Contextualizing Online Shipping Culture

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Anyone who considers themselves part of the fandom has run into shipping at some point. If not doing the act themselves, then through interaction with shippers on forums and on social media. Whatever the case, it is unquestionable that shipping subculture has impacted fan communities throughout the entertainment industry. Shipping has become a key facet of representation for underserved minorities and sexualities. It also promotes creative expression through fanfiction and fanart. The active participation of fans has influenced creators and movers within the entertainment industry. Though under-researched, shipping culture has been a part of changes in representation.

A Measure Of Fandom

Shipping has become a unique measuring tool in determining how fans interact within their fandoms, as well as a method of communication between fan culture and mainstream media culture. The rise of social media has had an enormous influence on the accessibility of shipping culture; anyone aware of it can do it. As well, the relationship between creators and fans has become closer, as social media provides new options for direct communication. This also changes how conversations about representation, social impact, and responsibility are broadcast within each fandom.

This article takes a general look at one of the facets of this change: shipping culture and its impact within fandoms. My goal is to contextualize certain phenomena happening within shipping culture by showcasing the shifts occurring within the entertainment industry, as well as how shipping culture is impacting representation. I also want to address, at least from my perspective, some of the issues within the shipping culture itself, and how these issues reflect other areas of fan interaction in other mediums.

Shipping
In a nutshell | Risa Rodil

As a disclaimer, I am not a shipper myself, nor do I characterize my interactions with fandom as such. I am an interested party who, through some research, has seen some commonalities between fandom and current situations in the entertainment industry. If you are a shipper and wish to add to this conversation or share your experiences in relation to what I discuss, please feel free to do so in the comments.

What Is Shipping?

Shipping has been defined in various ways but generally refers to a fan’s desire for a specific coupling to happen in a series. Whatever the definition, the core of the action is that shipping is one facet – varying in intensity – of how a fan interacts with their favorite series or franchise. It is as much an action as an identity, primarily because it is a social phenomenon. Evolving since its conception, it is now something fans share, discuss, argue over, and cherish on social media forums.

The Trail To Modern Shipping Culture

Shipping has been around since the 1970s. While there is plenty to learn from the early stages of shipping in this period, for this article, I want to focus closer to the present. Specifically, the early internet age and the rise of social media.   

Internet Origins

Where once physical fanzines were distributed within a small clique, the birth of the internet age in the late 1990s-early 2000s allowed people to share their interests on a grander scale. The internet was a community builder unlike any other for subcultures like fandoms because many fans were — or felt — isolated within their physical communities. In short, until fans discovered online communities inhabited by like-minded individuals, sharing interests had been difficult.

Once fans found forums like LiveJournal, it became not just a means to bond with others, but also a method to explore and expand their creative output. Through the sharing of fanfiction and getting critiques on improvement, these forums became hubs of experimental creativity. This was the start of the shipping culture we know today. It is worth noting briefly that many bloggers and writers refer to this period as a better time for shipping culture because there was a sense of etiquette and respect. I will speak more on this below.

The Rise Of Social Media

Shipping
Social media outlets, Discord not included | Jamie Spencer

What set shipping culture as a fixture of pop culture was the rise of social media. If LiveJournal was the first tool to access like-minded fans, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and so many others brought further accessibility and diversity of community content. The rise of social media sites was instrumental in not only providing access to the subculture. (Hence more people becoming shippers.) However, it allowed closer contact with the developers and creators of the content fans craved. It provided instant gratification for sharing emotional reactions with fellow fandom members unavailable before.

But social media highlighted the worst aspects of fan culture: the toxic behaviors, the unnecessary harassment of fellow fans or actors/authors, and fan entitlement. Shipping culture is not immune to this. It still struggles with finding the best practices needed to provide a healthy online environment and eliminate bad habits.  

Shipping Wars

Possibly one of the more exasperating facets of shipping culture is shipping wars. This gets particularly brutal between ships in the same series. In some cases, this becomes even more visceral when the series is still ongoing, meaning any ship could become a canon. The obsession with a ship becoming a canon takes an interesting turn when fans write entire manifestos on the correctness of their chosen ship. For some, the ship takes on far more investment than the actual story does. The most well-known and timely example is from Harry Potter.

The Hermione/Harry Ship War

J.K Rowling has the distinct honor of writing a series that would not only become a household name but also instrumental in creating modern fan culture. Due to the publication of her books coinciding with the growing use of the internet and the eventual rise of social media, the Harry Potter franchise drove fan and shipping culture, unlike any other series. Fans at the time had the freedom to argue over who was going to end up with whom. This brought about large forums of fanfiction, manifestos, and those on the best couplings.

Shipping
They are grimacing thinking of the ship war | Warner Bros

The most volatile was the ship war between Hermione/Harry (Harmonians) and Hermione/Ron. People were so dedicated that they invested huge blocks of time in writing and arguing over who was the better couple. Years were spent on this debate and produced entire manifestos on who was better, including etiquette for each group. Someone even wrote what could have been an MA thesis-length treatise on why Harmonians were wrong. To contextualize, this argument has little if anything to do with the themes of the novels. But in one single part having little to do with the overarching story. This emphasizes the immense emotional investment fans had in the series, and how sometimes that investment does not pay off.

Authorial Slander

Harry and Hermione did not end up together, and the reactions were indicative of how visceral fans could get about canon relationships. For some Harmonians, this result was akin to insulting their personal character or belief. As a result, and with all the baggage of a failed investment weighing them down, some fans took to throwing insults and threats at their new enemy: J.K. Rowling. Attacks on her writing capabilities and her personal life were commonplace and have become a primary example of ship wars and toxic shipping.

Shipping As Entertainment

Such emotional investment is not exclusive to books, however. A cursory examination of the top 100 ships of 2018 shows how diverse shipping can be. From Star Wars to K-Pop groups, from television shows to anime, the ubiquity of fandom shipping is staggering. How the act of shipping manifests in different genres is fascinating not just in its diversity, but in the common issues and benefits within each fandom.

Shipping
Another immensely popular ship | Walt Disney Studios

Shipping has become a social phenomenon in which fans can interact – positively or negatively – with their favorite authors, actors, franchises, and series. Whether it has gained influence on the actual production of relationships and stories is still being debated. Regardless of that, there is no denying the impact shipping culture has had on fan culture itself: both for better representation and toxic behavior. For those who actively ship, they know this and have written articles on how to create better online environments for shipping. It is beneficial, however, to see shipping from the perspective of cultural impact and how it has benefitted and detracted from the current state of subculture and mainstream culture. Here are two examples of varying degrees of beneficial/negative impacts.

Fanfiction Shipping Influence On LGBTQ+ Community

Shipping as a practice, through fanfiction and debate, has been a source of diverse representation for fandom, as well as a mode of accessibility, since the earliest days of the internet. Fanfiction communities, through sources like LiveJournal, were easier to find and were places where a person could be themselves. This led to higher levels of representation within the fandoms themselves, as well as acknowledgment of different sexualities and ethnicities.

Shipping representation through fanfiction has been particularly influential in providing a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. This can begin as simply as changing an avatar to something better representative of internal feelings, or as notable as influencing someone coming out. This has led to fanfiction writing being a source for writers and readers to not only explore their shipping interests but, by extension, their own selves. Shipping culture has contributed to higher awareness and representation of the gay community within fandoms and mainstream audiences alike.

Shipping
This is simplified Chinese. Fanfiction is global | Magpie Kingdom

K-Pop Idol Shipping

Speaking of real-people shipping, there is an entire industry which has learned to utilize this form of shipping culture within the fandom: K-Pop. It is one of the major ways in which fans interact with each other online and in some instances can make certain dance routines center around one ship or another. Groups like Twice and BTS have made a point to showcase pseudo-couples, allowing fans to debate, create ships, and attack each other based on their preferences. This culture has become an orchestrated aspect by managers and labels when considering group makeup, marketing, and comebacks (called ‘eras’).

Some ships have become part of on-stage personas by group members, in recognition of that shipping community. One such ship is in the group GOT7, called ‘Markson’ after Mark and Jackson. They took fans shipping them so well they used it to make a show called “The Markson Show” which is used primarily as fanservice for their audience. Other groups, like Twice, have become a sort of gay idol group because of the way in which the group is seen to interact with each other through group hang-outs and music videos. Even if they are not themselves gay, they are seen by some to be representative of the gay community.

K-Pop Culture And Korean Culture

Shipping
Markson: Mark and Jackson | ArirangTV

Which is interesting because many of those who view these groups as such are often from the US or Europe. Many of these fans may not be aware of Korean culture, or the societal changes occurring there. As an example, the concept of ‘skinship’ – referring to closer physical relations with people from the same sex – becomes sexualized by Western audiences. In addition, there are debates about how Western audiences exoticize K-Pop idols, as well as academic debates about orientalist mentalities. The core issue, however, is whether audiences are culturally informed. For example, are K-Pop fans aware of Korea’s generally conservative views and antipathy towards the gay community?  

That is not to say shipping K-Pop idols is inherently wrong; if the industry is normalizing it, for fans, this must be a positive confirmation. The K-Pop industry could also be instrumental in providing a better and safer space for gay representation in Korea. The problem currently, however, arises when cultural norms in Korea are juxtaposed against the ‘norms’ of the K-Pop industry. Korea is a patriarchal society. Despite the constant improvement in changing social and traditional values, the norms are still present. K-Pop industry’s management of idol groups reflects male-centrality. K-Pop groups are largely created on set gender roles, which has been a source of criticism. Korea is slowly changing its perspectives, but the norm is still different from the interpretation.

Debating Cultural Norms & Interpretations

Shipping
Gay rights are still being contested in Korea | Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto

To be clear, K-Pop itself is not an issue. How Western audiences have interpreted certain actions can be, however, and showcases a cultural ignorance that implicates the fan community. The question arises not from whether someone feels better represented by the group makeup, but whether the industry reflects the needs of a minority. There are threads that indicate this is an ongoing debate within the fandom, so the opportunity for recognition is there.

A Contextual View On Shipping Culture

All of this indicates an ongoing discussion of behavior and conduct within shipping culture. The need to address toxic shipping and recognize the least toxic has become as integral to shipping conversations as the ships themselves. Some also mention how different shipping is now compared to ten or more years ago. However, the rise of toxic shipping is not in itself an indicator of the downfall of shipping. It is one step into the subculture’s acceptance in a larger society. The cultural imprint of the entire entertainment industry and how fans consume it is going through rapid and constant change. It now requires new methods of regulation and moderation from fans themselves.

Romanticizing The Past

Some critique the current state of toxic shipping as an indicator of the subculture’s decline. I see a commonality with other subcultures, such as rock and metal music. It is not uncommon to hear how new bands suck and originality is dead. Some even say rock is dead. The difference between the 1980s Rockstar and 2010s niche culture is immense, just like the 1980s shipping culture and today. There are two things that are happening in both shipping culture and rock fandom:

One, people conjure false memories of the past. Emotional bonds over years of interaction make changes within the culture difficult. These false memories, for example, idealize a more peaceful and respectful past. A cursory investigation shows – the Harry Potter ship war as an example – that it really wasn’t. They also add a near ideological mentality to their ship.

Shipping
The old way to share fandom: fanzines | Wikipedia

Second is the purposeful division of generational differences. We say we cannot relate to how younger generations interact with the media, because “it was better in the past.” We commit the same act prior generations did before us. This results in a dismissal of responsibility. By creating this imagined line, older and more experienced shippers are mitigating their own power to promote better behavior. They distance themselves from younger, less experienced shippers. The unintentional result is a reinforcement of toxic behavior. Older shippers are not alone in their responsibility, but by pushing the problem away it becomes a matter of accountability.

Accessibility, New Tech, & Shipping Culture

Toxic behavior within shipping culture is part of a larger issue of social media behavior. Accessibility has changed drastically over the past decade, meaning a larger influx of like-minded people are coming to the shipping community. In this sense, entertainment is less about big acts and rockstars but defined by niches and smaller community leaders. For the shipping community to target issues of toxic shipping, it needs to recognize it is not alone. Shippers need to gain insight from the larger online community into how toxic behavior is regulated. It needs to look for solutions from alternative spaces.

We live in a time where the age of accessibility is just beginning. This means more people are online than ever before with little regulatory infrastructure. It is important to contextualize where these issues are, without also forgetting how these issues are offset by positive changes. It means thinking of new solutions to common problems and who can make these changes. This will create a better online environment, not just for the shipping community, but by extension others. Let’s keep perspective: instead of lamenting for an imagined unity of the past, appreciate these new challenges as an indicator of impact. This way, shipping culture will continue to be a key contributor to larger representation.


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