Communication in online fan communities: The ethics of intimate strangers

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Dan O’Brien gives an excellent analysis of testimonial knowledge transmission in his article ‘Communication Between Friends’ (2009) noting that the reliability of the speaker is a concern in both externalist and internalist theories of knowledge. O’Brien focuses on the belief states of Hearers (H) in cases where the reliability of the Speaker (S) is known via ‘intimate trust’, a special case pertaining to friendships with a track record of reliable or unreliable reports. This article considers the notion of ‘intimate trust’, specifically in the context of online fan communities, in which the amount of time as a member of an online fan community and the extent of one’s posting history often results in something like ‘intimate trust’ between fans who are, for all other purposes, strangers. In the last two years, Twitter has provided a number of celebrities with a place to update fans and ‘tweet’ back and forth an innumerable number of times in any given day. This accentuates the intimacy to such a level that it becomes a ‘caricature of intimacy’ – the minute-to-minute updates accentuate the illusion that the fan ‘knows’ the celebrity, but the distance and mediation are still carefully maintained. This is an issue with both ethical and epistemological implications for fan-fan and fan-celebrity relationships online, considering ethics of care and ethics of justice, whether fans ‘owe’ celebrities a certain amount of distance and respect, and whether stars owe the fan something in return, either in the sense of reciprocal Kantian duties or Aristotelian moderation.
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