On social media, ‘Mary Sue RPF’ and consent

I have not really touched on fan fiction in my works in any significant ways, but I want to put this in the “work in progress” folder as I think through the realities and practicalities of continuing this vein of thought.

In my academic work, I’ve written a fair bit on fan labour, arguing for value in the labour that fans perform for their favourite celebrities and media producers, be it in indirectly contributing to a crowdfunding campaign, or directly with building websites and going on to maintain (and perhaps even manage) the sites and fan interactions. As someone who also performs fan labour myself, I’ve blogged about the (personal) complications of being in that liminal position: of having access, being the gatekeeper and still maintaining my identity as both a fan and fan studies scholar. This is especially relevant in my observations of one fan who insists on a particular set of behaviours in the process of constructing a narrative, even when she receives no attention whatsoever from the celebrity she’s tweeting.

Is this part of a performance, I frequently ask myself. Or would we discover that it’s some form of (unethical) social media experiment? In truth, that it’s a cruel joke or a performance of some kind would be less troubling than the thought that this fan is violating the unspoken code of interacting with celebrities on social media, that this pattern of behaviour isn’t indicative of something more worrying. The last time I blogged about this, I was talking about some form of ethical guideline for engaging with this in academic terms, especially given my proximity to those involved and my role as gatekeeper. But I was also thinking along in terms of how fans approach and (want to) interact with their favourite celebrities on social media. When I’m on social media, I’m sometimes interacting as a fan (and performing fan labour) as well as a fan studies scholar – those roles interchange very frequently, sometimes without me being entirely conscious about it. I am, however, conscious about the fact that I’m not on social media to judge how fans choose to express their fandom in a public space. We all make use of social media in different ways, after all. Ultimately, those emotions are also expressed via fans’ own personal Twitter accounts. And I think while I’m entitled to privately cringe over some, feeling somewhat aghast and worried was the last thing I expected.

For how do you begin to reconcile the work and the research with the realities when fans deliberately tweet what looks like real person fan fiction to the celebrities – not that there is anything wrong with that. But when the tweets are incessant, and the fan has inserted herself into the – at times, explicit – fantasy, something which Kristina Busse has suggested is a recurring mode of fannish narrative (2006, p. 256), it got me thinking about boundaries, consent, and social reciprocity. Mel Stanfill and I have briefly flirted with the idea of consent in our Twitter and email exchanges – she was, in fact, the one who turned my thoughts in this direction in relation to the tweets I was seeing a lot at one point over the course of several months in early 2014 [1]. If a fan is writing explicit tweets on a public forum and further including the celebrity in their @mentions, is the celebrity being included without their consent? Furthermore, what of the fans tracking his @mentions who are suddenly inundated with these tweets?

Busse (2006, p. 255) argues that fan fiction provides a space whereby fans “literally write out and share their fantasies, they create a social space of communication and interaction that is about the celebrities, the stories, as well as the women writing them”. These are however, shared within the confines of fan communities, often constructed specifically for this very purpose: for fans who share the same readings, or are interested in the production of transformative works. Tweets, on the other hand, are not constructed within fan communities, and at times, fans who see it are not familiar with, nor do they participate in the creative side of fandom. There is further complication when the celebrity in question blocks the fan, suggesting that a boundary has been crossed.

Fan fiction is often produced independent of the knowledge and involvement of actors and media producers (media, tech and fandom-savvy celebrities like Orlando Jones notwithstanding), but when the fan who’s constructing this narrative further tries to convince others that she has an offline relationship with the celebrity, is it then no longer fan fiction? Is it ever fan fiction in the first place?

Celebrities might take to using the same social media platforms as fans, and with the rising popularity of networks like Twitter, it can be easy to forget that they – nor anyone – are not obligated in any way to respond to fans. Equally, fans who make use of Twitter and who enjoy interacting with their favourite celebrities might feel that they are being misrepresented by other fans. Fandom is so easily disregarded as something trivial and many have portrayed celebrity/fan interactions as para-social, arguing that fans are in need of (medical) help and a healthy/ier social life. On one level, this is a form of fandom policing, where fans want to ensure that they are presenting the best view of fandom to the public so any behaviour or narrative that threatens this image disrupts fans’ construction of the ‘ideal fandom’.

This policing isn’t new, especially when it involves real person fiction. While it is generally accepted in some fandoms, real person fiction is often treated with suspicion. In older media fandoms such as The X-Files, for instance, real person fiction is not only frowned upon but generally banned from the show’s fan fiction archives. A lot of times, however, the stories produced feature the actors, where shipping of characters are extended to the actors, who as celebrities, are seen as performing a public role at the same time. This, then, is different from the insertion fantasy fan fiction inflicted upon celebrities on Twitter. It is one thing to write fan fiction featuring one’s favourite celebrities and submit them to an RPF-friendly archive such as AO3. It is, however, more ‘controversial’ to produce this narrative in public on Twitter and tagging the celebrity in question, as if inviting him to participate in said fantasy.

Ultimately, my question remains: can something like this be considered as a form of real person fiction? Absent any logical way to engage with, and understand this [2], is this the only way we can continue to ask difficult questions of fan practices and their interactions with one another, as well as with their favourite celebrities?

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[1] While the frequency and suggestiveness of the tweets have lessened, the tweeter has not stopped trying to communicate with the celebrity in question, often going on to create numerous sock puppet accounts even if she is blocked as soon as she is discovered.
[2] The narrative has now expanded to include at least 2 other actors who are all friends in real life, 2 other fans who appears to believe the stories told by the fan in question, as well as others who have expressed their displeasure and disbelief of this, suggesting that there is some form of elaborate world-building happening here that perhaps rivals those of Marvel’s.

Reference:

Busse, Kristina. 2006. ‘I’m Jealous of the Fake Me’: Postmodern Subjectivity and Identity Construction in Boy Band Fan Fiction. In S. Holmes & S. Redmond, eds. Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture, London: Routledge, pgs. 253-267.

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