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W.F. (Welmoed) Wagenaar, MA

PhD student

PhD project - The everyday life of media fans:
ritual and sacralization in online media fandom

Every time a new medium appears, it causes concern about its impact on people’s lives. Today, this concern revolves around our constant involvement in digital media, raising doubts about whether such involvement enriches our lives or causes us to disconnect from ‘real’ world matters and relationships. One way to study this issue is by looking at media fandom. Mobile devices and social media platforms like Tumblr and Archive of Our Own have made it possible to engage in new, consuming ways with the fictional worlds of for example Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, or Star Wars. Fans for whom these worlds and characters are important can spend hours a week, or even hours a day in online environments, engaged with fictional matters.

In this project, I examine the topic of online fandom from a new angle. I focus on media fans: people who are emotionally invested in a mediated element of popular culture (here restricted to fictional novels, films, series or games) and who, because of that investment, engage in the regular consumption of said media. Often, these fans routinely gather online to discuss, explore and expand their favorite story worlds via forum posts, blog entries, and fan works such as fan art or fanfiction. With regard to such practices, fictional worlds have been described as playgrounds or symbolic resources that allow people to reflect on how the real world is, could be, or should be. This would offer the potential for people to instigate personal, cultural, or social change. But is this really the case?

Existing research on media fandom focuses primarily on online fan cultures and practices to study the potential of fandom as changemaker. This overlooks significant dimensions of how fictional worlds become meaningful to people’s actual day-to-day lives and makes it difficult to grasp the complex interactions between fans' lived reality, the online fan activities they engage in, and the fictional worlds central to those activities. In an attempt to cover this gap, this project explores a new approach using ritual theory. For decades, ritual scholars have been studying the relations between different realities (ritual/non-ritual, religious/non-religious, sacred/profane). Ritual performance in this context has been theorized as a process that produces boundaries or ‘frames’: contextual delimitations that communicate what kind of reality we are dealing with. Specifically, the act of ritual framing can set objects, spaces or practices apart as something special, giving them ‘sacred’ value. This sacrality subsequently contributes to the creation of shared social realities and shapes people's lives.

By means of participant observation, diaries, and in-depth interviews, I investigate media fans’ practices and experiences surrounding fictional worlds. How do fans relate fictional worlds to everyday life, and what role do online fan spaces play in this process? How can theory on ritual framing and sacralization help understand this issue? The aims of the research are to develop a new framework for studying the interaction between fiction and everyday life, to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural significance of media fandom, and to advance ritual theory building.

This project is funded by the NWO PhDs in the humanities program.

Last modified:25 June 2022 4.31 p.m.