Aca-fan Research on Fannish Sites: Ethical and Moral Challenges to Using Social Media

This is a copy of the chapter that appeared in the New Social Media, New Social Science? book: Social Media in Social Research: Blogs on Blurring the Boundaries. The book is available at

In November 2013, Caitlin Moran caused something of a controversy in Sherlock fandom by asking actors Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays the titular Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (John Watson) to read a piece of fan fiction live on stage at a BFI Q&A. The actors acquiesced, uncomfortably (as you can see in this video) and Moran proceeded to apologise, after criticising the piece of work for being clumsily written, and mocking both the specific story and fanfic[1] writers in general. I’m not interested, in this blog, in what Moran’s intentions were, how this relates to broader issues around women’s desires or whether shows like Sherlock are fan-friendly – these have all been discussed in detail elsewhere. Instead I want to think about what Moran’s actions, and fandom’s response, can tell us about the challenges to using social media as academics who are engaged with fan studies.

Being totally up front, I’m a fan. My main fandom is The X-Files, I’ve been involved in the XF fan community for years,and it’s because of fandom I’m doing the PhD I’m doing now. So I can see the value of fandom to academic work – the vagaries of why people are attached to specific shows or characters, how those shows can influence them in particular ways, what fanfic tells us about fandom and broader culture. But I can also see the long tradition of pathologising fans that has occurred (and sometimes continues to occur) in academia. I remember 2009’s SurveyFail vividly, and I share many fans’ reluctance to engage with a system and scholars that don’t understand fannish behavior. In that respect my convictions can sometimes be torn, but in the work I’ve done so far, focusing primarily on sites like LiveJournal, I’ve always approached fans and asked for their permission to use their work before quoting it. In an essay explaining the rationale behind the permissions policy in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson write

The general academic response in literature and media and film studies (which is where most academics citing fic would come from) is that texts are treated as independent of their authors. […] In contrast, we (as in Karen and Kristina, but also the entire TWC staff, as well as the OTW supporting us) consider ourselves fans first. […] We are very, very concerned to ensure the privacy and security of fans and have given much thought to ethical considerations.

And I adopt a similar attitude. For many fans, fandom is a means of distraction from the non-fannish world, a community filled with friends and – importantly – pleasure. That pleasure may come from making fan art, writing fan fiction or commenting on shows, but many fans still wish to keep their fannish pursuits separate from their other-world ones, and for others, having people know they’re in fandom, writing slash, would cause significant harm. As interest in fan studies grows, however, and social networking sites enable fans to enact their fandom in more open communities, questions around the ethics of asking fans for permission are beginning to rise.

One such question relates to Twitter and Tumblr and their public nature.[2] Twitter is designed, as Gawker reminds us to be a public space, as is Tumblr. Users on each are able to password-protect their accounts so that only allowed followers have access, but the bulk of accounts are open and anyone can search for, and read, something posted on both Twitter and Tumblr. Given this, and given how users are aware of the public nature of the sites, why should permission be asked to quote something? I think there are really two arguments here: firstly, how are we defining public; and secondly just because we can do something is it ethical that we should?

To deal with the first question, Busse and Hellekson note in their editorial that it is up to fans to protect their own identities: “The burden of what we share in public is on us. If we don’t publicly connect fan and real-life names, readers won’t make that connection either”. Spaces like Twitter, however, tend to cross the fannish/non-fannish divide. Thinking of my own Twitter use, I regularly post about my PhD, The X-Files, Doctor Who, my day, the news, Sherlock and fandom. My profile description marks me as a fan and an academic, and I follow academics, colleagues, friends and fellow fans. Others’ use of the site is similar. In that respect it is difficult to disconnect fannish and real life names and identities. As Busse notes “simple dichotomies of private and public spaces seem to fall short of the more complicated realities of current social media experiences.” That is, a site can be both private and public at the same time, with users regarding their posts as semi-public even while recognising that the site itself is a public one. In a similar way to which fanfic writers on LiveJournal write for a relatively small audience of mostly-known fellow fans, so do Twitter and Tumblr users write primarily for a small audience of followers. A lack of attention from wider circles (fandom or otherwise), a core of commentators and followers building up a sense of community and a limited number of replies or retweets can all lead to the poster’s belief that their account is semi-private, and so different rules can (and should) apply to citing these.

The second question I raised is perhaps more of a murky one. Just because we can quote something without permission, should we? An interesting discussion about this took place in various online forums in March 2014, following a discussion that began on Twitter about sexual assault.[3] One user asked her followers what they were wearing when they had been assaulted, and if they could let her know if she could retweet their responses. Hundreds of responses came in and many of those noted that they were happy for @steenfox to retweet them. But others didn’t. When the discussion was highlighted on Buzzfeed the next day what followed was a back-and-forth between journalists debating if Twitter was a public or private forum. What the bulk of these responses failed to take into account, though, was whether it was ethical to repost tweets from survivors of sexual abuse without their permission. I’d argue no. Sexual assault is an intensely emotive subject, a subject which is still considered taboo and difficult to talk about and taking a comment out of the context in which it was written and repurposing it for a news article can lead to great harm. In this case, arguments about public/private should go out of the window. If the act of reposting a tweet or Tumblr post is likely to cause distress then it shouldn’t be reposted, certainly not without permission of the original writer. To do so I would argue is unethical, immoral and a plain crappy thing to do. As Angus Johnston writes:

The reality is that the boundary between private acts and public acts is blurry, and always has been. People do private stuff in public all the time, and while we often have a legal right to violate the privacy of those moments, mostly we don’t, because it’s understood that we shouldn’t. It’s understood that it’s a jerky thing to do.

So how to tie this back to fandom and research into fan studies? As I’ve already said fandom can be highly private and emotive, and many fans hide their fannish investments from family, friends and colleagues. Sometimes this is out of fear of repercussions, sometimes it’s because they take pleasure from fandom they don’t want to share with anyone else. Regardless, fans have an expectation that the content they share online is limited to a certain number of people, and generally people whom they grant that access to (by following them in return, mentioning them in @-replies). Johnston points out six things that people should bear in mind before reposting semi-private content: Audience; Author; Content; Consequences; Motive; and Consent. Each of these are relevant to fandom, but I’d argue that perhaps the three most important are content, consequences and motive. Many fan scholars work from the principle that fandom is an interesting area of study which can tell us much about the world we live in and people’s engagements with it. This is a fairly good motive for wanting to share content, as far as motives go. But when the content being shared is a dedication of love to an actor written by a 15 year old girl, a piece of One Direction fan art shared on Tumblr by a thirty year old man, or a graphically written non-con slash story written by a social worker there are real consequences.

Fans engaged in fandom on social media sites are not usually writing for a wider audience. If their comments are directed to an official account (say, for example, The X Factor) and are using a sanctioned hashtag (such as something shared widely by the sstudio or network) then you could argue that they were aware it was for a wider audience and may be used by the producer (at the break or the end of the show maybe). In those circumstances you might get away with arguing the tweet was public and you can use it. But there are still moral and ethical challenges to using social media for fan studies research, and I’d always advocate for asking permission first.

[1] Fanfic is the shortened form of the word fan fiction, where fans of a series, film or actor write stories using those settings and characters.

[2] I’m going to ignore Facebook here as, despite Facebook’s constantly changing privacy settings, most people with accounts on the site have them set to friends only and only friends can see content posted.

[3] I am by no means making comparisons between involvement in fandom and sexual assault – the two are very different things – however discussions around the ethics of quoting online users apply in both cases.

Bethan Jones is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University, where she is examining fandom, gender and fanfiction. She has written on a range of topics relating to gender, fandom and digital media and has been published in the journals Sexualities, Participations and Transformative Works and Cultures. She recently co-edited journal special issues on the Fifty Shades of Grey series, and crowdfunding, and is currently co-editing a book on crowdfunding.

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