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Fandom culture expands sociological studies

JIA CHAO | 2022-04-15 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Fans take selfies with musician and actress Ouyang Nana at an airport in Shanghai on Aug. 8, 2021. Photo: CFP

According to China Internet Watch, the number of Chinese internet users grew to 989 million in the fourth quarter of 2020 with an internet penetration of 70.4% in China. Internet technology has brought about fundamental changes in modern social communication. Among these changes, the distance between fans and idols has rapidly narrowed, and fandom subcultures based on virtualized intimate relationships, and the identity empathy effect, arise at the right moment, and quickly draw widespread attention. 

According to the “Youth Interest Social White Paper 2020” published by AiMan, one of the main survey platforms that monitors China’s celebrity data, 88.7% of young social media users have idols they follow closely, and will spend money following their idols. With the prominent characteristics of group behavior and increased media attention, the so-called “fanquan” culture, or the fandom culture, has become an important topic of discussion in the current social and cultural field.
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.
Emotional bonds
Zygmunt Bauman, a world-renowned Polish sociologist and philosopher, believes that we have moved away from a “heavy” and “solid” hardware-focused modernity to a “light” and “liquid” software-based modernity. This passage has brought profound changes to all aspects of the human condition. In such a liquid modernity, everything is ephemeral and instantaneous, rather than fixed and eternal. 
In the period of “heavy modernity,” when people became disembedded from previous social locations, people sought to re-embed themselves in society, often by identifying as members of a stable social class. In contrast, in the liquid modern world, there is no end of the road, nowhere for us to “re-embed,” so we all become wanderers, culturally nomadic.
The sociological concern is, how will these “wanderers” live together without traditional protection and constraints? French sociologist Michel Maffesoli proposed that we would move from modern society’s “social community” to the “tribal community” of the postmodern era. In other words, emerging communities will become a unique means of gathering “wanderers” within our liquid modernity. Unlike the stable tribes of traditional societies, the new tribes are eternally dynamic, connections start and end at will. 
In a sense, fandom cultures could be described as an attempt to rebuild community as Chinese society moves into the internet age, though this attempt was shaped by very specific forces.
Since the reform and opening up, fan culture in China has undergone an evolution from “star chasers” to fans to fandom, and with the promotion of media technology and the capitalization of cultural industry, the culture has deeply integrated into our current social and cultural life. In modern society with its high degree of division of labor, each individual is assigned to different social groups at different times and in different spaces. However, if you follow any sort of entertainment medium, then it’s guaranteed that there’s a fandom attached to it, whether big or small. This is the easiest and most accessible social unit for anyone to find. 
People enjoy fandoms because they allow them to meet people who like the same things, build friendships, share art, and simply have a community where they are always welcomed and there are no heavy ethical responsibilities, nor a need to deal with complex social relations.
This kind of warmth is described by the term “quandi zimeng” in the fandom, which means friends gather in small circles to entertain themselves and indulge in their hobbies. Stepping away from the routine of daily life, one can feel the warmth of being surrounded by people who share the same feelings, taste, and hobby. Fans of the same idol call each other “tongdan” in the fandom, literally meaning two people who share the burden of carrying something heavy, which vividly describes the warmth and resonance in this empathic interaction. This gives a taste of the fandom’s unique charm. As fans say, “There is nothing better than worshiping stars. Only true fans know the experience.” This kind of “togetherness” in a social relationship is endowed with “sacredness” and a collective sensibility, which offers comfort to lonely souls. 
Warmth is just one emotional aspect of the new community; it has another defining feature. A fan “circle” is a closed place. As Mafisoli depicted, a “tribal community” is an open space in which modern humans experience an unfettered life embellished by the impermanence of the moment. But in reality, as a field of consumption, the fandom is shaped into a closed field by capital. It is full of taboos and boundaries, with numerous rules—and often is in an intense state. 
For example, in the fandom, a qualified fan must show his/her affiliation in their Weibo account, and the account must follow only one idol. If a fan changes idols, the account must be shut down. Fans need to monitor their comments on social media. When mentioning the idol, a fan must use abbreviations or unique symbols, not the idol’s full name, otherwise it will attract anti-fans. It is strictly forbidden to mention the name of “duijia” (the idol who is in some kind of competition with the object of adoration), let alone comment carelessly, otherwise it will be regarded as a provocative act. Checking in on the idol talking board is mandatory, as is forwarding social media posts, and purchasing the idol’s works and albums. Whoever breaks these rules will be severely criticized, then this member of the fandom will need to apologize, and may even face expulsion or banishment from the fandom. As one fan put it: “Once you are in the fandom, you automatically have a hierarchy, and there are many rules to follow. You will find enemies on all sides and competition everywhere. You will also find that even within your own circle, there are a lot of wars.”
The closed nature of the fandom is first reflected in its unique discourse system, which uses a set of unique codes to confirm whether an individual is “one of us.” Sociological studies have shown that teenagers congregate in gang subcultures to find a sense of belonging. Similarly, fandoms have invented an entire discourse system of their own codes, in effect to distinguish between “insiders” and “outsiders.” If you can’t understand and properly use the language, you have no right to speak and are not “one of us.” A fandom can distinguish “tongdan” and “duijia,” “non-fans” and “anti-fans” using the proprietary codes they have invented, and can reshape and strengthen their cluster behavior based on this logic. In fact, these discourses and the structural backgrounds behind them have gone beyond the scope of pure entertainment, and in a sense are part of the projection of our current social structure.
Challenging traditional fan culture
Traditional fan studies hold that fan culture has dual significance. It is both productive, as it expands the original cultural creation, and oppressive to mainstream culture. However, with the internet’s capital intervention in recent years, the logic of online traffic has changed the structural connotation of fan culture. 
In Marx’s theory, capital seeks to control workers’ time, while British sociologist Michael Burawoy laid emphasis on the effects of capital on the planning and mobilization of labor. After the 1950s, modern industrial society underwent economic transformation. The service industry became the pillar industry, and consumers themselves were included in the labor process. At this time, control of emotion became a major feature of the capitalist production system. 
In the digital era, data has become an important means of neoliberal labor control. Big data, as a technical law, is more subtle in data production and labor control, and pays greater attention to avoiding conflicts and coerciveness.
According to traditional concepts, artists are producers of goods, and fans do not consume artists themselves, but cultural products produced by them. In the era of online traffic, artists have changed from producers of commodities to commodities themselves. Agencies are responsible for making and selling idols, and fans consume everything about idols, including but not limited to their public image, private life, derivatives, and artistic creations. 
At the same time, interactions between idols and fans are no longer limited to distant appreciation and care from the latter. For idols, and the capital behind them, critical traffic demands deep involvement from fans. The original meaning of fan culture has been quietly replaced. On the one hand, the social nature of the medium provides a channel for fans to converse and communicate with other cultural spheres, and also a chance to construct common discourse symbols. In a way, social media platforms take advantage of fans’ emotional labor through sophisticated design, even thoroughly harvesting fans’ data labor. 
On the other hand, consumerism-oriented cultural production also leads the audience to indulge in the entertainment of emotional consumption, so that subculture resistance itself is gradually weakening, dissolved, and even taking the initiative to seek recognition from, and acceptance of, mainstream culture in this series of symbolic consumption.
With the deepening of the current social revolution and interaction, mass culture is likely to become more diverse and mobile under the collective efforts of our social environment, popular culture, social media, and other factors. In view of this, fandom subcultures born from fan culture will present extremely complex aspects. As an attempt to rebuild an emotional community, fandom subcultures shaped by various forces have been partially accepted into mainstream culture, but they may not be independent and reflective at the very beginning, let alone realize a “united community.” Nevertheless, traditional fan culture theory has been unable to fully explain today’s fandom subculture, and it is necessary to re-examine this theory in new social and political contexts.
Jia Chao is from the School of Sociology at Nanjing University. 
Edited by YANG XUE