Studying Star Trek: Fans, Brands, and Beyond

I’ve been lightly, gently, mocked for it for most of my life, but I still think Star Trek is pretty cool. It’s cool in a retro, nostalgic, innocent kind of way.

I also think that Star Trek is important. It’s so important, in fact, that I based my academic research career on it. I cut my teeth on Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon that could help us to understand consumer culture. So why not make it the topic of one of my first blog entries?

My dissertation, which had the long-winded title “To Boldly Go: A Hypermodern Ethnography of the Star Trek ™ Fans’ Culture and Communities of Consumption,” was completed in 1997 at Queen’s University under the tutelage of a wonderful and supportive mentor, Steve Arnold. It was the result of 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork that led me from a Star Trek fan convention, to fan club membership, into deep immersion in the online global Star Trek community. It was enormously enjoyable back-breaking hard work and it built my career. It opened up topics like online communities at a time when very few people were considering their important. I have no idea what my career would have looked like had I chosen, say, Implicit Attitude Formation or Consumer Values (two topics I was considering for my thesis). It certainly wouldn’t have been as much fun.

What ends up getting published from academic theses is often pretty surprising, even to the authors. “Utopian Enterprise,” the Journal of Consumer Research article that I finally ended up publishing from my, thesis ended up exploring consumer culture themes like stigma, devotion, and the interrelation of community values (like utopian plans and desires) and marketized relations (the commercial realities of media production). However, there was an entire brand management stream to my thesis that got left on the cutting room floor.

I’d like to share, reclaim, and develop some of those ideas here in the blogosphere.

In my thesis, I was trying to link up the devotion of fans with the loyalty that brand managers want for their brands. It was the school of emotional branding, legendary branding examined in the light of cultural studies. In my thesis I wrote that:

“Social groupings that exist primarily in order to communicate consumption knowledge about a particular consumption object or set of consumption objects can be considered to be fan cultures. The word “fan” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as a colloquial term referring to “a person enthusiastic about a specific sport, pastime, or performer; devotee; as, a baseball fan, movie fan.” It is revealing to note the etymology of the word is the pejorative “fanatic” whose roots are in the Latin fanaticus –belonging to a temple—from fanum, a temple. The unfortunate stereotype of the fan portraying them as engaging in “false worship” and being unreasonably enthusiastic persists, as does the association with devoted zealots of religions and cults.

In the movie The Fan, Robert DeNiro portrays an extreme fan mortally threatening the child of a baseball hero who is the object of his worship. Mass media depictions of fans have often perverted a normative activity –being a fan—and portrayed fans as menacing and dysfunctional, potential stalkers, mentally unstable souls, those who take their pastimes “too far,” cross the line, and can not tell the difference between fantasy and reality (Lisa Lewis’s volume on the Adoring Audience has several interesting sections speaking to this). Media coverage of the recent Heaven’s Gate suicides has been particularly quick to indict science fiction and Star Trek fandom as “cult-like”, and in so doing has demonstrated a similar misreading of these communities.”

Weird undertakings notwithstanding, I reasoned, and still do, that studies of fan culture should take a more central role in brand management theory. There are so many evident intersections with brand management that holds the potential to bring insights on contemporary consumer cultural consumption and practical managerial thinking and strategy. Fans are loyal consumers. Fickle consumers. Active consumers.

In 1996, this wasn’t very relevant stuff. In 2007, with the advent of Web2.0 and active online communities, things have changed. Back to the thesis (altered and updated):

Research into fan communities suggest that they have four defining characteristics.

1. The first characteristic of fan cultures is that their members share an enthusiasm for a particular “text” or consumption object, an “affective sensibility” that manifests in the powerful emotional engagement between a consumption object and the moods of its fans.

What is behind this level of affective engagement and personal identification? Sure, there are identity projects and cultural issues that all texts help people to negotiate. Sure, there are dramatic moments and heroic moments. We need to explore them deeper. So how does mood modulation play a role in all consumption? In all brand relationships?

2. Secondly, members of fans cultures share a self-identification with a distinct social group of enthusiastic consumers of the consumption object, they consider themselves members of the same community.

That community has characteristics we need to study and understand. The brand communities literature picked up a lot of this thinking, but there is much, much more to do (and judging by the new scholars I met last week in Toronto at the QDA Workshop and CCT conference, there are going to be lots of interesting new studies that do exactly that!).

3. The third characteristic shared by members of fan cultures is their cultural competence. Cultural competence “involves a critical understanding of the consumption object and the conventions by which it is constructed [as well as understood, evaluated, used, and appreciated in social contexts], it involves the bringing of both textual and social experience to bear upon the program at the moment of reading [or consumption], and it involves a constant and subtle negotiation and renegotiation of the relationship between the textual and the social” (John Fiske 1987, p. 19).

4. A final defining characteristic of fan cultures is that their members engage in productive activity that results in the creation of related new “texts” of consumption objects. I find this very interesting. Fans are active creators in all sorts of ways. Fan’s enthusiasm “spurs them into producing their own texts. Such ‘texts’ may be the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms, the way they dress,” the “gossip of soap opera fans,” the predictions of sports fans and their “what if” imaginative scenarios, the lip synching of Madonna look-alikes, the production of fan videos, the recording of customized fan tape compilations, the writing of fan songs or “filk,” or the authorship of literally new texts, such as new Star Trek stories or scripts (again, I cite John Fiske here, his 1989 book, “Reading the Popular,” pages 146-151; I also cite Camille Bacon-Smith, Larry Grossberg, the Harrington and Bielby volume on Soap (opera, not Dove) Fans, Douglas Kellner, and of course Henry Jenkins‘ Textual Poachers).

The sophisticated, knowledgeable, productive activities of fans contradict a great big pile of academic thinking and writing about passive audiences, seeing TV audiences couch potatoes sucking on, as Harlan Ellison’s memorably called it, “The Glass Teat.” The Internet and so-called Web2.0 phenomenon are doing similar things with our knowledge of consumption and “consumers” (oh, what a notoriously passive word that this…does anyone have any good ideas for an alternative term?).

For example, in his 1979 book “Seduction,” postmodern writer Jean Baudrillard tells us that the mass media are a medium of “cool seduction” that turn individuals into “the masses,” negating their urge to critically think or to produce for themselves. That idea seems a little weird and unreal (like a lot of Baudrillard’s writing). Baudrillard asserted that the mass media freeze people into inaction. The mass media overpower people. They manufacture people as the ‘terms in the terminal’ of mass media communication, perfect receivers, Ultimate Consumers.
But that’s not at all what we see in fans. Exposed by their captured CMC interactions, consumers reveal themselves as intelligent (some more than others), critical (some more than others), and active (some more than others) in their consumption.

Introduced to the consumer research and brand management literature, these four important characteristics of fan culture

  • enthusiasm,
  • self-identification,
  • cultural competence and
  • productive activity

may be helpful.

They can increase our knowledge of contemporary consumer behavior. They can also help us to understand in a structured way emotional connection, the underlying principle of emotional branding, as it occurs more generally among the members of contemporary consumer of a wide variety of products, services, ideas, and experiences.

I like Star Trek as a rich ethnographic fieldsite so much, I’ve never stopped studying it. I find the community endlessly enriching in a variety of different ways. I’ll talk more about it, and offer a preview of some of my most recent Star Trek research, in tomorrow’s entry.

And, yes, I’m still a fanboy. And proud of it.

One Response

  1. scott_ellington July 3, 2007

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