Explicit Consumption and Implicit Exploitation: Cyber Fandom in China

Lihua Chen, Angela Wang

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paperpeer-review


This study aims to critically examine the conditions in which fans interact and engage with celebrities and each other in online talent shows in the digital era in China. Previous stud-ies have demonstrated the possibility for audience (fans inclusive) to negotiate with the meanings and to influence the production of popular culture due to the advancement of commodification in the cultural industry (see Jenkins, 1992). This trend has also shown its existence in China since 2005, when the television talent show Super Girl normalized the commercial value of fan-idol relationship (Yang, 2009). As such, the forms and content of fandom are transforming in the process of digitalization of life in China today. On the one hand, the proliferation of the internet in the country has routinized digital media use and normalized the value of data (Yin, 2020), which grant more power to platform owners in shaping the social and cultural order (Zhao, 2021). On the other hand, alternative views on the internet have triggered tighter official control from the Chinese government (Cui & Wu, 2016), with the consequence of homogeneity of content among various cultural institu-tions. In response, popular culture takes new genres to adapt to the participatory norm ori-ented, platform-data driven and state-control tightened conditions. As a result, cyber fan-dom in China exist in a condition of political homogeneity and datafying commercialization, which mimic Frankfurt School’s pessimistic accusation on the colonization of social struc-ture on culture, and assertation of the deceptive nature of popular culture on mass (Storey, 2018). We argue that such transformation of conditions has led to the reconfiguration of fan cultures from a structural level, in that fans are explicitly granted the decision mak-ing-power of their consumption through online participation, yet are implicitly ex-ploited by the industry through manipulation of their digital traces.

To bolster our argument, we conduct a critical discourse analysis on some of the most popular Chinese online talent shows (including Idol Producer, Youth With You, and Pro-duce 101) that yielded substantial fan participation and internet-wide controversy, specifi-cally focusing on the contestant characteristics, program format and process, fan practices and articulation, as well as the circulated discussions and criticisms. The preliminary data reveals three patterns of cyber fandom culture: 1) standardization of idols and the pro-duction modality, 2) manipulation of fans’ participation, and 3) construction of con-flict with anti-fans, which echo the essence of exploitation. As we contend, these pat-terns of the exploitative nature of cyber fandom is largely shaped by the platformized audi-ence metrics, the commodification of fandom, and the data-ization of fan material. In turn, they reconsolidate the manipulative power of the industry at mezzo level and state control at macro level. The current case situates and demonstrates the characteristics in the Chi-nese context as well as with digitalization and highly demanded participation which creates a concealing masquerade for the exploitative essence. This study thus extends the critical understanding of the notion of exploitation in the digital era while it also sheds a faint light on the intrinsic nature of digital economy.


ConferenceInternational Association for Media and Communication Research Conference (IAMCR 2022)
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Scopus Subject Areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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