I’ve spent most of the last week at a series of digital events – Innovate/Activate 2.0, the Students for Free Culture Summit, the Swinging and Flowing conference on digital inclusion and diversity, and Rita Raley’s talk on tactical media. Looking over my notes, I don’t think I can synthesize all of it into one coherent post on What This Means for Fandom, but there are some common themes that seem to keep coming up.
One thing that’s occurred to me, apropos of Lev Grossman’s now famous description of fans (“The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language”), is that it’s not just that fans talk back to culture, it’s that fans make their own culture. This seems like an obvious fact, but in the age of digital tools and new media, there’s actually a significant expertise differential in terms of technologies and platforms that fans, by and large, scale with great gusto, confidence, and motivation. Thinking back to my own fannish history, for example, I taught myself html at the age of thirteen to post my very first fanfics on theforce.net back in the time known as the day, and I’ve continued to teach myself a variety of video and web applications and platforms just so the reach of my fannish desire to make things doesn’t exceed my grasp too far. Helen Milner of UK Online Centres, who works to broaden digital equality by connecting first-time users to the internet, mentioned in her presentation today that the most significant barriers to people learning to use the internet are access, motivation, skills and confidence. It’s all of those things that fandom can and does teach, and I’m really not surprised that the only two majority female and female-identified open source projects on the internet, Dreamwidth and the Archive of Our Own, are associated with fandom or are explicitly fannish, respectively. Where else but fandom is there a community that takes it so much for granted that girls and women can learn tech just like men?
Rita Raley, in her talk on tactical media (which she helpfully defined as an “interventionist and critical genre of new media art”), said so many things that seem applicable to fandom that I wonder whether or not there’s an article, or at least a short piece for the Symposium section of TWC, in explicitly comparing the two. One thing that especially stuck with me, as I left campus and went to the grocery store and went home to cook dinner, was Raley’s claim that tactical media teaches that critical reflection is at its most powerful when it does not adopt ostensibly outside spectatorial position, that proximity to the object being critiqued breeds not corruption nor contempt but strong insights. Fan video, in particular, would seem to confirm this insight, as people including Francesca Coppa and Kristina Busse have argued before. Raley also argued that tactical media is a form of radical creativity organized, to some extent, around the notion that “if regimes are perceptible, it becomes possible to work concretely toward structural transformation” and seeking to do just that. Fandom can, at its best, do the same thing, in terms of almost any hierarchy in society – who else has read the one where Tony Stark isn’t rich, and almost everything is different?
Moreover, Raley argued, tactical media art by and large dispenses with the “fantasy of exteriority,” the idea that it’s even possible (let alone desirable) to take some sort of outside, spectatorial position of judgement on the object of critique, and this too seems to me to be a crucial point to bear in mind, not just about fandom but also about digital activism in general. The Friday keynote speaker at Innovate/Activate 2.0 was Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who delivered a rather inspiring talk about the successful anti-SOPA protests earlier this year that nonetheless contained some claims begging for qualification, perhaps most notably his earnestly Silicon Valley faith in the notion that the internet is a meritocracy of ideas in which “all links are created equal.”
There are a lot of people who know better, fans among them, and one of the things that was most valuable to me about I/A 2.0, and talking to my fellow attendees as a committee chair of the OTW, was the renewed sense I had of fandom as one among any number of modes and nodes of online engagement, digital activism, cultural resistance. For example, the OTW is considering strategies to expand its presence and the presence of fan perspectives on fanworks on Wikipedia? (“Disruptive diversity,” one speaker today called this, leveraging digital tools to change dominant narratives.) Maybe we could talk to the Wikimedia Foundation, who are working to increase representation of women among Wikipedia editors and articles. Fandom isn’t isolated, and one consistent theme reiterated by all of the veteran activists at I/A was the fact that, as one speaker put it, “If we organize, we win.” There are a lot of other people who share a lot of fandom’s core concerns, if not our pasttimes, and despite our differences, we’re stronger together.