This is the first in a series of posts on fandom-related thoughts springing from three conferences I’ve attended in the past month, AdaCamp, WIkimania, and Console-ing Passions. All three consolidated into one great fandom and open source idea extravaganza for me. These after-conference posts come royally late, but I think the time elapsed has helped me clarify my thoughts a bit.
I’ll be talking mostly about AdaCamp, although I’ll reference Wikimania and Console-ing Passions a couple of times when relevant. A few quick basics. As Staci Tucker summarized at Fembot,
“AdaCamp is an Ada Initiative unconference focused on increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. The invitation-only event gathered professionals, fans, hobbyists, academics, and activists to build community, discuss issues impacting women across open technology, and strategize ways to inspire positive change and build community resources.”
The Fembot post neatly lays out the basics of AdaCamp, who was there, what was discussed, what was eaten, and so on, so I’ll just refer to that one for all those things and dive straight into some personal reflections on fans and fanworks in open movements. (AdaCamp has a policy of not referring to conference attendees by name without permission, so there will be a lot of “someone said”.)
What I took away from all three conferences is that more and more people see strong links between fan communities and communities built around open source and other “open” things. Especially at AdaCamp and Console-ing Passions, I had the pleasure of talking about fandom and open source with many great people engaged in either or both of those communities. I agree with them that it would be very beneficial for both fandom and “open” movements to recognize that they’re both creative communities that have very similar principles, goals, and issues, and that they can help each other solve said issues instead of laboriously re-inventing the wheel. Issues include but are not limited to the lack of women in open source, and the precarious legal position of fanworks. I think it’s important that we start talking about this a bit more loudly.
First of all – what is “open” stuff, anyway? There’s plenty of nebulous definitions around, and since adding to them isn’t the purpose of this post, I’ll just mention my personal definition and leave it at that. This is a tad confusing since we talk about open “things” a lot, but “openness” is basically a characteristic of a process. It’s the way things are made or accomplished that makes them open or not. The key aspect of all open processes for me is that they empower people to do things for themselves, because the inner workings of said things are visible, and because people have the tools to change said things and share the results with others. Open processes tend to crystallize into movements of people who see a similar philosophy behind all those open processes, but most people who create things using open processes are either unaware of or uninterested in the philosophical side; they just use open processes because they work.
It’s certainly not unheard of to see people who identify as members of fandom or some “open” movement to frame fannish activities like fanwork creation as something that fits in with more famous “open stuff” like open source software. Skud does it here, and the Ada Initiative did so by explicitly inviting fans to AdaCamp. I’ve discussed the concept with many fans and academic colleagues, and it even pops up in a couple of academic works.
Still, the idea that it may be correct and useful to frame fanworks as a sort of “open source cultural good” definitely isn’t broadly accepted yet. Lists of open stuff tend to include all sorts of creative works and activities, from software to ways in which people organize themselves to do something collectively. However, most lists of open stuff that I’ve seen – like this one - don’t include any sort of “open” cultural work. The Wikipedia article that lists “open” things that function according to a philosophy similar to the one behind open source has a subsection for “arts and recreation”, but it only has a brief mention of copyright getting in the way and no examples of “open” cultural works. That’s a pretty conspicuous blank in those long lists. It suggests that most human activity has an “open” equivalent these days, except for cultural works. That’s not very desirable: if there’s one thing that’s important enough that it should have a parallel movement of people creating the open equivalent of it, it’s cultural creation.
And when you think about it, it’s also not very likely that we would somehow manage to invent an open equivalent for every possible activity except cultural creation. There’s just no way we can fail to invent an “open source” way of making cultural works. I’m firmly on board with the idea that we invented that particular process of cultural creation ages ago, and fanworks are one of its most representative results.
Before we start picking apart the relationship between fannish stuff and open source in later posts, let’s go back the beginning and consider why fanworks can be considered part of the same “open” movement that also encompasses more well-known “open stuff” like open source software, open access in academia, and large-scale peer production like on Wikipedia.
As mentioned earlier, open processes empower people to do things by exposing how those things work and giving individuals the tools to make changes and feed them back into their communities (whereas in the non-open alternative process, individuals are not allowed or able to make changes). Some examples of open processes are very clear-cut. Open source software is the most famous and uncontested example of open stuff for a reason: it’s pretty eye-catching and easy to understand. Nobody needs to be convinced that it’s empowering to be able to change the technology around you. It obviously works, and it obviously results in useful technological tools, and it’s all (mostly) nice and legal.
But I’d argue that fanwork is a great example of open stuff, too. It’s just as empowering to be able to change the culture you live with, to be aware that changing that culture is possible, and to have the tools to do it. People in fan communities know that legitimate culture-making isn’t just about making a perfectly “original” thing and laboriously building an audience for it. It’s also about building on what others have made, about analyzing what’s going on in the media everyone’s watching and making it better, and about feeding those improvements back into the community of people who are also watching that “original” product so they can build on your improvements in turn.
And just to get the porn thing out of the way at once: “making it better” includes everything from writing critical meta about social issues in a show to creating the sex and relationships-focused content that the source book or film doesn’t provide. For very many people, adding more shipping and more porn about their favorite characters is really, truly one the big thing that makes their favorite media better – more fun, more meaningful, and easier to share and enjoy with others.
In the next post, I’ll consider what fan communities might have to offer to open source communities and vice versa.