Participatory Fan Cultures: How they are helping to make fandoms a truly international phenomenon

Fandom culture has always been something that fascinates me. The interaction between a thing, (whether it be a person, TV show, movie or something else) and the people who have a shared, specific interest in that thing is something that is constantly changing and evolving. With the rise of the internet and social media over the last 20 or so years, online participatory fan culture within fandoms is something which has become almost commonplace amongst fandoms of everything from music to TV shows to sport.

Participatory Fan Cultures and Fandoms: What does that even mean?

According to Jenkins (2009), participatory fan cultures and fandoms are ones which specifically consist of:

  • Relatively low barriers for artistic expression and civic engagement
  • Strong support for creating and sharing these creations with others
  • Some type of informal mentorship, wherein the more experienced members of the culture pass on their knowledge to the ‘novice’ members
  • Members who believe that their contributions matter
  • Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another and care about the opinions of each other

Given the largely online nature of these types of fandoms, it is not surprising that a lot of their membership is made up of teenagers and young adults. Participatory fan cultures are not only a ‘trivial’ way of creating and communicating with other members of a fandom. There is also the potential for it to curate a ‘hidden curriculum’ which can assist in the learning and socialisation of the teenagers and young adults who make up a large portion of their membership. There is growing research (Jenkins, 2009) surrounding the benefits of participatory culture particularly for these teenagers and young adults, which can include, but is not limited to:

  • opportunities for peer-to-peer learning
  • changed attitudes toward intellectual property
  • diversification of cultural expression
  • development of workplace valued skills
  • empowered concept of citizenship

While these are definitely benefits of participatory fan culture, it is also important to acknowledge that there are some concerns surrounding factors such as unequal access to skills, opportunities and experiences and obliviousness to the way that media can shape ones’ perceptions of the world and

In terms of participatory fandom culture, there are a few methods of participation which are common amongst a lot of fandoms, particularly those related to pop culture. These include the creation of fanfiction and fan art, as well as the formation of large online communities on platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram, which are used to share these and other creations, as well as to directly interact with other fans.

SKAM: Participatory Fan Culture at its peak

One particular fandom which has been heavily influenced and driven by participatory culture on an international scale is the Skam fandom. Skam was a Norwegian web series produced by NRK, which was aired clip-by-clip while incorporating transmedia storytelling methods, with a majority of the characters having Instagram accounts run by the production team and text chats between the characters, all being posted to the NRK website.

The show addresses themes and topics which regularly affect teenagers and young adults, including relationships, personal identity, eating disorders, sexual assault, homosexuality, religion and mental health. It was the raw and honest portrayal of these themes which resulted in the show attracting a large, almost cult like, international following. Even though the original show finished airing in 2017, the international popularity of the show resulted in the creation of seven adaptions in France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, four of which are still airing. The creation of these adaptions has meant that despite the original show ending almost three years ago, the online fandom continues to be as active, if not more so, as ever.

The participatory culture of Skam and its adaptions extends further than the typical methods of fan participation, largely due to its international nature. As is the case in any international fandom, the language barrier is one which poses a difficulty for participation, but also one which is easily overcome by members of the fandom who are able to, in the case of Skam, translate and re-distribute the clips and text conversations to the rest of the fandom who may not be able to access or understand the originals because of their location. In a sense, it is the participatory nature of the fandom which has made it the global fandom that it is.

As well as translating content, there is also the conventional methods of artistic expression which fans participate in, including fanfiction and fan art, as well as many large, very dedicated, online communities which now tend to span across both the original show and one or multiple remakes. Based on experience, the largest and most participatory of these communities is the Tumblr community, which has a lot of overlap in fanbase across the eight shows. It is this particular community which I want focus my ethnographic research on, specifically looking at the reasons why people are drawn to and remain in the Skam Tumblr fandom, how they participate (whether it be through creating or consuming fan made content) and what sets the fandom apart from others based on its participatory nature.

Ethnographic Study: The Methods

In terms of being able to ethnographically research the Skam Tumblr fandom, I have the distinct advantage that I am already somewhat immersed in the participatory culture of it. Because of this previous and current immersion, I have been able to observe the reactions and creations of the fandom in real time along with the show, as well as directly benefit from contributing to a participatory fan culture.

As it is an online community, I will not be able to directly speak to or meet any members of the community, however I will be able to message and communicate with them through direct messages and public posts from my own account. Using these tools, I am planning to ‘interview’ and survey members of the fandom from literally all over the world, providing a direct insight into how people from different countries and cultures react to and participate in the Skam fandom. When combined with the existing academic research on both participatory fan cultures and the unique nature of the Skam format and fanbase, I am hoping to reinforce the benefits of participatory fan cultures previously mentioned by Jenkins (2009) and discover how Skam has been able to maintain such an international fandom, based on its participatory nature.

Catch ya on the flip side,

Jess x


References and Background Readings (to be used more extensively in final project)

Bengtsson, E., Källquist, R. & Sveningsson, M., 2018. Combining New and Old Viewing Practices: Uses and Experiences of the Transmedia Series “Skam”. NORDICOM Review, July, ii(39), pp. 63-77.

Jenkins, H., 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Williams, B. & Zenger, A. A., 2012. New Media Literacies and Participatory Popular Culture Across Borders. New York: Routledge.