[META] The Social Network Fandom: RPS of Professional RPF?

Over at Obsidian Wings, Doctor Science has posted an analysis of The Social Network using a fannish vocabulary. I’ve been overwhelmed by the range, quality and quantity of fan activity surrounding the film, and I thought that Doctor Science’s post would provide me with some great material to discuss in my first post for the Symposium Blog.

The idea that The Social Network can, strictly speaking, be understood as as Real Person Fic (RPF), is, in the words of Doctor Science, complicated. The argument in favor is fairly common, and can be a frustrating conversation to have with outsiders to fandom: there are discrete traditions of professional fiction written about real people and RPF; this film belongs to the former, hence the easy and ubiquitous comparisons to Citizen Kane. I don’t say this to undermine the extent to which the film’s depiction of real situations made Doctor Science “uncomfortable,” but surely there is a difference between this huge-budget Hollywood film and the fanfiction inspired by it, only some of which is, strictly speaking, RPF. (And much of the Social Network RPF is actorfic, e.g. Jesse Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield, rather than RPF about the real people behind the real facebook.)

The author nevertheless points out an interesting irony in Aaron Sorkin’s decision to write a kind of story that could be understood as more properly belonging to female-dominated fan communities online, considering the writer’s fraught history with online media fandom. I wasn’t a West Wing fan myself, but the story of Sorkin’s reaction to the TWOP messageboards is widely-circulated as an example of why creators shouldn’t crash the party. Doctor Science is shrewd to draw attention to the connections between the sexism of the film’s narrative of the founding of Facebook and Sorkin’s history of misapprehending the gender politics of digital space.

Unlike the real Mark Zuckerberg, I was not concerned with the movie’s refusal to display the actual mechanics of building Facebook, although I would have liked to see more from the perspective of users, particularly female users. Certainly, as Doctor Science outlines, the film represents female characters as more interested in actually using the site than male characters — it’s not LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, but certainly women are at least as active on the site as men.

But I’m less interested in critiquing the film in this post than I am in drawing out this connection between the gender politics of the film and the gender politics of storytelling in the age of the internet. I don’t believe that it’s helpful to label The Social Network as RPF, because it does a disservice to the thriving RPF being produced in response to the film, and thus inadvertently discounts users once again.

Aaron Sorkin made specific decisions about his representation of the founding of Facebook , presumably in collaboration with legal advisors with experience in communications law, intellectual property, and libel. Fic writers are beholden to a different set of standards, and thus, produce a different kind of work, a kind that, it should go without saying, is at least as addictive as Sorkin’s dialogue. One of Doctor Science’s critiques of RPF in general, here referring to the larger concept of stories based on real life, is one that has been voiced repeatedly by critics of the film; the Doctor describes the erasure of Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life long-term girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, from the story as “cringe-worthy.” In the context of the film, this erasure was necessary for Sorkin to tell his story about the palpable connection between Facebook’s surveillance culture and the anxious masculinity that he believes drives innovations in tech.

But the critique has been made in the context of RPF proper, too, particularly RPS (Real Person Slash, e.g. Mark/Eduardo). There are those in fandom who find it just as cringe-worthy that primarily female fic writers would repeatedly produce situations in which real-life wives or girlfriends are erased in the name of two (or more!) attractive men finding True Love with one another. There are few enough complex female characters in mainstream media, the argument sometimes goes, and fic should serve as a space of rectifying mainstream media’s oppressive erasures, rather than taking them to their logical extension by erasing the women altogether. Of course, many fans take the opposite approach: fic should be a space of exploring the fullest possible range of ideas excited in readers by the media texts we love, and there’s no reason to regulate anyone else’s kinks.

After all, there are no limits on the amount of fic that can be produced from a sourcetext: if you want to read more about the women of The Social Network, write more. While it’s true that, in some fandoms, certain slash pairings come to dominate, I think that it’s up to members within those fandoms to articulate their own values about what this means, rather than anyone from outside. RPF/RPS writers understand that they are producing fiction, rather than producing an idealized social world. Particularly because RPF/RPS is controversial even within fandom (perhaps especially, because only within fandom are people aware how much of it there is!), I think that it’s fair to assume that writers are aware of potential objections readers might have. This doesn’t mean that one has to like or actively support it, but rather that it deserves to be understood on its own terms, in its own context. As one might criticize Citizen Kane‘s representation of media history, so can one criticize The Social Network‘s. But RPF proper must be understood in the context of other fannish productions, not in comparison with Hollywood films.

  • http://tushnet.blogspot.com Rebecca Tushnet

    Just a quick note–I don’t think Doctor Science identifies as male, so that “he” should probably be changed.

    • alexjenkins

      Fixed, with apologies!

  • Karen Hellekson

    I’m old enough to remember when RPS was totally verboten; I entered fandom via face-to-face encounters. There were two reasons: (1) don’t freak out the talent (as in, do not give Paul Darrow a copy of that fic zine!); and (2) possible libel suits.

    Now that fandom has moved wholesale online, I had to get over that. I became reconciled to it only because of the idea of performativity and mapping of desires onto a person who is really a character himself.

    I think fandom has a lot to offer Hollywood on this one: somehow audiences expect truth, but fans know that it’s all a complex constructed fiction.

    • alexjenkins

      Agreed that fandom has a lot to offer Hollywood on the fact-fiction continuum. On the “don’t freak out the talent” front, I’m comforted by the fact that Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake all seem totally baffled by internet communities, not even knowing how to use Facebook :).

  • Dana Sterling

    It’s been fascinating to watch, over the years, how conflicted fandom is itself with RPF to this day, and to compare that with examples of it in Hollywood and in fiction, and how the various creators and readers/viewers respond. What a fascinating topic. Thank you.

    • alexjenkins

      Thanks for your comment! I think a fannish vocabulary is so helpful here, and I hope more critics will take it up as it becomes more relevant to the primary texts they’re excited about.

    • Dana Sterling

      fandom has a lot to teach the media critics, for sure!!!

  • http://havocthecat.dreamwidth.org havocthecat

    “If you want to read more about women, write more about them!” Wow, that’s, um, the easiest solution ever to fandom’s ongoing erasure of women, right? Except there’s a small cadre of people who are already doing that, and we’re awfully tired of hearing that we should write more about women. We’d really like to read stuff that we haven’t written.

    It also provides a nice, easy way for fandom to continue its privileging of men’s stories over women’s stories, without looking at the deeper reasons for that. “Why is no one writing women’s stories in this fandom? Oh, must be because no one wants to read them. Okay, carry on with the man-centric fic! Girls aren’t important enough to care about!”

    • alexjenkins

      Certainly, it’s not a complete solution. In my corner, I see a lot of extended analysis of gender and other identity politics, as well as a huge amount of fic, art, vids, and meta dedicated to female characters. It’s possible that, as a result, I’ve underestimated concerns specific to fandoms perceived to be dominated by slash. However, with regard to The Social Network, I’m confident that, as the fandom grows, and incorporates members from more female-friendly fandoms, we will start to see creative and fascinating approaches to the female characters in the movie. I think one analogy might be race in the Whedonverse — although the sourcetext is undoubtedly racist, the fandom continues to push against this in ways that help its members to delve ever deeper into the text and the pleasure we find there. Thanks for your comment!

  • http://archiveofourown.org/users/beyond_belief/pseuds/Lake Lake

    As someone who has written and is writing The Social Network fic, as well as someone who has written RPF for something like ten years now, I find the whole argument hilarious. Every time there’s an RPF fandom that explodes, or a fandom like TSN that’s basically writing fictionalized versions of fictionalized versions of real people (see also: Generation Kill), the same set of questions and arguments come up. But everyone has to reach their own conclusions, and form their own opinions as to how they feel about RPF, and whatever it is we’re calling movies like TSN. (I watched the movie thinking, “Aaron Sorkin, you just wrote fanfiction!”.)

    As for the whole women in TSN issue – I think it’s sort of a double issue, if that makes sense. On one hand, there’s the fact that TSN is basically a slash fandom, and the vast majority of authors are writing Mark/Eduardo (and Chris/Dustin) and don’t really write fic about women. On the other hand, there’s the fact that the film itself could be seen as bordering on misogynistic and sidelining towards women at times. I’m inclined to view that less as a serious intentional choice by the filmmakers and more as a “these characters are entitled, immature college dudes, and the movie looks at women the way a lot of immature college dudes probably look at women”. There are more ladies in the movie than it feels like there are, if that makes any sort of sense, and they’re not all in their underwear. But Gretchen and Marilyn are much less fleshed out than Mark and Eduardo, because they’re supporting roles that don’t require as much characterization within the structure of the movie, and so there’s less for authors to work with. (Even authors such as myself who like to write about women. I want my source material to give me a little more to go on than what TSN gives me for Erica, or for Christy. But there are people writing fic about the women of TSN, trust me.)

    • alexjenkins

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with you that there are more women in the film than it seems like there are, and I also like that the whole debate about the film’s misogyny has gotten people talking about women in the RL tech context. I think there might be more to do with the female characters in a visual context — I can imagine some pretty awesome Christy vids. But fic, yeah, one needs more to go on.