Guest Journal / Journal / Visual Culture

Kevin Smith’s Online Fandom: Emotion and Entitlement

Tom Phillips.

Kevin SmithScholarly examination of fan cultures – looking at why and how particularly committed audiences practice their adoration of a text – has frequently been concerned with moments of conflict that arise between producers and fans. Such tensions have often registered in popular culture, with perhaps one of the more well-known examples being the increasingly divergent relations between Star Wars creator George Lucas and fans of the saga, a dynamic that Will Brooker notes has been accepted by fans as a ‘gross imbalance between the individual viewer and corporate producer’.[1]

Such a stance, however, has been actively ignored by Kevin Smith, who since debuting in 1994 with his feature Clerks, has actively courted his own fan community, most notably in 1995 when he asked fan (and now employee) Ming Chen to create an online forum, the View Askew Message Board.[2] Since that time the Board has been the official space in which to practice Kevin Smith fandom, and Smith has been an active participant in his own fan culture, noting ‘Once media was created that allowed a dialogue to open between filmmakers and audience, there was no way I couldn’t embrace it’.[3] Because of the interactivity the Board, and the personal nature of such interaction between Smith and users of the forum (known as Boardies), Smith has noted that ‘there’s a whole portion of the audience who aren’t fans of the flicks as much as they are supporters of me, personally’,[4] and that:

We have a symbiotic relationship, the fan base and I. In a weird way, they get to live vicariously through me, since I’m the tubby kid who made it good, who comes across less like an artist and more like your buddy who suddenly won the lottery of life.[5]

Although Smith isn’t the sole exception to the fan studies norm that ‘the relationship between fan and producer … is not always a happy or comfortable one and is often charged with mutual suspicion’,[6] his initiation of the fan community, participation in fan practices, and prolonged, consistent communication with fans has been a main source of appeal for Boardies to articulate their fandom via the forum. As Boardie Hawkboy notes, Smith’s interaction with fans is ‘one of the biggest reasons I’ve been a fan of his for the last 14 years’,[7] and Hannah describes the fans’ relationship with Smith as a ‘borderline friendship’.[8]

The commonplace occurrence of Smith’s communication with his fanbase has previously led to bemusement when faced with the possibility that such practices would cease. Fan yzzie responded that if Smith were to ‘suddenly change’ in this manner, she’d ‘understand he would have his reason[s]’,[9] with Ruth similarly stating ‘I doubt that would happen’.[10] Yet a repeated concern for fans is Smith’s apparent preference of other social networking sites – in particular his adoption of Twitter – over the Board. Although in embracing this form of social media Smith’s interaction with audiences is still a tangible and prominent aspect of his producorial persona, for Boardies it represents a reality over concerns of Smith’s current level of involvement in the fan community, particularly relative to his previous frequency of engagement.

In response to Smith’s use of Twitter, Cathy appears understanding about Smith’s level of participation: ‘Twitter suits Kevin’s personality down to the ground – wide access, relatively trivial interaction. It was always nice when you’d make a joke and Kevin would register his mirth … but I get why he doesn’t really post any more’.[11] Part of Cathy’s response comes from the understanding that Twitter provides an opportunity to interact with a wider range of audiences.

However, although appearing sympathetic to the pleasures Twitter can offer over the Board, in labeling interaction on Twitter as ‘relatively trivial’, Cathy implies that communication on the Board holds a higher degree of importance, and Smith’s embrace of Twitter is to his detriment. As Ruth Deller notes, although the style and content of tweets ‘varies from simple link sharing or retweeting with little to no commentary, to one-to-one conversation, to talk between a small number of users engaging in direct address … the most common tweets take the form of one to many conversation’. In placing Smith’s use of Twitter’s ‘one to many’ paradigm in relation to the ‘sense of group discussion and accumulation that you can get [via the Board] format’,[12] Cathy opines that fan interaction via Twitter is unfavourable and impersonal when compared to the way personal relationships can be cultivated on the Board.”

Building on this tentatively discordant observation of Smith’s diminishing presence, Boardies babydoll and Bwayne each take a much firmer stance on Smith’s current level of participation, and it is here that we can begin to see a change to the more commonly-held view of the producer-fan relationship that is apparently ‘rooted in a non-reciprocal relation of intimacy’.[13]

Explaining his own diminishing posting activity, Bwayne cites Smith’s ‘desertion’ of the Board for Twitter as the main reason,[14] and Bwayne’s feeling that Smith has somehow forsaken the Board in favour of a different audience reemphasises the value that Smith’s presence has to the fans that populate his ‘official’ space. As Bwayne notes, ‘the community exists mainly due to Kevin’s interaction with the fans’.[15]

Similarly, babydoll describes Smith’s social network practices as an ‘abandonment’ of the Board,[16] and the strength of feeling here seems to suggest that Smith’s pursuit of a wider audience leaves Boardies with a sense of rejection. The manner in which the responses are framed is reminiscent of Star Wars fans’ responses to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Will Brooker states that because of a lifelong investment in the Star Wars mythos, fans could assert a particular ownership of the saga. Fans believe that the time put into the fandom gives them an ‘emotional claim’ to the saga to which ‘new’ fans are not privy.[17]

The distinction and tension made here between ‘old’ and ‘new’ fans plays out similarly in Boardies’ attitudes towards Smith and his use of Twitter. With their community’s long-standing adherence to discourses that are heavily dependent on Smith’s behavioural directives – Smith noting that ‘Here, your license to post, quite like your license to drive, is a privilege, not a right’ – the Boardies can similarly claim an emotional entitlement to Smith’s affections.

Yet, to what extent are the fans entitled to their entitlement? As a media producer keen on promoting his own output, does Smith have a duty to the fan community he actively cultivated, or to the addition of his (more than two million) Twitter followers? While Boardies may class Smith’s use of the social network as ‘relatively trivial’, should he be made to feel guilty for seeking new sources of revenue? The notion of audiences abandoning texts is seemingly accepted, yet should the text be penalised for seeking a new audience?

Perhaps some of this disparity comes from the idea that a cultural figure such as Smith can be described as a ‘text’. The difference between mine and fans’ descriptions of the producer – ‘Smith’ and ‘Kevin’ respectively – demonstrates a key way in which a fan community can categorise the subject of fandom, for in addressing Smith on first name terms the Boardies express their personal connection to him. Rather than Brooker’s description of the relationship between George Lucas and Star Wars fans in terms of corporate greed, here the dynamic between Smith and his fans appears to be one founded on emotion.

Michael Joseph Gross believes that fandom is ‘less like being in love, than like being in love with love.’[18], and despite the subjective nature of this observation, it is notable that he highlights the way in which love, emotions and feelings play a role in the construction of a fan identity, rather than the enterprise of commerciality as expressed by Joshua Gamson in his book Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.[19] It would appear that Kevin Smith is similarly torn between these two paradigms: sticking with the fan family with whom he has shared a ‘symbiotic’ relationship, or courting a new audience of fan-consumers. ■

Tom Phillips is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia and the Editor of Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA-Postgraduate Network. You can find him on Twitter @TheTomPhillips. He is also the co-founder of the newly launched Fan Studies Network, a drive to connect fandom scholars worldwide. You can follow the FSN on Twitter @FanStudies.


[1] Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community, and Star Wars Fans, London and New York: Continuum, 2002, p.98.
[2] View Askew is the name of Smith’s production company.
[3] Kevin Smith, ‘Kevin Smith, taking questions while baked.A.V. New York. [no longer available].
[4] Kevin Smith, Silent Bob Speaks: The Collected Writings of Kevin Smith, London: Titan Books, 2005, p.108.
[5] Smith, ‘Kevin Smith, taking questions while baked.’ [no longer available].
[6] Henry Jenkins ‘Television Fans, Poachers, Nomads’, in Ken Gelder and Sarah Thornton (eds.), The Subcultures Reader, London: Routledge, 1997, p.512. The notion of participatory producers has been previously examined, such as the Buffy “VIPs” like Joss Whedon (Sarah Gatson and Amanda Zweerink, Interpersonal Culture on the Internet: Television, the Internet, and the Making of a Community, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004, p.9) or J. Michael Straczynski’s interaction with Babylon 5 fans (Kurt Lancaster, Interacting with Babylon 5, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001, pp.1-33.)
[7] Survey response, 12/5/2010. All fan responses in this article are taken from my on-going PhD research.
[8] Survey response, 12/5/2010.
[9] Survey response, 12/5/2010.
[10] Survey response, 12/5/2010.
[11] Survey response, 13/5/2010.
[12] Survey response, 13/5/2010.
[13] John B. Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995, p.222.
[14] Survey response, 13/5/2010.
[15] Survey response, 13/5/2010.
[16] Email interview, 23/7/10.
[17] Brooker, Using the Force, p.85.
[18] Michael Joseph Gross, Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame, London: Bloomsbury, 2005, p.17.
[19] Joshua Gamson, Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994, p.64.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Kevin Smith’s Online Fandom: Emotion and Entitlement

  1. Very, very interesting. I’m friends with a lot of genre writers (romance, sf) and there is a real split between those adopting social networking and those who eschew it. The concern is that if fans become fans of the person (Smith as text) vs. fans of the product, then the potential for backlash based on the author’s actions (political beliefs or, such as with Smith, platform changes) would be seriously detrimental to sales. Somehow I doubt that is the case for Smith; and I wonder at the numbers of the board. If Smith has 2 million followers on twitter (o.O), how many are on the board? For him, what is the ROI in staying with a time-intensive and “select” group of hardcore fans vs. tweeting to the masses? *ponders*

  2. A great piece. I really enjoyed reading it. I always thought that Smith’s migration from the board to Twitter had to with two things: evolving technology and getting older. Message boards in general are very archaic by today’s standard and not a fantastic user experience in general. We have things like Facebook, Twitter and other platforms which are just way easier to use. Twitter does provide an opportunity to engage with a larger audience but I don’t think that he has lost touch with the more hardcore, boardie types. There is still plenty of opportunity to engage with him at his various appearances and he does regularly. He’s also getting older and people naturally have fewer close personal relationships. Engaging with fans as intensely as he did in his twenties and thirties may just be less appealing now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s