From Fans to Users: Studying Diversity in Academic and Media Industry Research

Curator's Note

Fan Studies researchers often document the intersection of fandom, identity politics, and reactionary culture wars. Scholars such as Scott (2019), Pande (2018), and Liang & de Montrouge (eds., 2019) have shown how gender, race, and ability can construct fans’ experiences. Such identity markers often become the targets of reactionary gatekeeping campaigns.

Research on identity and popular culture also exists in industry studies of media users. User experience (UX) research, for example, examines consumers’ experiences using media products (such as software, websites, or video games). This research similarly considers how identity markers such as race, gender, and ability impact people’s interactions with media and culture, and how best to design media for a variety of users (see eds. Berry et al., 2022; Lupton et al., 2021).

Fan studies and industry research can learn from each other based on the overlaps of “fan” and “user” identities. Fan studies often focuses on audiences’ affect and emotional engagement with media. UX research studies users’ interactions with media, which are tangible manifestations of how those affective relationships play out.

As one example of this overlap, consider that both fan researchers and industry researchers/designers have critiqued corporate uses of the term “diversity.” In a fan studies context, Warner (2017) argues that the dominant media industries approach to diversity is that “any representation that includes a person of color is automatically a sign of success and progress.” This view leads to representation that often ignores or misrepresents “the histories and experiences” of people of color, and therefore, may fail to emotionally resonate with fans. Regarding media users, graphic designer Tillman (see Lupton) argues that companies often have a “shallow take” on diversity that does not extend past saying “we need more Black designers”; this fails to examine how designers can make “experiences and products that are useful for everyone” across race, gender, ability, and numerous other factors (p. 25). Both of these authors critique commodified forms of “diversity” that do not consider the emotional and functional – or fan and user – experiences of engaging with media.

This fan-user link continues when it comes to reactionary gatekeeping campaigns. Consider the online discussion of the recently released video game Starfield. The game allows players to select their character’s pronouns, a feature that challenges the cishet hegemony of some gaming cultures and inspired an angry fan’s viral rant against the game (Davies, 2023). This reaction represents fan-based emotion stemming from a design choice geared toward fulfilling the needs of a wider audience. Reactionary anti-diversity campaigns often target instances of user engagement to inspire potent fan emotions.

Fan studies examines the affective elements of fandom, while media industries study how those affective responses can correspond to design choices. Employing both fan and user perspectives gives us a wholistic view of how and why media interactions exist in the real world.



Berry, A. H., Collie, K., Laker, P. A., Noel, L.-A., Rittner, J., & Walters, K. (Eds.). (2022). The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection. Allworth.

Davies, R. (2023, September 6). The Internet’s Most Obnoxious Gamers Spent the Weekend Melting Down Over Pronouns in “Starfield.” The Mary Sue.

Liang, B., & de Montrouge, C. D. (Eds.). (2019). Disability and/in/through Fanfiction. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, 8(2).

Lupton, E., Tobias, J., Halstead, J., Xia, L., Sales, K., Kafei, F., & Vergara, V. (2021). Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-Racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers. Princeton Architectural Press.

Pande, R. (2018). Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race. University of Iowa Press.

Scott, S. (2019). Fake Geek Girls: Fandom, Gender, and the Convergence Culture Industry. NYU Press.

Trama, A. (2023, September 5). Starfield’s Pronoun “Controversy” Explained. Game Rant.

Warner, K. J. (2017). In the Time of Plastic Representation. Film Quarterly, 71(2), 32–37.

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