Sci-Fi Fandoms in the Digital Age: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who Fandoms and Social Media

Sci-Fi Fandoms in the Digital Age: Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who Fandoms and Social Media

Gabrielle T. Loehr, Lee Shackleford, Karen Elizabeth Dill-Shackleford, Melody Metcalf
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1048-3.ch015
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This chapter discusses the evolution of the Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Star Trek fandoms from their beginnings to their current releases. These brief histories highlight how fans communicated with each other before social media and how those communications changed with the advent of the internet and social media. The dynamics of online groups, individual behavior in online groups, and the life cycle of a group are all discussed before moving onto trolling and the spectrum of online incivility. Overall, most of the trolling that occurs in sci-fi fandoms comes from devotion to the franchise rather than from the desire to be divisive or negative. However, some online incivility is solely guided by sexism, racism, and the desire to sow social discord. Two examples of sexist and racist fan behavior from Star Wars: The Last Jedi illustrates the different motivations of fandom trolls as well as ways to respond. Although every fandom is different, group behavior is predictable thus insights from these iconic sci-fi fandoms can be applied to many different fandoms.
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Social media has made it easy for fandoms to grow and thrive, reaching and connecting new people all over the world. Although social media is a relatively recent phenomenon, social psychology has been explaining group dynamics for decades; as such, there is much to learn about fandoms from a social psychology perspective. Aspects of group dynamics, social interaction in online groups, the life cycles of online groups, and how online group interactions differ from in-person group interactions are all reviewed as well.

Fandoms are often as unique as the franchise or universe that spawned them. In this chapter, the history and evolution of the iconic sci-fi franchises of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who fandoms are covered, from their beginnings in the 1960’s and 1970’s up to the present day. There are many iconic franchises with strong, committed fans, so these ideas apply to many, if not most, readers. These insights concern changes that have developed in fan-to-fan communications within fandoms as these communications have gone online.

To fully understand social communication in fandoms both before and after the advent of social media, some aspects of the history of three fandoms should be understood. First, a narrative history of the fandoms under consideration will be given. Second, those histories will be placed in the context of social science research on fandoms and social media.

Lastly, dealing with negativity and toxic behavior has become a crucial part of maintaining a healthy fandom, especially on social media. Two examples from Star Wars: The Last Jedi are used to highlight some of the different negative online behaviors as well as approaches for dealing with the behaviors.

What is a Fan?

Although it might seem like fandoms are a relatively new phenomenon, the term “fandom” has been in the Oxford English Dictionary for least a century now. The word “fan” as a short form of “fanatic” can be found as early as 1682, which suggests that fans and fandoms are old concepts. This chapter focuses on popular culture fiction fans: those who are fans of narrative fiction in its many forms.

Five definitive characteristics of fans were identified by Burgess and Jones (2018):

  • 1.

    They are enthusiasts whose fan objects are part of their identity.

  • 2.

    Some members of the fandom produce fandom related creative works such as fan fiction or fan art.

  • 3.

    The community forms around a fan object, which they discuss and interact with.

  • 4.

    They collect consumer goods that represent the fan object.

  • 5.

    They appreciate and use products such as toys and T-shirts, in part for nostalgic reasons and in part for evangelical reasons (in a non-religious sense).

In our present day, a world bursting at the seams with film, television, the Internet, and social media, some intriguing changes have taken place in some of the world’s largest popular-culture fandoms. This chapter gives some historical background on social trends within fandoms, focusing on some of the bigger sci-fi fandoms: Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who. The social aspects of media fandom, especially the way social communications among fans occurs online are compared and contrasted with social communications inside these fandoms before the advent of social media.


Social Media As A Communication Form

Social media companies are the latest media giants to play a commanding role in human social life. Over time, when a new form of media has risen to the public consciousness because of its conspicuous popularity, that form of media will gain its detractors and enthusiasts. Social media is talked about as the destroyer and as the savior of human social life. It is paradoxically both and neither (Dill-Shackleford, 2019).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Fan Psychology: The study of the various aspects of fandom, from the social psychology of group behavior to the study of the meaning that fictional narrative gives to fans.

Online Incivility: Use of derogatory, disrespectful, and/or insulting/aggressive comments as in online forums, comment sections, or on social media.

Transmedia: Creative works that span numerous, distinct platforms, which all contribute in some aspect to the overall story. Transmedia storytelling can include movies, TV shows, books, comic books, websites, social media accounts and campaigns, promotional materials, in-person events, and contests. Transmedia works are typically either under the IP for the creative work, i.e., licensed by Disney, or are created by fans.

Universe: The narrative world in which the story takes place.

Media Franchise: The creative works that comprise the story world of an original creative work, such as a book, movie, or TV show. The works in the media franchise are transmedia works in that they span mediums to convey and create a more comprehensive fan experience, as well as initiate and maintain active fan involvement.

Intellectual Property (IP): Works of scholarship and/or creativity created by an individual and are legally protected by copyright, trademark, or patent. Intellectual property laws are widely accepted internationally in the ongoing effort by movie studios and other creators to reduce various types of IP theft, from outright story plagiarism to bootlegging or hacking movies, scripts, or shows, and posting them online.

Sci-Fi Fandoms: Fandoms of different sci-fi creative works, such as Star Trek, Star Wars , and Doctor Who . Sci-fi fandoms are related to fantasy fandoms, like Lord of the Rings , and superhero fandoms, like the Marvel Universe that is comprised of dozens of superheroes, movies, and comic books.

Fan Object: A show, series, etc. that is the fans’ object of affection.

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