Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Media Ethnography:

This week’s assignment was to write a brief media ethnography: an exploration of some specific media-consuming audience, their community, rituals, hierarchies, etc. Example topics included a group of friends getting together to watch a sports event, a group playing videogames together (in person or online), a fan group, or a book club, among others.

I chose to write my ethnography about, self-described as “a community weblog discussing the work of TV maker Joss Whedon.”

The way the site works is that members post links to anything newsworthy related to the works of Joss Whedon. Posts range from newspaper and blog articles that analyze or mention Joss’s work to casting calls for current productions to announcements of the upcoming projects of actors who have featured in Joss’s shows to webcomics… and on and on. Since its founding in June 2002 by Caroline van Oosten de Boer, there have been a total of over 18,500 posts to the site. But the posts themselves are only the beginning: each post may have anywhere from zero to 300-some comments, and it is these comment-conversations, I would argue, that make WHEDONesque a community and not just a user-generated news service. In a bit of internet meta-media (or something), there is even a Wikipedia entry about WHEDONesque, which is where I found some of the information in this essay.

Anyone can sign up as a member, but sign-up times are restricted (perhaps due to server or bandwidth issues). I had been reading the site for a while before I was able to register as a member in December 2005. Since then I have checked the site on average once or twice a day to keep up with the gossip and read some of the interesting and/or amusing comment threads. My user profile tells me that I’ve posted 105 comments in the last four years! I know that I’ve very much enjoyed participating in the site, and I feel like I’ve gotten familiar with some of the regular posters as well. I e-mailed a few of them who had their e-mail addresses posted in their profiles, and they were kind enough to answer some questions about what WHEDONesque means to them. It is a small sample, and not meant to be random or representative – I specifically e-mailed people whose usernames I recognized as frequent posters, and obviously the selection was limited to individuals who displayed their e-mail addresses in their profiles.

Continuity and consistency:

One person I e-mailed said that she had been involved since 2002 (the very beginning of the site); the others, like me, joined more recently but “lurking” on the site before registering was common. In general people reported checking the site regularly, from every-other-day to multiple times per day. Not surprisingly, one main reason people mentioned following the site was liking Joss’s work (usually specifically his writing), and relying on WHEDONesque as a consistent source of news. One respondent noted that he will occasionally “post a story if I find something online that miraculously hasn't been posted yet.” In other words, very little seems to escape the notice of WHEDONesque’s collective attention.


One thing I personally like about the site is that it is well moderated with a strong sense of etiquette, which means that discussions are not allowed to devolve into incivility or pettiness. Moderators will warn commenters if their comments are inappropriate, and will block them if the warnings aren’t heeded. Posts with spoilers are carefully marked so readers can avoid them (or seek them out) if they wish; self-referential posts are not allowed (though people are allowed to include links to their own work in comments if it is relevant to the discussion).

In addition to wanting news about Joss and his projects, the appeal of the WHEDONesque community is something mentioned by multiple respondents as an appealing aspect of the site. As one person noted, “folks tend to be (for the most part) bright, sensitive & articulate. Members have [a] wide variety of points of view, interests, and political perspectives, and [WHEDONesque] has neither the (off-putting to me) conservative/libertarian political bent of some of the Firely/Serenity online groups, nor the relentlessly snarky/superior attitudes of some other Whedon-related fandoms.” Discussions do often relate to politics or other sensitive subjects (which is inevitable when you have fictional works that touch on topics like human trafficking, the role of government versus individual rights, and gender and sexuality; not to mention character relationships that can get controversial among emotionally-invested viewers). But thanks to the “culture” of etiquette (and occasional enforcement by the site admins) even the most vigorous comment threads maintain a basically civil tone.

In addition to communication within the site, several survey respondents mentioned engage in other ways, including meeting in person at conventions or parties and communicating on other websites, including other fan sites and Twitter.

And on top of everything else, Joss himself occasionally posts to the site! This was mentioned by several people as being an important reason why they like WHEDONesque - while it is user-generated, sometimes the users include the actual topics of conversation themselves! Joss has no "official" website, so his posts to WHEDONesque add to its sense of "legitimacy," status, coolness, or what-have-you.


The vast majority of posters have equal “status” on the site, except for natural deference to members who are known for their consistency, inside information, or expertise. But there are two groups of posters who are considered different, which is signaled by those individuals’ names appearing in different colors. The names of admins (moderators) appear in orange, and the names of Joss and other people directly involved in his work (writers, actors, etc.) appear in purple. This is convenient on a practical level when a reader is scanning a 300-comment thread to find the Joss post reportedly buried there.


Having Joss’s name appear in purple has also led to some WHEDONesque-specific language, such as referring to Joss as “his purpleness” and his posts as “purple prose.” Other idiosyncratic language has emerged over time. For example, acronyms are widely used to refer to common titles. Also, rather than talk about “panicking” whenever even potentially negative news is posted, people have started to joke about “picnicking” in the comment threads. And what is a running joke but a form of ritual shared by a group of people? This “picnicking” ritual arose especially in regards to the TV show Dollhouse and some members propensity to see cancellation around every corner. A related Dollhouse ritual involves weekly analysis (dissection) of the show’s ratings, both immediately after the episode airs and then when DVR numbers are released a few days later. Other ritual postings include birthday announcements for Joss et al., monthly Q&A links for certain actors, and convention transcripts.

In summary, is a vibrant, diverse community of people who contribute to each others’ enjoyment of creative work. I have enjoyed being a part of it, and look forward to continuing my participation in the future. Many thanks to those who answered my survey questions!

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