Reporting from the Frontlines: Fan Conventions Go Digital

Curator's Note

There was a time when fan conventions were closeted affairs, rare weekend retreats to another world. Now we have a Twilight convention almost every month, and geek is more chic when stars like Ryan Reynolds hang out at Comic-Con. Likewise, conventions are no longer the primary means to connect with other fans. With the proliferation of social networking and media sharing, fans are in constant communication. Fan fiction, meta, and other discussion are at your fingertips on LiveJournal, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews are all over YouTube, and subcultural celebrities like Supernatural’s Misha Collins have their own Twitters and Facebooks, creating an incredible sense of intimacy and transparency.

Of course, fans still attend conventions, as Jack Walsh’s documentary holds testament to, but for the fans who can’t make it out, the experience isn’t lost. Armed with cell phones, cameras, and laptops, convention attendees are tweeting updates and uploading pictures and videos for the fans at home. Such convention multimedia is practically instantaneous, the internet audience seeing or hearing it all as it happens or shortly thereafter. You can see this illustrated in my video, a compilation of tweets from the recent Salute to Supernatural convention in Vancouver. Among other media shared, the collection of #vancon tweets builds a picture of the convention experience in bite-sized pieces.

But is this all just secondhand minutiae? Unlucky fans scrabbling for crumbs, with the lucky ones - at best - deigning to share and - at worst - showing off? No, something much more important is happening. The fan convention as it’s reported online transforms into a curiously separate event for the virtual attendee. While the traditional draw of the fan convention is the gathering in close proximity of a marginal, dispersed community, there is just as much - in fact, more - attendance online through Twitter updates and media shared, facilitating discussion between people who weren’t even at the physical event. The fan dispersal of convention coverage online potentially allows the non-attendee a similar degree of intimacy, and what’s more, a sense of mastery as they are able to access a developing archive of material that one individual at a convention may not be able to experience. The online fan can be exposed to two panel discussions at once, for instance; they can choose the most important pieces of information to immediately enfold into their fan practices.

We can see this particularly at work in real person fan fiction (RPF). RPF writers depend upon knowledge of the actors they write about in order to develop their stories. The #vancon tweets transmit snapshots of who the actors are, crystallized not in an attendee’s personal memory but in a collective archive that any fan can access. These tweets inform the fans’ images of the actors as characters, and certain tropes as a result are represented, explored, and sometimes inverted in RPF according to this developing network narrative. 

The proliferation of information access in fan culture offers the opportunity for a constantly evolving community of collective intelligence. Even as the convention attendees provide the initial data, the information is shared virtually, collected and retweeted, appropriated and shared again in fan works. This kind of living, breathing archive holds incredible potential for fan practices – but does it ever run the risk of reducing passion and personal experience to information bytes? 

Comments

David Gregory's picture

Reporting from the Frontlines: Fan Conventions Go Digital

 Just a quick "initial reaction" comment: wow, Kayley, this is a really interesting post and clip! What a good idea to show tweets instead of regular video (do other IMR curators do this? I don’t know); we’re really just beginning to explore social media and fandom, so congrats on being on the cutting edge!

 

DG

Kayley Thomas's picture

Thanks, David!

Thanks for reading and for the fantastic comment! I appreciate it. There was a great fan video featured in Kristina Busse’s curation a while back that included tweets with other media, illustrating the fan relationship with Eli Roth. There are definitely new interactions happening between actors and fans with social media, but it’s also changing how fandom itself works in a lot of ways, I think. Most of my fandom life has been inextricably connected to the internet, so it’s interesting for me to see how it evolves but I’d also be curious as to insights from people whose fandom origins date further back.

Something I didn’t touch on above, but you can see in the video, is the actors’ own awareness of the connection between the physical convention and the virtual, with Jensen Ackles supposedly removing his jacket for the people on the internet receiving these updates. Then there is also Misha Collins’s message, essentially, for the folks at home on Livejournal (Collins infamous for his understanding of and playing with/to online fandom). 

In the past I’ve experienced, firsthand or virtually, comments at conventions from the actors in regards to things they say or do that they know will be up on YouTube, showing this awareness of a double-performance and the convention attendees’ communication practices. What we do with these kinds of changes, I don’t yet know, but I’m definitely excited to be looking at them!

Ian Peters's picture

Experiencing the Digital

Fantastic piece, Kayley. I am particularly intrigued by the question you pose at the end - where passion and experience is potentially reduced to bytes of information. The notion of experience seems to be at the forefront of the discussion, where experiencing a convention by being physically there and experiencing it through online means are both valid, unique experiences.  Your discussion on how those two experiences are intersecting is facinating, particularly with the notion of the "archive" since any event in the real world is a transitory experience.  While you can attempt to capture parts of it, that moment is gone forever. This also intersects with other aspects of fan experiences (see the online virtual tour of the old Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas as an example http://www.digitalproperties.ca/exp/). Even watching a sports game on television as opposed to going to the stadium to see it in person springs instantly to mind. No matter how much information a camera can capture, it still only produces fragments of information for the virtual attendee to experience.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to how virtual attendance might continue to change in the coming years. Do you think that it will continue to expand and capture more aspects of the actual attendee and transfer that into the digital world? Do you think that fans may start relying on the digital experience more? While fans in the virtual world won’t be able to participate in costume contests and other similar events, virtual attendance is, as you say, still an experience with its own pros and cons.

Kayley Thomas's picture

Thanks, Ian!

Thanks for the excellent feedback, Ian. I definitely view the physical and virtual experiences as, like you say, unique and valid. I think that in terms of personal experience, there may still be a stronger weight on the side of physical attendence, especially in relation to Curtis’s piece on Monday - the pilgrimage and the ritual acted out. What is happening online, however, is taking on more and more of the traits of the physical while offering other opportunities and characteristics, most especially this expansive point of view and sort of mastery of fanlore, if you will. I think what comes into play is what aspects of the convention are most commonly valued and how they translate into the digital - like you say, the dressing up would not be the same. But there is certainly still a sense of community, of meeting, as online fans know when the tweets will be happening and are gathering to observe the tweets - and pictures and videos - and discuss them with each other, sharing the excitement and speculation…sharing the event. If the event is fragmented, the new virtual event may be its own whole in the relationships and dialogue it creates, drawing from but separate from the physical convention.

I believe that the Vancouver convention, at least part of it, was broadcasted on streaming video, so there we have further translation of the event in a direct, less fragmented fashion. For the most part, I don’t think the video is watched in isolation - the discussion as it happens is still key. The virtual community, in those moments, is able to reach out and communicate with more of each other than, again, one person in physical attendance is able to at one time, for whatever that is worth. So I think we’re going to see the digital attendance continue, though I’ll be curious to see how it evolves. I don’t know that it will detract from physical attendance, though there is the possibility of some fans rationalizing, for the sake of money and travel, that the tweets are almost as good as being there, as one of the users comments in the video. So if some fans are becoming dependent upon the digital connection, I don’t doubt that they’re going to do more with it. I think what they decide to make of the fragments is what will be most interesting - how to receive them, to make sense of them, to recycle them, to make them whole. And whether or not that will have any direct effect on the physical convention, I’m not sure.

Lisa Macklem's picture

Great piece! This is such an

Great piece! This is such an interesting topic. Fans adore this practice and the celebrities and convention holders aren’t quite sure about it. From my own perspective, it was participating online that made me want to experience a convention "live" and even though I’ve been to many now, when I’m participating online, I still feel that tug to be there.

What is particularly interesting to me about this particular piece is reading the tweets. I was at this convention, but I didn’t/haven’t read any of the tweets. I do like to go online after a convention and re-watch the videos of the panels just to jog my memory - a weekend at a con is mind-blowing and you tend to forget more than you remember… I have been struck in the past about how people will latch on to one small thing in a panel and there will be a dozen tweets of the same remark or incident and then others will get no attention at all. The thing that really strikes me about these particular tweets is the amount of interpretation and the fact that some of it is downright MIS-information. For instance, Misha’s question to Clif? Totally supportive. Obviously not a Clif fan tweeting… And Jensen taking off his jacket? Um no. Not until in the middle of autographs when he was getting hot (no pun intended…). And him being too shy to sing? Again - no. He said it was always spur of the moment and he didn’t like to do it because then it was expected….

Do I follow tweets when I’m not at a con? Absolutely! But I take them with a grain of salt. Part of this interpretative issue is no doubt a function of the 140 character limit. It can be hard to express yourself clearly within that limit and it also allows - even encourages- readers to extrapolate. I always wait and watch the video of panels and read the accounts of people who I know will be unbiased.

One of the great things about this kind of interaction though, is that fans tend to "disagree" in a much gentler way than they do in some other situations - say in forums. People seem to allow for greater interpretational latitude and there seems to be more of a party atmosphere. This seems to be true of the convention itself. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet in person with all of the friends you may have only interacted with online. Are there factions? Yes. Is there a sense of respect? Absolutely. For me, the draw of going to a convention at this stage is as much about spending time with friends as rubbing elbows with the objects of my fannish passion. Coming together online over a convention tends to foster the same networking. It’s interesting to see people start following each other on twitter after a convention - sometimes it’s someone you didn’t realize was on twitter and sometimes it’s just someone with interesting tweets.

It’s also interesting to note what doesn’t get tweeted. You rarely see tweets about photo op or autograph experiences - perhaps these "personal" moments need to be kept for more personal interactions like journaling?

This was a great piece on a fascinating aspect of fan culture - I hope to see more of your work in this area!

Curtis Webster's picture

DIGITAL CONS

Kayley:

You have certainly captured the essence of an emerging aspect of fandom.  It would be no small irony if science fiction fans failed  to avail themselves of the latest technology in pursuing their passion.  The con rituals that grew up in the days before electronic social networking aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, but I wonder what new opportunities for developing fan rituals are presented by FB, Twitter, etc.  I don’t think there will ever be a true substitute for  face-to-face contact, but I am going to bet that the ingenuity of the fan community will manifest itself in this area soon.

Curtis

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