“We Aim To Misbehave” : How The Browncoats Changed the Face of Community as We Know It.

Net 204 2012I thought it was time to share some of my more academic writing. Here is my essay, presented at the NET204 CommUnity conference, both online and face-to-face. This piece was nominated for a Mr Pointy award. I would like to add that this was written and presented in my first year at university, and that my writing has improved by leaps and bounds since this piece.

Introduction.

December of 2002 saw the end of yet another television series. It had run for eleven of the planned fourteen episodes, but low ratings had forced the network to call for its cancellation. It was not the first time this had happened and it certainly was not the last (Browncoats.com, 2009). However, this time was different. This television series had an army fighting for its survival. That fight led to an historic event. Never before in the history of television had an axed television program led to a major motion picture, thanks to the dedicated fans and their efforts. The television show was Firefly, the movie was Serenity, and the fans are the ‘Browncoats’. Through their dedication and use of Web 2.0 applications in the forms of emails, weblogs, forums, social networking sites, wikis, video- sharing sites, and other user-generated content, the Browncoat community pulled together.

As Neil Gaiman, acclaimed fantasy author and Browncoat said, “There are people you do not wanna upset in the world … the science-fiction and fantasy fans whose favourite show has been canceled in an untimely way (interviewed in the FIREorg, 2011).” In this paper I shall explain the various Web 2.0 platforms that were used in the fight for Serenity, why it was an important fight, and why communities like the Browncoats are the way of the future. I will argue that a new kind of community building has emerged, neither online or offline, but an amalgamation of the two and that the Browncoats are an example of a true Web 2.0 community, one that bridges online and offline experiences.

Community.

A community online is, to those who are a part of it, not that dissimilar to that of a more ‘real life’ community (Kavanaugh, et. al., 2005, para. 55). Online participants have more of a “…tendency to develop feelings of closeness on the basis of shared interests, rather than … of shared social characteristics (Gulia & Wellman, 1999, P#5)…” In this case, the shared interest is that of the television program, Firefly. There has been much debate since the Internet, and indeed, the Web became a part of our everyday lives, as to whether or not it has enhanced or detracted from our social interactions. Those of older generations sometimes complain that younger generations would be lost without the Web to make their contact for them (Baytor, et.al, 2009).

The fact remains that we have truly embraced the Web, and now Web 2.0 applications, as an essential element of our lives. For fans of television programs, the internet has become particularly integral to finding fellowship and peer groups. Fandom has always had a reputation for being of a more “geeky” basis (Clark, 2008), with computer sciences highly represented in careers of the geek (Svitavsky, 2001). It does stand to reason then, that with the advent of Web 2.0, fans have formed their communities online, rather than in person, and used it to demonstrate that which they love (Karabulut, 2010).

The Browncoats first began as an unaffiliated group of fans outraged that their favourite television program was being into hiatus by the very network that had brought it into being, shown it out of sequence and, ultimately, created its own demise. From this, they formed a more condensed presence on websites such as http://www.browncoats.com and http://www.fireflyfans.net in order to bring about a unified front for their fight. This later developed into face-to-face meetings at science-fiction conventions, and other events, across the United States and other countries. In this way, the Browncoats brought together the crowdsourcing capabilities and geographic ignorance of the web spaces and joined it with more traditional community norms, such as presence in meetings and gatherings (Efimova & Hendrick, 2005, P7).

Web 2.0.

It is difficult to think of the web without the simplified and user-friendly Web 2.0 applications that we know today. Email, blogs, social networking sites, user-generated content are just some of the services which are most characteristic of Web 2.0. Designed to make the web a more user-orientated and -friendly experience (O’Reilly, 2005), Web 2.0 applications have made it so that any user, regardless of their technical expertise can pose a challenge to the traditional media producers, by creating and publishing their own works of creativity (Harrison and Barthel, 2009). We see in the large volumes of user-generated fan content on such sites as deviantart.com, youtube.com, Fireflyfans.net, browncoatsmovie.com, fanfilms.net and fanfiction.net (for the Firefly series alone), a tendency of fans to make their own interpretations from the original source material. The Web 2.0 applications that are available give such freedoms to expand engagement with the source of fandom, that new sites and new creations are appearing on the web every day.

Firefly.

Firefly was seen as something brand new in the science-fiction television field (Card, 2007). Although set in space, there were no aliens which was something which had not really been done before (Burns, 2007). The focus was not on the science of the science- fiction, but on the stories of the characters living on a spaceship. Firefly was Joss Whedon’s third project for primetime television and after his success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the Fox Network were ready for his new idea, being a mixing together of the original Star Trek, Stagecoach (1939), and Wagon Train (1957-1965) (Cochrane, 2009). It aired for eleven of its fourteen episodes, out of the intended order, in a variety of time slots making it difficult for a fan base to establish itself. However, the show captivated the imagination of a group of people who, upon seeing the first few episodes, had become hooked and wanted this program to continue. They could see the merit, even when the network airing it could not.

Browncoats ≠ Fans.

There is something about a Browncoat that sets them apart from the ordinary fan, a certain intrinsic quality that makes them something more. There are those who would argue that all Firefly fans are Browncoats (Cochrane, 2009.). This is to say all who enjoy watching Star Trek are Trekkies, or all everyone likes to watch Doctor Who is a Whovian. While a simple definition of Browncoat may be hard to ascertain, it is possibly best left to the Browncoats and their associates to define themselves. Joss Whedon, in his introduction to the movie Serenity, had this to say in regards to Browncoats:

“… the people who made the show and the people who saw the show, which is roughly the same number of people, fell in love with it a little bit too much to let it go. Too much to lay down arms when the battle looked pretty much lost. In Hollywood, people like that are called “unrealistic”, “quixotic”, “obsessive”. In my world, they’re called “Browncoats…” (Whedon, 2005a)

While engaging in their chosen media in a participatory and productive way is seen to be a clear indicator of a fan (Costello & Moore, 2007, P127), the Browncoat goes that little bit further (Cochrane, 2009). There is an “… intensity of devotion and level of activity distinguishes admirers from true Browncoats” (Cochrane, 2009). As one Browncoat posted in a group forum a fan is someone who watches and likes the show and is disappointed when it is over or taken away, but a Browncoat is a fan activist and will take the next step to keep the show going (po1s, 2010).

How the Browncoats Utilised On- and Off-line Networking.

As an example of multi-platform fan activism, the Browncoats are the exemplary unit. Letter writing to Fox networks, postcard sendings from Browncoats.com, emails and advertising campaigns in magazines (Browncoats.com, 2009a) all contributed to the backing had behind him when he approached Universal Pictures with his idea of making a Firefly film. While most of this work was conducted from the anonymity of an online presence in a web-based community, there were actual face-to-face contacts made as well, at science-fiction conventions such as Comic-Con (Hadlock, Heppler, Neish, Nelson &Wiser, 2006).Flyers handed out by Browncoats who had volunteered their time to man stands helped to spread the word about the television program which, in turn, brought more members to the community. As more people joined the fold, DVD dales of the television series increased, giving the series more validity in the eyes of a movie investor. Had it been left to a singularly online tour de fource, there would not have been the return on investment seen by Universal Pictures to make the film, Serenity.

Television networks do not give money to unsuccessful programs for follow-up films and it is for this reason that the Browncoats stand alone as an example of fan pressure on the industry. There have been science-fiction films stemming from popular television shows. There have been the Star Trek films, in their various versions, the X-Files films, The Avengers and now Firefly (Wilcox, 2011). Firefly stands alone as the only one of these to have been axed by its parent television network. When Universal Pictures took on the project, the Browncoat community united as only they knew how. There was blog posting across the Web celebrating Universal “greenlighting” production of Serenity in March 2004 (whedonesque.com, 2004). With a possible budget in the tens of millions, this was no minor endeavour. The plot took place approximately five years after the initial series, and featured the characters the fans had grown to love, as they watched their DVD boxed sets of the series, waiting for the next series or movie. Released in August 2005, Browncoats were lining up in their best array. Some had already been involved in super secret test audiences Universal Pictures had arranged to gauge reactions to the script and plot. This was the “big damned movie” the Browncoats and the cast and crew of Firefly had worked towards. The fans had “…done the impossible, and that makes [them] mighty … (Baldwin, 2006)”

Web forums were the platform for the majority of the Browncoats work. When Fox announced that Firefly was on hiatus, Internet conversation in the following days and weeks was inevitably displaying anger towards the network (Hark, 2010). Firefly.net and prospero.net were simply two of hundreds of forums that popped up when Firefly hit the air, not to mention the pre-existing science-fiction forums and social networking sites across the web. Forums gave the fans a chance to read responses and reply at their leisure, rather than an Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which was more immediate.

Currently, there are over one hundred group pages one Facebook alone that are hit in a search for Firefly. At the time of Firefly going to air, myspace.com and livejournal.com were also still rather active. These also have high numbers of groups registered with Firefly as their main focus, some of them still active today. As well as these forums, many websites arose. Fireflyfans.net and browncoats.com popped up to solidify the Browncoat front, with sites like still-flying.net and cantstopthesignal.co.uk being about the fight to keep the show going or make the movie a success. Regardless of their purpose, these methods of computer mediated social networking gave their Browncoat users a sense of community (Gulia & Wellman, 1999), somewhere they could mourn the loss of the program, get angry, and feel safe to do so because they were surrounded by people of a similar ilk.

While some may see the Browncoats as just another group of fanatics trying to keep their favourite show from falling by the wayside, they are the prime example of a community taking what Web 2.0 has to offer and running with it. Jenkins suggests that as the world moves forward from a commodity-based culture to a more knowledge-based one, that we will be forced to collaborate in more effective ways across further distances (Jenkins, 2004). He goes on to say that these collaborations will take places regardless of physical contact and without particular attention to geography. This is how the Browncoats operated. By banding together on websites, they worked together as a team to achieve their goal, keeping the crew of Serenity flying for just a little longer. The Browncoats’ movement best encapsulates Downing’s concept of the blurred line between ‘active media user’ and ‘radical alternative media producers’ (Downing cited in Harrison and Barthel, 2009).

By creating their own campaign material, spreading it via the Web, they were the media producers, bypassing the traditional avenues of media production and consumption. In the making of Browncoats: Redemption, a fan film for charity, fans used crowd-sourcing, a typical Web 2.0 platform, to spread the word of their endeavour and to gain support. Even beyond the fight for Serenity or Firefly, the Browncoats still use Web 2.0 applications, in the form of social networking sites such as Twitter, to spread word about Firefly-applicable situations, such as in the case of Professor Miller’s fight against on-campus censorship (TheFIRE.org, 2011). No other fan-based group has embraced Web 2.0 applications and platforms and used them with such ferocity.

With Web 2.0 removing the distance between producer and consumer of media, through the affordability of the means for production as well as the access to means of distribution, we are forced to reconsider how we view production and consumption of media (Harrison & Barthel, 2009). No longer are they strictly separated. We have entered the world of the ‘prosumer’ (Ritzer & Jurgenson, 2010), those who can challenge the big companies and triumph. Fan activism is not new, but having greater access to the world via Web 2.0 platforms, they are able to have their messages heard by more people and communities can come together regardless of geographical boundaries. This can be harnessed by companies, as in the case of the advertising for the film Serenity (Affinitive, 2005).

Conclusion.

As the now instantly recognisable theme song, written by Joss Whedon himself, says, if that which is loved and held dear is taken away, there will be somewhere that people will still be able to stand; you can’t take the sky from the Browncoats, they will simply refuse to lay down arms.

“Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me;
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t coming back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me;
There’s no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me…” (Whedon, 2005)

The Web was the second most powerful weapon in the Browncoat arsenal. It was their determination and community, as unfamiliar in form it may be, that was their biggest strength. Their program was shelved, the end was near, but by banding together in forums and their own websites, they succeeded. They showed that there was enough of a following to warrant a movie being made. It was a mighty battle, but in the end, they won. “Coz remember, they tried to kill us – they did kill us – and here we are. We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty (Whedon, 2005a).”

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