Lincoln Geraghty smiling. Life Solved logo and title to the left of the image.

A new breed of researcher is building bridges between fan communities and academia

  • 16 March 2021
  • 18 min listen

Comic book and cult TV fans are known for their inventive, collective nouns, but what about the academics that are studying their behaviour?

In the latest episode of the University of Portsmouth’s research podcast Life Solved, Professor Lincoln Geraghty introduces us to the Aca-fans: the academics who are researching the (often positive) social impact of fandom on communities and individuals.

As Professor of Media Cultures, Geraghty has been studying the subcultures that arise from forums, conventions, criticism and social networks around a media text. He says that far from the nerdy stereotype, the professional nature of some fan communities provides a nuanced contribution to society, through the formation of support networks, reflections upon modern history and contributions to current cultural and political debates.

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A shared language

Whether it’s supporting a favourite football team or dressing up for the latest Star Trek convention, on the individual level, Lincoln explains how fandom can become a crucial part of identity. He says fan fiction offers an opportunity to invent or express personality whilst engaging with others through a shared language.

We need a way of simply communicating ‘who I am’ and ‘what I'm into’ and fandom and provides that. If it's about simply wearing a T-shirt to reveal your passion for something as a sort of visual marker.

Professor Lincoln Geraghty, Professor of Media Cultures

Professor Geraghty says this sort of individual signal can bring a whole community closer together and that the opportunities for positive action via these cohesive groups are now becoming apparent.

The positive potential of Pokémon

In the podcast, Lincoln explains his research into fans of the mobile game app Pokémon Go, which initially brought individuals together outdoors to hunt for digital creatures, but through which community groups have formed to take action on real-world issues, such as clearing beach pollution.

Of course, rapid thought and action en masse does not always have a positive outcome, and further research has explored how this combined social power can lead to rapidly escalating situations in the interplay between fan reactions to the media or civic action in examples such as hooliganism.

Tourism, religion and big business

Professor Geraghty has also looked at the impact of fan tourism, bringing footfall and new business to unusual or sometimes remote places, simply because fans wish to occupy a similar space to filming locations, settings or venues featured in their favourite fictions.

But if all this sounds strange, he points out the important secular function this sort of travel and community behaviour holds.

Meeting people that sort of share similar beliefs or interests and being able to meet them on a regular basis in one specific place, you know, on a secular level, that's what fandom is

Professor Lincoln Geraghty, Professor of Media Cultures

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Thanks for downloading this podcast from the University of Portsmouth. Our interviews bring you some world-changing ideas and ask the big questions because research taking place here at Portsmouth is changing the world.

Anna Rose: Today, we meet Lincoln Geraghty, Professor of Media Cultures in the School of Film, Media and Communication, to talk about Fandom.

Lincoln Geraghty: I specifically look at franchise fandoms, so things like Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, partly because I'm a fan of those franchises myself. My sort of passion as a fan sort of directly influenced my choice to become a researcher, become an academic and teach this sort of stuff.

Anna Rose: He's talking about the different types of fandom and the positives.

Lincoln Geraghty: Fandom is a way of meeting people face to face. Once the contacts happen online, then convention space can be quite a sort of proactive space to share.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know, meet new people, organise activities – if you decide to sort of take your fandom into sort of more political, socially aware activities. And it's still a sort of tangible way to make those passions and feelings more real.

Anna Rose: As well as the negative sides of subcultures and social networks.

Lincoln Geraghty: They got so violent during the game, people throwing stuff at him and swearing at him. He had to be moved from the stadium for his own safety.

Anna Rose: We could be forgiven for thinking that being a fan of a TV show, sport, franchise or movie is as simple as consuming it and liking it and maybe talking about it to your friends or on social media. But Lincoln explained that fandom takes many forms. You've got fans who discuss their thing on social media or with friends, fans who blog or engage in forums, fans who are actually professional critics, and then you've got the fans-study side of things like Lincoln and his team, who are known as Aca-fans.

Lincoln Geraghty: The nature of fan stereotypes, particularly, you know, in the press, from critics, would view fans as just mere consumers. And I think fans studies have in its history – very short history, last 20 or 30 years – of saying, well, fans aren't just mere consumers. They can be highly critical, it can be quite original. And fans are producers, not just consumers. They-- they make things from those bits of popular culture that they watch or enjoy on a regular basis. And they become media producers in their own right. And that's something interesting to study within fans studies. So memes or fake trailers or fan fiction that fans are producing, those are sort of media techs in their own right that deserve and need studying just as much as the sort of the big blockbuster or the Disney franchise. You know, because at the end of the day, that stuff fills the Internet. That stuff is there. It's about cultural production. It shows fans are active, it shows them as being sort of quite nuanced in their appreciation of a text. They can like certain aspects, be highly critical of another. Fans have been doing that for decades.

Anna Rose: So fandom isn't just about appreciation for a film, book or franchise. It's about being part of a wider conversation around it. And why become a fan in the first place? Lincoln and his team's research shows that nostalgia has a key part to play in how we appreciate shows, sports and films as a social group.

Lincoln Geraghty: 20/30 years ago, nostalgia is seen as, you know, something perhaps we shouldn't talk about because nostalgia is often seen as a negative thing, it's not progressive. It's about people dwelling in the past, you know, just not escaping the past and just living in this sort of rose-tinted, you know, history that never really existed. But my research looking at collecting and why people collect, I found nostalgia is a much more proactive tool as a way to connect to people, you know, share the passion by going online and finding out who else.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: ...That likes this. And then it provided an opportunity when talking about their collections to connect with people and find out their sort of personal story and share quite often intimate, but often sort of revealing things about themselves which helped in their daily lives. You know, almost as a support network or a network of support, I called those. But I think, you know, for fans, you know, that's an empowering mode of thought, particularly when, you know, we say franchises are moving and developing and icons from childhood are being bought and sold. Star Wars, Marvel, you know, nostalgia for the older stuff allows a sense of preservation. You know, history doesn't go away. Fans become almost curators and archivists of media history.

Anna Rose: Sounds pretty tempting. You could become a part of history by becoming a true fan of something. And other than a taste of immortality, why do people engage in fandom?

Lincoln Geraghty: There's research, what they call generational fandom now, you know, things that, you know, you've grown up immersed in because your parents were.

John Worsey: Right, right.

Lincoln Geraghty: That can happen in sports for sure.

John Worsey: Yes. God. Yeah, yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know your dad says you support Chelsea or you don't leave, you leave this house forever, so you have to. But, you know, generational fandom, you know, could-- could happen where you're immersed in this stuff so it sticks with you.

Anna Rose: And thanks to technology, fans can get more and more involved in the show or sport they love, even creating their own fan fiction around it.

Lincoln Geraghty: Back in the analogue days, if you wrote fan fiction story and you wanted to send it to your fan group or publish it in a magazine, that would take a few months. It would go round through snail mail, you know, you'd have to type it all out, Xerox it, send it out to your friends in envelopes. Now it's all up on something somewhere like fanfiction.net, which is a massive online repository of millions of fan fiction stories. You can just scour using it A to Z search. Any franchise you're in, I don't know, pick Avatar the film.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: There'll be fan fiction stories based on that one movie. So the communities have shifted online and allowed that to really sort of explode exponentially, you know. And I think this is why fandom has become much more sort of popular, populist with series like Big Bang Theory, you know, which is all about comic book geeks and celebration of all things nerdy. Thirty years ago, they would have just been seen as odd. But now it seems, you know, part of the modern media landscape that the fans are out there and this is what they do.

Anna Rose: So fandom is sometimes about engaging with a text and even creating your own version of it. Lincoln explained that fandom also seems to be part of a fan's identity.

Lincoln Geraghty: Everyone wants a way of identifying themselves in the social network. We need a way of simply communicating to someone else, who I am and what I'm into and fandom and provides that. If it's about simply wearing a t-shirt to reveal your passion for something as a sort of visual marker to what you're into, or as the community becomes stronger and the fans become more sort of close-knit, it's a way of communicating with people. It's a way of engaging with people on a sort of level through the lens of the particular text, whether it be a TV show or film or comic book or whatever it is.

Anna Rose: So a lot of fandom is about the community groups that it provides for the people within the subculture.

Lincoln Geraghty: There this idea that fandom can provide that sort of social contact, that cohesion and community that often now in this age of social media, we often say is lacking. It's all about surface. There's no-- we're losing empathy because we're not meeting people face to face. But actually, fandom is a way of meeting people face to face. Once the contacts happen online, then convention space can be quite a sort of proactive space to share.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know, meet new people, organise activities – if you decide to sort of take your fandom into sort of more political, socially aware activities. And it's still a sort of tangible way to make those passions and feelings more real.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know, that's what conventions can offer, you know, a chance for sort of-- fans to sort of celebrate their passion for something without being seen as odd or, you know, different in any particular way. No different to going out to see Pompey play, you know...

John Worsey: Right, yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: ...Three o'clock on a Saturday, everyone dressed in their University of Portsmouth strips. That's just like a Star Trek fan going to a convention dressed as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. There's no difference.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: But one is seen as more culturally appropriate.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: Legitimate. And the other one is seen as a little bit odd still. And I want the-- the latter to be more like the former.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: Something more just normal and every day.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Anna Rose: Lincoln told us that community groups often go one step further than meetings to discuss their shared love of the text. They meet to do good in the real world and influence change.

Lincoln Geraghty: One fan of Harry Potter, for example, decided to use his passion for the series to sort of start a Web campaign to, you know, petition Nescafe to more ethically produced coffee. You know, he used his passion for Harry Potter to convince his employers to only use fair trade. And the other fans on board leapt on board and they sort of start to call themselves Dumbledore's Army, which is from the movies books. Right. So we are here for progressive change. We will use the inspiration of J.K. Rowling to sort of petition different groups, get fair trade onto shelves, stop unethical production practises in Africa or make a difference more locally.

Lincoln Geraghty: I'm doing some research on Pokémon Go and sort of the fan community playing map games. The world went Pokémon crazy for a bit. You know, you can catch a Bulbasaur in your toilet. Now the community is still out there, the game is still going. And talking about that online space, a lot of sort of online communities are developed where people then organise to meet up, they have fan festivals in real spaces. They-- they use their passion for Pokémon to sort of get involved in social issues and activities like there was recently a what they called a water festival where they went off and cleaned beaches, you know, taking part in, you know, the environmental cause.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: Going around collecting Pokémon on the beach, but at the same time picking up plastic and cleaning the beach, you know. So-- so putting their passion for Pokémon into a social issue, you know, they can make a real difference to, having an impact on societies.

Lincoln Geraghty: Niantic, who designed Pokémon, always said they always have the intention to use the game to sort of bring people together to do things for the greater good of society. And I think, you know, after the sort of game, you know, and initially died down with it, sort of fad phenomenon appeal, they wanted to connect with loyal gamers. People that still played the game and then utilise that enthusiasm to make some difference. So-- so, yeah, they chose different sites around the world, Niantic and said, you know, turn up to these sites at a particular time with local charitable organisations that can sort of organise on the ground in those spaces, you know, for two or three hours, do a beach clean up, for example, and in that time we'll do extra incentives on the game. So we'll give you double points or double Stardust's (is what they call it) or the chance to catch more Pokémon in that area whilst you're beach cleaning. So you get something out of it and then a local charitable communities get something out of it, too. So that's how Niantic works with some of its public awareness campaigns.

Lincoln Geraghty: But other things are more fan-driven. So the Latin American Pokémon Go fan community decided to sort of come together, you know, meet in parks to play, but at the same time, you know, meet up and talk about what they can do to sort of smarten up the park.

John Worsey: Right.

Lincoln Geraghty: Or clean up the park or dress it up or rejuvenate it. And so they use that passion to bring people in to get boots on the ground...

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: ...To help out.

Anna Rose: But not every engagement with fandom is positive. Lincoln told us about his research into fan reactions within the Chicago Cubs baseball fan community.

Lincoln Geraghty: There's quite a lot of hate as well as love within the community. I was looking at, you know, the sort of fan reactions within the Chicago Cubs baseball fan community. The sort of idea that, you know, the fans have had this sort of losing mentality and they're sort of resigned to defeat. And so when something bad goes wrong again, all the sort of frustrations and outpourings get focussed on one particular fan. They-- you see them as that they're to blame. They affected-- they affected the game somehow. There's a famous case of someone called Steve Bartman, who was in the-- in the stands, you know, and a ball pops out, fly ball pops out of the field. And one of the fielders is trying to catch it. And if he catches it, the guy gets out. And they might move closer to winning the game, winning the championship. The fan gets in the way, the ball drops to the ground. Dead play. And as the game progressed and the Cubs were losing more and more, fans started to turn on this one guy saying, you ruined our chance of winning this match. And it got so violent during the game, people throwing stuff at him and swearing at him. He had to be moved from the stadium and taken by police for his own safety. So I'm fascinated by those types of sort of fan reactions too. It's not always about love. It's about often, you know, and we see that in sports fandom a lot, you know, hooliganism and...

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: ...People, you know, shouting, hurling insults. I think, you know, much more research can be done on that fan reaction, not just in a sporting context, but in a media context.

Anna Rose: But back to the more positive aspects of fandom. Lincoln explained that he believes fandom can perform similar community functions that religious gatherings and congregations do.

Lincoln Geraghty: Meeting people that sort of share similar beliefs or interests and being able to meet them on a regular basis in one specific place, you know, on a secular level, that's what fandom is, you know. You know, you can go to a Star Trek convention any weekend in the world and go and meet people that, you know, will know the text just as well as you. Have similar interests and concerns about the text and a wider appreciation of popular culture. So it does perform similar things.

Lincoln Geraghty: Research into fan tourism and media tourism has shown this. There's now an interesting sort of dovetail relationship between fans going on holiday and seeking out familiar spaces related to their fandom is, you know, akin to like, you know, tourism more generally about going to famous sites like the Vatican or Stonehenge and getting pictures to feel closer to history or getting an understanding of history and culture. Going to a filming site to sort of take a picture where Benedict Cumberbatch stood filming Sherlock in London, gets you closer to that text. It gets you into the text. So it's offering you a way to sort of vicariously occupy that space, even temporarily, to be closer to the thing you love. And that's something quite interesting that I find around media tourism. It's about, you know, finding specialness in often quite obscure and obsolete spaces just because something was filmed there.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: Or that-- that-- that-- that sort of back street was used in a number of movies. Going to New Orleans, for example, they do a movie tour and they take you around in a bus and they show you clips of famous movies on the back of your seat. And then they say, look to your right now and this is where it's filmed. And here it is in that movie. Here is it shot from a different angle in that movie. And it gives that sort of fans, that sort of tangible appreciation of the thing that they love ephemerally sitting in their living room. It becomes more real through enacting.

Anna Rose: It seems that fandom is about creating communities, positive family experiences and a sense of self. And it's good for the economy too. Fandom is big business.

Lincoln Geraghty: It's a multibillion-dollar industry. It's-- it's, you know, Disney trying to get every bit of money it can.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know, and that's what I'm fascinated about. You can have all that at the same time. All that acting all happening at the same moment.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Lincoln Geraghty: You know, someone walking through a commodifying space like Graceland and having those very sort of personal moments.

John Worsey: Yeah.

Anna Rose: Thanks for listening to this episode of Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth. You can find out more about the work of Lincoln and his team, as well as our other projects by going online to port.ac.uk/research.

Anna Rose: If you want to share your thoughts on this programme, you can follow us on social media using the hashtag Life Solved.

Anna Rose: Next time, we'll hear how a University of Portsmouth team is working to share knowledge between Kenya and the UK in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Louis Netter: It's an incredible place of creativity, ingenuity and dynamism that has massively informed and shaped the way that we deliver our research and ultimately make it more sort of effective.

Anna Rose: Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app to get every episode of Life Solved automatically. And please do tell us what you think with a review and rating if you get a moment. From the team in Portsmouth, thanks for listening. We can't wait to share another fascinating story next time.

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