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Exploring Henry Jenkins’ definition of “fan culture”

Module: Media Fan Cultures
Module Coordinator: Professor Lincoln Geraghty
Academic Year 3 (2022/2023)

I have found Henry Jenkins’ works very interesting to read during my study and have a copy of most of his books. This was not the first time we explored his work, so I was excited to write an essay having been familiar with the works for a while.

Form a response to Henry Jenkins’ definition of “fan culture” in Convergence Culture.

Henry Jenkins defines Fan Culture in their book Convergence Culture as “Culture that is produced by fans and other amateurs for circulation through an underground economy and that draws much of its content from the commercial culture.” (2006a, p. 285).

Jenkins discusses how in the twentieth century the entertainment industry was, at first, content with folk practices of stories and songs being circulated and minstrel shows, circuses and showboats competing with “barn dances, church sings, quilting bees, and campfire stories”, but later changed their attitude “[setting] standards of technical perfection and professional accomplishment few grassroots performers could match”. This resulted in “practices [being] pushed underground – people still composed and sang songs, amateur writers still scribbled verse, weekend painters still dabbled, people still told stories and some local communities still held square dances”. (2006a, p. 135).

This so-called underground economy was fuelled by the popularisation of the internet and “The culture industries never really had to confront the existence of this alternative cultural economy because, for the most part, it existed behind closed doors and its products circulated only among a small circle of friends and neighbors.” (p. 136). Jenkins suggests that “Allowing consumers to interact with media under controlled circumstances is one thing; allowing them to participate in the production and distribution of cultural goods – on their own terms – is something else altogether.” (p. 133) and explains how “With the consolidation of power represented by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, American intellectual property law has been rewritten to reflect the demands of mass media producers.” (p. 137), resulting in these media corporations seeking a tighter control over what can, or rather cannot, be produced by fans. Operating behind closed doors and circulating their products through an underground economy, away from official channels and through word of mouth and in-person sales at conventions would aid in fans avoiding the eyes of the big production companies who may wish to stop them.

In their 2013 book Textual Poachers, Jenkins defines what they mean when they say they are a fan by comparing their mentor’s definition:

When my mentor, John Fiske (1992), said he was a “fan”, he meant simply that he liked a particular program, but when I said I was a fan, I was claiming membership in a particular subculture. Meaning-making in Fiske was often individualized, whereas in my work, meaning-making is often deeply social. (p. xiv).

Later, Jenkins discusses how the term “fan” strayed away from its original meaning and became a “more negative connotation[s]” (p. 12), before being used by 19th century journalists to describe followers of professional sports teams. Citing other works, (Campbell, 1956; Jewett & Lawrence, 1977), Jenkins outlines how “science fiction television and its fans constitute a kind of secular faith”, with an example of fans of Star Trek (Coon, Lucas & Freiberger, 1966-1969) and their devotion to the characters of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock.

  1. Elizabeth Bird (2003) discusses what it means to be a fan, noting how “Being a fan can be an important cultural marker–a way we can signal our preferences and demonstrate connections with others.” (p. 51) and:

“When we learn someone is a fan, we feel we have learned something about his character; when we discover a friend is a fan of something we hate, we might stop to wonder if we really have so much in common with her. And if someone is really enthused about something, especially connected with popular media, we might feel there’s something not quite healthy about this.” (pp. 51-52).

They discuss their involvement within an e-mail discussion list dedicated to Beth Sullivan’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998), importantly outlining how different members were considered experts in specific subjects surrounding the television show and would be expected to comment on such discussions. Bird argues that the internet “is a new tool of communication that can be used in many different ways, just as other forms of communication can. It is certainly changing social interaction for many participants”. (p. 56). A member of the community uses the metaphor of a quilt to describe the community, “where each of us comes to share and we bring our own pieces of fabric that make us unique; sewing the different offerings together to make something special and memorable.” (p. 59).

Robert V. Kozinets (2001) used “field notes and artifacts from 20 months of fieldwork at Star Trek fan clubs, at conventions, and in internet groups, and 67 interviews with Star Trek fans”, to form an ethnography of Star Trek fans, examining the “cultural and subcultural construction of consumption meanings and practices as they are negotiated from mass media images and objects”. (p. 67). Kozinets explored what it meant to be a “Trekkie” (“someone with a special interest in the television show ‘Star Trek’”, Cambridge Dictionary, 2023) and as much of their communication was via e-mail with fans, it was possible for fans to offer an unfiltered opinion on various subjects compared to discussion on an online discussion board where it may be moderated at the very least to keep the language inoffensive, but in other cases to restrict opinions that are contrary to the moderator or website’s own.

A key part of their research was examining conflicts within fan groups. These conflicts were often started when a member, in the eyes of their peers, either cared too much or too little about how the general public perceived them as fans. Kozinets uses Barbara Adams as an example – Adams wore their Star Trek uniform to serve as a juror on the Clinton Whitewater case, demonstrating what Kozinets defines as the difference between a Trekkie and a Trekker: “Trekkers only wear the uniform ‘when it’s appropriate’” (p. 79).


Star Trek has hundreds of official novels, licensed by Paramount, which form new stories surrounding the Star Trek universe, such as Spock Must Die! (Blish, 1930), From the Depths (Milan, 1993), and Child of Two Worlds (Cox, 2015), but over the years fans have produced their own stories, satisfying their personal desires for the characters, or perhaps changing the “official canon”. Lincoln Geraghty notes “[The novels] and fan literature are not seen as canonical because the stories they tell have not ‘happened’, they have not taken place on-screen and are therefore unofficial.” (2007, pp. 36-37). Another example of an official/unofficial canon can be found with the Star Wars universe: When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, they wiped the canon clean of virtually all the expanded universe novels (McMillan, 2014) – Anything that officially happened in the many novels was no longer canon, but all future novels published by Del Rey, such as A New Dawn (Miller, 2014), Thrawn (Zahn, 2017), and Brotherhood (Chen, 2022) would be official canon.

Geraghty continues with “Both official and fan literatures have attempted to fill in the gaps between storylines and character backgrounds originally aired on-screen.” (p. 37). This is important because official literature will have guidelines to follow, which are set by the intellectual property owner and restrict them from making a multitude of different stories canon, whereas fanfiction is not bound by these restrictions. In Textual Poachers, Jenkins discusses a fan’s response to Star Trek: The Next Generation (Roddenberry et al., 1987-1994), suggesting that an intimate relationship may be formed with a primary text (pp. 87-88), specifically with someone who has a great knowledge of the show and is critical of certain aspects of it. This may encourage a fan to take matters into their own hands and write their own story.

Authors of fanfiction can take extratextual themes and concepts and turn them into stories of their own and these stories are shared on websites, which operate independently from Paramount and other studios, such as and In the introduction of Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, Henry Jenkins noted that whilst they were writing the book “a number of fans were nervous about what would happen if their underground culture was exposed to public scrutiny. They didn’t love the media stereotypes of “Trekkies,” but they weren’t sure they wanted to open the closet doors either.” (2006b, p. 1). This is an interesting, because when reading some of these fanfiction stories, such as The Big One (nfgirl, 2006), Desertification (Dattatreya, 2007), and Worthless (libbiliboo, 2017), the authors’ names are redacted and they are only known by their screen name, indicating that they may not want their real identity attributed to their own writings. These stories vary in length, from just a few hundred words (A Lot to be Thankful For, Gin, 2001) to over ten thousand (Hell on Earth, Jasmin Kenobi, 2013).

Before the internet was readily available, “fanzines” (fan-created magazines) were produced and distributed by fans. Henry Jenkins discusses this practice in detail in Textual Poachers, noting how “many zines do not advertise in [official publications], relying on convention sales, word of mouth, or ads in other program-related zines to attract their customers.” (2013, p. 156) and that:

Readers and writers depend upon each other for the perpetuation of the fandom: editors are expected to charge only the costs of production (and possibly enough to provide start up capital for a new zine), but are discouraged from turning zine-publishing into a profit-making enterprise. (pp. 159-160).

Jenkins also notes how some fanzines:

[. . .] provided ongoing discussions of techniques of fan writing and artwork as well as tips for the most experiences fans. The various forms of interaction pull fan writers toward the mainstream of community interests and insure conforming audience desires and expectations. (p. 161).

This is interesting, because it suggests that the producers of these fanzines were not interested in their publications becoming mainstream media. Running them as non-profit publications and relying on word of mouth and in-person sales at fan gatherings indicates the underground economy in Jenkins’ definition. With that said, the production of these fanzines was anything but amateur, requiring a certain amount of professionalism and know-how. It’s possible to interpret “drawing much of its content from the commercial culture.” In two slightly different ways: Firstly, how it is most likely to be interpreted as the fanfiction itself being influenced by the official texts – as stated earlier, fans producing their own stories, satisfying their personal desires for the characters, or perhaps changing the “official canon”, and secondly, the way in which these fanzines are constructed, presented and distributed – producers can take industry knowledge and findings and apply them to their own fanzines to make them as close to a professional publication as possible. Although the way in which they market them is limited, they can still do so in an industry-standard way.


This essay has explored Henry Jenkins’ definition of “fan culture” from their book Convergence Culture, finding that fans of a given text, in this case Star Trek, may produce their own stories for circulation on fan sites, and before the internet “fanzines”, which act as an “underground economy” separate from the intellectual property owners. This enables fans to write stories which otherwise would not be published, rewriting certain aspects of a canon to satisfy their personal desires.

In Convergence Culture, Jenkins outlines how “The web provides a powerful new distribution channel for amateur cultural production” (2006a, p. 131), and:

To create is much more fun and meaningful if you can share what you can create with others and the Web, built for collaboration within the scientific community, provides an infrastructure for sharing the things average Americans are making in their rec rooms. (2006a, p. 136).

Today, the internet allows anyone to easily participate in this culture and as such, the length or quality of fanfiction varies dramatically with much of it attributed to the author’s screen name, instead of their real name. With studios taking their texts into new eras, such as Disney “refreshing” the official Star Wars cannon, it would be interesting to see if a new era of fanfiction will occur within this underground economy too, with stories around a new canon being developed, and if the discussions and tips on writing your own fanfiction aren’t as readily available, if fanfiction has seen a decline in quality or quantity since.

References - Click to expand
  • Bird, S. E. (2003). The Audience in Everyday Life. Routledge.
  • Blish, J. (1970). Spock Must Die! Bantam Books.
  • Cambridge Dictionary. (2023, April 12). Meaning of Trekkie in English. Cambridge Dictionary.
  • Campbell, J. (1956). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library.
  • Chen, M. (2022). Brotherhood. Del Rey.
  • Coon, G. L., Lucas, J. M, & Freiberger, F. (Producers). (1966-1969). Star Trek [TV series]. Desilu Productions; Norway Corporation; Paramount Television.
  • Cox, G. (2015). Child of Two Worlds. Pocket Books.
  • Dattatreya. (2007, January 21). Desertification.
  • Geraghty, L. (2007). Living with Star Trek. American culture and the Star Trek Universe. I.B. Tauris.
  • Gin. (2001, January 8). A Lot to be Thankful For.
  • Jasmin Kenobi. (2013, December 6). Hell on Earth.
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  • Jenkins, H. (2006b). Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. New York University Press.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013). Textual Poachers. Routlege.
  • Jewett, R. & Lawrence, J. S. (1977). The American Monomyth. Anchor Press.
  • Kozinets, R. V. (2001). Utopian Enterprise: Articulting the Meanings of Star Trek’s Culture of Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 67-88.
  • libbiliboo. (2017, August 19). Worthless. Wattpad.
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  • nfgirl. (2006, August 5). The Big One.
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  • Sullivan, B. (Producer). (1993-1998). Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman [TV series]. CBS; Sullivan Company.
  • Zahn, T. (2017). Thrawn. Del Rey.