When Fans turn Fanatic: How Virtual Communities are Taking Over the Web
Google “Harry Potter”, “Twilight”, or “The Hunger Games” and you will not only find extensive Wikipedia pages, movie reviews, and news articles, but also numerous sites that contain within them a community of thousands of devoted fans. These sites and the fans that run them, sometimes as full time jobs but usually on a volunteer basis, have grown to be mammoth networks of individuals from around the world, connected by a common interest but often having much more in common than one book or movie. In my opinion the fan communities are the driving force behind the mass success of young-adult crossover fiction, and a lasting testament to the peak of their popularity. It is the fans that gather around a book and demand it be made into a multi-million dollar movie, the fans that buy the tickets to the midnight screening of that movie, and the fans that hold annual conferences to discuss the past and future goings-on of their favorite characters and authors.
What interests me most about these communities is not that they exist, but how involved they can be, and how little is known about them if you are not a part of one. Online sites that evolve into multiple offline and very real relationships are often called “virtual communities” in the field of communication, and bring to mind the question of presence–can one feel totally “present” in a place that is not physical? And can a culture be built virtually around a book, movie or other fan phenomenon?
It has been said that when studying presence in organizations it “is the extent to which a medium is perceived as sociable, warm, sensitive, personal or intimate when it is used to interact with other people.” (Lombard & Ditton, 2006). Fan communities may gather around one interest, but smaller, virtual groups can break off from the main group, and participants can use multiple means of virtual communication to get to know each other. In the case of the Harry Potter and Twilight communities, fans that first interacted on basic message board forums were some of the first adopters of Twitter (http://mashable.com/2009/07/13/dumbledore–twitter/), and with the release of The Hunger Games movie came #teampeeta and other widespread hashtags. Other virtual communities, such as health message boards, have also been cited as strong examples of how relationships can be formed and one can feel present in a virtual world. In his article about this community, Harold Rheingold emphasized that when individuals who knew each other virtually met face-to-face, they were able to quickly bond and feel familiar with each other as they had so many shared experiences online (2010).
The Harry Potter fandom has expanded to include conferences that are still ongoing, and Melissa Anelli, webmistress of the popular website, The Leaky Cauldron, wrote a bestselling book about the experience of being deeply enmeshed in the virtual community that emerged surrounding the books, Harry, A History. Author John Green, whose vlogs gained fame when his brother Hank wrote a song about The Deathly Hallows, has also found success partly due to the support of his online fan base. These and other examples demonstrate that even if not every book becomes the next Hunger Games, the support of an online virtual community is invaluable for authors or online personalities to achieve mainstream success. Would Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games still be regarded as decent fiction without an avid fan base? Probably (please note, I have no intention of ever reading or watching Twilight), but the support of virtual communities is what has spurred their recent domination of the book and film industries.
Harold Rheingold, The Heart of the WELL, in Online Communication and Collaboration, Helen Donelan, Karen Kear, Magnus Ramage.
Picture Credits: Top- Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda, Orlando Sentinel, Bottom- LeakyCon Facebook Page