A Network of Networks: Convention Culture, Offline Avatars, and New Fandom Practice

With the onset of digital culture, fandom conventions have recently undergone serious transformations. Originally a method of shared appreciation for media and creative culture, digital communities have influenced an entire new generation of fans and their modes of interaction, changing the con floor from a fluid space between panels and vendors to a celebration of the same internet culture most fans encountered in the nascent stages of their fandom, and reflecting the power of social media in the present. 


The “offline online” avatar

-Where once an individual would maintain an avatar for use online, now the online identities are forming their own avatars for offline interaction. As people become more identified by social media handles and news feeds, now those feeds and handles need to be acknowledged as an influential part of the person’s offline life. (“I’m Tumblr-famous” or “I have 5000 followers” or “I went viral.”)


Moving beyond this merging of online identities with offline lives, now the outlets themselves are being incarnated in the convention space through the popular medium of cosplay. New York Comic Con 2013 and Anime Boston 2014 both had in attendance Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook cosplayers- providing a face and physical form for social media networks. Where once the avatar allowed the fan to exist in a virtual world, now the virtual network has its own avatar to interact within the real world, or at least that’s what the presence of these cosplayers could suggest. Given the importance of these networks in fandom practice, it might have been inevitable to see the network “transcend the boundaries” of the virtual and physical worlds. 


Online practices as dictating powers and generational markers within fandom

-Newsgroups and forums were a pivotal method for fans to interact across long distances, producing discussions and email chains that facilitated sharing of knowledge and opinion. Now, social media sites cater to a more “instant gratification” idea, whereby fans make short comments, or promote the creations of others. Akin to mimetics, the short-form information carries more weight and influence than the long-form discussion. 


A generation ago, forums and newsgroups were used to enhance the fandom experience and collect ideas for communal digestion. The new generation of fan uses the internet as a definitive mode of fandom practice- rather than a tool to enrich fandom, it becomes the fandom outright, dictating passions and defining methods by which fans interact both ONLINE and OFFLINE. It is an affirmation-based community, versus an information-based one. Fans feel the need to vocalize their recognition of multiple fandoms and practices, rather than build a focused body of knowledge and information, and have created a new elitism that insists it despises the elitism of earlier generations.


Looking at a convention space today, fandom discussions and education are the purview of the panel room and private meetings. Much like forums discussions, they are regulated by topic, and frequently contain dialog and information. The convention floor behaves differently: fast-paced interactions, callbacks of online catchphrases, sharing of photos and image gathering, which are then uploaded onto social media sites for the virtual attendees to experience. In a way, the convention floor is becoming a convergence of social media fandom practice, mirroring the online media outlets through which these fans interact outside the con.  


Digital communities have altered how the recent fandom generations practice anything, because it is how they first interacted and learned of fandom communities in the first place. And this new practice of fandom carries over to the analog space, where the visible transformation is most apparent. A sort of physical network of networks.


Image on front page by Alan Teo and available via Flickr


Fans feel the need to vocalize their recognition of multiple fandoms and practices, rather than build a focused body of knowledge and information, and have created a new elitism that insists it despises the elitism of earlier generations.

I find it also interesting that the "earlier generations" of fandom - for argument's sake, those who focused on trivia or depth of knowledge - also often do not think about meeting in the middle. Or rather, that they shun the practices of the new elitism/new fandoms, and never wonder why those fans are practicing in such a way (affirmation-based, for example, heavy use of Tumblr or Twitter or other networks) in the first place. It's like wondering why someone's story about learning went a certain way, when mentors and teachers or anyone else that could have taught lore and practice are all absent.

Really interesting piece here, and what had me particularly excited was your discussion of avatars and the blurred boundaries they exist/operate in. I've been currently thinking about avatars and their relationship to persona profiles for a gamified in-class technical communication assignment. Persona profiles are a common genre of workplace writing where designers will analyze their end user. In public relations and marketing, these profiles might explore the end user's/target demographic's media engagement, including Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Avatar building is a form of identity formation, but I've considered inviting students to analyze their end user in a persona avatar rather than a persona profile. This conversation has me thinking about these avatars in much deeper ways, considering their strong connection to social media sites and the history behind those associations. I have much to ponder, thank you. 

One of the ideas that was swimming in my head while writing this was the extent to which avatars impact the construction of our identities outside of the internet. Or in some cases, how the avatar is viewed as being "more real," and therefore within the construction of a sacred space, like a con- where notions of freedom of identity are usually at the forefront- the idea of the avatar being the primary mode of identification was a powerful representation of digital community influence. From all the conventions I've attended, I see this more and more on the con floors and art spaces. In fact, one of my oldest friends in the fandom has identified herself by her avatar for as long as I've known her, expressing her desire to be her online identity over her real self. 

At the same time, I'm wondering how blurred the line between avatar representations, fandom, and 'real selves' are; I went by my online identity names for years at conventions, as that was how many people would recognize me instead, by the reputation of the online name - or what associations they had with said name, in any case. In online communities - forums, social media, and all - the practice of pseudonyms and pseudo-anonymity (as opposed to completely anonymous: i.e., using handles or usernames) means that a reputation gets attached to an avatar or username over time. And as reputation is a form of social currency, establishing, keeping, and affirming this reputation is highly important in online spaces as well as offline spaces.

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