They camp outside of movie theaters all day to be first in line for the Harry Potter midnight movie premiere. They dress up like Spock to attend conventions around the world. They even have entire blogs dedicated to speculating just what Luke Skywalker’s next move will be.
From J.K. Rowling’s “potterheads” to Lady Gaga’s “little monsters,” at some point we’ve all encountered or been one of these media fans. Harry Potter, Disney movies, football teams, Star Trek, Justin Bieber, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings… the list of media obsessions goes on. These “superfans” are part of what Professor Dan Stout calls interpretive communities.
Stout, a BYU Hawaii International Culture Studies and world languages (ICS) professor, explained the power of these communities, what they do and how to approach them as part of a lecture he gave while visiting BYU communications students this past October.
Understanding Interpretive Communities
So what exactly is an interpretive community? According to Stout, literary theorist Stanley Fish coined the term in his book Is There a Text in this Class?, saying that some media audiences have community-like properties. Though interpretive communities originally described groups of popular novel devotees (like the 5,000-member Jane Austen Society), Stout explains that these communities form in a variety of ways in the modern world.
Today’s interpretive communities find inspiration from books, movies, music and sports. Many fans dedicate as much time to their media communities as others devote to a religion. “Things have changed,” Stout said, “millennials are seekers … they are tapping into a spiritual marketplace that is both inside and outside religious institutes.”
Though you might think that dedicating so much time to media is inherently a waste of time, Professor Scott Church, assistant professor in the School of Communications, notes that interpretive communities link fans together and gives them a sense of belonging. Stout highlighted a few of the most unified interpretive communities:
If you cried on your eleventh birthday when Hagrid failed to burst through the door with your Hogwarts acceptance letter and a slightly squashed birthday cake, or if one of the first questions you ask on a date is “what house are you in?,” you likely fit in with this group. Ultra-devoted Potterheads build unity through weekly meetings that include trivia nights, movie screenings, wizard rock shows, fan-fiction meetings, and even costume ice-skating. Truly they are “united in the cause of Harry Potter,” Stout said.
You can easily spot (or should I say “Spock?”) a Star Trek junkie in a crowd by their infamous Vulcan peace symbol. If you’re one of them, then you’ve probably manifested your devotion by attending one of the weekly Star Trek conventions that take place across the globe. A Trekkie’s passion lies in encouraging a positive view of science and embracing creativity and weirdness. One group of Mormon Trekkies even translated the Book of Mormon into Klingon, the language of this unique galaxy. Now THAT is true fandom.
The term “Parrothead” was coined at a Jimmy Buffet concert in 1985 to describe the devoted fans in their Hawaiian shirts and parrot hats. If you’re a millennial, it’s possible your mom or dad is one of them. For true Parrotheads, Jimmy Buffet concerts are an emotional and ritualistic experience. These loyalists do much more to than attend concerts to show their devotion to music—to date, they’ve raised over $40 million for charities and dedicated millions of hours to community service.
Though these three groups are just a few of the many interpretive media communities that exist today, they provide a snapshot of how fandom can be a lifestyle.
Find your community, and embrace your inner geek
Now that you understand what an interpretive community is, you can determine which communities you already identify with and how you want to pledge your loyalty. In his lecture, Stout asserted that religion and media need not be opposing forces. “We must abandon the idea that media is against religion,” Stout said. “They can be complementary and compatible.”
Regardless of which media you choose to prioritize in your life, Church reminds that “we [should] control our media, not the other way around.” Looking through a media literate lens puts people in the driver’s seat where they can safely navigate the world of media and moderately consume what speaks most to them.
So if you wait until your roommates are asleep to pull out Harry Potter for the 37th time, or tell your friends that you’re going to visit family for the weekend when you’re actually headed to another Star Trek convention, consider dropping the facade, and embrace your inner geek. Your new community will be excited to add another member to their ranks.
Written by Becca Pearson