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GCH0010.1177/2059436420954588Global Media and ChinaSun
Special Issue Article
K-pop fan labor and an alternative
creative industry: A case study
of GOT7 Chinese fans
Global Media and China
2020, Vol. 5(4) 389–406
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Korean popular music or K-pop has achieved popularity among global audiences. The uniqueness
of K-pop fan culture has helped to shape the success of the K-pop industry. Through a case study
of Chinese fan labor vis-à-vis K-pop male idol group GOT7, the author notes three types of
K-pop fan labor: specialized labor, managerial labor, and unskilled labor. This research argues that
fan labor transforms the K-pop industry into an alternative creative industry because fan labor as
creative labor is an indispensable part of the K-pop industry. Fan labor is utilized to distinguish
fans from non-fans, and to draw boundaries between the grateful, more enthusiastic fans and
the casual self-proclaimed fans who do not contribute to fandom or their idols’ success. These
Chinese K-pop fans comply with the K-pop industry’s commodification of culture, are exploited
by the K-pop industry, and seek empowerment in the K-pop production and distribution process.
This paper’s exploration of fan labor, based on the author’s participant observations and in-depth
interviews, will thus contribute to studies on the creative industries, creative labor, fandom, and
the transnational flows of popular culture.
China, creative industries, fan labor, Hallyu, K-pop
Introduction: K-pop fandom in China
The global influence of Korean popular music (hereafter, K-pop) can be seen in the way in which
it has spread from South Korea (hereafter, Korea) to other parts of the world since the 1990s (S.
Lee, 2015). K-pop not only brings economic benefits to Korea; it also helps to export the country’s
Meicheng Sun, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, 31
Nanyang Link, WKWSCI Building, Singapore 637718.
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attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).
Global Media and China 5(4)
cultural values (Choi, 2015). China is not only an early adopter of K-pop; it is also one of the largest markets for Korean popular culture (Fu & Liew, 2005; J. Y. Kim & Lee, 2012). Chinese audiences have been experiencing Hallyu (or the Korean Wave) and K-pop since the 1990s (Sun &
Liew, 2019). The spread of K-pop in China occurred in three stages, alongside the changing media
environments: the Analog Media Era in 1992–2004, the Pre-mobile Internet Era in 2005–2012, and
the Mobile Internet Era 2013-present (Sun & Liew, 2019). As the media environment and government cultural policies changed, Chinese K-pop fans engaged differently with K-pop content
through different media and technologies (Chen, 2018; Sun & Liew, 2019; Zhang & Negus, 2020).
Despite sharing similarities with K-pop fandom in other parts of the world, recent Chinese
K-pop fandom has distinguished itself from the rest by being more commercialized, and more
focused on fans’ physical and financial contributions (Chen, 2018, pp. 54–83). Most noticeably,
Chinese K-pop fans in the current Mobile Internet Era use social media to influence information of
their idols (Zhang & Negus, 2020). Using empirical data of Chinese K-pop fandom from in-depth
interviews and participant observations, this paper argues K-pop fan labor is creative labor, and
that it contributes to the continuous growth of the K-pop industry and the global influence of K-pop
culture. Individuals who self-identify as K-pop fans engage in specialized, managerial, or unskilled
labor, while collaborating with fellow fans translocally and transnationally. This research potentially contributes to studies on the creative industries, creative labor, fandom, and the transnational
flows of popular culture.
K-pop fans: consumption and prosumption
Fans have been studied at the individual, cultural, and social levels. Although fans were originally
stigmatized as irrational and excessively enthusiastic individuals, their cultures have been studied
by Hills (2002, pp. 18–39) and Jenson (1992). Recent scholarly publications have not only lifted
the stigma of being a fan, but have also shown an appreciation for the fans’ creative passion and
self-expression, and acknowledged fans’ goal of eventually working in the entertainment industry
(Baym & Burnett, 2009; Duffett, 2015; Jenkins, 1992b; Yang, 2009). Fandom is now recognized
culturally and socially as a form of participatory culture (Jenkins, 1992b), whereby fans attach
emotions to the objects of their fandom (Hills, 2002, pp. 99–121, 149–160) and cultural meanings
to fan practices (Fiske, 1989b, pp. 23–47). However, scholars are still divided as to whether fandom empowers fans as social groups, and whether fandom builds alternative social communities
and assists in the construction of ideologies (Ang, 1996, pp. 133–149; Chen, 2018; Fiske, 1989a,
pp. 95–113; Jenkins, 1992a).
Noticeably, fans are closely related to creative industries since the industries produce objects of
fandoms. Drawing on Flew’s (2017) definition of cultural and creative industries, in this paper,
creative industries refer to the industry sectors where the driving force is individuals or groups’
creativity while cultural products, including arts, media, and design products, are produced and
distributed. In this paper, creative labor refers to the work in creative industries. Previous research
has been done on the economic aspect of fandom or the relationship between fandom and the creative industries. Steirer (2016) suggests the more nuanced and complicated industry–fan interaction
instead of the binary industry–fan relationship. Fans influence the industry by creating alternative
discourses to industry-produced popular texts, constructing new audienceship, and manipulating
the data traffic of Internet platforms, among others (Brower, 1992; J. Kim, 2017; Zhang & Negus,
2020). K-pop fans practice a wide range of activities that influence the K-pop industry (Tai, 2018).
K-pop fan labor is mostly characterized by usually unpaid immaterial labor through often prosumer activities of fans. Lazzarato (1996) defines immaterial labor as “the labor that produces the
informational and cultural content of the commodity” (p.133). It refers to the labor employing computer and communication skills and the labor forming cultural and artistic tastes and norms that may
not be recognized as work (Lazzarato, 1996). In her book about branding, Banet-Weiser (2012)
indicates that branding needs consumers’ immaterial labor when the creation of a brand is a process
rather than a finished product. K-pop fan labor is immaterial labor since it constantly produces
K-pop-related immaterial products and helps maintain the popularity of K-pop idols. Terranova
(2000) defines that “free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is
translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited” (p. 37). On the Internet, users spontaneously produce affect and culture with
unqualified intrinsic passion and enjoyment, while the users’ production is exploited by Internet
platforms (Terranova, 2000). Fans’ pleasure and the industry’s exploitation happen simultaneously
in fan labor (Stanfill & Condis, 2014). Milner (2009) argues that fans work for the contents instead
of the company. However, as the latter holds the creative and intellectual property ownership of
these contents, it invariably benefits from such fan labor without any reciprocal obligations.
Previous literature indicates that fans practice a gift economy in which they give rather than sell
fanmade goods (Scott, 2009; Stanfill & Condis, 2014). Researchers argue that such practice is
because of fans’ enjoyment of the work or their rejection toward the capitalist logic (Stanfill &
Condis, 2014). The gift economy helps fans avoid copyright infringement, and construct fan identities and communities (Scott, 2009; Stanfill & Condis, 2014). Even though in some cases, fans
monetize their labor by selling the products to the individuals outside of their fan community, this
practice can be explained as a protection from being exploited and monetized by the industry
(Scott, 2009). However, current K-pop fan practices contradict previous research findings. In
K-pop fandom, the differentiation of commodities and gifts does not depend on the recipient’s
identity. K-pop fan producers distinguish between commodities and gifts by the cost of production.
Usually, paper banners are to be given while cloth banners are to be sold (Masterpiece_jb, 2020;
Pjyloveeeeeee922, 2019). Non-fans or outsiders may get free fanmade gifts at a K-pop event; however, only fans or insiders are likely to purchase fanmade commodities.
Fan labor is possibly creative labor. Existing literature on the creative industries, creative labor,
and fan studies agree that the boundary between producers and consumers in the creative industries
is blurred (Flew, 2013, pp. 28–53). The blurred boundary is because new information and communication technologies (ICTs) have enabled global consumers to become “cultural producers,
commentators, and content co-creators” (Flew, 2013, p. 33). Existing research has identified a wide
variety of fan labor in the music and entertainment industries. For example, Swedish independent
music fans promote musical bands on social media and radio, and arrange concerts and tours
(Baym & Burnett, 2009). The K-pop fandom is no different. J. Kim (2017) uses the term
“K-popping” to indicate Korean female fans’ active participation in music production as listeners,
singers, producers, and promoters. K-pop fans even produce, distribute, and consume their own
products to both resolve their dissatisfaction with official production, and to demonstrate their
investment in their fandom (J. Kim, 2017). However, there is as yet no research on the classification of these forms of fan labor.
Fan identities may help explain why some Chinese K-pop fans engage in fan labor. They are
often closely related to their everyday practices, as well as their knowledge and object accumulation (Fiske, 1992; Williams, 2006). However, fan identities in East Asian idol culture—a niche,
highly commercialized popular culture—tend to be more closely related to consumption. Chen
Global Media and China 5(4)
(2018, pp. 3–27) indicates that Chinese fans, especially those of Japanese popular music groups
under the management of Johnny’s Entertainment, view only those who had paid for their idols’
products to be fans. This results in the postmodern fans’ overconsumption and high commodification of their idols’ products (Zheng, 2016). Chinese K-pop fans mainly identify themselves as fans
of a particular idol, fans of a particular idol in a certain period, fans of a certain group, and fans of
two or more idols in a certain group (Chen, 2018, pp. 84–101). The careful classification of fan
identities possibly relates to fan labor as creative labor.
However, creative labor is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, individuals engaging in
creative labor are able to informally, autonomously, flexibly, personally and emotionally invest
in their self-actualization; on the other, this form of creative labor is insecure, uncertain, unequal, self-exploiting, self-commodifying, and usually not well-paid (Gill, 2002; Hesmondhalgh
& Baker, 2011, pp. 52–77). Stahl (2006) argues that the autonomy of creative labor hides the
inequality in employment relations in the American popular music industry. As Hesmondhalgh
and Baker (2011, pp. 113–138) point out, students and junior employees willingly work for free
or a very low salary in the extremely competitive creative industries in the hopes of securing a
job there. Neilson and Rossiter (2005) use the term “precarity” to refer to the flexible exploitation, and flexible work and life circumstances of creative labor. If fan labor is regarded as creative labor, it is important to see whether these fans work in conditions similar to legitimate
creative labor. This study intends to add to the literature on creative industries and fandom by
demonstrating the link between creative labor and fan labor in its analyses of the ways in which
K-pop fan labor is practiced and incorporated into the creative industries. Through empirical
research, this study will show how fans become creative labor, and how fan labor is an indispensable part of the creative industry of K-pop.
GOT7 fan labor in China
This research focuses on the fan labor expended by Chinese fans of the K-pop male idol group
GOT7. GOT7, a seven-member K-pop male idol group, is managed by JYP Entertainment and
debuted in 2014 in the Mobile Internet Era (Sun & Liew, 2019). The group, still actively performing all over the world (J. K, 2019), comprises multinational members—a common strategy in the
K-pop industry, specifically designed to target foreign markets. GOT7 has four Koreans (JB,
Jinyoung, Youngjae, Yugyeom), one Hong Kong-born Chinese (Jackson), one Chinese American
(Mark), and one Thai (BamBam).
This paper uses data collected from my own participant observations, in-depth interviews and
other related online and offline materials to determine what constitutes fan labor in the Chinese
K-pop fandom, how fan labor is practiced, and the meanings behind these fan labor practices.
My participant observations took place during physical GOT7 events in Beijing, Chengdu,
Shanghai, Qingdao, Incheon, Seoul, and online in September-December 2019 (see Table 1).
Chinese K-pop fans normally have specific fan identities (Chen, 2018, pp. 84–101). During the
fieldwork and everyday communication with other fans, I performed as an ordinary Chinese fan
of GOT7 with my bias as JB. Even as a participant-observer, I consciously try to keep my distance from especially the more problematic areas of fan practices and behaviors. I state research
identity as a PhD student who studies K-pop fandom in commencing interactions with fans
throughout my fieldwork.
Table 1. Events attended and observed.
Sep 7 and 22
Oct 19 to Nov 10
Oct 26 to Dec 5
Nov 6 and 8
Mark and Jinyoung’s birthday café cheering events
Mark’s ON YOUR MARK Fan meeting
Mark’s YIXIA photobook fansign event
Seeing off Mark at airport
Jackson’s MIRRORS album billboard cheering event
Jackson’s MIRRORS album online purchase
Jackson’s MIRRORS Album Pre-launch Party
GOT7’s CALL MY NAME album purchase for joining Qingdao
Delegate purchase of Singaporean fan-produced GOT7 pins
Simple Urban Plus Music Festival
GOT7’s CALL MY NAME Comeback Showcase
GOT7’s CALL MY NAME album subway cheering event
Delegate purchase of GOT7’s CALL MY NAME album
M2 cheering event for GOT7’s variety show Hard Carry 2.5
GOT7’s CALL MY NAME album giveaway at Hongik University
Drinks at JYP Entertainment Soul Cup Café and dinner near
the old JYP Entertainment building with fans
Waiting for GOT7 outside the KBS TV Station
Dinner with a fan near the old JYP Entertainment building
GOT7 mini fanmeeting
Yugyeom’s birthday café cheering event
Vlive V HEARTBEAT Awards Ceremony
GOT7’s CALL MY NAME album fansign event
During my fieldwork, I took raw records (Tracy, 2013, pp. 105–129), pictures, and videos. Most
of them were taken by my smartphone since frequently using a smartphone for typing and shooting
come across as being more unobtrusive among Chinese youngsters. Pictures and videos sometimes
were taken by my mini digital singular lens reflex (DSLR) camera when using such a camera was
not obtrusive. In many cases, after participation in an event, I wrote formal fieldnotes (Tracy, 2013,
pp. 105–129) based on the raw records, pictures, and videos taken in the field. When the time was
too limited between events, I had no time to write formal fieldnotes. In such circumstances, I would
document more details in the raw records, pictures, and videos during the events. Overall, I have
taken approximately 65,000 words’ (in Chinese) fieldnotes, 2800 pictures, and 200 videos. Artifacts,
screenshots, and relevant pictures, videos, social media posts, and other materials, have also been
collected. The materials that are relevant to fan labor contribute to this paper. In the course of my
fieldwork, I met many Chinese GOT7 fans engaged in different types of fan labor. Overall, I have
interviewed eight Chinese GOT7 fans face-to-face or via Internet voice calls in September to
December 2019 (see Table 2). Five are the fans who I encountered during my fieldwork while the
other three had been introduced to me by other fans. Interview questions cover the participants’
K-pop fan practices, fan identities, social media usage, and their attitudes and thoughts that are
related to K-pop fandom issues, among others. The collected data have been subsequently analyzed
through a systematic qualitative analysis.
Global Media and China 5(4)
Table 2. List of interviewees.
No. Pseudonym Gender Age Place of
Place of origin
Main fan production output
Visual materials, cheering billboards,
café cheering events
Group purchase, cheering products
Café cheering events
Café cheering events, cheering
Shanghai, China Translation, visual materials, cheering
The typology of K-pop fan labor
Fan labor is part of K-pop fan practices. Not all K-pop fans engage in fan labor. The paper does not
intend to make K-pop fan labor to represent the whole population of K-pop fans or make K-pop fan
labor represent all K-pop fan practices. It explores how some K-pop fans become creative labor, and
how fan labor is an indispensable part of the creative industry of K-pop. Existing research has classified fans based on fan practices or fan production. However, the existing classifications can hardly
demonstrate contemporary K-pop fan labor. According to Obsession_inc (2009), affirmational fans
are sanctioned fans who support and emphasize the original production, while transformational fans
are non-sanctioned fans who support and engage in fan production making use of the original production to serve fans’ purposes. However, K-pop fan production may show a mixture of the tastes
of the K-pop industry, a fan producer, and fellow fans since the industry’s criteria and fans’ tastes of
K-pop idols interact over time and the fan producer can display personal style in the fan production.
Busse and Gray (2011) classified fandom as traditional fandom and industry-driven fandom: traditional fandom is a spontaneous subculture while industry-driven fandom is an industry-organized
mainstream culture along with the wide adoption of new ICTs and the industry’s viral marketing
strategy. In K-pop, the industry does intend to manage K-pop fandom; however, fans also create
content and communities on Internet platforms spontaneously without the control from the industry.
Company-organized fan clubs and fan-organized communities coexist. An individual K-pop fan can
register at the company-organized fan club to join company-organized events while join fan-organized protests to fight against the company at the same time. According to Busse and Gray (2011),
traditional fans are more socially and emotionally involved and invested than industry-driven, individual, or casual fans. As explained above, it is hard to classify K-pop fans as traditional fans or
industry-driven fans. Casual K-pop fans may be less involved or invested than other fans. Noticeably,
in the Mobile Internet Era, it is hard to distinguish between individual fans and members of fan communities. Even the otherwise more private individual fans have to join social networks to get updated
information and media content. In social networks, they encounter other fans and other fans’ works.
K-pop fan labor is diversified. K-pop fans produce photographic and videographic works (H. K.
Lee, 2019), paintings (“These Talented K-Pop Fan Artists Bring Every Fan’s Fantasy to Life,”
2017), fan-fictions (Lahkim, 2016), translations (Kelley, 2017), music (GOT7_GPjifantuan, 2019),
dance performances (Liew, 2013), and original creative merchandise. They also organize fan events.
Some of these are run like corporate social responsibility events in which fans engage in charitable
activities to enhance their idols’ positive image in society (Bae, 2013). Others function as teambonding exercises where their idols’ birthdays and idol groups’ anniversaries are celebrated (Ong,
2019). Chinese fans have also acted as groups or individuals that help fellow fans by taking delegate
purchase orders of albums or idol-related paraphernalia from Korea, purchasing these goods in
Korea or other countries, and working as ticketing service agents (Baidu Jackson Wang Bar, 2016;
GOT7xuanchuannvwangyanvshen, 2017). In so doing, they contribute to K-pop fandom in China
by reducing international shipping fees for fellow fans, and helping those who are not good at foreign languages and those who do not know how to use foreign online shopping platforms. K-pop
fans zealously seek to boost the popularity and competitiveness of their idols by repetitively streaming specific K-pop content online, continually reposting social media posts, and voting for their
idols repeatedly (EXO Voting Team, 2019).
Fan labor is not self-expression without rules or restrictions. Creative dispositif can be understood as a social regime that expects and produces the aesthetically new in the fields of arts, mass
media, and economy, among many others, starting from the late-modern society (Reckwitz, 2018).
When incorporating into the K-pop industry, K-pop fan labor tends to be disciplined by the creative
dispositif. Fan art producers have to produce creative works in distinguishable styles if they wanted
to attract fellow fans’ attention. Meanwhile, creative dependence and creative tolerance (Fung,
2016) are behind Chinese K-pop fan labor. Fans’ creative work is dependent on the K-pop content
released by media institutions, entertainment agencies, and idols. These creative endeavors have to
carefully toe the line vis-à-vis their idols’ rights to privacy, fair use of their idols’ image, and the
norms in fandom culture.
Based on the analysis of the data generated from my observations and in-depth interviews, I
established three general categories of K-pop fan labor: specialized labor, managerial labor, and
unskilled labor. Specialized labor is labor produced from the fans’ creativity, knowledge, and specialized skills. These creative end products are then consumed by fellow fans. These products of
specialized labor can be released online, as is the case for images, videos, translated texts, subtitled
videos, music, dance performances, paintings, comics and fan-fictions; or offline, as is in the case
of photobooks, photo cards, calendars, keychains, pins, clothing, blankets, fans, hand mirrors, and
other goods based on fans’ photography, paintings, comics, and designs. Managerial labor is where
fans organize events to assist existing and potential members of fandom and promote their idols.
Examples of managerial labor are the coordination of cheering events such as gatherings to celebrate their idol’s birthday and idol group’s anniversary at a local café, or making a billboard advertisement for their idols. Unskilled labor is the fans’ repetitive engagement with officially released
products of their idols (such as music videos online, social media posts, physical albums, etc.) with
the end goal of boosting the performance figures of their idols. These fans will typically watch their
idols’ videos online a great number of times and vote for their idols repeatedly in polls.
Homma, or webmaster of a homepage, is an example of specialized labor. The homma runs a website or a social media account focusing on specific idols; he or she also posts originally generated
images and videos of the idols (J. Kim, 2017). In the Korean K-pop fandom, a “home” is a fansite
that focuses on representing the homma’s idol; on producing and distributing originally produced
Global Media and China 5(4)
Figure 1. Hommas at Digital Media City, Seoul, Korea, 9 November 2019.
visual materials related to the idol; and on selling originally produced goods based on the pictures
of the idol taken by the homma (J. Kim, 2017). In Chinese idol fandom, homma is called as zhanjie. Zhan means site and jie means older sister.
As seen in Figure 1, the hommas are clearly identifiable at male idol group VICTON’s mini fanmeeting at Digital Media City in Seoul on 9 November 2019. These are the people standing or sitting
on ladders, and using digital DSLR cameras. The photographs taken under these conditions would
then be posted on the homma’s fansite. Delegate photographers who take photographs and sell them
to hommas, as well as ordinary fans who use DSLR cameras casually may also be among them.
The hommas I interviewed use professional cameras: Yanhui uses a Canon EOS 7D Mark II
with a 100–400 mm lens, and Xinfei uses a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a 70–200 mm lens.
Yanhui told me that some hommas also use the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Hommas take pictures
and videos of idols on and off stage in their countries and abroad, regardless as to whether photography or videography is permitted. Thus, they would attend concerts, fanmeetings, showcases, fansign events, and go to airports, television stations, and other locations whenever their
idol was due to appear. In 2019, Xinfei went to concerts, award ceremonies, television broadcast
recordings, airports in Seoul, a fan meeting in Nanjing, and a fansign event in Qingdao to see the
After taking their pictures, some hommas immediately used their smartphones to upload previews of the images to social media. A preview is a picture taken by a smartphone. It shows the
DSLR camera screen of the idol’s photograph taken by the homma as well as the homma’s logo.
Others would go home to edit the photographs and videos before uploading them in high definition
on social media. These up-to-date images and videos enable global fans to keep up with their idols,
and help to maintain these idols’ visibility in the public eye. Hommas are so efficient in taking and
disseminating their images and videos that by the time the entertainment agencies and local hosts
post the official photographs and clips online, a large number of fan-taken versions can already be
found on the Internet. Many hommas have both Twitter and Weibo accounts, enabling them to post
with ease. As of 30 December 2019, Yanhui has 4000 and 11,300 followers, respectively, on her
Weibo and Twitter accounts. Her Tweets and Weibo contents are often reposted by other fans or
other fansites. It is hard to determine the nationalities of hommas from their social media posts, as
they tend to be multilingual.
Homma-produced images and videos are also made into merchandise, including photobooks,
DVDs, calendars, fans, blankets, and so on (Definerjb, 2020; Markstouch, 2019). These products
are usually sold to fellow fans (Saleeverythings, 2019). Hommas have the power to creatively
tweak the styles of their idols’ images. For example, Yanhui eschews making her idol’s skin unnaturally smooth like the other homma-produced images on social media. To obtain the most up-todate pictures and videos of their idols, hommas have to expend a great deal of time, energy, and
money in their fandom. In Yanhui’s case, she attended fewer GOT7 events in 2019 because she
could not get time away from her new job. Even though she attended fewer events, she still collectively spent 2 months on fandom. Her annual fandom-related expenditure is 10,000–200,000
Yuan (1460–29,207 USD). In 2019, Yanhui traveled to Korea, Japan, and Thailand to see GOT7,
spending a total of 2 weeks in those locations.
Hommas often take pictures and videos during performances, even though it is prohibited.
They sought to do this by hiding their cameras from the notice of the security guards at concert
venues. Hommas like Xinfei do this to gain recognition from fellow fans and obtain experience
in visual material production. Xinfei believes the experience will help her to get a behind-thescenes job in the entertainment industry, thus enabling her to become colleagues with her idols.
She attended two concerts of GOT7’s SPINNING TOP World Tour in Seoul and tried to record
one of them:
When I finished shooting that performance, I saw that no security guards had noticed me. So, I kept
shooting. [. . .] At first, I put the camera at a lower place. [. . .] Then, I slightly raised the camera and
continued shooting. But a hand came up behind me and pulled me away. At that time, the security guard
was very severe with me. She dragged me out and told me to delete the videos. [Sigh.] What can I do? I
have no experience, and had to delete the videos anyway. (Xinfei, personal communication, 15 November
Hommas gain experience through trial and error. Their specialized labor is dependent on the
idols as their objects, the professional cameras as their instruments, and the entertainment agencies’ policies at performance venues.
Hommas also practice managerial labor as an extension of their specialized labor. Yanhui, a
homma of her favorite GOT7 member since 2016, is a case in point. In 2019, she and another
homma conducted a birthday billboard cheering project for this GOT7 member. In addition to
inviting a friend to design billboard posters, they also edited a video, contacted an advertising
agency specializing internationally in fan cheering billboards, paid about 20,000 Yuan (2920 USD),
and got billboards in China and Korea to display their promotional content of this GOT7 member.
Their 20-second fan-produced video played a hundred times each day for 2 days on the large LED
screen on the outer wall of Lotte Young Plaza in Myeong-dong, one of the trendiest areas in Seoul.
Café cheering events are an example of managerial labor. Planning for these events occur several
months before an idol’s birthday, and they are jointly coordinated by the event organizers, recruited
Global Media and China 5(4)
fellow fan organizers and sponsors. While the organizers usually sponsor the event, other sponsors
may chip in financially without taking part in the work. Each sponsor pays several hundred Yuan
per event. As these events consume both time and effort, some organizers fail to find enough fellow
organizers and the project falls through.
Xinchen and other organizers organized the café birthday cheering events for three GOT7
members’ September 2019 birthdays (Jaycee_chen, 2019; Ruidiya, 2019; Zhenrongdezhezi,
2019). According to Xinchen, she coordinates these events to make fans happy and promote her
idols. She and her fellow organizers believe that doing so would maintain the interest of current
fans while attracting new ones. Xinchen and her colleagues began planning this project in June
2019. For these GOT7 members’ birthday events, they selected the Sanlitun area in Beijing
because of its popularity with Chinese youths. They then investigated several cafés in the area as
possible venues; negotiated with café owners; sought image reproduction permission from more
than 10 hommas; discussed, designed, and produced freebies for attendees; collaborated with
café event organizers in other cities; and utilized cheering event experience gained from other
events. A few days before an event, the organizers went to the chosen café to decorate the place
with fan-reproduced official and unofficial pictures of their idols, official dolls, and official
lightsticks. On the day of the event, a homma sent a birthday cake and card to the venue, paper
banners and shopping bags with the idol’s images were given to fans as freebies, a lucky draw
took place, and the screen in the café continuously played GOT7 videos prepared by the organizers. After the event, the organizers had to fulfill their agreement with the café owner by taking
down the decorations, and making sure that the attendees posted positive reviews of the eatery
on DianPing (China’s most popular restaurant rating platform) and tagged the café in their Weibo
posts about the event.
Xinchen explained that in planning such fan events, organizers practiced their abilities in negotiating with partners, made decisions to minimize cost and maximize benefits, and deployed their
teamwork and leadership skills. While these event organizers may be well known to fans in their
locality, they are relatively unknown among GOT7 fans within and without the country. Their
recognition and power, gained through the event, might not last long if they ceased to organize
such events. Interestingly, fans reproduce officially released images without obtaining the entertainment agency’s permission, but they carefully seek the permission of hommas and fan-artists
before reproducing their images. According to my interviewees, hommas usually refuse to give
permission if they intend to use the images to produce merchandise for sale. This shows that even
as hommas give away part of their creative works as contributions to fandom, they will not hesitate
to make use of the commercial value of their images and videos.
Streaming videos and voting for idols online are examples of unskilled labor. Idols’ recognition
within the entertainment industry is reflected in the number of music chart and award shows they
win. However, these achievements can be strategically and intentionally attained through fans’
unskilled labor. According to Xixi, working for a fan streaming and voting team is very time-consuming. A streaming and voting team is an online fan community where the team leaders would
assign daily tasks to team members to ensure that their idol was promoted. These tasks involve the
streaming of certain songs or voting in certain charts multiple times. After graduating from university and starting her job, Xixi had more disposable income, but less time. Thus, she stopped repetitive streaming and voting, and instead traveled to other cities to see her idols. Yujing told a similar
story, as the streaming and voting team she had joined required members to complete daily tasks.
Failure to do so would result in immediate expulsion from the team. Thus, she left the team when
she got busier. To boost the number of views a video has, it must be streamed in its entirety continuously so that the system will not identify the views as data fraud. Fan streaming and voting teams
make guides for fan labor to cope with the constantly changing algorithms of the online platforms.
One of my interviewees, Tongtong, has two smartphones: one for everyday use, and another for
repetitive streaming during GOT7’s promotional weeks. Repetitive streaming of music videos
(MVs) is exhausting, as stated by Xiwen:
When I streamed MVs on YouTube, my brain exploded. In order to maximize the time utilization ratio, I
opened many browsers at the same time. Once, I opened six browsers to stream an MV. Then, the MVs in
each browser ended at different times. Then, you just listen. On that day, my brain exploded. Play once,
clear the cache, and manually replay the MV. [. . .] You need to clear the cache! If you don’t, it means your
streaming of the MV has already been counted! (Xiwen, personal communication, 25 November 2019)
Fans can practice unskilled labor if they have a smartphone and access to the Internet. Unskilled
labor is dependent on the fan’s time and energy. Individual fans tend to engage in different types of
fan labor at the same time, even as they focus on one type of fan labor. For example, a fan might
simultaneously be one of the organizers of a birthday cheering event (managerial labor) as well as
part of a streaming and voting team (unskilled labor). However, fans mostly shift from one type of
fan labor to another, depending on their personal circumstances or preferences.
Translocal connections and the transnational division of work
Fans are connected locally, nationally, and transnationally. Some individual fans and fan organizations are key nodes in the fan network. Fans may get to know each other at local events, and
at online or offline events in cities where their idols appear. Apart from local café events, most
fan works are the results of online collaborations. The coordination of fan projects is mostly
done through instant messaging platforms QQ and WeChat, social networking platforms Weibo
and Twitter, fan crowdfunding and retailing platform OWhat, and online payment platforms
WeChat Pay and Ailpay. Local fan event organizers are also connected through translocal collaborations. According to Xinchen, the September 2019 GOT7 birthday cheering events in
Beijing are part of the collaborative effort of fan organizers from eight Chinese cities. Each
city’s organizers would share the same designs for some freebies, but plan and host the event
differently in their own locality.
Within the Chinese GOT7 fandom online, one can find fansites of the group, individual members, and two members. There are integrated fansites, and fansites focusing on specific fan works
such as translations, purchase of official merchandise, streaming and voting, and so on. For example, the fansite to which Siqi belongs has 20 workers in total, with 5 or 6 fans working on translations. According to a former worker of an integrated fansite of a GOT7 member, there are on
average 30–40 workers per site, of whom 10 are very active. Chinese fansites also collaborate in
subbing videos (i.e. making subtitled videos), thus expediting the process. For example, according
to the information posted on their social media, 10 Chinese fansites worked together to subtitle
episodes of GOT7’s variety show Hard Carry 2.5. Siqi outlined the fan-subbing process as follows. After obtaining the video, one or more translators would listen to and translate the dialogue
into Chinese in a text document. Then, one or more colleagues would make sure the Chinese text
Global Media and China 5(4)
matched the timing of the audio in the video. After that, another colleague will compress the subtitled video, while a designer creates a poster crediting all the parties involved. Finally, the video
would be uploaded on Bilibili (a Chinese video streaming site) and the release publicized on Weibo
with the poster.
As K-pop fans are connected globally, they often work collaboratively to promote their idols. Fan
productions are divided up according to local circumstances so as to minimize costs and maximize
the overall benefits for both idols and fandom. During GOT7’s comeback (album release and promotion) periods, GOT7 fans all over the world wanted their idols to top the music chart shows. As
physical album sales, online streaming views of songs and MVs, and social media discussions are
among the scoring criteria, fans purchase the albums, play songs on Korean music streaming platform MelOn, stream MVs on YouTube, discuss GOT7 on Twitter, and so on. Chinese fans do their
part by buying large numbers of the physical album and streaming the songs and MVs where possible. Although only the registered residents in Korea are permitted to register MelOn and stream
songs there, there are people selling or distributing MelOn accounts online to foreign fans, thus
allowing some Chinese fans to stream their idols’ songs. Tongtong explains that Korean and foreign
fans in Korea stream the songs often on MelOn, and buy the albums in bulk at local record stores so
as to win a chance to meet their idols and obtain their autographs at fansign events. Chinese fans are
less active on YouTube and Twitter, as those platforms are blocked in China. In contrast, Western
and Thai fans stream MVs on YouTube and discuss and trend certain hashtags on Twitter because of
costly shipping fees between Korea and their countries. Chinese fans, on the other hand, buy more
physical albums because China and Korea’s geographical proximity means shipping is more affordable. This resulted in Chinese fans purchasing 103,898 copies of GOT7’s November 2019 album,
CALL MY NAME, within the first week of its release (GetO_Together_7, 2019). According to fans’
records of the Hanteo Charts, the album sold a total of 224,459 copies at the end of the first week
(OneandonlyG7, 2019). If the statistics are reliable, this means Chinese fans bought almost half the
number of albums sold in the first week.
Fans value the first week physical album sales and mainly purchase albums then because the
sales figures during this crucial window impact the idols’ scores in the music chart shows. Chinese
fans buy the albums through Chinese fansites offering group purchases, Chinese fansign organizing companies, and online delegate purchase shops. A unique practice of Chinese fans is unshipped
album purchase. This is where the physical albums purchased by the Chinese fans would be
donated to charity organizations or cafés in Korea to promote their idols. Chinese fans do this to
save on shipping costs and purchase more albums to boost sales figures. Of the 103,898 albums
bought by Chinese fans, 42,457 were unshipped albums (GetO_Together_7, 2019). By engaging in
unshipped album purchases, Chinese fans show that the K-pop fandom is more than being proud
and supportive of their idols’ music and image; it is also about achieving the same goal as their
beloved idols in the market.
“I don’t want to baipiao”: fans’ definition of fans
When many fans and I queued in front of the café in Beijing to collect fan-produced freebies at Mark’s
birthday event, fan organizers asked us to produce evidence that we had bought Mark’s or GOT7’s official
products. They said album orders would be the best, and shipped or unshipped album purchases were fine.
[. . .] Proof of purchase of Mark’s joint-designed products was okay too. I prepared a screenshot of my
purchase of Mark’s joint-designed T-shirts, thinking this would be enough. However, when my turn came,
the woman checking my phone swiped to see the photos before and after the screenshot. I was astonished
that she expected to see more than one piece of evidence. [. . .] She asked if I bought GOT7 albums. I said
I bought the albums through non-domestic channels, as I resided in Singapore. She asked me how many
copies I bought. I explained that though I did not buy much, I attended their concerts. Then the woman said
to the other organizers, “Here is a Singaporean [fan]!” The organizers probably agreed to give me the
freebies because I was allowed to collect my gifts and pick my lottery ticket. However, in the process, I
felt pressurized and judged. (Author’s fieldnote, Beijing, 7 September 2019)
Before fans could collect freebies produced by the event coordinators at Mark’s birthday event
in Beijing, organizers checked for evidence of their expenditure on official GOT7 products. If you
could not prove that you had purchased GOT7’s official goods, you would not be given any freebies at the birthday event. The rules were set and implemented by the fan organizers who had
invested money, time, and energy to the project. A decade ago, fans who knew entertainment
agency staff and privileged information about their idols possessed high status in the fan hierarchy
(Chen, 2018, pp. 54–83). In recent years, investment in your idols gives you power over fellow
fans in fandom. Fans also judge fellow fans’ investment in their idols.
Chinese K-pop fans define fans, non-fans, and different types of fans carefully. This is consistent with previous findings of the Chinese K-pop fandom (Chen, 2018, pp. 84–101). Fans define the
fans of K-pop and the fans of specific K-pop idols differently. According to the interviewees who
engaged in fan labor, fans defined K-pop fans as people who are interested in K-pop, follow K-pop
news, listen to K-pop, and watch K-pop videos. In other words, a K-pop fan is in love with this
culture. However, fans of a K-pop idol group are defined as people who make the effort to “repay”
the group for entertaining them. This can be done by spending their money on official merchandise, and devoting their time and energy to ensuring the success of their idol group.
A lot of official, un-official, and fan-produced K-pop content are available online for free. To
promote their idols, entertainment agencies encourage the fans’ repetitive labor vis-à-vis winning
the chance to see them at a studio show recording or a fansign event. If GOT7 fans want to attend
the recordings of music chart shows, they must be a member of the group’s official fan club, and
they must have streamed the required number of certain songs (usually several hundred times) on
MelOn. Similarly, fans must buy physical albums at an assigned record store in Korea if they are
to stand a chance of winning a ticket to a fansign event. The more albums the fans buy, the higher
their chances of attending this event. Fans believe that foreigners are more likely to buy more
albums to win a fansign event ticket. The testimony of several interviewees confirms that each
Chinese fan usually buys at least 100 copies of an album, spending over 10,000 Yuan (1460 USD)
in order to win an opportunity to attend a GOT7 fansign event in Korea.
In the Chinese K-pop fandom, the term baipiao is commonly used. Baipiao literally means
visiting prostitutes without paying, but in the Chinese K-pop fandom, it refers to self-proclaimed
fans that refuse to devote money, time, or energy to the idol and fandom. Baipiao can also be used
as a verb to describe the consumption of an idol’s free content without expending money, time, or
energy on fandom or the idol. Those who self-identify as fans and make the effort to “repay” their
idols deny baipiaos’ identities as fans. Tongtong explains the difference between baipiao and fans
by comparing the former to beggars and the latter to street performers:
Many beggars look pitiful, but I won’t give them money [. . .] because I feel they are not sincere [. . .]. But
street performers are artists because they actively earn money through their labor. That is the essential
difference between beggars and street performers. [. . .] Some people call themselves fans and frequently
boast that they love some stars, but they say that without doing anything to support them. (Tongtong,
personal communication, 10 November 2019)
Global Media and China 5(4)
Tongtong also defines baipiao thus:
Baipiaos only want to receive, but do not want to give. (Author: What do you mean by ‘give’?) Giving
time, energy, or money to our idols. These all count. Being a fan is not limited to the people who give
money. I don’t think so, at least. (Tongtong, personal communication, 10 November 2019)
Overall, fans believe that their idols’ achievements are the joint efforts of the idols themselves
and the fans who actively give their time, energy and money to them. Baipiaos, on the other hand,
share in the idols’ achievements without contributing to them. The Weibo fansite to which Siqi
belongs was created in April 2015, and posts content related to one of the GOT7 members. As of
30 December 2019, it has 281,811 followers and 26,439 posts. When I asked why she translated
idol-related content for this fansite, Siqi replied,
I don’t want to baipiao; I want to help. [. . .] Through translations, I help to disseminate the latest news
about him. I feel like I have contributed something. Translations help people to keep up with the latest
information. (Author: You’re doing this to serve other fans?) Yes, yes. I also do it to expand my idol’s
influence. If no one makes Chinese subbed videos, the fans of other groups may not know of him. If you
make Chinese subtitles, then others will watch the video and may come to like the idol too. (Siqi, personal
communication, 8 November 2019)
In the idol industry, fans are not mere audiences or consumers as they actively participate in the
industry by inputting their money and labor.
According to the interviewees, the fans who spend money, time, or energy to produce products
and coordinate events earn the right to set standards by determining who can access and possess
their products. Gift economy still exists in Chinese K-pop fandom. However, many gift-givers in
Chinese K-pop fandom admit individuals as gift recipients only if they have repaid the idol. Some
fan organizers of giveaways may look at the fans’ records of expenditure; others may look at the
fans’ records of repetitive voting and streaming. Engaging in specialized works is usually not part
of the criteria for receiving freebies, as these fans account for only a small proportion of fandom.
However, a great deal of expenditure goes into many specialized works. Hommas, for example,
spend a fair amount of money attending concert overseas and fansign events multiple times each
year so as to take pictures and videos of their idols.
In the case of many Chinese K-pop fans, they are more than consumers, as they do not just buy one
copy of an album or attend only one concert. In fact, the Chinese K-pop fan labors themselves
define fans as those who contribute to the idols and fandom. In other words, fans are those who
engage in specialized, managerial, or unskilled labor as well as collaborations in the translocal and
transnational fan networks. These fans actively practice fan labor because they believe it is one
way of distinguishing themselves from ordinary audience members and the self-proclaimed fans
who do not expend money, time, or energy on their idols. While some fans who have found ways
of informally earning money from their labor, they are still consumers and labors devoting money,
time, and energy to fandom.
Complying with the K-pop industry’s commodification of culture, Chinese K-pop fans value
fame and economic gain in a K-pop idol or group’s career. The new ICTs make participation in
idols’ careers, in the form of fan labor, available to fans. K-pop fan labor is the space where fans
can engage in creative expression and achieve their self-actualization. Such self-actualization is
bound with their beloved K-pop idols’ careers. K-pop fan labor, especially specialized and unskilled
labor, may be considered as controversial by the public and the media because they touch on the
issues of copyright infringement, and data fraud. However, K-pop companies hold an ambiguous
attitude toward fan labor. It is probably because fan labor does contribute to K-pop companies’
benefits while sometimes hurting the rights or benefits of the companies or K-pop idols. In such
circumstances, the value produced by fan labor is exploited by K-pop companies and transformed
into the companies’ economic gain. Same as Milner (2009) pointed out in digital-game fandom,
K-pop fans work for the text, including idols and media content, instead of the K-pop company.
However, since the economic gains of idols and companies are tightly bound, when fans intend to
contribute to their idols, they also contribute to the companies.
As Steirer (2016) suggested, the fan–industry relationship is more complicated than binary in
nature. A common reason for fan labor is the dissatisfaction with official productions (J. Kim,
2017). K-pop fan laborers work for the K-pop industry while they often criticize K-pop companies.
K-pop fan laborers do not resist consumerism; instead, as consumers or as co-producers, who subscribe to consumerism, fan labor arises when the official corporate narratives inadequately address
the desires and expectations of consumers. In the same vein, as creative immaterial labor (Lazzarato,
1996) and free labor (Terranova, 2000), alongside with the creative industries, K-pop fandom contributes to the commercial and cultural vibrancies to the K-pop industry. Fan labors are disciplined
by the creative dispositif and are exploited, while they seek to be empowered through their labor.
Like salaried creative workers, fan labors are self-exploiting, self-commodifying, and uncertain
(Hesmondhalgh & Baker, 2011, pp. 52–77). When many creative workers are not well-paid, fan
labors usually receive no monetary compensation at all. Unlike salaried creative workers, with no
formal employment arrangements and commitments, operating on more voluntary and informal
engagements, fan laborers do not perceive their labor as a conventional job. Chinese K-pop fan
labors still perceive themselves as consumers who actively seek diverse ways to “repay” the industry’s cultural production when many cultural products distributed online seemingly do not ask for
a price. However, such consumers’ “repaying” is a critical step in the production and distribution
process of their idol groups. In such circumstances, fans’ creative labor is an indispensable part of
the operations of the K-pop industry. In this respect, the binary labeling of K-pop fandom as merely
passive and easily exploited consumers by capitalistic corporate institutions does not reflect the
more complex experiences of these subjects. Instead, as the case study of GOT7 fandom shows,
fan labor draws out the multiple prosumer identities that encompass layered levels of creative
engagements in the affective economy of K-pop.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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Meicheng Sun is currently a PhD candidate at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research interests include transnational popular cultural
flows, fandom, social media, and cultural industries. Her doctoral research covers the transnational fandom of
K-pop in China.
FAN CULTURES BETWEEN CONSUMERISM
It is not just the imagined subjectivities of the ‘fan’ and the ‘academic’ which clash and
imply different moral dualisms, i.e. different versions of ‘us’ (good) and ‘them’ (bad).
The imagined subjectivity of the ‘consumer’ is also hugely important to fans as they
strive to mark out the distinctiveness of fan knowledges and fan activities. This chapter
will therefore examine how ‘good’ fan identities are constructed against a further
imagined Other: the ‘bad’ consumer. My aim is to explore how cultural identities are
performed not simply through a singular binary opposition such as fan/academic, but
rather through a raft of overlapping and interlocking versions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. This
makes locating cultural ‘power’ or cultural ‘resistance’ in any one group
(fans/producers/academics) extremely difficult.
First, though, I want to examine the role that theories of consumption and ‘the
consumer’ have played in accounts of fandom, and in fans’ own practices. In the second
section of the chapter I will go on to argue that the work of Theodor Adorno has been
greatly simplified in cultural studies’ accounts which have sought to value and celebrate
the activities of fans.1 However, it is not my intention to return to a notion of the fan as
‘cultural dupe’. Instead, I aim to place fan cultures squarely within the processes and
mechanisms of consumer culture, given that fans are always already consumers. The third
section of the chapter then presents a case study in which I examine what happens to
notions of the ‘fan-consumer’ and the ‘fan-producer’ when fan cultures are themselves
directly targeted as a niche market. Finally, I examine recent work on Babylon 5 fandom
which has been carried out by Kurt Lancaster, work which draws on performance studies
rather than cultural studies.
The consumer as other
[F]ans are not true cultists unless they pose their fandom as a resistant
activity, one that keeps them one step ahead of those forces which
would try to market their resistant taste back to them.
What has given rise to the notion of the ‘resistive’ fan or cultist? I will not argue that this
is entirely a fiction of cultural studies researchers seeking to romanticise active
audiences; specific attributes of cult TV fandom would seem to support the ‘resistive’
label. The dedicated commitments of cult TV fans typically continue long beyond the
cancellation of their favoured programmes. This tension between the fans’ enduring
devotion and the rapid turnover in TV productions is one way in which the cult TV fan
can be said to act against the expectations of the TV industry. The fan’s emotional
investment also results in (and is compounded through) an attention to detail and
programme continuity which is often at odds with the producers’ need to tell new stories
over the duration of a TV series. Fans expect adherence to established tenets,
characterisations, and narrative ‘back-stories’, which production teams thus revise at their
peril, disrupting the trust which is placed in the continuity of a detailed narrative world by
these ‘textual conservationist’ fans.
It is primarily these qualities—as well as an expressed hostility within cult fandoms
towards commercialisation and commodification—which have led to the theorisation of
cult TV fandom (and other related media fandoms) as somehow anti-consumerist.2 This
rather one-sided view of fandom (see Cavicchi 1998, especially chapter 3) has tended to
minimise the extent to which fandom is related to wider shifts within consumer culture,
such as the increase in consumption-based social and communal identities. It has also
reduced the significance of consumption and commodification within fan cultures, for
example in the potentially curious co-existence within fan cultures of both anticommercial ideologies and commodity-completist practices.3
As part of this one-sided academic view of fandom, in which fan identities are
typically viewed against consumer identities, the place of the specialist retail outlet
within fan culture has not been examined. This prior neglect is now receiving some
belated correction, for example in the work of Kurt Lancaster (1996). However, it is
worth noting that even in his fascinating discussion of the New York branch of Forbidden
Planet, Lancaster continues to betray an anxiety over the commodity-status of its
contents, moving all too rapidly from the (‘bad’) fan-commodity to the (‘good’) fancommunity:
Forbidden Planet is a ‘clearinghouse’ for science fiction commodities that allow
people to enter worlds of fantasy…the objects purchased in this store become a
means for branching out into other worlds (by reading and fantasising), the
participants of which come together in a setting at this bookstore, online, or at a
As well as Lancaster’s work on the place of merchandise within fandom, Taylor and
Willis (1999:192) include a photograph of the Stoke-on-Trent store ‘Fantasy World’ in
their account of fan culture as a type of ‘minority audience’. They observe that ‘within
fan cultures there are certain modes of behaviour that are acceptable…activities that are
not acceptable are more clearly linked with …dominant capitalist society’ (ibid.).
However, this commentary is placed directly below a caption which reads ‘fan groups
often consume in specialist shops such as this one’ (ibid.). On the one hand, we are
presented with a view of fans as (specialist) consumers, whose fandom is expressed
through keeping up with new releases of books, comics and videos. On the other hand,
Fan cultures between consumerism and ‘resistance’
we are told that fans whose practices are ‘clearly linked with’ dominant capitalist society
(e.g. they may be trying to sell videos recorded off-air) are likely to be censured within
the fan culture concerned. This is not simply a theoretical contradiction; it is an
inescapable contradiction which fans live out. While simultaneously ‘resisting’ norms of
capitalist society and its rapid turnover of novel commodities, fans are also implicated in
these very economic and cultural processes. Fans are, in one sense, ‘ideal
consumers’ (Cavicchi 1998:62) since their consumption habits can be very highly
predicted by the culture industry, and are likely to remain stable. But fans also express
anti-commercial beliefs (or ‘ideologies’, we might say, since these beliefs are not entirely
in alignment with the cultural situation in which fans find themselves).
Can this contradiction be resolved by a ‘better’ theory of fan activity? My argument in
the next section of this chapter will suggest not: the best we can hope for is a theoretical
approach to fandom which can tolerate contradiction without seeking to close it down
prematurely. Nor am I suggesting that fans are somehow ‘deluded’ in their anticommercial beliefs. This would also collapse the fans’ cultural contradiction into a
smooth instance of logical good sense by judging the ‘fan-as-consumer’ position to be
true and judging the ‘fan-as-anti-commercial’ position as false. Conventional logic,
seeking to construct a sustainable opposition between the ‘fan’ and the ‘consumer’,
falsifies the fan’s experience by positioning fan and consumer as separable cultural
identities. This logic occurs in a number of theoretical models of fandom, particularly
those offered up by Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) and Jenkins (1992).
Abercrombie and Longhurst present a ‘continuum’ of audience experiences and
identities, ranging from the ‘consumer’ at one end, to the ‘petty producer’ at the other end
of the scale, and taking in the ‘fan’, the ‘enthusiast’ and the ‘cultist’ along the way (see
1998:141). Abercrombie and Longhurst’s model reproduces exactly the type of moral
dualism which places ‘good’ fandom in opposition to the ‘bad’ consumer. They view ‘the
consumer’ as somebody who has the least amount of each type of skill that they define
and study.4 This view of the consumer is an essentially negative one: consumers lack the
developed forms of expertise and knowledge that fans, enthusiasts and cultists all possess
in ever-increasing and ever-more-specialised forms. Consumers are at the bottom of the
pile. Petty producers, for whom ‘the previous enthusiasm becomes a full-time
occupation’ (1998:140), are involved in market-organised relations and are able to use
their finely-honed skills to produce material professionally which can then be marketed
back to their own fan culture.
It might seem odd to suggest that Jenkins’s work on fandom participates in a moral
dualism of ‘good’ fandom versus ‘bad’ consumption, especially since Jenkins has
addressed television fan culture through what he concedes is a ‘counter-intuitive’ lens,
beginning from the position that ‘[m]edia fans are consumers who also produce, readers
who also write, spectators who also participate’ (1992b:208). This reads like a definite
end to any fan-consumption opposition. However, Jenkins’s position is complicated by
the fact that he revalues the fans’ intense consumption by allying this with the cultural
values of production: they are ‘consumers who also produce’. But what of fans who may
not be producers, or who may not be interested in writing their own fan fiction or filk
songs? Surely we cannot assume that all fans are busily producing away? The attempt to
extend ‘production’ to all fans culminates in John Fiske’s categories of ‘semiotic’ and
‘enunciative’ productivity (1992:37–9) in which reading a text and talking about it
become cases of ‘productivity’. This raises the suspicion that the term is being pushed to
do too much work, since, short of not watching a programme at all, there appears to be no
way of not being ‘productive’ in relation to it (and presumably even the decision not to
view would retain an aspect of productivity). What this blanket extension of
‘productivity’ does away with semantically is the tainted and devalued term of
‘consumption’.5 But by switching one term for the other, or revaluing fan activities by
stressing that fans are consumers who are also (unofficial) producers, the basic valuation
of ‘production’ and the basic devaluation of ‘consumption’ continue to be accepted.
Fandom is salvaged for academic study by removing the taint of consumption and
This type of academic work seemingly colludes with ‘half’ of the fan experience (anticommercial ideology) by writing out or marginalising the other, contradictory ‘half’ (that
of the commodity-completist). The contradictoriness of fandom within consumer culture
has been examined by a number of writers (Cavicchi 1998; Barker and Brooks 1998;
Brooker 1999a, 1999b). But rigid assumptions that fandom and production are valuable,
whereas consumption is somehow secondary and lacks value, still need to be contested
rather than being used to underpin academic interventions in this area of study.6 For as
Cavicchi has rightly noted, choosing to discuss fandom either as ‘dependence on, or
resistance to, or negotiation with…business’ amounts ‘as in the parable of the blind men
and the elephant [to] mistaking the part for the whole, and would [seem to] have more to
do with the interpreter’s interests than with fan interests’ (1998:63). Janet Staiger has
similarly cautioned against cultural theorists’ tendency to split fandom into ‘good’ and
‘bad’ components: ‘While most studies of fans emphasize the positive features of
exchange and empowerment … I would point out that scholars may need to shift their
presumptions even here—although not back to the days when fans were considered
pathological spectators… Fandom…cannot be easily bifurcated into good and
bad’ (Staiger 2000:54).
Toying with the work of Theodor Adorno…
The work of Theodor Adorno is regularly criticised and dispensed with in academic and
academic-fan accounts of fan culture. It is Adorno’s perspective on ‘overconsumption’
which is set up and knocked down by Henry Jenkins as the lead-in to his own account of
‘how texts become real’ for their fans (Jenkins 1992:51). Similarly, it is the work of
Adorno which is despatched early on in the co-authored work of Tulloch and Jenkins:
‘most of the textual accounts of popular science fiction are embedded in the tradition of
the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas, etc.), with their
pessimistic stress on popular culture’s tendency to communicate the “common sense” of
social order rather than “fantasies” of social change’ (Tulloch in Tulloch and Jenkins
Adorno and the Frankfurt School theorists are recurrently depicted as elitists, as
Fan cultures between consumerism and ‘resistance’
pessimists, and as ‘unsophisticated’ thinkers intent on demonising mass culture and
denying any power or agency to its audiences: ‘Today many people tend to believe that
other, more sophisticated approaches to the issue have superseded the Frankfurt School’s
conception of mass culture as a monstrous and monolithic ideological
machine’ (Modleski 1986:156). Open any contemporary textbook and you are likely to
be confronted with a statement on the Frankfurt School’s arrogance and their view of the
‘passive’ mass audience.7 This received wisdom is extremely useful for media studies
scholars. It allows researchers to preserve the fiction of ‘linear progress’, i.e. that we
definitely now know better than the misguided theorists of the past. However, this
version of moral dualism (past views of the passive audience=bad; current views of the
active audience=good) resembles an academic version of ‘popular memory’.8 Acting as a
conservative form of ‘popular memory’, that is, defending the status quo of current
theorists’ interpretive authority, dismissals of the Frankfurt School carve the history of
media studies into a highly reductive ‘then’ and ‘now’: ‘the Frankfurt School and its
project are what many in cultural studies feel they must resist in order to consolidate their
project’ (Michael 2000:112).
I am not convinced that the simplistic version of Adorno’s work which retains wide
currency in media studies is particularly useful, beyond its function of legitimating
current and ‘superior’ thought.9 The selective reading of Adorno means that many helpful
links which could be made between Adorno’s approach to consumption and the position
of the fan as a consumer have been blocked off.
As a starting point to my use of Adorno’s work, I will briefly consider how Henry
Jenkins (1992a) links Adorno to the ‘toymaker’ in Margery Williams Bianco’s fable The
Velveteen Rabbit. Jenkins uses the tale of the Velveteen Rabbit as an example of how
fans’ love for a text can make that text significant in their lives:
Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, who has an interest in preserving the
stuffed animal as it was made, the Velveteen Rabbit’s loose joints and missing
eyes represent vandalism…yet for the boy, they are traces of fondly
remembered experiences, evidence of his having held the toy too close and pet
it too often, in short, marks of its loving use.
In The Velveteen Rabbit, then, the moral battle is one of the toymaker’s authority versus
the child’s love for his toy rabbit. And in Jenkins’s commentary, which takes off from his
retelling of the Velveteen Rabbit’s tale, it is Adorno’s work which stands as the
theoretical version of the ‘toymaker’:
Adorno…takes the toymaker’s perspective when he describes how prized
cultural texts are ‘disintegrated’ through overconsumption as they are
transformed from sacred artefacts into ‘cultural goods’… Adorno suggests that
musical texts become mere background, lose their fascination and coherence,
when they are played too often or in inappropriate contexts, while popular texts
are made simply to disintegrate upon first use and therefore have little intrinsic
worth. What Adorno’s account of repeated consumption misses is the degree to
which songs, like other texts, assume increased significance as they are
fragmented and reworked to accommodate the particular interests of the
The heartless ‘toymaker’ Adorno is hence positioned as the villain of the piece. Jenkins’s
explicit link between tale and theory makes plain the narrative and moral structure of his
account. And yet, although Jenkins’s summary of a specific article by Adorno is perfectly
fair, Jenkins rather curiously neglects—given his theme—to cite an entry from Adorno’s
Minima Moralia which is entitled simply ‘Toy shop’. In this fragment of thought, Adorno
addresses the playing child in terms which are perhaps no less sentimental than The
Velveteen Rabbit, and also in terms which are not so very far away from Jenkins’s use of
theorist Michel de Certeau:
Play is their [children’s] defence… In his purposeless activity the child, by a
subterfuge, sides with use-value against exchange value. Just because he
deprives the things with which he plays of their mediated usefulness, he seeks to
rescue in them what is benign towards men and not what subserves the exchange
relation that equally deforms men and things…the unreality of games gives
notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.
This statement requires some unpacking. Adorno is drawing on the Marxist terms of ‘usevalue’ (what we can actually use a cultural object for: i.e. we can use soap to wash
ourselves) and ‘exchange-value’ (the ‘exchangeable’ value that an object has when
mediated through money: i.e. how much a bar of soap costs). From a Marxist perspective,
it is ‘exchange-value’ which destroys the uniqueness of objects while also fixing them
with a cost which is always inflated above the actual costs of production and labour (this
‘surplus value’ being extracted as capitalist profit, and thereby estranging workers from
their own labour). In other words, exchange-value is the unnatural imposition of a
capitalist system, while use-value is its alibi, and the remnant of non-capitalist practice.
Exchange-value deforms both ‘men and things’ since it suggests that all objects are
interchangeable through the medium of money, and also, ultimately, that men (and
women) become objects that can be bought and sold under capitalism. As exchange-value
colonises social and cultural relations, it reduces everything to a logic of purchasing
power, including education (pay-per-view lectures?) and love (we start to think of
ourselves as competing for a partner on the ‘love market’: see Cameron and Collins
Adorno’s ‘Toy shop’ entry therefore suggests that the playing child is not entirely
resigned to, and caught up in, the capitalist world. The child is able to side with ‘usevalue’ against ‘exchange-value’, using his or her toys in seemingly ‘purposeless ways’
unanticipated by the toymaker. The child’s play rehearses the ‘right’ (i.e. better/Utopian)
life in which the evils of ‘exchange-value’ are temporarily done away with. This
resistance, this imagination of a better life, and this temporary deviation from the
‘expected’ or ‘anticipated’ use of a cultural object all correspond to, and predate, the work
Fan cultures between consumerism and ‘resistance’
of Michel de Certeau (1988) which forms the theoretical centrepiece of Jenkins’s Textual
Poachers. Adorno’s work is thus not limited by its ‘pessimism’; as I have started to
demonstrate, his approach to ‘mass culture’ is, in fact, not unremittingly pessimistic.
Rather, as I will now outline, the limit to Adorno’s work lies in his adherence to the
Marxist ‘laws of value’ that I have summarised above.
Adorno adopts a ‘dialectical’ approach to culture. This means that he refuses to accept
that logical concepts adequately capture reality, believing instead that material ‘reality’ is
essentially contradictory, and remains outside the mastery of traditional logic. However,
this approach does not imply that theoretical understanding is therefore pointless or
worthless; instead critics must attempt to work with concepts which can contain
contradiction, or concepts which can ‘sublate’ contradiction (meaning that contradictions
are both preserved and surpassed by systems of thought). Adorno’s most rigorous
statement of his approach comes in his book Negative Dialectics (1996). Dialectics must
remain ‘negative’ for Adorno because the process of conceptualising our material world
can never reach an ultimate conclusion. It is for this reason that Adorno criticises Hegel
(1977) for cutting short dialectics in the moment of a final synthesis (i.e. a final and
complete fit between concepts and the world). Adorno suggests that dialectical logic is
more respectful of its objects of study than other, more ‘positivist’ approaches (which
emphasise the non-contradictoriness and self-evidence of the world) because dialectical
logic is ‘more positivistic than the positivism that outlaws it. As thinking, dialectical
logic respects that which is to be thought—the object—even where the object does not
heed the rules of thinking’ (1996:141).
This respect for the object’s contradictoriness, however, is barely evident in Adorno’s
reliance on Marx’s categories of ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’. This Marxist ‘law of
value’ is treated non-dialectically, as a ‘factual’ object which occurs behind the back of
the subject and confronts it precisely as a ‘law’. Miklitsch (1998:84) has noted the lack of
interest shown by Marx in ‘individual consumption’ (i.e. what people actually do with
what they have ‘consumed’), and suggests that it is important to account for this moment
of consumption, or what Miklitsch terms ‘final consumption’ (ibid.: 92) rather than
remaining fixed at the level of supposedly ‘objective’ laws of value. Adorno, following
Marx, shows a general theoretical lack of interest in what consumers actually do with
their objects of consumption, although this is contradicted by his specific investigations
of ‘final consumption’ such as the ‘Toy shop’ example where ‘what defies subsumption
under identity—the “use-value” in Marxist terminology—is necessary anyway if life is to
go on at all, even under the prevailing circumstances of production. The utopia extends to
the sworn enemies of its realisation’ (Adorno 1996:11, my emphasis).
Adorno, hence, produces a theoretical approach which can be read against itself, and
where ‘pessimism’ at the level of general theory gives way to an awareness of
contradiction and complexity in specific cases such as the playing child (taken as a model
for fandom by both Jenkins and myself). Unfortunately most cultural studies accounts of
Adorno’s work remain fixed at the level of his general pronouncements rather than
investigating how these pronouncements are undermined in the details of Adorno’s
thought. And few seek to explore the tensions which exist between Adorno’s dialectics
and his own reinstatement of a subject/object binary: ‘The polarity of subject and object
may well appear to be an undialectical structure in which all dialectics take
place’ (Adorno 1996:174).
It is important to pick up on Adorno’s anxious defence of the subject/object split,
challenging his general dualism of consumer-Subject and law-of-value-Object, as well as
that which is constructed between Adorno as philosopher-Subject and the culture industry
as administered-Object. Both are moments in which the subject and object become
absolutely opposed, and where dialectics thus forgets both itself and the possibilities of
‘final consumption’ (Miklitsch 1998:83–4). Restoring dialectical thinking to the
consumer (subject) and the law-of-value (object) means constructing a ‘dialectic of
value’ in place of this ‘dialectic of enlightenment’. This means making Adorno’s ‘Toy
shop’ example more contradictory—more dialectical—than it is in Adorno’s own
formulation. For how is the child able to ‘side with use-value against exchange-value’
unless these terms are opposed, just as conventional logic opposes subject and object?
My argument here is that ‘use-value’ and ‘exchange-value’ cannot ever be fully separated
out from one another. Even as the playing child, or the fan, appears to depart from the
perspective of the ‘toymaker’ (or producer) and find their own use for a text, they still
remain simultaneously caught up in the system of exchange-value. The fan’s
appropriation of a text is therefore an act of ‘final consumption’ which pulls this text
away from (intersubjective and public) exchange-value and towards (private, personal)
use-value, but without ever cleanly or clearly being able to separate out the two. It is for
this reason that fan ‘appropriations’ of texts or ‘resistances’ to consumption can always
be reclaimed as new instances of exchange-value.
Appadurai (1986) comes close to recognising the dialectic of value when he notes that
things can ‘move in and out of the commodity state… [S]uch movements can be slow or
fast, reversible or terminal, normative or deviant’ (cited in Miklitsch 1998:88). However,
Appadurai’s theory relies on the passing of time to defuse the dialectic of value and
restore a logic of non-contradiction. A logic of identity is restored because at point ‘a’ in
time the object is purely a commodity, whereas at point ‘b’ in time this same object is
viewed purely as a non-commodity. The awkward question which would remain, is how
and where could the definite division between these events be located?
An excellent example of the ‘dialectic of value’ is the existence of a market for media
tie-in memorabilia or ‘collectibles’. This market can be examined easily enough by
looking at the Internet site ebay.com. Many commodities offered for sale on Ebay should,
according to the conventional logic of use and exchange-value, be almost worthless.
However, due to many of them having been intensely subjectively valued by fans, such
commodities take on a redefined ‘exchange-value’. But this new exchange-value is not
predetermined by any ‘law of value’. It is created through the durability of fans’
attachments, and through the fans’ desire to own merchandise which is often no longer
being industrially produced. This is not ‘exchange-value’ in any classical, Marxist sense.
It emerges only through a process of localised (fan-based) use-valuations (which are not
entirely reducible to ‘economic’ models, being intensifications of personalised ‘usevalue’). These fan-based ‘use-values’ interact with systems which belong to the economy
‘proper’, meaning that the existence of a marketplace for media-related collectibles is
underpinned by the lived experiences of fandom. Even if this implies that the ‘law of
Fan cultures between consumerism and ‘resistance’
value’ returns in a more coercive manner, then this process does not, after all, go on
behind the backs of social agents (fans), but goes on instead through the historically
specific, embodied and lived experiences of these fans.
This section has been predominantly theoretical. In the following case study of fans of
‘cult television’ (this being a self-description within the fan culture concerned), I want to
show how the ‘dialectic of value’ can illustrate the cultural and economic processes in
which fan cultures are implicated. I will then conclude the chapter with a brief
examination of Kurt Lancaster’s (2001) work on fans of Babylon 5, also asking how
‘cultural power’ can be conceptualised in relation to fan cultures.
Textual poachers turned textual gamekeepers?
In this section, I want to focus on Cult Times, a monthly UK broadcast-listings magazine
which resembles a post-Fordist version of The Radio Times (an identification which it
signals through its very title). Despite the deconstruction of the ‘production/consumption’
binary that I have examined above, I want to suggest that we should not view the leakingtogether of these terms through rose-tinted glasses. Viewing cult TV fandom as a niche
market does not mean discussing the simplistic ‘empowerment’ of fans. Target marketing
also involves the cultural and economic disempowering of cult audiences via their niche
isolation from wider ‘coalition audiences’ and via the related decline in the wider
economic viability of the fans’ favoured media text(s). That fans appear to ‘get what they
want’ is only the beginning of a more complex situation. Cult TV fandom, which has
been discussed as a matter of ‘grass roots’ consumption versus preprogrammed ‘topdown’ commodification (see Feuer 1995), therefore needs to be approached without the
imposition of such a rigid binary opposition, being viewed as more essentially
contradictory. Having already agreed that there may be a variety of reasons to consider
fandom as ‘resistive’ or as operating through a set of ‘unruly’ consumption practices, I
want to set these practices within the context of commodification. My argument is that
initially unexpected consumption practices, far from challenging the interests of TV
producers, and the power relationships through which capital circulates, are rapidly
recuperated within discourses and practices of marketing. Fandom has begun to furnish a
model of dedicated and loyal consumption which does, in point of fact, appeal to niche
and non-terrestrial TV producers and schedulers10 operating within a fragmented multichannel media environment.11
Fan-consumers are no longer viewed as eccentric irritants, but rather as loyal
consumers to be created, where possible, or otherwise to be courted through scheduling
practices. Consider, for example, the interest which ‘minority’ or niche UK
‘narrowcasters’ such as satellite/cable channels have shown in the programmes which
make it into the pages of Cult Times. Sky One has been the first-run channel for The XFiles, for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and is currently showing Buffy the
Vampire Slayer ahead of the BBC and Angel ahead of Channel 4, while Bravo was, for a
time, known as ‘the cult channel’, and promoted itself along these lines with its
‘timewarp television’ slogans. Where such channels were, and are, unlikely to reach
anything resembling a mass audience, they have used financial clout (in the case of Sky)
and the cannily themed scheduling of cheap reruns (Bravo) to secure loyal fan audiences.
In such cases, it is clear that cult TV fans are being directly targeted as a niche market,
rather than emerging unexpectedly through ‘grassroots’ movements of TV appreciation.
The supposedly ‘resistive’ figure of the fan has, then, become increasingly enmeshed
within market rationalisations and routines of scheduling and channel-branding.12
The case of Bravo (which has now moved away from programming ‘cult’ material) is
particularly intriguing. Its ‘Vice-president of Programming Yoni Cohen’ was interviewed
in 1995 as part of a magazine article dealing with cult television (see Green and Bodle
1995). Cohen is quoted as follows:
Yoni Cohen is wary of defining what makes its [Bravo’s] output ‘cult’. ‘That’s
defined by the audience’, he says. However, he stresses that these programmes
have both a distinctiveness (there’s never been anything like them) and an
internal consistency (from week to week, they create a coherent framework,
within which their stories take place). Cohen knows that keeping on the right
side of cult TV’s fans is important in his line of broadcasting. ‘You can get in
terrible trouble with them if you show the programmes in the wrong order. So
we listen to fans, try to find out what the original transmission or production
order was for each series, then present the programmes respecting the original
details as much as possible.’
(Green and Bodle 1995:19)
What is significant within this interview is its discursive characterisation of cult TV as a
grassroots or fan-owned phenomenon (‘defined by the audience’) and its simultaneous
emphasis on ‘keeping on the right side’ of the fans. What this demonstrates is the extent
to which, when approaching the fan audience as a target market, the fan culture’s values
of authenticity must be mirrored (whether these are transmission dates or—a yet more
extreme form of authentication—production dates). At the same time, this observance of
fan ‘authenticity’ masks the extent to which ‘fan-ownership’ acts as a rhetorical device
aimed at promoting the notion that target marketing merely ‘reflects’ values and
distinctions which are already operative within the cultural worlds of dedicated cult TV
fandom. This discursive construction purposefully neglects the agency and intervention
of the cult narrowcaster who is able to identify and schedule cult programmes which will
deliver the desired audience, thus reconstructing the fan culture as a niche market which
is isolated from the ‘mainstream’. Following Collins (1992), ‘coalition audience’ rather
than ‘mainstream’ is probably a more accurate identification of the situation where
fandom is able to occupy a space within a series of other audience fragments gathered
around a single programme.
John Tulloch’s discussion of Doctor Who fans as a ‘powerless elite’ (in Tulloch and
Jenkins 1995:144–72) hinges on the subordinat…
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