Online Fan Spaces as Alternatives to In-Person Activity

By Charlotte Stevens on October 12th, 2020

At this week’s Fan Studies Network North America conference (13-17 Oct 2020), I will be chairing a salon about new online meeting spaces in fandom. This conference is being held on Zoom (for panels) and Discord (for discussion), as an online alternative to an in-person meeting in response to current public health concerns and travel restrictions. As a way to start thinking through this year’s BCMCR theme of alternativity, this event presents both an alternative format for engaging with colleagues’ work with a conference held online rather than in university buildings, and an alternative format for our specific discussion with a less formal conversation around a theme replacing the traditional series of formal papers. Joining me will be Naomi Jacobs (Lancaster University), Melanie E.S. Kohnen (Lewis and Clark University), Sebastian F.K. Svegaard (Birmingham City University). 

The pandemic and current technological affordances are enabling a new kind of online shift as physical fan events go virtual. In this salon we will reflect on online conventions – as fandom studies scholars, attendees, and organisers – and reflect on what responses to the crisis reveal about how media fandom events are planned and run. The topic of the salon is, somewhat reflexively, a discussion reflecting on the ways fan conventions made and used online spaces as a substitute for in-person activity during 2020, while holding the discussion itself across these alternative-to-traditional online spaces. Pleasantly, this year’s FSN-NA is itself facilitated by Conline, an online convention platform developed and implemented by a single fan during the early days of the pandemic and was crash-tested with the vidding convention VidUKon in June 2020. 

In VidUKon’s case, the total membership for the online convention was triple the norm, suggesting a desire for a convention experience in the wake of many other cancellations of in-person events. Rather than meeting in Wales, VidUKon 2020 used Conline for vidshows and panels, and a Discord server for conversation. This fannish ‘space’ expanded across time zones and continents; however, while this facilitated broader access (not limited by travel constraints), the text-based and fast-moving Discord chat raised issues about accessibility along multiple axes including physical limitations, mental load, and attention span.

In a mirror of conversations about how to move face-to-face teaching and academic conferences online, responses to the pandemic raise many questions. We particularly invite salon participants with interests in fan conventions, digital/online communities/platforms, and disability/accessibility in fandom (online and offline), to discuss what what possibilities exist for sustainability. What elements are essential for a convention, and how can they be translated online? Can/should existing conventions shift to hybrid models, and are online-only conventions feasible? What seemed impossible pre-pandemic but is now revealed as merely difficult?

Per this year’s BCMCR theme, ‘alternativity’ has been used to describe the conditions of a musical subculture – which might be understood as a marginal group finding a marginal place to gather – which is a description that overlaps with fan conventions. With online conventions, we are seeing fans work through alternatives to alternativity, with activities trialling new technology solutions and modelling best practices for academic events as well.