Can you be too engaged with your fandom?

Yesterday I stumbled across this quote from Russell T. Davies, the executive producer of Doctor Who:

Every program on the BBC has a message board on the website. I forbid it to happen on Doctor Who. I’m sorry to say this, all the science fiction producers making stuff in America, they are way too engaged with their fandom. They all need to step back.

It’s taken from an LA Times article which is now hiding behind a firewall, so I don’t know the context.

My initial reaction was [myownknee] “jerk!” but then I thought twice.

I don’t know about the claim that American scifi producers are too involved with their fandoms. Certainly the people who make Lost, Futurama, and I’m sure plenty of other shows are thinking about their fandoms as they work. Frankly, sci fi TV is not my genre and there are so many other fandom scholars who’ve got that area covered that I don’t think all that much about it. [paging you -- what do you think about this quote?]

But I’ve been working on the keynote I’ll be giving in Oslo in a few weeks, and one of the things I’m talking about there is how labels and bands ought to treat their online fandoms. One of the key points I find myself coming back to repeatedly is the importance of letting fandoms have their independence — providing enough information, goodies, and attention to nurture it, but letting it belong always to the fans who create it. When fandom is a subsidiary of the production company it sets everything up for power struggles, for self-censorship, for legal-enforcement dilemmas, for feelings of accountability and betrayal that are beyond the bounds of duty on both sides. Fans need their own spaces to do their own things.

I’ve never thought that official fan sites hold candles to the ones fans build themselves. If I were one of the thirty zillion Dr Who fans traipsing about the internet, it’s hard for me to believe the BBC would really offer the best fan discussion, even if Davies allowed it.

Fandoms can’t operate as though they belong to and are supervised by artists and producers. By the same token, artists can’t operate under continuous supervision (even internally imposed) of the most active fans any more than I, as a teacher, can forget about the students who aren’t as into my classes or the content of what I know and believe needs teaching and just teach what they want to hear to the ones who love me most. I’d be negligent and odds are my classes wouldn’t be as good. The fans who get into fandom may be more important than other fans in terms of the promotion, spearheading, and enthusiasm they provide. They may provide the most trenchant critiques and hence are usually worth listening to. But they are still a small segment of the audience, and producers need to think audience as much as they think fandoms. But even more than that — producers and artists need to operate first and foremost under the guidance and supervision of their own muses. It’s their creative process, just as fandom is ours.

Comments (4) to “Can you be too engaged with your fandom?”

  1. Very interesting post. I manage a band, and have been considering setting up a message board on their website. Based on this post, I would think you might encourage me to instead let the fans develop their own forum, so that they can have ownership of it. Would I be right in that assumption?

  2. Hi Matt —

    What a good question. The first thing I’d want to know is whether there’s already online fan activity happening around the band. If there’s already a relatively functional fan board I’d say link to that one. If there isn’t, I think it’s better to provide a space than to have no space.

    But if you create your own board for your own fans, you have to be willing to let go of what’s written on it. That is, if your band comes out with a new album, and the fans start trashing it on your website, you have to leave those posts up. Is that something you and they are comfortable with? If they post your lyrics or guitar tabs will you be inclined to sue them? Will your music publisher insist that you do? If they set up ways to torrent your band’s bootlegs, will that be ok? even if they’re distributing shows you didn’t think were up to your band’s standards?

    If those are things you’re not ok with, then my recommendation is to provide things that will make fans want to talk — streams, videos, downloads — and encourage your most engaged fans to set up discussion elsewhere.

    What I think is best on band sites are freebies, streams, and news updates that fans can repost in their communities and some sort of ask-the-band set up where people can submit questions or comments and the band can respond. Or a band blog with open comments. In other words, there are other ways to engage fans with the band directly without having to rule the discussion fans have with each other.

  3. The Davies quote is probably more complex than it appears. He actually emerged out of Dr Who fandom and some of the present writers for the series are active posters on what is basically the main online site for Dr Who fandom – Outpost Gallifrey. He has also admitted that his partner occasionally reads OG.

    What I have seen RTD (as he’s known by the fans…) try to achieve is an arm’s length separation. He knows that the fans will have their debates regardless and that his role is to make the show a commercial success.

    It is interesting to compare that to the producers of Battlestar Galactica who have tied themselves in knots by interacting very intensively with online fan sites to the extent that they have been accused of stealing fans’ ideas.

    One of the ironies in RTD’s position is that he is, essentially, a Dr Who fan and many of those working on the show are too. Certainly, as Dr Who has continued, it has routinely delivered many in-jokes and references for fans while maintaining a very commercial focus. Without having read the original quote in context, I would guess that Davies is arguing that shows go wrong when they are written by fans for fans. That is certainly the perceived wisdom behind what happened to Dr. Who in the 80s.

  4. Nancy, great response in the comments. There’s actually a post up on io9 right now about how SF fans are killing the genre. Can I use html in comments here? I don’t know, so pasting the link (there’s no preview button, either! Curse you and your lack of standards adherence):

    Amazingly, the io9 article doesn’t mention the quote you pulled, although it does mention Dr. Who.

    Personally, as a rabid SF fan, I love being catered to. It’s convergence. When Mulder and Scully hooked up, yeah, that was a huge concession on the part of the creators, but it was also saying “We don’t own this story anymore.” It’s like saying that whoever loves the characters most becomes the author. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

    I believe it’s the SF purists who are crying fandom because it symbolizes SF going mainstream, when they want it kept underground and misunderstood. But please, how obsequiously did Asimov and Heinlein (whom I despise) cater to their audiences?

    Art will always be somewhat commercial in that you’re trying to communicate to others, even if in another century or whatever. Getting someone to look at, listen to, or read what you produce is an act of marketing.