Exploring Narrative through Fandom
Narrative, according to Azuma, is a “surplus item” (Azuma 41), just one of many different pieces that might fit into the database of a media creation, which includes characters, products, settings, themes, and more. In his analysis of otaku culture, he is able to show that each of these pieces isn’t necessarily connected in the database, although they are important parts of experiencing a media product; and (perhaps most importantly), no part of the database must be founded on a bottom-level narrative layer. As he writes, “there is no longer a narrative in the deep inner layer. . . .The consumer, knowing this, moves easily back and forth between projects with a narrative (comics, anime, novels) and projects without one (illustrations and figurines)” (Azuma 53). Media projects are enjoyable even when they don’t have a strong or grand narrative, in other words, and so users do not necessarily feel any compulsion to give them one.
One way we can see this is not necessarily by examining one work, since each work does have some type of narrative, but by examining the proliferation of products attached to a media franchise. A classic and ubiquitous example, the Star Trek universe has become particularly abundant with media products: as of 2017, there are 726 total episodes, over a dozen movies, seemingly countless games (from board to video), innumerable action figures, novels, and comic books, and such a sundry list of other products that it would be cumbersome to list them all. Although seeing this media world as transmedial could be tempting, the way stories are spread out would seem to go against Jenkins’ most basic definition of transmedia:
“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.” (Jenkins)
While there are themes and characters that repeat and tie each series and product together, there is not one, dominant narrative arc that viewers can only learn by watching and reading all of the elements in their entirety. Certain threads are best understood by interacting with all pieces that deal with them (for instance, the Borg are best understood after watching all Borg-related episodes), but nothing is so left out as to make the narrative unable to be understood by the casual viewer.
In this way, the Star Trek franchise has narrative pieces but it also has so many other elements, including characters, worlds, and even languages, that fans do not need to pursue, reconstruct, or create narratives as they explore connected media. Fans might, for example, collect action figures or dress as their favorite characters; they don’t necessarily need to act out any specific narrative as they engage in these ways — they can simply partake in the parts of the database that are most enjoyable to them.
This conception and analysis might not be agreeable to all, however. With a somewhat different view we find Paul Booth, who is unable to erase narrative completely from his conception of the database, fan communities, wikis, or any other media-franchise-related area. He writes not just of narrative, but of the narrative database:
“This narrative database is a reflection of a changed media environment, which reconceptualizes narrative from a ‘chrono-logic’ mode to an archival one. Instead of representing ‘plot’ through causality, fans represent it spatially, using the inherent hypertextuality of the web to create connections between narrative elements” (Booth 82).
Taking wikis as his example, he attempts to show that narrative is ordered “through communal interaction,” meaning that it’s never at the random, unconnected level asserted by Manovich or Azuma. Narrative, whether focused around characters, worlds, or fan interaction, is always part of the equation—there is always a story going on, somewhere, at some level.
Going back to Star Trek, it should be surprising to no one that there is a fan wiki, entitled Memory Alpha. Fans can use “portals” to explore the people, TV and films, society and culture, merchandise, and more. In this way, all of the wide and disparate parts of the Star Trek universe are pulled together and ordered. A fan can navigate the site and build the Star Trek narrative in her own way, moving from one page to the next in an exploration that reforms and recreates the ongoing narrative of this media franchise.
If the Star Trek universe can be adjusted to both perceptions, random non-narrative and narrative database, how is it then possible to decide which is the correct view of narrative in today’s modern media environment, especially taking into account the fact that the two viewpoints seem to be in opposition? Perhaps the answer is not one of quality but merely of difference; in other words, either is not necessarily better than the other, but perhaps the method of assessing narrative is dependent upon the way one chooses to view fan community.
Overall, I believe these differing conceptions point to a basic difference in how Azuma and Booth see fans: for the former, they come together in groups but still have an intensely private connection to a media work, but for the latter, a piece of media is always experienced through the social, which deprivileges the isolated experience. This is perhaps why Azuma is able to talk about narrative while simultaneously erasing the need for it, a feat that Booth does not accomplish, as is seen in the fact that he continually refers to the “narrative database,” even though many scholars from Manovich on agree that a database does not need to have a narrative to tie it together.
One reason for this difference, perhaps, is that stories tend to be more socially leaning than the random elements of a franchise. Or, to be more general: Stories are about connections. There’s something in a story that demands we talk about it, share, find meaning in it. A character, though, can be experienced in a “relationship” that doesn’t require other people. A fan can experience (admittedly one-way) relationships with the characters they see, but constructing a story is often done best with others. Fans, then, are both narrative and non-narrative creatures.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 22 Mar. 2007, henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.