Communication among fans has long been characterized by creativity. Fans of TV series write fan fiction and make fan videos based on original texts so as to portray the ideal characters and plots in their own world of imagination. In a similar vein, celebrity followers gather every piece of information from gossip magazines about their idols and relate the star images with their own life trajectories and everyday experiences.
Even though we could expect digital media to facilitate such participatory ways of consuming popular cultural products, nowadays Chinese celebrity-followers speak in a ritualistic and phatic manner on the largest domestic microblogging site Weibo. The quantity and rank of fan posts has become a priority in that context. Today, fans on Weibo are engaged in gaming the platform's popularity metrics and algorithms, sometimes using automatic posting software, so as to boost positive publicity and high media visibility for their idols.
In this article, I'm going to show how fans train the algorithms and reflect on the possible reasons for and consequences of a depleted media fandom landscape.
Weibo and the quantification of fan communication
Weibo is China's largest microblogging site. While the platform previously implemented most of its features copying from Twitter, it has now developed into a media-rich networking site covering both the functionalities of Facebook and Twitter. Within the domestic ecology of social media platforms in China, Weibo's strategic niche is in celebrity and key opinion leader (KOL) content.
An important aspect of fan communication among Weibo celebrity followers is the preoccupation with numbers and rankings. ‘Voting’, also called ‘accomplishing tasks’ or ‘generating data’ in fan communities, is one of the most important fan practices. Originating from the music chart culture, voting in this context involves several steps including voting for one’s idol on various celebrity popularity charts, and checking-in at the fan page of Weibo (and other social media platforms). Fans also strive to boost the vitality of Weibo fan pages by replying and commenting on the posts of other fans. In other words, voting is fans' proactive activity to talk with algorithms and navigate through the popularity metrics on Weibo.
What fans are doing here is feeding the algorithms of Weibo and simulate online traffic as if it happens in a bottom-up manner with mass popularity and support.
As a major online outlet for traditional entertainment media content in China, Weibo has created a Celebrity Chart which measures aggregated popularity and influence of entertainment stars on Weibo. Many fan communities have created tutorials for voting, which function as the celebrity following know-how shared among members. These tutorials interpret the ‘rules of the game’ of the Weibo Celebrity Chart by breaking down the composition of popularity metrics and translate them into concrete and strategic posting activities on Weibo.
For instance, fans need to go to their idols’ profiles and read the latest posts within 30 days and repost them everyday. They should also address their idols by using the addressivity markers @ and hashtags. These two activities are aimed at boosting the numbers of views for their idols’ Weibo accounts.
It is apparent that fans view these posts everyday not for gaining the latest information about their idol. More often than not, they are aware if the idol is online and already read their update immediately after posting by using applications and the notification function of Weibo. What fans are doing here is feeding the algorithms of Weibo and simulate online traffic as if it happens in a bottom-up manner with mass popularity and support.
Only few fans write longer articles where they talk about their identification with celebrity image and fandom experience in detail. This is because articles take a longer time to write and read but do not influence the metrics significantly.
However, the aggregated popularity metrics like Weibo Celebrity Chart also influence the shape and content of fan communication. In other words, in order to help one’s idol arrive at a better place on the chart, certain communicative behaviors are encouraged while others are marginalized.
For instance, the parameter of a celebrity’s social influence includes the mentioning of the celebrity’s name in Weibo posts and the number of views these posts have generated. Fans have translated this parameter into strategic fan-to-fan communication. It is advised that they should not only create original posts addressing the idol, but also click on other fans’ posts and leave comments.
The fan-to-fan interactions are critical traffic to be captured by the popularity mechanism. Often, the comments consist of only a few characters or even only emoticons such as a heart or rose to show encouragement to the idol. Only few fans write longer articles where they talk about their identification with celebrity image and fandom experience in detail. This is because articles take a longer time to write and read but do not influence the metrics significantly.
In contrast, to ‘accomplish tasks’ or to ‘generate data’ is to strategically cope with day-to-day real-time algorithmic assessment of the idol. This is a convivial environment according to Varis and Blommaert (2015), since the communication involves little denotative content and is ritualistic. Nevertheless fans’ conviviality is not only to maintain the communicative channel open among peers, but more importantly to feed the algorithms by simulating substantial fan-to-fan interactions.
The automation of fan communication
Reposting, commenting and liking idols’ Weibo posts are basic fan activities that can also be delegated to automatic software. One of the applications for this purpose is Super Support. The application is designed by an IT company in China, whose business is to provide data analytics services on celebrity popularity scores and reputational rankings.
In other words, the company aggregates all the important celebrity charts on various social media platforms in China and provides services for advertisers and producers.
Fans can subscribe to the automated voting service for 5.99 RMB (0.70 Euros) per month on Super Support. It helps them vote for their idols on five celebrity popularity charts (including Weibo Celebrity Chart), which according to the application are the most authoritative ones in the Chinese entertainment industry. It also helps fans repost and comment on their idols’ Weibo entries from the last thirty days. Posting original posts containing the name or nickname of one's idols can be also done.
Last but not least, the application can search for an idol’s name on Weibo and Baidu once per hour, which amounts to 24 times per day. Automated keywords searching can be also realized by using mobile phone web browsers. Once the embedded function of automatic refresh and search is switched on, some web browsers like UC and QQ can help fans to ‘speak to the search engine’ consecutively every 15 seconds. The Weibo accounts of fans that deploy applications like Super Support have become cyborgs, human-managed accounts with automatic software to enhance the speed and ease of posting.
In the name of love, however, fans are not ‘forced’ to generate positive publicity for their idols. They are driven by deep and affective association with the fan objects.
With all the assiduous work and money paid for the software, why do fans care so much about voting? One reason is that they believe internet traffic is among the few things that fans can do to help with their idols' career success.
For instance, the significance of the Weibo Celebrity Chart is promoted beyond the current platform as it is marketed as an efficient barometer for media producers and advertisers to gauge celebrities’ commercial value. We are witnessing a scene of media convergence here (Cunningham, 2015).
On the one hand, IT companies strive to enhance the value of their digital platforms by inviting celebrity content and mining celebrity-related online discourse for potential advertisement markets.
On the other hand, online visibility has become a primary marker of celebrities’ achievement alongside one’s award-winning record, reputation and revenue-generating ability. Media producers and investors consider big data analysis of celebrity-fan interactions as one of the most scientific ways to gauge the market value of a celebrity, thus securing economic revenue. Fans thus make every effort to create active interaction on Weibo so as to prove that their idols can generate the most popularity.
Secondly, voting is a fannish practice driven by an affective economy (Booth, 2016). Fans devote emotional commitment to media content and they are supporters and evangelists of the products. Their emotions, desires and enthusiasm are quantified, measured and channeled to predictable viewership and consumption patterns (Jenkins, 2006).
Regarding Weibo celebrity followers, the commitment is manifested through intensive voting practices and active gaming of the platform algorithms. Some of them express with light-hearted irony that they are conducting astroturfing labor without getting paid, but this shows their dedicated love for their idols. Astroturfing means organized and sponsored participation disguised as grassroots mass support. In the name of love, however, fans are not ‘forced’ to generate positive publicity for their idols. They are driven by deep and affective association with the fan objects.
However, such emotional intensity is tapped to create commercial value for corporate interest in the entertainment industry. Media producers, advertisers, celebrity agencies and digital media are all happy about the fact that fans will take the initiative to create some buzz for the content where their idols appear.
Databased fan communication
As the industrial convergence sets up the context for the algorithmic assessment of celebrities and fans’ affection adds fuel to the free labor of voting, the databased logic of digital media also influences how fans talk about their idols on Weibo.
A database is a structured collection of data (Miller, 2011). The discrete units and lists exist without necessary predefined relationships to one another. The relationship is only configured once the units are solicited with a certain parameter chosen at a given time, for instance through algorithmic curation or a keywords search.
When fandom meets digital media, it becomes fandom on steroids.
This logic is manifested in a type of fan communication called ‘comment control’. It refers to the practice of fans searching for content about their idols on Weibo so as to detect any negative comments about them. To deal with this negative publicity proactively, fans do not reply to and argue with negative comments. Replying can only enhance the media visibility of negative comments in the database. In contrast, fans give the thumbs-up and reply to one another's posts so as to squeeze any possible negative comments out of sight.
Another strategy often used is to report certain negative comments collaboratively as abuse, to the extent that Weibo will ban the commenter’s account. As we can see, in a databased environment, debate and deliberation is not the best way to show appreciation to one’s idol. The most effective way is to undermine the visibility of negative voices in the database or thus eventually deny its entry to the database.
Media fandom as participation or hindrance to participation?
Consuming celebrity-related content, even in its most despised form of gossiping, has been understood by scholars as a vital site for fans and wider audiences to negotiate the normativity of social life (McDonnell, 2014).
Recently, the scandal of widespread tax fraud practices in Chinese entertainment industry has raised fierce public debate about the unregulated market and income inequality in China. However, once fans step in at such a moment to massage public opinion in favor of their idols, media fandom may actually constrain healthy public deliberations.
Similarly, the 2019 Spring Festival Gala by China Central Television featured several highly visible entertainment stars and teen idols performing on stage. This annual New Year’s Eve gala has long been an object of discussion on Weibo, where audiences can critically evaluate the quality of the programs especially because many of them were packed with expressions of dominant political ideology.
However, this year, Weibo users are complaining that all the voices have been taken by the enthusiastic and affectionate fans who make every effort to construct positive images for their idols. Any negative comments may incur a large group of fans who try to ‘comment control’ the target. When fandom meets digital media, it becomes fandom on steroids.
However, we should also reflect on whether such enthusiastic participation also hinders the multiplicity of voices in the digital public sphere.
Booth, P. (2010). Digital fandom 2.0: New media studies. New York: Peter Lang.
Cunningham, S. (2015). The new screen ecology: a new wave of media globalisation? Communication Research and Practice, 1(3), 275-282.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.
McDonnell, A. (2014). Reading celebrity gossip magazines. Cambridge: Polity.
Miller, V. (2011). Understanding digital culture. London: Sage Publications.
Varis, P. & Blommaert, J. (2015). Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual margins: A journal of multilingualism from the periphery, 2(1), 31-31.