Filling in the Gaps: Fans and Fan Fiction on the Internet

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Academic Commentary
Title: Filling in the Gaps: Fans and Fan Fiction on the Internet
Commentator: Sue Hazlett
Date(s): 2000
Medium: online essay
Fandom: X-Files,Meta, fan fiction
External Links: here via Wayback, Archived version
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Filling in the Gaps: Fans and Fan Fiction on the Internet is an essay written by Sue Hazlett at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This study is intended to be a case study of fan fiction. I chose to focus on a specific television program, the X-Files, which has a wide variety of fiction devoted to it, but in which the scope of writing is fairly narrow. I also chose the X-Files because of my familiarity with the show and because the relationship between Mulder and Scully limits the varieties of fan fiction written about it. There are several archives of hundreds of stories, but most focus on the characters as a team. I contacted, via email, thirty authors of fanfics posted to the Haven site. This is an edited site that reviews fan fiction and posts the best stories on its fan fiction pages. The site posts about eight stories per week. Based on past experience with surveys, I hoped to get five or six responses to my queries. I was pleasantly surprised to receive answers from every author that I contacted. Some respondents were curious as to how I came to be doing this kind of research, some were surprised that I found their stories to be of interest for academic research, and most were very supportive of the project and happy to answer my questions.


Two inventions have revolutionized television fandom in the last twenty years, namely, the VCR and the internet. As Baym (1998) points out when talking about soap operas, fans were stereotyped as isolated, home-bound, and uneducated. With the advent of the VCR, television programs could be taped while fans were engaged in other activities and watched later. The VCR enhances the enjoyment the fan gets out of a favorite program, by enabling the fan to view the program multiple times, or to rewatch and analyze a scene that is of particular interest. The internet has given rise to literally thousands of newsgroups devoted to particular programs, characters, and actors. Fans can go online and discuss their interests with other fans without regard to boundaries of time or geography. These two technological advances have led not only to a large increase in fans and a shift toward the perception of fans as more "mainstream," but have also brought fandom into a public place where it can be more easily accessed by both potential fans and researchers.

Because of the increase in the visibility of fandom on the internet, and the high level of organization achieved among many of these groups, the persons involved in the production of television programs (often referred to by fans as the "Powers That Be" or PTBs) have begun to pay more attention to fan groups. Internet discussion or "chat" sessions are often set up with stars, producers, and directors in which fans can ask questions about episodes, past incidents, or future developments. The stars and the PTBs often monitor and sometimes even post on internet newsgroups. Gillilan (1998) cites examples of letter-writing campaigns spearheaded by internet newsgroups when fans are unhappy with developments on a show. Gillilan also gives an example of fans rejecting developments outright. When fans were unhappy with the second season of War of the Worlds, they literally "rewrote" the history of the show in fan fiction stories which ignored the deaths of major characters and continued from the first season as though the second season never happened. Of 700 fan fiction stories collected in 1995, only 50 followed the story line as it was presented in the second season. The other 650 stories either negated it or ignored it altogether (Gillilan, 1998).

One finding by most researchers who have studied fandom is that fans are overwhelmingly female. Baym (1998) stated that two-thirds of the posters on soap opera newsgroups are female. Gillilan (1998) describes the "typical" fan as a white, college-educated, middle-class, heterosexual female between 25 and 50 years old. Gillilal (1998) goes on to define a "woman-centered cultural space in which reinterpretations of the text can occur -- both theoretically and demographically" as a "wild-zone". Because the broadcast industry is a male-dominated, patriarchal domain, the texts produced by television reflect this male domination. Female fans remove the texts they feel have potential from the male dominion and place it into the wild zone. Here, "women can take control of cultural products that would otherwise fall outside their influence. They create, consume, and mediate their activities apart from the dominant culture industry. The wild-zone applies to all levels of fan activity - public, such as conventions, and private, such as individual acts of production and consumption. It is a place where activities are controlled by women, for women. The television fandom wild-zone exists both as a place without any permanent or specific physical location, which members enter and leave at will, and as a state of belonging centered in a sense of interest and community." (Gillilan, 1998, p. 185).

Bacon-Smith (1992) addresses the issue of divergent gender interests in fandom. Gaming, for example, has always been dominated by males. Many researchers (Rheingold, 1993) who have studied computer-mediated communication have reported on the domination of males in online Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) as well as in computer gaming and fantasy card games such as "Magic: The Gathering." Women who venture into gaming are met with suspicion, if not outright hostility until they can establish their "expertise" (Bacon-Smith, 1992). Rheingold (1993) cites examples of males presenting themselves as females in cyberspace because of the increased attention females attract in the mostly male MUD communities. However, increased attention does not always mean a lack of hostility on the part of males, as one highly publicized incident of "cyber-rape" illustrates. The sharp division between male fans attracted almost exclusively to to highly-structured aspects of fandom such as gaming and females attracted to "wild-zones" such as fan fiction is puzzling and would be a good topic for further research.