Fandom in times of superdiversity: the case of Sherlock
In 1963, Howard Becker published his book Outsiders, in which he described subcultures and the ways in which they function - a theory which can still be applied nowadays. By combining Becker's ideas with theories on superdiversity and applying them to a community of BBC's Sherlock fans on Tumblr, this article aims to shed some light on the internal workings of a fan community in the digital age.
A diversity of subcultures
“Where people who engage in deviant activities have the opportunity to interact with one another they are likely to develop a culture built around the problems rising out of the differences between their definition of what they do and the definition held by other members of the society (…) Since these cultures operate within, and in distinction to, the culture of the larger society, they are often called subcultures” (Becker, 1963, p.81-82)
This is how Howard Becker defined the term ‘subculture’ in 1963, in his work Outsiders: studies in the sociology of deviance. When Becker did his research, the groups of people that he studied were considered outsiders, because their behavior was not accepted in the dominant society. One of his case studies, for instance, was focused on marihuana users, while another was centered around 1960s jazz culture. Becker found that while the norms within these subcultures were at odds with hegemonic ideas – the things that mainstream society considered ‘normal’ –, these groups understood themselves as normal, and viewed non-group members as ‘outsiders’. Since these subcultures work in a similar way as conventional culture, with their own norms and values, they can be regarded as micro-hegemonies (Becker, 1963).
Becker describes subcultures, or micro-hegemonies, as homogenous, but since the time he published this study, this has changed (I. Maly, personal communication, February 21, 2017). The world has become more complex, and people are usually not just part of one subculture, but of several different ones. This can be explained as a result of superdiversity: a recent phenomenon that has emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as well as the fall of the Soviet Union later on (Maly, 2016). As a result of these events, new migration patterns and mobilities arose, which, together with the neoliberal economic structure and new media technologies like the Internet, have made the world more complex (Maly & Varis, 2015).
The various subcultures that have been, and are being, formed in this new, superdiverse, world, are what Maly & Varis (2015) call ‘micro-populations’. Unlike Becker’s subcultures, these are not seen as homogenous, but rather as translocal, polycentric, and layered. This means that being part of a certain group “differs contextually depending on who uses the concept and in which part of the world” (Maly & Varis, 2015, p.2). This means that having a group identity is not as straight-forward in the 21st century as it was in the sixties. This is made even more complex by the fact that these micro-populations operate not only offline, but are also, as previously stated, a consequence of new media technologies such as the Internet - social media, in particular, have made it possible for various subcultures to flourish online (Maly & Varis, 2015). One particular form of subculture with a notable presence on the Internet, are so-called 'fandoms': groups of "fans of someone or something, especially very enthusiastic ones" (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). In this research, I will focus on one particular group of fans, by studying the relations between members of this community and the way in which the group works as a micro-population.
I am currently working on my Bachelor's thesis, for which I have been following a particular niche within the Sherlock fandom. Sherlock is a television series produced by the BBC, which started in 2010 and had its fourth season airing at the beginning of this year (2017). It’s a modern take on the famous nineteenth-century detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes, and the series has gathered a considerable fan base over the years (Lavigne, 2012). The group that I have been following operates under the acronym TJLC – standing for ‘The JohnLock Conspiracy’ – and works on the assumption that main characters Sherlock (Holmes) and John (Watson) will ultimately end up in a romantic relationship. Evidence for this belief is presented in the form of detailed analyses of the series, mostly posted on social media platform Tumblr. Subtext, symbolism and the musical score, but also interviews with and social media posts from the creators, actors and other involved parties are all taken into account, resulting in a vast amount of research that gets built upon by numerous people involved in this niche of the fandom.
My research so far has pointed out, however, that for part of the community, this is not merely a fun detective game, but also a matter of representation. LGBTQIA+ viewers, who were attracted by the romantic subtext they perceived between John and Sherlock, got personally invested in the idea of what they hoped would be an accurate representation of a queer couple on television. A lot of hope was directed towards season four, which would be the season in which 'Johnlock' - the so-called 'ship name' or couple name for John and Sherlock - would become official. After this season aired at the beginning of 2017, however, and the predictions of TJLC'ers didn't come true, a lot of them showed negative emotions, ranging from confusion to anger to intense dissappointment.
My thesis is focused on this side of TJLC in particular, focused on the struggle for (accurate) LGBTQIA+ representation and the phenomenon of queerbaiting, with an emphasis on the relation between TJLC’ers and other groups, such as the creators of the show. In this research paper, however, I look at the inner workings of the community, and, by applying Howard Becker's theory, aim to understand and explain how TJLC functions as a micro-population.
Researching a digital group
Since I am studying the behavior of one particular group, I will use ethnography for my research method. Ethnography is a qualitative research approach, in which the researcher spends considerable time immersed within the research context, also known as ‘the field’. This allows the researcher to practice what is called 'participant observation': the ethnographer, in order to better understand the field that they’re studying, simultaneously functions as researcher and participant (Matthews & Ross, 2010). In doing so, they gain an emic or insider’s perspective (as opposed to an external, etic perspective), which makes it possible for them to understand how the research participants make sense of the world, and how this is framed by the culture in which they are situated (Page et al, 2014). Typically, ethnographers work with a case study design, and collect their data through participant observation, as well as by having conversations with the research participants and, occasionally, making use of more formal interviews (Matthews & Ross, 2010).
Since the group that I’m following mostly operates on the Internet, however, I will make use of a specific type of ethnography that is known as digital ethnography. Digital ethnography was developed when ethnographers realized that this type of research cannot only be used to study offline communities, but is also an effective way of gaining insight into online communities and mediated practices (Boyd, 2008). It can therefore best be understood as “a qualitative Internet research approach, which focuses on the meanings and experiences that emerge around the Internet in a particular context – both online and offline – as well as on their significance” (Frenk, 2016). Using an originally 'offline' technique to study online practices, however, changes the ways in which the researcher is in contact with the participants, and, consequently, calls for other methods to collect data. This is explained by Pink et al (2015), who state that instead of being in direct presence of the research participants, digital ethnography often entails having mediated contact with them, which results in different kinds of data collection: “We might be watching people what people do by digitally tracking them, or asking them to invite us into their social media practices. Listening might involve reading, or it might involve sensing and communicating in other ways. Ethnographic writing might be replaced by video, photography or blogging” (Pink et al, 2015, p.3).
It is important to note that these changes in data collection and participant observation bring along with them some issues concerning the privacy of the research participants. Since the research happens online, and the ethnographer is therefore not always in direct contact with the people that they are studying, these participants are not always aware of the fact that they are being observed. This raises questions about whether or not the researcher should ask for permission. Information on the Internet is often public, but it has been proven that not everyone is always aware of how visible their information is online, and people have different opinions about privacy (Frenk, 2016). Therefore, I will take issues of privacy into account when collecting and discussing my data.
Data & analysis
Most of the activities within the TJLC community take place on Tumblr, which is why I have chosen this platform as the field from which to collect my data. Considering the changes in the community regarding the belief in 'Johnlock' since the release of season four at the beginning of this year, the screenshots I use to illustrate my research are dating from before 2017. As stated above, the issue of privacy is another factor that has influenced my choice in data and the way I present them. Since some of the data I discuss contains sensitive information related to the participants’ sexual orientations, I have chosen to leave out any names. To ensure complete privacy, I have also made the decision to leave out links to the posts that I discuss; if necessary, these can be personally retrieved from me.
Knowledge and meta
In his research, Howard Becker (1963) points out that having knowledge is a prerequisite of becoming a part of a group. He states that all social groups have rules and norms, and in order to be an accepted member, one needs to know what these rules and norms are, and make sure to behave accordingly. This also includes, for instance, the language that is used within a certain group, as can be seen in the following post:
Here, someone involved with TJLC, or at least interested in the community, asks another member about the meaning of an acronym (TPTB) that is used. This illustrates the importance of having knowledge, because without it, the person asking the question wouldn’t be able to understand discussions surrounding this topic, and would thus be unable to join them. Moreover, the answer that they get requires a certain understanding as well; someone who has been involved with the fandom for a longer time will know that Moffat and Gatiss are the writers of the show, and that Sue Vertue is the producer, but newcomers in the community might have to do some more research after this answer.
Another reason why knowledge is a necessary attribute within TJLC, is the fact that the community is heavily based on so-called ‘meta’. Within this fandom, the term, which is short for ‘meta-analysis’, is used to indicate analytical texts – ranging from short pieces to entire essays – that are written in order to understand symbolism and subtext in Sherlock, as well as to make predictions for future seasons (Supernatural Wiki, 2014). The following post, for example, provides links to several pieces of Johnlock/TJLC meta, including a guide and several lists for beginners, as well as meta surrounding season four, which was about to start airing the moment that this screenshot was made.
Since analyzing the series is a vital part of this community – TJLC is a self-proclaimed conspiracy group, after all – reading up on other people’s meta theories, especially the most popular ones, is a crucial part of becoming a TJLC’er. It is only when someone has enough knowledge about both the show itself and the things that are written about it in the community, that they can try their hand at writing their own meta. Furthermore, the use of a social media websites such as Tumblr allows for the creation of threads, in which one member starts a conversation on a certain topic, in this case an analysis, and other users can add to this, leading to the expansion of the meta, or correcting any mistakes that might have been made.
An example of TJLC meta can be found in the following text post. The word “Vampire” was used in a text message conversation in episode one of season four, which caused this TJLC’er to take a closer look at one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle called “Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”, (1927) and draw parallels between this work and the events in season four of Sherlock:
This argument was then strengthened by another member of the TJLC community, who agreed with and expanded upon this theory by posting the following:
The post not only adds information to the argument made by the other user, but also uses the original post to connect even more parts of the storyline with one another. Additionally, the posts show that not only knowledge about Sherlock and the fan interpretations surrounding the series are important, but that being informed about the original Sherlock Holmes stories is part of being a TJLC’er as well. The second post also demonstrates my earlier point about acronyms playing an important role in the community; in order to understand what this user is trying to say, one needs to know that ‘TAB’, ‘TST’ and ‘tfp’ all refer to episodes of the show (‘The Abominable Bride’, ‘The Six Thatchers’ and ‘The Final Problem’, respectively).
Knowledge is not only necessary to become a part of a group, but the amount of information and skill related to the community that someone possesses, also determines their ranking within this community. Becker (1963) writes about this hierarchy in the form of ‘careers’. Taking the example of the marihuana users he studied, he describes how there are different stages in becoming part of that group, and how, by going through these stages, one moves up into the system. A person new to a social group always starts out as a novice, a beginner. The marihuana smoker, then, first becomes an occasional user, before taking the third and last step towards being a regular user, also known as a master. These steps are made while the individual in question goes through a series of learning experiences. First, they must master the technique of smoking marihuana; then, they learn how to ‘perform’ while smoking – how to avoid being seen as a newbie and instead look like a regular user. This happens by copying the behavior of other, more experienced members, who function as role models. Afterwards, a user must learn the effects of marihuana use, which is followed by the final step of actually coming to enjoy these effects (Becker, 1963).
Within the TJLC community, a similar trend can be spotted. A new member encounters varies theories, references and a language that are particular to the group, and needs to learn the ins and outs by asking other members questions and gathering as much information as they can. Then, they can try their hand at contributing, by reacting to other posts. Eventually, a member has enough knowledge to start writing their own meta, and if they have enough knowledge and skills, they can become one of the masters of the group.
One member of the TJLC community in particular has grown to become such a master. This person, who I will call ‘B’ here for privacy reasons, has become well-known for creating a series of YouTube videos, in which they explained the various topics surrounding TJLC, such as symbolism and subtext, but also references to other Sherlock Holmes adaptions and the beginnings of the TJLC community. B’s work and conversations about sexuality meant enough for fellow TJLC’ers that a Tumblr page was created in order for people to thank B. These posts often include personal stories, such as the following one:
On top of sharing their personal experiences related to B's videos and general presence in the community, various TJLC'ers have made fan art of B.
A superdiverse group
Althought TJLC is a fairly new community, the theory of Howard Becker is still applicable to this group. Acquiring knowledge has proven to be a vital part of becoming a TJLC’er. This knowledge comes not only in the form of behaviour (norms and rules); information concerning Sherlock Holmes and its various adaptions, as well as the language that is used within the community, are important components of group membership as well. Furthermore, while all TJLC members are fans by definition, this does not mean that they are all on the same level of hierarchy within the community. People with the right set of knowledge and skills become masters within their group, and, in some cases, gain a fan base of their own.
While TJLC can be described by Howard Becker’s theory, this is not enough to completely understand the group. Rather than being an example of an homogenous subculture, TJLC is a result of superdiversity, of new technological developments; it is only because of the emergence of the Internet and social media that online fandoms have come into existence, and that fans from all over the world can get into contact with each other to share their ideas. Moreover, TJLC proves that social groups nowadays are very layered, since this subculture is part of the larger subculture that is the Sherlock fandom. This fandom, in turn, can be viewed as a part of fandom in general, which can also be seen as a subculture. TJLC, therefore, is a community that portrays the traits of social groups as described by Becker, but can at the same time be understood as a heterogeneous, layered micro-population.
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