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MIT blogger Cami M. '23

CMS.621: Fans & Fan Culture by Cami M. '23

the class that changed my career trajectory?

I usually reserve these kinds of posts for life-changing classes, the kinds of classes that let me discover things about myself and about the world around me and see things in a perspective I’ve never really considered before.

Introduction

CMS.621 hasn’t been taught in seven years, with the last semester the class happened being Spring 2014. I remember when I first saw the class in the course catalog during my freshman year. I was incredibly excited to take it, before I saw it was no longer offered.

Last fall, I saw it would actually be offered in the spring and taught by no one other than Ed Schiappa. But then to my dismay I saw that the class was also a 9am-10:30am class on Mondays and Wednesdays. To those of you who know me, I have a very strict “no classes before 11am” rule that I steadfastly stuck to…at least I did until this class.

I talked to Nisha about it and she raved and raved about how great Professor Schiappa was, as both a professor and a person, and she told me any class with him was well worth it.

The Class

Examines media audiences – specifically, fans – and the subcultures that evolve around them. Examines the different historical, contemporary and transnational understandings of fans. Explores products of fan culture, i.e., clubs, fiction, “vids,” activism, etc. Readings place these products within the context of various disciplines. Students consider the concept of the “aca-fan” and reflect on their own “fannish” practices. Requires several short papers. Students taking graduate version complete additional assignments. Limited to 20.

CMS.621 is broken into 3 main papers, where each paper written also must be presented in class in front of the professor (Ed Schiappa) and the rest of the students.

  • Oral History – an interview with a family member (preferably over the age of 50) about their fan/fan culture experience form the past
  • Autoethnography – a reflection on your own fan experience
  • Normative Assessment – a critical assessment about some phenomenon in current or recent fan culture.

I was extremely excited for all of these papers, albeit a little nervous since I’m not super confident in my writing, but all of the topics looked SO interesting.

In addition to these papers, we had other assigned readings and videos. Some highlights were Trekkies, a documentary on the eccentric fan culture of the Star Trek fandom, and Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. Frankly, the latter was such an interesting and fun watch. I watched it with my boyfriend and it actually ended up being such an informative movie. Another highlight of the class was having to read Powers’ ATLA blog in class, which I thought was a cool little nod to the MIT Admissions blogs.

Unit 1: Oral History

We started the class off by learning about the Uses and Gratifications Theory, which essentially provided a basic framework and understanding of what needs media fulfills for people. It helped explain why people became fans of things, whether that was for entertainment value, social value, a self-identity value, and other things along these lines. We also evaluated Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and evaluated how fan culture satisfies these needs as well.

For my oral history presentation, I interviewed my dad’s sister (my Ninang) about her fan experience with Duran-Duran. During this interview, I learned so much about my aunt, not having known about this fan-girlish past of hers. She described to me how it was the first band she remembered really, really loving, how they were so foreign to her because she had heard very little about Europeans growing up in the Philippines. She wasn’t used to these synth beats and these illustrious and dramatic music videos or these boys lauding gaudy v necks and subtle eyeliner. As she described her experience to me, it was interesting to tie her words to the uses and gratifications theory, and see how the needs that Duran Duran shifted over time. At first, listening to this new wave music was an act of rebellion against the dictatorship in the Philippines and a metaphor for the end of martial law. Then, it became a vehicle for social interaction and popularity, as she bonded with her friends over their music and music videos. But towards the end, Duran Duran represented the expansion of my aunt’s universe, introducing her to European culture and life.

(Professor Schiappa himself downloaded and cut all of these videos for me so I could use them in this blogpost so huge thank you to him!!!!)

 

Unit 2: Autoethnography

For paper 2, I had a lot of different ideas of the direction I wanted to take it. I was thinking of talking of my new infatuation with Minecraft YouTube and OfflineTV and how my experience as a more “seasoned Internet person” has changed the way I consume media. I thought of doing it on Bojack Horseman, a show that absolutely broke and shattered my soul and spirit and made me deeply evaluate my mental health and relationships. And then I thought of doing it on the place where it all started, One Direction.

I ultimately settled on One Direction because I thought it would be interesting to evaluate how being an avid, avid fan of something in some of the most developmentally important years of my life (14-17) impacted my personality and life.

It was really eye-opening to assess my fan life in One Direction. I’ve mentioned this many times in the blogs before, but I grew up with so much internalized misogyny growing up. I hated interacting with women, I looked down on girls for having girlish interests, and it was a really difficult thing to unlearn. I genuinely believe that being so present on the Internet and finding my way to Tumblr prevented me from being some strange, self-hating, women-hating shell of myself and I’m grateful that my friend introduced me to the cursed platform in 7th grade.

Becoming a fan of One Direction was one of the first steps I took to unlearn the hateful, sexist habits I had internalized. It felt good to like something with a primarily female fanbase and meet a variety of incredible and inspirational people that pushed against the stereotypes of a fandom mainly dominated by teenage girls. I met doctors and engineers and artists. I encountered people who went to Stanford and MIT and Columbia. I learned about so many other cultures and issues since the fandom usually held different philanthropic events for the boys’ birthdays throughout the year.

In my presentation, I even talked about my content creation and involvement in the fandom, like the many many fanfics I wrote about Ziam, or my involvement in being a “larrie” (someone who believes Harry and Louis were/are together) and how I quickly found my place and status in the One Direction hierarchy and community through my many shitposts and works.

Then, I touched on the actual impact of One Direction itself. High school is an awkward time. I was a relatively okay looking individual, but I lacked a lot of self confidence in my body and appearance and just identity as a whole. Being a fan of One Direction helped me find my way as a person, after interacting with so many cool, unique people who valued me, my work, and what I had to say. I relied a lot on One Direction for my happiness, using them as motivation to work and to eat (I’d tell myself that Liam Payne would be sad if he saw I was skipping meals), and while it was a positive experience at the time, it also made me reflect on how much I tied my worth and identity to One Direction.

Which led me to..

Unit 3: Normative Assessment

my third presentation. I chose to do my paper on parasocial relationships in the digital age, specifically looking at streamers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.

This was a relatively daunting paper for me. This paper was more argumentative than it was a description and story of a particular experience, and I’ve never been the best at argumentative papers.

I researched a lot of different papers and articles on the topic, exploring things like the impacts of parasocial relationships on a person and their identity, or when a parasocial relationship turns negative, or the people most susceptible to developing parasocial relationships. I even hosted my own survey on parasocial relationships with MIT undergraduates and 18-22 year olds on a Minecraft YouTube Discord server I was a part of. It asked things like if they’ve ever donated to a content creator before, how many hours a week they spent watching a content creator, if they’ve ever bought merchandise, if they’ve ever made friends with people within the community, and more questions surrounding their fan experience. I found a lot of interesting things that didn’t even go into my paper, like how there was a correlation between money spent on/donated to content creators and the hours watched. Or how 38% of people believed that their favorite content creators were very similar or similar to them.

The paper touched on the dangers of intense parasocial relationships, such as how financial and emotional dependencies can form. I evaluated how certain features of Twitch like text-to-speech donations and subscription features led to a commodification of parasocial interaction.

Final Thoughts

This class was amazing. Probably my favorite class I’ve taken at MIT so far. And while it was incredibly fun to deep dive into myself and better understand my actions and behaviors as a fan, it was equally as fun to hear the amazing presentations of other people in the class. And honestly I think that’s one of the best parts of the class. Someone did a presentation on how cringe culture is dead, or how the show Parks and Recreation encourages the celebrification of political figures. I loved hearing about people talk about their own fan experiences, like their love for Dan and Phil or Star Trek or Elvis.

It was just such an enlightening experience and I genuinely learned so, so much about the different areas of media, from furries to the Kardashians to boys love.

I really do applaud Professor Schiappa for opening the class with an emphasis on openness and understanding, and creating a judgment free zone. It really set the tone for the rest of the semester and really helped people open up about their own weird, fun, quirky interests. It was such a supportive environment and allowed us to be wholly and unabashedly ourselves, which I think is very, very rare in a classroom setting.

This class also just made me realize how much I love media and helped me critically evaluate the role media plays in my life. For the past couple of months I’ve been debating where my future will take me and where I hope to see myself, and really, this class just reminded me that I need to be in media in some form, whether that be at Twitch or Crash Course or Twitch. I need it there because it has played such a large part in my life.

So, really, TLDR: Thank you to Professor Schiappa and my classmates for teaching me so much and listening to my long, long talks about Twitch streamers and One Direction. This was a truly incredible class and I’m really glad I made the 9am wake up times for it.