive rather than more.  Often consumers are most influenced by ads in which they are least involved.  This general phenomenon is reflected in a number of marketing and psychological theories.  The most well-known is Petty & Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). The ELM describes what is persuasive to people who are highly involved (e.g., statistics, facts, logic, strong arguments, words, expert endorsers) and to those who have low involvement (e.g., slogans, humor, catchy arguments, pictures, affect, likeable endorsers).

Consumers who are involved are able to process meaty logical evidence and they see through the slogans.  Consumers who have low involvement only take the time to process info that is quick and easy (pictures, affect, etc.) and ignore other "data."  Quick cues have a surprisingly large influence on evaluations, especially when such cues were not consciously processed and can't be recalled (see Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink or look for psychologist John Bargh's work).  One very interesting example of this in psychology is on the misattribution of affect (Schwarz and Clore).  In a classic study, Schwarz and Clore showed that people rated their life satisfaction higher on sunny days than on rainy days.  Not too surprising.  But what was very cool was that if the weather was pointed out to the person prior to the satisfaction rating (the survey was by telephone and the researcher would begin conversationally with "So what's the weather like there in Springfield?"), then sunny weather did not inflate evaluations and rainy weather did not depress them.  When people could attribute their mood to something like the weather ("Gee, I feel terrible, but, then again, it is a depressingly stormy day..."), it was discounted from the evaluation of life satisfaction.  This discounting appears in the marketplace too.  Remember that new restaurant as absolutely fabulous?  Who were your dinner companions?  Oh, it was an effervescent group of your best friends?  Are you still so confident that the restaurant itself was so good?  The marketing literature is full of examples of evaluation discounting. Some of my own research looks at how consumers even discount their own product testimonials.

Why does this matter for new, and increasingly interactive, media?  The point is that low involvement "learning" is associational and can be discounted when individuals are paying close attention to their motivations. Many ads embedded in media like video games, movies, and television programming are "exposure ads" (shots of logos or products in use) that are and should remain in the shadows of low involvement.  I show my classes billboards for Budweiser and point out the (extremely) easily processed pictorial cues of beauty and arousal. In the ads, two women always surround one man. Couples lean into one another at exaggerated angles, mouths are open in very wide grins, and eyes sparkle as if they are wet.  Is this what the typical bar looks like, I ask? Is this the product you would expect these people to be consuming?  When they stop to think about it (and only then), they ridicule the ad as a fantastical myth that offers no "good" reason to drink Budweiser and is somehow offensive in its assumption that sex sells.  The initial boost to Budweiser's evaluation due to arousal's warm positive effect is discounted in the cold light of logic.

The moral of the ELM/misattribution story is that high involvement encourages people to be thorough, rational, and make sense of evidence.  Think how companies today encourage high involvement through interactive media...often, just because they can rather than because it fits with the marketing content they offer consumers (see Jason Mittell's piece on ARGs in the June 16 newsletter).  At the end of the day, if companies find that they have succeeded in garnering the attention of a lot of highly involved consumers, they better give those consumers something worth thinking about.

Stacy L. Wood is Moore Research Fellow and Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina and affiliated faculty member with C3.  Her research focuses on consumer reaction and adaptation to change.  This research includes work on new product information, drivers of individual innovativeness and consumers' emotional reactions to new innovations, media, trends and rituals.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford  (samford@mit.edu)


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