One of the things I like to do in these posts is to look back at articles from Transformative Works and Cultures, directing people to things they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise read or things they perhaps believed might have been too academic-speak for them to enjoy. An article that I would hate for anyone in media fandom to overlook is a fascinating discussion by Rebecca Lucy Busker in the very first issue of the journal. It’s about the impact on content of changes over time in the internet platforms fans use for exchanging links, posting fic and hosting metadiscussion about fandom. It’s called On symposia: Livejournal and the shape of fannish discourse. She is the founder of the website that this blog is named for, along with the Symposium section of the journal itself. The journal section and this blog consciously pay homage to Busker’s website. The TWC journal’s Author Guidelines note: “Parallel to academia’s tradition of compact essays, often published as letters, fandom has its own vibrant history of criticism, some of which has been collected at the Symposium archive. In the spirit of this history, TWC’s Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures.” (You can insert a recruitment plug here: Anyone who’s interested in metadiscussion or who has posted meta is always invited to submit something to the TWC Symposium! Or to suggest yourself as a guest poster here.) In her article, Busker writes about the changes she witnessed when fans, many of whom had been using electronic mailing lists, began to post on Livejournal, a new internet platform that came along around 2001. In her experience, the mailing lists tended to be less focused on critical essays, and also, on lists there was very little cross-pollination between fandoms. Besides creating a wider audience for fannish metadiscussion, Livejournal, she writes, by its nature took the focus off the topic being discussed and put the fannish posters (and fandom itself) at center stage. She believes that one result of this was a wider general awareness of the many active fandoms. It’s my impression that much fannish activity on Livejournal was posted unlocked (though this might have changed after 2007?) with a “hide in plain sight, like a needle in a hay stack” approach to privacy, so it was possible to find a lot of stuff by skipping through friend-of-friend lists and noting what communities existed. Busker writes, “Fans [on Livejournal] have an increased peripheral, and sometimes even very specific, knowledge of other fandoms. Indeed, a popular meme that recurs every so often involves posting ‘what I know about fandoms I am not in.’ The results are sometimes humorous, but are also often fairly accurate. There was a time I could perhaps identify one song by *NSync if I heard it on the radio. And yet I knew the names of all the members, I could identify them by sight.” And, she believes, Livejournal also increased pan-fandom awareness of fandom controversies. In fact, Busker asserts that fandom on Livejournal “now spends as much time talking about itself as it does talking about TV shows and movies and comics.” She also believes that this journaling platform (and what she writes is probably true of Dreamwidth and InsaneJournal, though her article was written before Dreamwidth existed), by virtue of being organized around people, and encouraging discussions that span fandoms, has contributed to the growth of serious, multi-fandom discussions of racism and other social justice issues. “If the personal is political and the political personal, then a medium that by its nature mixes the personal with the fannish must contribute to increased awareness and discussion of the sociopolitical.” Reading this essay, I was struck by the pithy quote from Marshall McLuhan that I learned as an undergraduate studying broadcast television (now the hoariest of “Old Media”), to wit: “The medium is the message.”
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A few days ago in my personal journal, I asked for thoughts about the rise of anonymous spaces in fandom (specifically, here and for the rest of this post, my corner of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth etc.-based media fandom). I received dozens of comments, both anonymous and posted under long-standing fannish pseudonyms. Persistent pseudonyms (such as my own, cryptoxin) dominate the parts of fandom that I’m involved in; posting or commenting anonymously is relatively uncommon. Anon memes — spaces where anonymous commenting is the norm — have popped up regularly for years on LiveJournal, but most were short-lived, dying out or being shut down fairly quickly. More recently, long-running permanent anon memes (many, but not all, specific to a particular fandom) have become increasingly prominent in fandom. The comments to my post provide a lot of different perspectives on their growing popularity, function, and dynamics.
What follows are the beginnings of my thoughts about the place of anon memes in fandom. I’m going to break my discussion up into multiple posts over the next couple of weeks, organized around five themes:
Burden of identity
Wrong on the internet
Below is the first installment, discussing anon memes as a distraction economy.
- Distraction economy
Many celebrate media fandom as a gift economy, where “goods” such as fan fiction and other fanworks are freely shared, exchanged and circulated. But fan communities also function as reputation economies, where the quantity and quality of friends, comments, etc. determines the distribution and circulation of social capital (popularity, influence, respect, etc.). The pseudonymous nature of fandom participation doesn’t diminish this dynamic; persistent pseudonyms accrue their own reputations over time, and fandom has a long memory.
Going anonymous in theory allows you to opt out of the reputation economy, at least temporarily. Within the meme, where everyone’s anonymous, reputation can’t stick to any participant: you’re only as wanky or stupid (or clever, or amusing) as your last anonymously-posted comment. Each new comment thread wipes the slate clean; this will not go down on your permanent reputational record.
Yet anon memes aren’t completely outside of fandom’s reputation economy — memes, and their anonymous participants, have their own reputation within fandom, and known or suspected participation on an anon meme can affect one’s reputation within pseudonymous fannish spaces. Moreover, anon memes often debate, reassess, or attack the reputational standing of pseudonymous fans — especially well-known BNFs — in negotiations that can spill over into broader fandom. So it’s perhaps more accurate to think of anon memes in a kind of underground or black market relationship to fandom’s “formal” reputation economies.
Reputation economies in fandom shape the fannish attention economy: with an abundance of posts, communities, fanworks, episode reactions, and discussions vying for attention, nobody can follow it all. So reputation becomes one filter shaping the flows of attention, influencing which stories get read, whose posts receive comments, what discussions get prioritized. To a certain degree, participation in broader fan communities requires paying attention, and distributing your attention appropriately. The culture of a fandom (fanon, in-jokes, jargon, influential fanworks, etc.) emerges from shared experiences, histories, attitudes, and frames of reference — in other words, the map and archive of fannish attention.
Anon memes have a symbiotic relationship to fandom’s “official” attention economy. Through links and discussion, they harness, amplify or redirect fannish attention — even as many in pseudonymous fandom would cast anon memes themselves as unworthy of attention and disavow allocating any of their own attention to them. Memes also provide an alternate filtering system driven less by reputation than relevance and interest: attention goes to anything capable of generating comments on the meme. But permanent anon memes that achieve heavy traffic and a constant stream of comments also present a different kind of fannish space, a culture devoted to distraction. Step inside an active anon meme, and you can easily lose hours; rather than budgeting your attention, you simply give yourself over to the anonymous flow. The distractions of being on the meme can be a vacation from fandom’s attention economy.
Up next: Anon memes as counter-public spheres