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How Big a Fan Are You?

Research shows that being a fan can shape our very sense of identity.

When the television show, Star Trek, went off the air in 1969, the legions of fans refused to let it fade away. Their support allowed the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, to keep interest alive long enough to launch a new franchise and, eventually, an entire industry with movies, television shows, and books for the faithful. In much the same way, film producer/writer George Lucas created his own franchise beginning with the 1977 hit, Star Wars. And we've seen numerous other media sensations since then over film franchises such as the Harry Potter and Twilight movies.

But what is a fan? Though there are different explanations for where the word "fan" originated (my personal favourite being that it is short for "fanatic"), the best definition is that a fan is "a person who is enthusiastically devoted to something or somebody, such as a band, a sports team, a book or entertainer." Fans are the driving force that keep film, television, sports, and music stars in business (along with requiring them to hire bodyguards) and their enthusiasm, or mania, can be downright terrifying at times. In the case of the Harry Potter books, self-described fans reading the final book installment displayed symptoms that strongly resemble the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder-IV criteria for addiction. This includes withdrawal, depression, and loss of motivation as long as six month after finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Being a fan can be rough at times.

As more and more people turn to movies, television, and the Internet for entertainment, fan communities are increasingly springing up allowing people to participate in ways that they never could before. Being a fan has become more than just showing appreciation for something enjoyable, it's become a way for people to share their lives with one another. Though there are literally thousands of different fan clubs, they all thrive on individuals participating to share their love and appreciation of the object of their fandom. Whether it's for a single individual, a music band or a sports team, a television show, a book or movie franchise, or an entire genre, fans often share their enthusiasm with one another through discussions, conventions, or even through their own creative efforts (including fan fiction, filks, and art).

Still, it was the development of the Internet that really allowed fan cultures to flourish. Most fan-based interactions these days occur online with entire communities springing up and millions of fans using their memberships in these different communities to express their own identities. According to social identity theory, the different groups to which people belong can be a source of pride and self-esteem, something that can be taken to extremes with music and sports fans (including blatant examples of football hooliganism). Though social identity theory has largely focused on ethnic and political differences, we are seeing more research looking at how it can be used to explain how fans choose to identity themselves. It can also explain how fans use their group identity to shape their attitudes about the world and how they interact with other people, whether with fellow fans or the public at large.

A new research study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture takes a look at how fans use their enthusiasm for media franchises to shape their own sense of identity. Carried out by Samantha Groene and Vanessa Hettinger of the University of South Florida, the study examines people belonging to two of the strongest fandoms today, the Harry Potter and Twilight book and film franchises, and how they might respond to having their fan identity threatened.

Prior to the study, Groene and Hettinger developed a psychometric test of fan identity which they called the Fandom Measure. This includes items relating to how fans identify with their interest, how they relate to other fans, and how often they participate in fan activities. After testing it using online fan sites, the authors developed a final version of forty-four items including "Being a fan defines me" and "Visiting websites relating to your fan interest."

For the study itself, 249 students (mostly female) who self-identified themselves as being either Harry Potter or Twilight fans were recruited to complete a "Fandom Test" measuring how much they knew about their fan interest. They were all told that the study involved measuring their fan-based knowledge and "personality" in relation to other fans. The test was made up of ten Harry Potter-specific questions such as "What type of wood is Harry Potter's wand made from?" and ten Twilight-specific questions such as "What two things did Bella Swan say blood smelled like?" The rest of the items were neutral and came from other personality measures.

The next stage of the experiment involved the kind of feedback each participant received about how they did on the Fandom Test. After completing the Fandom Measure on computer to see how strongly they felt about either Harry Potter or Twilight, they were then given false feedback depending on which experimental condition to which they were assigned. For participants in the affirm feedback condition, they were told that they scored well above average for either their Harry Potter or Twilight knowledge compared to other fans. This kind of positive feedback helps to reinforce their personal identity as fans and boosts their self-esteem.

For participants assigned to the threaten feedback condition, the exact opposite feedback was given and they were told that they scored well below other fans in their knowledge about their preferred franchise. This leads to reduced self-esteem since their sense of identity has been affected. For both conditions, participants were told to complete an essay in which they were asked to imagine and write a storyline set in either the Harry Potter or Twilight universe. These essays were then scored depending on word count, quality, and amount of detail.

As expected, Harry Potter fans who received affirming feedback scored much better on their essays than the fans who received threatening feedback. Not surprisingly, the amount of effort participants made on the essay also depended on how much they regarded themselves as loyal fans. According to social identity theory, people who regard themselves as "serious" fans tend to identify strongly with the fan community to which they belong. When they receive positive feedback about their fan knowledge, it serves to reinforce this sense of identity and their feeling that they belong among fellow fans. On the other hand, getting negative feedback would have the opposite effect since it threatens this sense of identity (at least temporarily).

But why wasn't this same effect found for Twilight fans? When Harry Potter and Twilight fans were compared directly in terms of their scores on the Fandom measure, Groene and Hettinger found that Twilight fans tended not to be score as highly as the Potterites. Though both fan franchises appear similar, the Harry Potter phenomenon lasted much longer than the Twilight phenomenon (there were also more Harry Potter books and films than for Twilight) which may mean that Harry Potter fans had more time to develop a strong sense of identity.

While this study may provide insight into how Harry Potter and Twilight fans view themselves, it's hard to make strong conclusions about fan culture in general. No media franchise is going to be the same so generalizing across different fandoms is going to be difficult. Still, becoming a devoted fan often means developing a sense of "belonging" to a larger fan community. That sense of belonging is definitely going to shape the sense of identity that many fans have and it helps explain the enthusiasm you often see at fan conventions, music concerts, and sports arenas around the world.

So spare a thought for the hordes of devoted fans around the world. It means more to them than you might think.

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