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Mixed views toward fandom examined

MAO DAN et al | 2022-06-23 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Fans take photos of the red carpet ceremony at the 33rd Chinese Film Golden Rooster Awards held in Xiamen, Fujian Province. Photo: CNSphoto

Since 2005, when Super Girl, a talent show on Hunan TV, launched a star-seeking campaign, Chinese fans quickly transformed from loose celebrity admirers into organized online communities and alliances, known as “fanquan” or fandom.

Fanquan, literally meaning “fan circles,” are highly organized groups of passionate, loyal fans who voluntarily use their time, money, and expertise to make their idols, usually budding pop singers or actors, as popular and influential as possible.
The emergence of fandoms dates back to when the Chinese entertainment industry introduced talent shows based on similar concepts from Europe, America, Japan, and South Korea. To some extent, fandoms are influenced by international fan cultures, so some behavioral patterns are similar to fandoms in South Korea, and other regions. 
However, the booming fan culture is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are sometimes zealous and unconventional behaviors, which are labelled “toxic fan culture,” raising social concerns and criticism from regulatory authorities and mainstream media. On the other hand, fandoms have sometimes been praised for exhibiting “positive energy” by organizing public service initiatives. Why do fandoms present such contradictory social images?
Structural opportunities 
Whether a new group can win social acceptance depends primarily on whether there are structural opportunities. Chinese fan culture arose amid social transformation. It is closely associated with policy reform in the entertainment industry after the reform and opening up, as well as commercial capital’s involvement in the cultural industry, and diversified social standards with growing middle-class aesthetic tastes.  
Second, fandoms can partially understand the structural opportunities offered by social transformation of the entertainment industry, including society requiring greater legitimacy, and can take positive actions to reduce social criticism. However, as a group of quasi-organizations that mainly rely on cultural ties, emotional discipline, and heavy intervention made by commercial capital, they have deficiencies in comprehending policy constraints, organizing in-group relations, and coordinating out-group relations in accordance with public order and morality.
Fandom’s structural opportunities mainly refer to the systematic opportunities provided by social transformation, which are different from fragmentary and accidental opportunities. We can interpret the social transformation since the reform and opening up in China as a shift from a “full coverage society” to a “wide coverage society.”
Such a shift means that society opens new social fields or loosens restrictions in established fields, while social management changes from “clustered” strict management to “tree-shaped” loose management. All allow new groups, including those in the entertainment industry, to bud and grow. 
At the same time, commercial capital grows in scale, capacity, and social influence, to the extent that where it goes, people rally around it. The greater the economic value of the group, the more commercial capital there is to support its expansion. Commercial capital’s favored fields and groups are often packed with people of higher social status or with higher social capital.
These two conditions constitute a social environment in which fandoms can grow. If they had properly handled legitimacy requirements from the government and society, it would not be difficult for them to grow within social structures.
It must be pointed out that the reform of China’s cultural and entertainment policies does not mean that the government arbitrarily allowed the entertainment industry to run its course. In a tree-shaped management structure, the government guides and regulates values and action orientations of corresponding groups so that they do not deviate from socialist core values and mainstream cultural norms. Overall, China holds an open attitude toward the entertainment sector—while placing some basic regulations and restrictions—which are essential features of the structural opportunities available to new groups like fandoms. 
Case studies 
Structural opportunities do not guarantee a fixed outcome, so whether fandoms can grow and gain social acceptance depends on how they interpret and use these opportunities. In field observations, we found that fandoms partially understand the structural opening opportunities but do not digest structural constraints well, or do not have sufficient capacity to ensure that fans abide by constraints. This kind of complex performance is related to fandoms quasi-organized nature. To clarify, we will use two specific fandoms, A and B to delve into the issue.
Fandom A and B have several organizational characteristics, including in-group hierarchy and professional division of labor. There is a concentric power structure inside each fandom, the inner circle of which are fan groups approved by idol agencies, “anti-fan” data collection groups and other functional groups, as well as the “big name fans” who play a leadership role. The next layer includes content producing sites that work on re-producing their idols’ TV dramas and shows, less influential groups, and loyal fans. The outer circle contains ordinary fans who are largest in number. “Big name fans” were originally ordinary fans who took advantage of social platforms to achieve an upward influential movement. Their discourse power mainly comes from technology, interpersonal relationships, and information empowerment.
However, A and B are more like quasi-organizations, despite exhibiting the above organizational forms and systems. They are neither registered societies nor fully operated by official societies; rather, they have flexible members and strong mobility. There are institutions or implicit institutions that make important rules, but they rely primarily on cultural and emotional bonds unlike standard social organizations. Generally speaking, A and B have three typical characteristics. First, the organizational form shifts between formal associations and regular gatherings; Second, there are institutions but they rely more on emotions than order to maintain high internal bonds; Third, they carry out unique daily routine training.
The quasi-organizational state of fandoms determines its low-cost operation, allowing some organizational efficiency but avoiding heavy maintenance and operational costs. There are relatively clear institutions, but the focus is on member retention and coordinated action brought by emotional discipline. When a fandom has clear internal coordination, the urgent and direct problem it faces is the pressure of social legitimacy due to its unique behavioral patterns. If a fandom fails to coordinate outer-group relations, it will lose one of its basic functions as a quasi-organization. Early on, fandoms face a pressure to survive, so they maintain a high level of awareness of external requirements. A and B have noticed the need to convert external legitimacy requirements into internal rules, so they have both developed strategies to increase social acceptance, such as balancing inter-group conflicts, reducing social negativity, and rolling out “positive energy” activities, and even consciously courting mainstream recognition. 
Fandoms are quick to embrace “soft efforts” to improve public acceptance, however fans’ are much more resistant to society’s restrictive requirements—including regulatory bodies and critical public opinions—the response to these calls for self-improvement is very slow. As a quasi-organization, fandoms lack the “hardware” to apply social requirements and restrain members from stepping out of line. It is often difficult to control the words and deeds of individual fans, which may result in incidents that make social news headlines. To say the least, the effect of A’s and B’s efforts to increase social acceptance was far from satisfactory.
Ways to go
A fandom is an object of sociological observation, but it is also a public topic. Going forward, the following aspects should be further discussed and addressed. 
A fandom is a quasi-organizational group that is mainly active online with some offline activities. When it has the internal cohesion to handle its relations with other groups in accordance with social norms, it can avoid antagonism or tension and build a positive social image. However, they often lack binding force as informal organizations and cannot restrain their members, so they have only suggestive power to keep members consistent with social public order and good customs. Therefore, even if the management of a fandom understands the requirements of social constraints properly, fans will still sometimes stray from social norms. Every time fans misbehave or deviate, this is bound to alienate fandoms from other groups, triggering critical public opinion and rectification from authorities. As it turns out, the social status of fandoms is not yet defined. In order to enhance their social acceptability, fandoms need to fully understand social requirements, and develop a positive binding force and coordination power for fans within the quasi-organization.
A socialist political system, a flexible socialist market economy, and an open entertainment consumption culture with socialist core values makes up the basic structure of Chinese society. Only in this basic structure can fandoms abide by their activities and properly grow.
In recent years, the regulatory authorities and mainstream media have voiced severe criticism toward “unhealthy behaviors” in fan groups, but they also express hope for celebrities to improve their own conduct and set a good example for their fans. Network platforms are encouraged to take the initiative to improve group management and drop their “traffic is king” strategy to better guide fans. Fans, especially teenagers, are asked to express celebrity admiration in a rational manner. Fandoms are warned not to pursue paranoid and obsessive behavior. Whether fandoms can maintain and improve social acceptance in the future depends on whether or not they comply with the above requirements to handle in-group and external relationships.
To be fair, fandoms have not completely ignored the requirements of social constraints. Therefore, the management of fandoms should stress relevant policies and their implementation in quasi-organizations. Under the principle of enriching people’s cultural life and developing socialist culture, fandom management should also lean upon the features of internet platforms, to let them assume responsibility for enacting guidelines.
Last year, the Cyberspace Administration of China rolled out 10 measures to rectify fan circle chaos and ensure that entertainment-related platforms performed their duties to ward off irrational idol worship. The Administration also targets the unhealthy elements of fan culture, tackling long-controversial behaviors of teenage fans who blindly idolize celebrities, excessively spend money on their idols, and exclude others, as distorted values within these circles have also bred cyberbullying and illegal fundraising.
Mao Dan and Wang Jingya are from the Department of Sociology at Zhejiang University; Chen Jiajun is from the School of Law at Zhejiang University of Finance and Economics. 
Edited by YANG XUE