Meet BCNM's Gail De Kosnik and the Fan Data & Net Differences Team

01 Apr, 2014

Meet BCNM's Gail De Kosnik and the Fan Data & Net Differences Team

The Berkeley Center for New Media is turning 10! To celebrate, over the next ten months leading up to our birthday party on September 25th, 2014, we’re sharing ten stories of BCNM’s life so far. This month, hear how BCNM professor Gail De Kosnik works with a team of faculty and graduate students to devise new digital humanities tools that will shed light on online fan communities.

Humanist researchers and hardware and software developers do not often have the opportunity to collaborate, but when they do, the results can be thrilling, as Abigail De Kosnik and Laurent El Ghaoui have found. Crediting the Berkeley Center for New Media’s interdisciplinary focus with creating an environment that encourages such intersectionality, these UC Berkeley professors have pioneered new methods of exploring internet cultures.

The virtual age has unleashed an outpouring of fan response to media, changing forever the landscape of ways in which mass media and consumers interact. Although cult followings, like that of Star Trek in the 1960s and 1970s, show that fan-made art and fiction relating to a franchise have pre-Internet origins, fan interaction took on a whole new character with the advent of consumer interpersonal Internet use. Suddenly, fans could share their own ideas about a particular fictional universe across virtual space, and online repositories of fan-made works could be created, along with an accompanying Internet subculture. In recent years, mass public online microblogs like Twitter have once more generated a new platform and discussion culture, molding how consumers interact with news, current events, and cultural phenomena.

To investigate this changing culture, de Kosnik and El Ghaoui developed Fan Data and Net Difference. Staffed by BCNM affiliated graduate students Adam Hutz, Andrea Horbinski, Andrew Godbehere, Vu Pham, Reggie Royston, Aaminah Norris, Bonnie Ruberg, Renée Pastel, and visiting Eberhard Karls University, Tübingen PhD candidate Vera Cuntz-Leng, these companion projects seek to take a quantitative approach to the analysis of both the vast online corpus of fan work and discussion trends found on Twitter. Utilizing text analyzing web scrapers that crunch enormous data sets, the group is able to uncover hidden trends and insights.

The web scrapers have yielded new findings on the dimensions and growth patterns of fan-produced work for Fan Data. Calculating not only the size of online corpora like, but also the types of works being referenced most often, the websites fans popularize at various times, and how the rate of production is affected by the release of different types of canon productions (such as new movie screenings, author announcements, and DVD releases), the tool provides insight into how fans react and interact with producers in a virtual space. Interviews with and surveys of fan fiction writers and readers have additionally revealed a unique Internet culture: fan explorations of developments in fictional universes intersect with real world concerns, including both outpourings of prejudice and aggression, as well as ethical and exploratory discussions of discrimination, bias, and media criticism.

Net Difference was born out of the Color of New Media working group, which focuses on the intersection of ethnic, racial, and other identities in the media spotlight. Using their web scrapers, the team is developing new ways to track the correlation between keywords and hashtags on Twitter (such as #nohomo and #hijab), allowing quantitative insight into how discussions of current events, religious, political, and race commentaries trend chronologically, sociologically, and geographically. The team is especially interested in how people use Twitter as a platform for ‘call-outs’ and other types of incendiary communication.

Fan Data and Net Difference showcase a new analytic approach to studies on how personal communication is influencing macro-culture and media producers. The team hopes to use their findings and the web scraper to instigate a dialogue on how the “free” labor of fan-produced content is helping large commercial corporations profit, while influencing how media is marketed and fictional portrayals are presented. Their work has the power to shape a conversation on how people interact with each other, world leaders, and news and media outlets through the Internet.

While unconventional for humanities research, the web scraper has proved a promising tool for these projects. With the right financial and institutional support, the team believes it can be transformed into a flexible and accessible instrument that other researchers interested in incorporating analytics into their investigations of online text-based corpora could use.

Interested in creating a new fund that inspires intersectionality between the hard and soft sciences, or promotes the exploration of digital culture and the online world? Support BCNM in its mission to bring together the humanities, arts, and sciences to critically analyze and shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives by donating today. If you have other ideas to help develop the future of BCNM, please contact us as well.