TV Fans Connect and Create Online
by Michelle Erica Green

For some audiences, analyzing the shows is not enough — in artwork and fan fiction they give television characters dimensions their producers never anticipated.

This article was originally written for; it appeared here.

       Dec. 3 — The Internet newsgroup postings started right after the conclusion of “Amor Fati,” the second episode of “The X-Files” 1999 fall season. Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the characters played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, shared a tender embrace in the final scene, but their hug wasn’t the main focus of discussion. Instead, viewers focused on a small continuity error: “She changed her hair!”
       Indeed, Scully's hairstyle at the end of “Amor Fati” resembles the one currently worn by Anderson, but when the episode was filmed, the actress hadn’t yet adopted the look. “They must have reshot the ending,” accused more than one attentive viewer.
       By the time “Amor Fati” aired, TV Guide had already reported that in “Millennium” — the season’s fourth episode — Mulder and Scully would kiss. Fans assumed that if the conclusion of the earlier episode had been changed, the original script might hold clues about whether the writers were moving the pair closer to a romantic relationship.
       A decade ago, most fans never would have learned how “Amor Fati” originally ended. Today, they have the Internet, where television fandom has gone from the province of a small group of devotees to a free-for-all in which anyone with a computer can participate. Fans in the know share and speculate in several different newsgroups, on web pages, on private e-mail lists, and in fan fiction where viewers write their own endings for episodes that haven’t even aired yet.
       Mulder and Scully did finally kiss in the episode that aired on Fox last Sunday, but they seemed to spend far less time wondering what it meant than did “X-Files” fans.
“Fans possess not simply borrowed remnants snatched from mass culture, but their own culture built from the raw materials the media provides,” writes Henry Jenkins in “Textual Poachers,” his landmark study of fan creativity. Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, insists that fans do not watch passively, but interact with the shows by participating in the social community of other fans. Hence, fandom is dependent on communication — something made possible for increasing numbers of television viewers by the high speed and global reach of the Internet.
  Fan sites on the Net
Fan fiction resource page
Trek Today
Definitive guide to Trek fanfic
Gossamer: X-Files fanfic
Y-Life’s X-Files forum
Logomancy’s Xena site
Ultimate Buffy links page
In the past, fan culture grew slowly, despite the lively enthusiasm of participants. Many audiences didn’t have access to conventions, fan-published zines, or the network of amateurs making music videos out of scenes from their favorite shows. Teen-age viewers and people with limited financial resources had little opportunity to participate.
       Even those with the interest and wherewithal didn’t always embrace fandom, often portrayed in the media in an unflattering light. Given that stigma and a handful of sensationalized crimes by fans turned stalkers, it’s no wonder many people feared association with fandom.
       Online fandom, however, provided anonymity, which enabled many curious participants to discover by “lurking” in discussion groups that most of the participants were literate and witty people with a wide range of interests.
       The Internet also allowed fans to carry on conversations all the time, with no need to travel to a convention, subscribe to a newsletter or pay dues to a club. A fan could choose to become a casual once-a-week newsgroup reader or the leader of a round-the-clock international discussion list.
       “Before the Net, Trek fandom — which was a low-caste subculture inside the slightly less low-caste subculture of science fiction fandom — was very much a closed society,” said Kathleen Dailey, a book editor in Toronto who has been a Star Trek fan since 1966.
       “You had to ‘come out’ to another fan before you could find your way into the inner circle of fan-run conventions and fan fiction,” she said. “Now, with the Net, Trek fandom has become a highly visible part of the dominant culture. You don’t have to attend a con to indulge in fan-talk.”
       For some audiences, analyzing the shows is not enough. These fans have produced Web sites, artwork and fan fiction that give television characters dimensions their producers might never anticipate.
       Becca O, a popular fan fiction writer and host of an "X-Files” discussion list, said she believed she was alone in her passions until she read a newspaper article about America Online’s forums.
       “I didn’t even know ‘fandom’ was a word,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that there was an entire online community that actually discussed these things on a daily basis,” she recalled. Relatively new to computing, she did not even own a modem before interest in fandom lured her online.
       As the music director for a large suburban church in the South, Becca O values the privacy offered by the Internet. She keeps her erotic fan fiction isolated from her career and her teen-age children. But she is direct with her friends about the myriad of online discoveries she has made because of fandom: She now runs Web sites for local businesses and has traced her family’s genealogy back to 1670.
So how did that “X-Files” episode originally end?
       According to a draft script of “Amor Fati” leaked to several prominent “X-Files” fan sites, among them, the writers originally intended for Scully to leave Mulder in his office mourning the death of his former lover Diana Fowley. Many fans interpreted the new ending, with the Mulder-Scully hug, as a sign that the writers were pushing them toward greater intimacy in the weeks leading up to the kiss.
       The kiss itself aired last Sunday on Fox stations throughout the United States. Within hours, video captured from the episode had popped up online, and speculation filled “X-Files” discussion forums across the Internet.
       Opinion was divided. “Shippers,” as fans who would like to see a relationship between Mulder and Scully are known, thought the full-on-the-lips kiss represented a romantic breakthrough. “NoRomos” asserted it was just a friendly New Year’s Eve buss.
       Actually seeing the kiss wasn’t a requirement to take part in this debate: Fans from Great Britain, where the episode won’t air for months, chimed in with their opinions as to what it meant.
       It’s unlikely that all this discussion will have much impact on fraternization rules for FBI agents, or even the portrayal of sexuality on television. But it is likely that someone connected with the production staff of “The X-Files” is reading and taking notes on what the online fans have to say, which may influence the future of the series. And that, in turn, may indeed affect the portrayal of sexuality on television, or ultimately even the fraternization rules.
The Internet has begun to remove the barriers between creators and consumers. Producers, writers and actors use online forums for first-hand communication with fans, allowing them to maintain their privacy while receiving first-hand feedback. On Yahoo, producers and actors participate in chats and question-and-answer discussion boards. WHOOSH!, a fan-run journal about “Xena, Warrior Princess,” features exclusive discussions with many of the show’s writers and directors. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of “Babylon 5,” corresponded with online fans throughout the run of his series.
       “I discovered the amazing reach of the Internet when I posted — for the very first time — a query on a Usenet film group about a rather obscure European movie, and got a response from Roger Ebert,” said Cybermum, a former president of her local Jewish community center who joked that she’s too old to admit her fannish tendencies to friends.
       Cybermum has exchanged instant messages with one of the senior members of the Star Trek production staff through America Online, where executive producer Brannon Braga, senior writer Joe Menosky and former executive producer Ron Moore all make themselves available to fans.
       “I voiced concerns; he answered,” she said of the exchange. “Whether he took my concerns into consideration, I don’t know. What I do know is that I was blown away by the idea that I could communicate with him, in real time.”
       The relationship between producers and fans remains far from collaborative, of course, but there is growing evidence that the fans are being heard. The producers of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” for example, admitted that fan enthusiasm for pairing the characters of Odo and Kira led to pursuit of that romance on the series.
Still, the connection between fans and productions companies can be strained.
       “The nature of fan creation challenges the media industry’s claims to hold copyrights on popular narratives,” Jenkins writes in “Textual Poachers.” “Once television characters pervade the fabric of our society, they belong to their audiences and not simply to the artists who originated them.”
       Thus, fans feel a sense of entitlement to the images and content from their favorite shows.
       Some networks have threatened fan Web sites with lawsuits for violating corporate copyrights. In the past week, 20th Century Fox took legal action against fan sites containing material from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which it owns. But the WB network, which airs “Buffy,” has cultivated online fan publicity and offers material on some network Web pages for fans to use on their own sites.
       Viacom, which owns Paramount and thus all things Star Trek, tried similar tactics to those of 20th Century Fox several years ago, but apparently has been more lenient since.
       As the reach of the Internet grows, and the divisions between authors and audiences become ever more tenuous, the social impact of fandom is likely to increase. That may mean considerable audience input into the content of entertainment — or it could just mean more kissing on "The X-Files.”
       Michelle Erica Green is the television editor for Another Universe’s Mania Magazine.

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