“My hobby is Netflix, so what?” – Stranger Things and platformized fandom
You might have seen it around on someone’s Tinder profile or overheard it in a nearby train conversation: “My hobby is Netflix.” Does being active on a streaming platform count as an actual hobby now? Mitchell van Vuren argues that it is – most of us might have already become a ‘Netflix fan.’
Contrary to what you would believe from their sophisticated contributions to academic journals, most film scholars don’t spend all their leisure time rewatching the entire oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard. Like most people, they might find the latest television series on Netflix far more tempting to put on after a long day of grading papers. Is there anything wrong with binging an entire season of Friends or Stranger Things? Not at all. Does that mean you have stopped being a full-on cinephile? Absolutely not. It only implies that you could have already become a ‘Netflix fan’ as well.
In his essay The Future of Fandom (2007), fan studies patriarch Henry Jenkins presents an intriguing thought experiment about the elasticity of the term ‘fan’ nowadays. Jenkins asks: who is not a fan? In the current digital economy of social media and video-on-demand platforms, the author recognises how core concepts of fandom (‘community,’ ‘affinity,’ ‘taste’) are embedded in their organisational structures without being named explicitly. Jenkins sees the present-day fan as “… a less geeky version of the fan—fans who don’t wear rubber Spock ears, fans who didn’t live in their parent's basement, fans who have got a life” (Jenkins 2007, 359). When an internet user feels attracted to a certain subculture or cultural work, participation in a fan culture becomes as easy as posting a comment, “liking” a post, or simply scrolling through a subreddit (a niche forum on the Reddit website).
Let’s take the example of the recent popularity of Stranger Things season 4. At the moment, the season is standing strong as the most watched English-language Netflix series, with an approximate total of 1.4 billion hours watched in their first 28 days (only beaten by Squid Game, as the most watched non-English language Netflix series) (Netflix 2022). How on earth can Netflix attract so many viewers to a single season? One of their methods is the simultaneous broadcasting of Netflix Originals worldwide, encouraging the creation of buzz (public excitement about a film or series) and social media communication among viewers on a global scale (Horeck et al. 2018, 500). The social media discussions about Netflix productions are pivotal to understanding the platform's success, more specifically because the engagement of fan communities has now become a substantial part of the promotion of Netflix products, that is, its catalogue.
On TikTok, a total of 1.5 million posts have been made with the hashtag #strangerthings about the sci-fi horror drama series, counting up to 4.9 billion views of fan videos. The Stranger Things subreddit belongs to the top 1% of existing subreddits in size with more than 1 million subscribers and daily user activity, making the subreddit the ideal place to extensively discuss fan art, Stranger Things memes, and fan theories about the characters’ love interests. In addition, Netflix is doing plenty to feed this gargantuan fan community. While hosting Stranger Things Day on 6 November 2022 to commemorate the day the character Will Byers went missing in season 1, the media giant simultaneously updated their Stranger Things merch, introduced a new Stranger Things game, and organised several virtual screenings on the global gaming platform Roblox.
As seen from the perspective of Netflix, their engagement with the fan community mostly seems to consist of feeding their fans with more and more content to consume. Ultimately, the goal of Netflix is not just to attract more subscribers to their platform but also to restrain current subscribers from cancelling their subscriptions and going for alternative streaming services to spend their evening hours on. It makes them actively cultivate the public sentiment of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) through social media, which rewards subscribers that can “brag” about how many popular series they have seen and can now exhaustively discuss. What could be a better marketing strategy for Netflix than managing a fanbase around their series and keeping them subscribed season after season?
A similar argument about binding fans to a narrative universe can be made about the long-standing Star Trek, Doctor Who or Japanese anime fan cultures with millions of dedicated fans. But Netflix differentiates itself by consolidating a central position in the regularly decentralised fan networks that bind a multiplicity of fan practices together. Where the conventional fan practices of writing fansubs (fan-made subtitles), fanfiction (fiction written by fans about a beloved narrative work) or fanzines (fan-made magazines) are typical examples of a grassroots movement, being a fan of a Netflix series is as effortless as opening the TikTok, Reddit or Netflix app on your phone.
When fandom becomes ‘platformized’ (Van Dijck et al. 2018) and largely regulated by the same commercial company, the question arises of how much educational value participation in a fan community still enables – an aspect that Jenkins deems fundamental to participatory culture (Jenkins 2009). What seems to remain is the commercial value of a fan community. What counts to Netflix is how much time you have spent binging the fourth season of Stranger Things or any other form of content. And when you feel lost when a beloved series has come to an end, you can always trust Netflix to launch another series next week for you to become a fan of.
Bitran, Tara. “How to Celebreate ‘Stranger Things Day’.” Netflix, November 4, 2022. Accessed on November 10, 2022. https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/stranger-things-day-2022-screenings
Horeck, Tanya, Mareike Jenner, and Tina Kendall. “On Binge-Watching: Nine Critical Propositions.” In Critical Studies in Television 13, no. 4, 2018.
Jenkins, Henry. “Afterword: The Future of Fandom.” In Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, New York University Press, 2007.
Jenkins, Henry.. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT Press, 2009.
Netflix Top 10. “Most Popular TV (English).” Last modified November 8, 2022. https://top10.netflix.com/tv
Reddit. “Netflix’s Stranger Things.” Last modified November 10, 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/StrangerThings/
Van Dijck, José, Thomas Poell and Martijn de Waal. The Platform Society : Public Values in a Connective World. Amsterdam University Press, 2018.
Tiktokhashtags. “#strangerthings hashtags for TikTok.” Last modified November 10, 2022. https://tiktokhashtags.com/hashtag/strangerthings/
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