One of my research interests concerns fan practices of mourning in digital contexts. I have examined memorial video tributes dedicated to Steve Jobs on YouTube, which is the topic of this blog post, but also other celebrity memorials on other channels. Last year I presented my work in progress on digital memorials as mediators of a lived life that deals with memorialising celebrities on Twitter; I looked at #RIP tweets that commemorate the deaths of actors Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and singer Whitney Houston. The memorial tweets paint a picture of relational rupture, and at the same time they (re)construct a lived life from the perspective of the mourner. Digital memorials are one way of maintaining a relational bond after and beyond physical death, but as a social practice, digital memorialising also connects the mourner to a wider network of mourners; communal support thus garnered has the potential to alleviate the sense of loss as well as any possible feelings of disenfranchisement.
In a similar fashion, the fans of the late Steve Jobs engage in a process of reconstruction of a lived life as they discursively entwine Jobs’ life narrative into their own. Doing this, they also reconstruct their fandom to ensure continuity, and also rearticulate their fan identity. Fans, generally, form a deep and affective relational bond with the object of fandom, be this an actual or a fictional character. Thus, upon the death of such an object, the loss is often equally deeply felt, even if regularly pathologised as deviant in the context of normative grief, where deep emotions relative to loss are reserved to family members.
The fans resort to allusional rhetoric to identify as members of the community but also to stake out their fandom; they recycle meanings poached from Steve Jobs’ speeches and keynotes and recontextualise these in digital contexts.
Often linked with popular culture and entertainment, fandom, however, is not restricted to these realms. Steve Jobs enjoyed a celebrity status and had a large following that can be called a fan base. His fame was largely due to his charismatic presentation skills, but also due to his life story that depicts the American rags-to-riches tale. Fandom, contrary to popular belief, is not free from ideological underpinnings, and nowhere is this more clear that when the fandom and its ideological basis is questioned or attacked from the outside. In my paper, I examine, first, the discursive construction of fandom and the resulting sense of belonging, as well as the processes of affiliation at the site of digital memorial, and second, how attitudinal alignment functions both to constuct the in-group but also the out-group, with both of these positionings being embedded in the digital artefact, one explicitly, the other implicitly.
The material comprises user commentary over a memorial video tribute dedictaed to Steve Jobs, the commentary pictured below in a .txt format. Commentaries like this are rich sources of insight into particular fandom(s) and what constitutes them and how boundaries are drawn, but also into the ideological positioning and criticism that stems from what the fandom is taken to represent (this, naturally, depending on whether you are a fan or a non-fan). Thus, memorial sites serve as a battle ground where fan community boundaries as well as ideological conflicts are negotiated.
The overt contestation present in the video commentary, where fans as in-group and non-fans as the out-group negotiate the worthiness and justification of the said fandom, serves to strenghten the alignment among the fans and help create the communal boundary. That is, disalignment with an out-group functions to align the fans more than the fan commentary as intra-group interaction. To identify as members of the community, but also to stake out their fandom, the fans frequently resort to allusional rhetoric; they recycle meanings poached from Steve Jobs’ speeches and keynotes and as these are recontextualised in new digital contexts, the life of Steve Jobs is, in the hands of his fans, also recontextualised and given new meanings that go beyond the original narrative (as narrated by Jobs himself, but also the media), reaching also beyond his physical death.
The fans write themselves into the narrative which constitutes the memorial, which in effect is a process of weaving the life of Steve Jobs into their own life narrative. As a discursive strategy, this serves to establish the continuation of the relational attachment with the fan object that is now physically lost, yet the significance of the relation contunues to be felt by the fans.
My paper, Imagined Community and Affective Alignment in Steve Jobs Memorial Tribute on YouTube, has now been published in an Equinox book titled Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age – check out Chapter four in the book if you are interested in a linguistic take on alignment and a systemic-functional linguistic analysis of affliation on YouTube in the context of fandom and digital mourning.