Fan Cultures: The Case of BBC’s ‘Sherlock’

Literature Review

Studies in the field of media, especially those focussed towards consumer-behaviour, have for long attempted to analyse the behavioural patterns of fans and the fans’ creation and perpetuation of a paraculture. Media scholar Henry Jenkins acknowledges fan culture as that which is generated by fans, is influenced by commercial or popular culture, and which is intended for “circulation through an underground economy” (Jenkins, 2006:285). This “underground economy”, which was once the object of derision, has been rehabilitated through Web 2.0 culture to be viewed as a space where fans, or “the vanguard of contemporary audiences” as Charles Davis (2013: 180) calls them, exhibit their creative and individualised interpretations of celebrated media texts. Fandom is inextricably tied to media industry through various strands and literature on the subject has attempted to explore the fans’ influence on media producers and vice-versa.

Jenkins’ investigation of fan cultures in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture(2013)borrows from French scholar Michel de Certeau’s theory of active audiences discussed in his book The Practise of Everyday Life (1984). According to de Certeau, media audiences actively participate in the interpretation of any media text and are hardly the passive spectators they are so often mistaken to be. De Certeau also introduces the term “textual poaching” to discuss how audiences “poach” or individualise texts to draw their own meanings and interpretations which may either accord with or refute entirely the dominant meaning of the text intended by the producers of that text. Jenkins further develops de Certeau’s ideas on poaching and applies it to fan cultures, describing textual poaching as “an impertinent raid on the literary preserve where fans take away only those things that are useful or pleasurable” (Jenkins, 2013b: 24).Jenkins’ and de Certeau’s approach is in line with Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication developed in his paper titled Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse (1973) wherein he underscores the idea that what may be encodedinto a media text by media producers may not necessarily be what is decodedby the audience or consumers. Hall emphasises the role of the audience as an interpreter and notes that interpretation of a media text varies depending on different situations and cultural contexts.

The advent of the Digital Age and technological enhancement has further enabled fans to create and share paratexts and media content (such as fan fiction, videos and artwork) based on their interpretations of various media texts. Jenkins discusses this media convergence by noting that the new cultural model “sees the public not as simply consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined” (Jenkins, 2013a: 2). Textual poaching and media convergence together blur the differences between producers and consumers, with consumers actively engaging in the interpretation, reproduction and adaptation of the media text. Fans, therefore, who are quintessential audience members, are able to create transmedia narratives. As S. Elizabeth Bird notes in this regard, “convergent media have been hailed as creating a ‘cultural shift’, which has realigned the roles of audiences and producers in profoundly new ways. […] Online fans essentially represent the way all audiences will interact with media from now on, an attractive notion that created a moment of optimism reminiscent of that which followed the discovery of the ‘active audience’ in the late 1980s” (Bird, 2011: 503).

Paul Booth discusses fan-made transmedia narratives by introducing a term – “narractivity” – which he uses to describe the assimilation of “individual units of narrative knowledge” (Booth, 2010: 104) by fans in a database used for communal interaction as well as creating a warehouse of interpretive narratives and paratexts. To put it simply, fans use narractivity to “create knowledge about a text” (Booth, 2010: 105) and the new readings, interpretations and narratives are often housed in fan-run online databases called ‘wikis’. The creation of wikis by fan communities online links up with what Aaron Delwiche and Jennifer J. Henderson, in their discussion of participatory knowledge cultures, quoting philosopher Pierre Lévy, claim – that there has been an emergence of “collective intelligence” with people working collectively to “classify, organize, and build information” (Delwiche and Henderson, 2013: 3). Jason Mittell further notes that wikis created by fan communities “provide a window into a range of participatory practices and cultural formations” (Mittell, 2013: 38). Mittell posits fan-run wiki databases as paratexts or independent cultural works inspired from popular culture where fans, given the ease of creating media texts with the advancement of technology, develop fan fiction, remix videos, artwork et cetera thereby building alternative narratives. Commenting on the fans’ retelling and reinterpretation of media texts through wikis, he writes, “Viewers certainly use wikis to fill in gaps from missed episodes and unknown transmedia extensions, or clarify narrative ambiguities and uncertainties. Such a wiki does more than just document a fiction, effectively serving as a transformed site of storytelling itself” (Mittell, 2013: 40).

An example of fan activity found on wiki databases where the re-telling of canonical narratives takes place is given by Booth in his analysis of ‘spoilers’. He defines spoilers as fan-created hypotheses of future events in the narrative of a media text (such as a television series) whose objective is to predict and reveal key pieces of information to the public before the producers do so. Another objective of spoilers is to gain social influence by dominating the discourse and creating new narratives drawn from individual interpretations of the text (Booth, 2010). In dominating a discourse in such a manner through spoilers, fans may attempt to assume the role of producers themselves – “Importantly for fans, for Digital Fandom, and for the New Media Studies that examines them, wikis offer a new type of narrative, a type alluded to by Riedl and Young that ‘can generate stories [and] can adapt narrative to the users’ preferences and abilities’. […] Combing through the database of narrative information on the wiki, the fan community rereads the narrative of the extant media object, and constructs the story in a narrative database. Further, by scattering narrative meaning on a wiki, fans rewrite the extant media object through the speculative fiction of the spoilers of that object,” claims Booth (2010: 105, 107). Booth also acknowledges paratexts such as spoilers created by fans as a step towards creating original fiction. Suzanne Scott, in her essay Who’s steering the mothership? The role of the fanboy auteur in transmedia storytelling (2013), has similarly noted that transmedia storytelling disintegrates the author figure as the distinction between producers and fans (consumers) keeps on blurring with the creation of more and more paratexts and popular fan-generated narratives.

Meanwhile, corporate media producers, threatened by the blurring distinctions between producers and fans, and in an attempt to restore their positions as the dominant party in the field of media content generation, have begun to think of ways to harness the creative talents of fans and turn it into capital for themselves. As Julie Levin Russo points out, on one hand “the industry relies on the labour of fans to produce and promote the value of its properties”, and on the other, “the promiscuous textuality spawned by today’s transmedia approach to entertainment makes control of this intercourse [between producer-generated content and user-generated content] progressively more difficult to maintain” (Russo, 2009: 129). Russo also provides an example of ways in which producers attempt to increase their product’s popularity through fan content whilst at the same time maintaining authority over the primary narrative: The producers of the popular sci-fi television series Battlestar Galactica (SciFi Network, 2004-2009) invited fans to create short tribute films through the online platform Video Maker Toolkit. The best video of the lot was to be selected for airing on television, and to assist fans in the creation of these videos a set list of downloadable video and audio clips was made available on the platform (Russo, 2009). This illustrates a “top-down arrangement that attempts, through its interface and conditions, to contain excessive fan productivity within proprietary commercial spaces” (Russo, 2009: 127).

Another way in which fans are entering the sphere of media production and generation, as explained by Matt Hills in his essay Location, Location, Location: Citizen-Fan Journalists’ “Set Reporting” and Info-War in the Digital Age (2014),is through set-reporting wherein they leak news regarding media shoot locations on online media platforms thereby “opposing the publicity plans of media organisations by breaking production (and textual) news ahead of official schedules and promotional strategies” (Hills, 2014: 166). In doing so, fans occupy the roles of both the producer and the consumer. Also, by leaking news about set locations online, fans perform the role of journalists and reporters, meticulously checking and recording all information (Hills, 2014). Hills’ approach, which highlights the self-initiation and self-reliance of fans brought on by digital technologies, links up with Charles Leadbeater’s classification of consumers as “makers” of culture – “the cultural significance of the web and digital culture, new and social media, is that these have brought back to life at mass scale another way to engage with culture, a new category: makers” (Leadbeater, 2013: 221).

Although most literature on fan cultures notes an increasing obscuring of the distinction between producers and consumers due to fans’ creation of paratexts and attempts to dominate narratives, Suzanne Scott takes an aberrant stance and argues that fan communities still seek an authorial figure who may “assure audiences that someone is overseeing the transmedia text’s expansion and meaningful connections between texts” (Scott, 2013: 43). Scott conversely argues that the function of fan-created media content is to bring audiences back to the “mothership” or the original media product “both narratively and economically”. She further notes that the fanboy auteur steers and navigates this “mothership” in order to instruct fans on “how to best navigate this web of secondary texts while reinforcing the centrality of the mothership” (Scott, 2013: 46).

Past literature on the subject of fandom has therefore attempted to define fan communities as against regular audiences and have explored the dynamics of the relationship shared by media producers and fans in the Digital Age. While some argue that fans are on the brink of usurping the producers’ territory through transmedia storytelling given media convergence and enhancements in digital technology in the twenty-first century, others underscore the value of the original narratives and maintain that the significance of the primary authorial figure remains unchallenged.


With increased digital literacy in the age of convergence, a new wave of fandom insistent on active participation and interaction with the media texts has swept the media industry. Fans have indulged in transmedia storytelling, and with the creation of paratexts and alternative narratives through individualised interpretations of media texts, have been able to fracture the hierarchical structure which for a long time has placed media producers above the consumers. This relatively new form of fan culture can be illustrated clearly through the example of BBC’s television series Sherlockwhich made use of fan fiction to develop its storyline, capitalising on labour of its active audiences and allowing them to influence media production.

In 2014, the producers of the show, known to appreciate and encourage fan fiction, released the third season of the hit television show, the first episode of which can be seen as an exercise to appease the show’s fans and also recreate the internet chatter that surrounds the show’s plot. The episode, titled The Empty Hearse, featured the return of Sherlock Holmes after his faked death in the previous season. The episode opened with a hypothesis on how Sherlock could’ve survived the fall from the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – Moriarty’s disguised body is thrown off the roof while Sherlock himself is pulled back up with the help of a bungee cord, crashes through the window into one of the hospital floors where he finds his lovestruck friend and co-conspirator Molly Hooper waiting, kisses her, and finally walks out alive. This hypothesis is soon revealed to be one of many theories developed by Anderson, a past acquaintance of Sherlock who fervently believes that Sherlock is alive even though the world believes he’s dead and is obsessed with finding out how he may have survived. Here, the producers of the show allude to fan culture in two ways.

Firstly, Anderson’s multiple theories surrounding Sherlock’s death are a clear reference to the multiple alternate narratives and paratexts that fans create, linking up with what Paul Booth has previously stated – “Fan-scholars use content, textual, and rhetorical analysis, among other methodologies, to examine fragments of paratexts, secondary texts, and transmediated intertexts to assemble a spoiled reading of the extant media object’s narrative story”, an activity undertaken in order to “construct a meaningful articulation” of the narrative (Booth, 2010: 119).  With the development of digital technology and ease of access to the technologies, fans are also able to form communities among themselves. As Jason Mittell notes in this regard, “Fan wikis, given the ease of their editing interfaces and simplicity of collaboration, have emerged as a popular platform for developing online paratexts for nearly every fan community” (Mittell, 2013: 38). In the episode, the group ‘The Empty Hearse’ founded by Anderson for discussion and debate among like-minded individuals on theories regarding Sherlock’s faked death is also a representation of fan communities and their activities in creating a warehouse of knowledge about the object of their fandom.

Secondly, the romance between Sherlock and Molly shown in the episode was the direct result of multiple fan-created fantasies stored on an online database titled ‘Sherlolly’ which the producers took note of (The Atlantic, 2014). The Sherlolly database houses alternate readings and fan fiction focussing on Sherlock and Molly’s relationship submitted by fans. The producers’ utilisation of the fans’ alternate narratives reveals thechanging dynamics of content creation in the media. On the one hand, it indicates the growing trend of producers catering to fan communities in their development of media content, given that fans form the most loyal and valuable section of the audience on account of their emotional engagement with the media text. This notion is also posited by Charles H. Davis who writes that“fans are associated not just with loyalty, but also with ‘high relational exchange’ (i.e. they spend money with the company), engaging in impulsive and compulsive consumption behaviour. The average fan is worth considerably more than the average non-fan audience member in terms of product spending, loyalty, propensity to recommend, brand affinity, media value and acquisition cost” (Davis, 2013: 180). On the other hand, it illustrates how fans have begun to influence media production through Web 2.0 culture due to which they have been able to reach out to producers directly, and transform their fan fiction into productions aired on television. This transmedia storytelling wherein fans, empowered by their digital literacy, take control of a media text and reconstruct its narrative may be seen as a paradigm shift. As Henry Jenkins has argued, “Audiences, empowered by these new technologies, occupying a space at the intersection between old and new media, are demanding the right to participate within the culture” (Jenkins, 2006: 24).

The Empty Hearsealso featured another hypothesis about Sherlock’s faked death, one which involved a homoerotic relationship between Sherlock and Moriarty, inspired by ‘slash fiction’ generated by fans online. This feature illustrates the textual-poaching concept developed by Jenkins and Michel de Certeau. Fans of the show engaged in poaching so as to indulge their own selves and recreate their beloved media text’s characters in a manner that satisfied their fantasies. In the case of Sherlock, the fans’ textual poaching managed to weave its way through to the original media production, reflecting a changed media environment where authorship becomes questionable. A disintegration of the singular authorial figure transpires as authorial power shifts from the media producer to the media consumers owing to convergence technologies. In other words, the vertical structure of the media industry realigns to form a horizontal structure where fans or active audiences become equally involved in content creation and narration. Pierre Lévy (quoted in Jenkins, 2002: 164), commenting on the phenomenon, writes, “The distinctions between authors and readers, producers and spectators, creators and interpretations will blend to form a reading-writing continuum”. Audiences are therefore now influencing media creation. They are demanding attention and media producers (like those of Sherlock) are consciously attempting to respond to them (Jenkins, 2013a).

Sherlock’s producers have paid heed to fan cultures surrounding the show not only to cater to the loyal audience, but also to capitalise on fan production. More and more media producers are waking up to the need to pay heed to fan fiction so as so use it to their own profit and benefit. It may be argued that another facet to the digital revolution is the exploitation of free labourers (in this case, fans) whose original ideas and concepts are utilised for media production. Fans such as those whose fan fictions featuring Sherlock-Molly and Sherlock-Moriarty romances were taken up and utilised by the producers are, in fact, exploited, unpaid volunteers of the media industry. This view puts the political economy of the media into question. It may be true that audiences actively produce media texts and create original narratives. However, they are not compensated for those narratives and the profits are still reaped by the show’s producers. This ‘outsourcing’ of content creation to fans possibly echoes capitalist exploitation through mobilisation of immaterial labour (Baym and Burnett, 2009). As Matthew Allen (quoted in Baym and Burnett, 2009: 435) also points out, Web 2.0 “validates a kind of advanced, promotional entrepreneurial capitalism that binds users to profit-making service providers via the exploitation of those users’ immaterial labour”.

Possibly in terms of content creation, the distinction between producers and consumers is blurring out. In terms of the market economy however, producers are continuing to maintain ultimate authority over media texts. Producers also create paratexts themselves in order to draw audiences back to the original media text. For instance, in the case of Sherlock, the producers created an online blog which chronicles the characters’ adventures from the perspective of John Watson. The blog is referred to multiple times in the series’ episodes and acts as a popular and important component of the transmedia narrative. The producers also created a website called ‘The Science of Deduction’ written from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes himself. Both these sites online feature content which alludes to the series’ storyline and also features comments posted by other characters from the show. Watson and Sherlock’s blogs also attract a large fanbase, possibly driving fans away from other online databases housing fan content, and ushers them back to the main narrative, reinforcing its authority and centrality. This is in line with Suzanna Scott’s argument of audiences being brought back to the “mothership” or the central narrative through transmedia storytelling. “Despite their potential to demystify and democratize authorship and cultivate a closer relationship between producers and consumers, transmedia stories tend to reinforce the boundaries between ‘official’ and ‘unauthorized’ forms of narrative expansion through the construction of a single author/textual authority figure,” claims Scott (2013: 44). As a result, alternate interpretations of the media text run the risk of being misunderstood as “a failure to successfully understand what the author was trying to say” (Jenkins quoted in Scott, 2013: 44).

Fan culture in the Digital Age has therefore reformed the media industry in terms of content creation and audience participation. Fans’ textual poaching and creation of transmedia stories through digital mediums has challenged the notion of a singular authorial figure, resonating with Roland Barthes’ popular idea of the “death of the author” and the “birth of the reader” (Barthes, 1977: 148), which emphasises the interpretative role of the audience and posits the possibility of multiple meanings and narratives being drawn from a single text. At the same time however, producers’ attempts at bringing audiences back to the “mothership” and capitalising on fan productions could possibly be read as the resurrection of the dead author and his attempts at reclaiming ownership of his possessions.


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Mittell, J. (2013). ‘Wikis and Participatory Fandom’ inThe Participatory Cultures Handbook(Eds. Delwiche, A. and Henderson, J.J.). New York: Routledge.

Russo, J.L. (2009).‘User-Penetrated Content: Fan Video in the Age of Convergence’ in Cinema Journal.Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 125-130. University of Texas Press. 

Scott, S.  (2013). ‘Who’s steering the mothership? The role of the fanboy auteur in transmedia storytelling’ in The Participatory Cultures Handbook(Eds. Delwiche, A. and Henderson, J.J.). New York: Routledge.

The Atlantic. (2014). The Obsessive’s Guide to ‘Sherlock’ Opener ‘The Empty Hearse. Available online at



This essay was submitted as an assignment to the University of Warwick on 29 Jan, 2018.

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