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New media boosts the fan economy

ZENG XIN | 2018-12-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Fans of Chinese singer, dancer and actor Jackson Yi paid to display their idol on the Nasdaq screen at Times Square in New York on his birthday. Cultish zeal is a characteristic of fans’ expression of emotion. Photo: FILE


With the rise of mass culture, fans as a social group and their consumption behavior have drawn the increasing attention of researchers. In his 2009 book Fan Culture: A Reader, cultural scholar Tao Dongfeng defined fans as people who center around a certain individual or group with sustained promotional support.

The fan culture is a mixed cultural type blending characteristics of mass and youth culture. It can yield huge economic value. In the new media era, it is worthwhile to examine such issues as how to overturn the traditional star-making paradigm by creating and attracting fans, and how idol production progresses together with fan consumption.


Star-making model reshaped
The fan economy in this study refers in particular to the revenue generation, resource integration, and related content and products that result from the relationships between fans and their star idols.

In the new media era, the fan economy, fueled by community effects, has gradually produced remarkable social influence and economic benefits. The interaction between fan production and the cultural industry is also evolving.

Currently, fans are more active with a stronger discourse power than ever. Market operation has taken into account the capacities of the group in consumption, production and communication, leading the fan economy to thrive. The popularity of a topic, the support rate of an idol and the size of support activities can all become criteria for market evaluation. Idols don’t need to gain recognition or establish reputation from traditional evaluative dimensions such as awards or the quality of their works.

In the new media context, being ordinary, professional and emotional is crucial to the fan economy, so that emotional capital can appreciate continuously. For consumers in the fan economy, symbolism and emotional value outweigh practicality. Idol cultivation is a business model featuring repeated consumption, those three elements of ordinariness, emotion and professionalism, and growing consumer sentiment.

The story often goes that an originally naive and green idol succeeds through ceaseless efforts. The growth process of the idol is deemed as a selling point so that fans can fantasize about growing together with their idol, reinforcing their identity.

Once the idol rockets into fame, fans’ enthusiasm explodes. They take the initiative to popularize and stand up for their idol as if they were safeguarding their own growth. They occupy new media spaces, feed new topics, organize activities and expand influence, ultimately forcing the mainstream entertainment circle to pay attention.

As a result, popular idols become a source of heated discussion that ensures high audience ratings and box office success for the works they star in. Even controversial works will obtain high click rates owing to fans. Indispensable to the growth of their idol, fans firmly believe that they have made indelible contributions to the idol’s growth with their discourse power and continued devotion.

Commercial firms have also abandoned the original model of fostering only the star’s aura, striving instead to create the image that every step of the idol’s growth is inseparable from fans’ support. Amid the emotional projection, re-creation and reflection, businesses constantly reshape idols and their derivative products, while the emotional capital of fans increases. Therefore, a cycle comes into being from image design and value output to business realization and capital appreciation.


Fan consumption
Contemporary teenagers generally grow up in a good and loose environment. They maintain that monotony in life is one of the things bothering them. Thanks to their idols, an opportunity for transformation shows up in the unrealizable wishes of fandom. When chasing idols, they also attach the tag of dreamers to themselves, and they regard their emotional and consumptive habits as part of their lives.

Cultish zeal is an important feature of fans’ expression of emotion. They are passionate, loyal, and dedicate themselves selflessly. Some fans collect limited-edition commodities of their idols and put them in a special space as a ceremonial expression. On the birthdays or other anniversaries of idols, fans hold online and offline carnivals, dressed up in a unique fashion and chanting distinctive slogans.

In fact, in the community media age, fans’ attempts to organize activities and spread the influence of their idols are all ceremonial. Communication opens the channel of information, and consumption can further maintain their expression of emotion. While protecting their fan identity, they find like minds along with a sense of emotional belonging.

However, fans’ emotion-based consumption behavior is irrational. It is excessive consumption. As American scholar Henry Jenkins said, quality is not the point in the stamp-collecting-like consumption of fans, as they try their best to gather as many objects as possible.
Fans not only spend on idols’ works and concerts to express their obsession, but also target, even completely collect, peripheral products, proving the depth of their devotion with the quantity of peripheral products they purchase and possess. Through accumulative consumption, they assemble a sense of identity as well, attaching emotional factors to consumption.

From an economic perspective, the consumption of fans is habitual, even addictive. Their consumption trends are predictable. The idol is not only a combination of fans’ interests and expectations but also an objectified image to set trends for fans and provoke their emotions and interests.

By consuming products related to their idols, fans have the experience of approaching their idols, thus satisfying and releasing their emotions and pleasing themselves. With the accumulation of consumed products and the return of pleasure, they become addicted to such consumption.

Compared to ordinary consumer psychology, fans’ consumption is more symbol-based, so it should be explored from the angle of emotional dependency, rather than from consumption only. Every consumption behavior is consumption itself, but it also solidifies and improves fans’ attachment to their idols alongside their self-identity. In the meantime, their faith in idols and self-identity are maintained, which in turn sustains their motive to consume.


Cyclical construction
In the consumer society, the satisfaction from consumption extends from the physical level to the intellectual level. Objects have cultural existences in people’s lives. Consumers subconsciously objectify images and characters, and different types of desire translate into motives for consumption.

Obsessed with stars and related products, fans devote more and more love. Their emotion-based consumer behavior gradually produces cultural meaning. The fan economy is in essence idol marketing. By leveraging the “love me, love my dog” message and fans’ emotional response, businesses try to transfer the group’s feelings toward idols to products and brands, manufacturing a spiritual community between brands and their followers.

In the new media environment, idols’ success entails the support of fans and real consumption. Fans also know the rules well. If they don’t contribute to their idols’ box office sales, their idols will lose business value. Some psychological projection occurs as fans use their idols to replace themselves as who they want to be. Consumption, to a greater extent, is to buy a belief or an emotional backing. Hence, fans are willing to spend to perpetuate their idols’ fame. And the more they spend, the deeper they go.

In consumption terms, fans’ desires are market traction. Fans create desires and spend on their desires. Their consumption features are studied, recast to the market and consumed themselves. In the process, they never realize the passiveness of their consumption. More often, they experience the satisfaction of their subjectivity being confirmed.

From idol worship to brand or derivative consumption, the production model of idols seems unchanged in each round of interaction with fans, but fresh emotional experiences are still created to sustain their repeated consumption.

When the stimuli for fans’ consumption, particularly for teenagers, become normal in daily life, the absolute subject and object of consumption will no longer exist in this process of seeking new desires, but evolve into new symbols and fantasies. The consumer society will turn into a society of symbols.

All in all, new media has boosted the productivity of fans and intensified the central role of fans in the cultural industry. However, whether the interests and rights of fans are realized and whether the fan culture itself, businesses, stars, fan communities or individual fans are the beneficiaries of the fan economy need deeper thinking and exploration.

In some sense, the upgrade of cultural consumption is also a variation. It whitewashes commercial promotion, creating a virtual image of growth and success by taking advantage of teenage fans’ ideals. It is a cyclical process in which youths’ dreams are integrated into a package and resold to the youth group.


Zeng Xin is from the Institute of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)