Return to Syllabus   Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Shefrin, E. (2004). Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and participatory fandom: Mapping new congruencies between the internet and media entertainment culture. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(3), 261-281.

Note: These comments are not designed to "summarize" the reading. Rather, they are available to highlight key ideas that will emerge in our classroom discussion. As always, it's best to read the original text to gain full value from the course.

Shefrin describes an emerging role of participatory fandom in the production and consumption of media texts. Doing so, she defines such fandom's use of "Internet clubs and Web sites [to provide] venues for fans to maintain heightened connections to . . . media producers and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production, and political activism" (p. 262). To Shefrin, fans of George Lucas's Star Wars series enjoy less acceptance of their contributions (and uses) than fans of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings [LOTR] trilogy. To analyze these differing relationships between fans and media producers, Shefrin employs Pierre Bourdieu's theory of cultural production. This theory suggests that we focus on "fields" -- as articulated by Shefrin: a field of artistic production, a field of power, and a field of class relations (p. 263). From this perspective, we might imagine that art is dominated by power while serving to influence class distinctions. However, contemporary media production faces a world in which "cultural producers are gaining status in both personal and corporate fields of power," while, simultaneously, class relationships are becoming splintered (p. 263). Participatory fandom, Shefrin claims, is part of that transformation.

The essay analyzes this change according to four periods: pre-production, production, circulation, and consumption. Shefrin's description of pre-production positions both directors as producers of middle-brow art seeking to be both creative and profitable. Even so, Shefrin differentiates Jackson from Lucus by arguing that the LOTR director sought to shake up the status quo while Lucas sought to affirm his dominance within that status quo. Shifting to production, Shefrin describes Jackson's use of Aint-it-Cool-News and other online communities to generate interest in his project. From this example, the author states: "From a critical viewpoint, Jackson's online interviews with Tolkien fans can be seen as a strategic move to co-opt the overall import of fan opinion" (p. 267). Turning to circulation, Shefrin describes how fans may (or may not) be invited to "consecrate" a media text, to affirm its positive value. Here, the difference between Jackson and Lucas is made clearer: "Jackson is perceived as an encourager of participatory fan practices, while Lucas is perceived as an inhibiter of those practices" (p. 270). Finally, Shefrin focuses on consumption, noting how participatory fans "often appropriate corporate-generated imagery, and then embellish or transform it with personal artistic expressions" (p. 273). In this manner, a media text is no longer a closed system of intellectual property but, rather, may be imagined as shareware (p. 274). Once again, Lucas appears to transform fan relationships into one-way commercial opportunities while Jackson allows more chances for fans to transform LOTR content into personal opportunities of creativity (to a point).

Following this section, Shefrin turns to computer-mediated communication as a site to evaluate the trends of open and closed communities of media-text pre-production, production, circulation, and consumption. To that end, the author posits three sets of pro-con arguments about the impact of the internet on this phenomenon (see table on page 277). While admitting the possibility that the internet could serve to consolidate the powers of media producers over docile consumers, most notably through concealed totalism whereby (according to Jostein Gripsrud) "the audience can never choose something it has not been offered" (p. 278), Shefrin concludes by proposing that participatory fandom' s use of new technologies offer more reason for optimism than pessimism.

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