Imagining virtual community: online media fandom and the construction of virtual collectivity
DeDominicis, Kali Lou
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This thesis uses ethnographic research into online media fandom, focusing on self-reflexive analytical documents that fans call meta, to investigate longstanding questions about the nature of virtual community. It argues that virtual documents should be seen as complete and complex interactions in their original form and as social contexts in their own right, and presents a new approach to ethnographic methodology and ethics suited to working in this context. Fans have incorporated various technologies into the infrastructure that constitutes their community, and these have had various effects on the structure and substance of fannish documents and interactions – and on the character of the community as a whole. The stability and visibility of the digital archive is an important feature of virtual community – one that makes fandom more visible, accessible, and historically grounded for both old and new members. This research also deals with conflict, not as a necessarily divisive force but as a natural and important part of how communities evolve and how members negotiate and articulate what their community should be. It discusses fanfiction as a controversial and sometimes problematic genre, and considers trigger warnings as the solution fans have developed to protect vulnerable members of their community from potentially harmful content (such as rape). It also examines conflict with outside authorities, like creators and the administrators who control the virtual spaces that fans inhabit. These conflicts illuminate creativity and feminism as fannish values, presenting fandom as a community that embraces sex-positive female sexuality. More importantly, they suggest that the creation and maintenance of a ‘safe space’ where all members feel respected and comfortable is a key feature of online community. In addition, fannish storytelling (particularly the creation of what fans call fanon) is part of the production of local knowledge, of boundary mechanisms that mark and separate members of the community from outsiders. These stories as part of the process by which fans position themselves within the broader community – and in so doing, locate themselves within smaller cohorts of fans who affirm and support aspects of their personal experiences and marginalised identities (e.g. as women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or people of colour) through the reorientation and appropriation of story.