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gift economy

[QUOTE] From Tisha Turk, Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy

Generally speaking, media fandom operates on a labor theory of value—not necessarily in the Marxist sense of the phrase, but in the sense that value derives from work. Fandom’s gift economy assigns special worth to “gifts of time and skill” (Hellekson 2009, 115), gifts made by fans for fans. The worth of these gifts lies not simply in the content of the gift, nor in the social gesture of giving, but in the labor that went into their creation. Commercially purchased gifts, such as the virtual cupcakes and balloons that can be purchased in the LiveJournal shop, may be given and appreciated, but will generally be worth less, in the context of fandom, than gifts made by the giver (note 2). This labor theory of value is often invisible or unarticulated until something goes wrong: a site skin doesn’t work as anticipated, a vid is plagiarized, a story in progress—or an entire archive—is abandoned. These events remind us that our experience of fandom depends on the labor of others: “A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us” (Hyde 1979, xi).

Tisha Turk, Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy

[QUOTE] From Bethan Jones, Fifty Shades of fan labor: Exploitation and Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades complicates the concept of prosumption, however, as (E.L.) James “built a following within a community founded in part on the explicit rejection of monetary gain in favor of fannish love, and then used that community and the work it helped her to produce in order to make a name—and a fair amount of money—in mainstream publishing” (Wanenchak 2012). James thus straddles the line between producer and fan, stealing from commodified culture to create Master of the Universe while stealing from fandom to make a success of Fifty Shades. The question of whether James’s fans would have been so involved in supporting and reviewing her work if they were aware that their efforts would result in her profit—although ultimately unanswerable—is nevertheless a valid one, and I would suggest that these debates suggest a subtle change in the relationship between fan and producer. From being in a position of cultural marginality where they poach from texts, fans are now the ones potentially being poached from (Andrejevic 2008; Milner 2009).

Bethan Jones, Fifty Shades of fan labor: Exploitation and Fifty Shades of Grey

[QUOTE] From Tisha Turk, Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy

The phrase fan work is typically used, by both fans and academics, in the sense of work of art; it refers to fan fiction, fan vids, fan art. Within fandom, these objects are “the main focus of most discussion outside of the show itself” and are “highly prized” because they “require some level of artistry to master” (Sabotini 1999). They are the objects, and thus the labors, most likely to be publicly assigned value (in the form of comments, kudos, likes, reblogs, recommendations, etc.) by other fans and to be studied by academics.

But there are many other forms of fan work, including work that does not necessarily result in objects for recirculation. Media fandom runs on the engine of production, but much of what we produce is not art but information, discussion, architecture, access, resources, metadata. Think about all the behind-the-scenes labor, for example, that goes into commenting on stories, beta-ing vids, writing essays and recommendations, reviewing and screen-capping episodes, collecting links, tagging bookmarks, maintaining Dreamwidth and LiveJournal communities, organizing fests/challenges/exchanges, compiling newsletters, making costumes, animating .gif sets, creating user icons, recording podfic, editing zines, assembling fan mixes, administering kink memes, running awards sites, converting popular stories to e-book formats, coding archives, updating wikis, populating databases, building vid conversion software, planning conventions, volunteering at conventions, moderating convention panels—and the list could go on.

Such activities and their outcomes tend to be less discussed and commended, in both fannish and academic circles, than fandom’s “traditional gifts,” even though in many cases these activities facilitate the creation of art objects or provide the infrastructure that enables the dissemination and discussion of those objects. The sheer volume of fan work, in the inclusive sense of the phrase, necessitates further fannish labor; the navigation of online fandom is made possible by the creation of metadata, access points, links, and so on: important though sometimes underacknowledged work. These labors, too, are gifts.

Tisha Turk, Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy

[QUOTE] From Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, Editorial: Fandom and/as labor

It is now well established that watching television can usefully be conceptualized as work (Jhally and Livant 1986; Smythe 1977), and a labor framing has been applied to user-generated content by critical media studies scholars (Andrejevic 2009; Fuchs 2012; Hesmondhalgh 2010). However, fans have not often been approached this way. This disjuncture partially comes from the fact that fan activity is both by all appearances freely chosen and understood as pleasure, neither of which is typically associated with work. Instead, fan action has been framed as being active or participatory, and while these conceptualizations have been productive, when the lens of labor is applied, unique and crucial questions come into view.

To speak of labor is to attend to the value fans generate—an antidote to surprisingly tenacious notions of fan activity as a valueless pleasure. Once we have conceptualized fan work as generating value, we can also inquire into how that value is distributed and whether work circulating between fans in gift economies or among fans and industry is potentially exploited labor. This special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures takes the premise that if fans are a vital part of the new economy, then we have to take the economy part as seriously as the vital part.

Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, Editorial: Fandom and/as labor

[QUOTE] From Mel Stanfill, Fandom, public, commons

Of course, fandom has never been isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media. But normatively, the counterpublic hailed by fan texts was a noncommercial one. This has given rise to contentions that Kindle Worlds is not really fan fiction, that E. L. James betrayed the fans of her Twilight fan fiction, and that both of these cases are not really fandom. In Karen Hellekson’s (2013) inimitable phrase, “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write…fiction,” but who’s doing what alone is not enough to make it fan fiction in the absence of those norms of authorship and ownership. Indeed, “you could even say that Amazon is turning the term ‘fan fiction’ into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it” (Berlatsky 2013). However, considering that fandom must be continually reconstituted through being addressed, and given this question of generations and fannish continuity, is there a critical mass of fan subjects who will feel hailed by industry’s invitation?

Mel Stanfill, Fandom, public, commons

[QUOTE] From Kristina Busse: introduction to Fandom and Feminism: Gender and the Politics of Fan Production

Fandom is always more complicated than the stories we tell about it, and scholars need to be careful not to create an imaginary feminist idyll. Simply inverting the gaze may keep subject/object relations unquestioned—a concern that has become especially important as queer and trans studies have complicated any naive feminist binaries that may have held sway during early years of media fandom. Likewise, as (authors writing in this issue) De Kosnik and Russo illustrate, an unequivocal embrace of noncommodified fan work remains problematic within a world that requires paying the bills.


[QUOTE] From Suzanne Scott, Repackaging fan culture: The regifting economy of ancillary content models

My concern, as fans and acafans continue to vigorously debate the importance or continued viability of fandom’s gift economy and focus on flagrant instances of the industry’s attempt to co-opt fandom, is that the subtler attempts to replicate fannish gift economies aren’t being met with an equivalent volume of discussion or scrutiny.


Positioned precariously between official/commercial transmedia storytelling systems (Jenkins 2006:93–130) and the unofficial/gifted exchange of texts within fandom, ancillary content models downplay their commercial infrastructure by adopting the guise of a gift economy, vocally claiming that their goal is simply to give fans more—more “free” content, more access to the show’s creative team. The rhetoric of gifting that accompanies ancillary content models, and the accompanying drive to create a community founded on this “gifted” content, is arguably more concerned with creating alternative revenue streams for the failing commercial model of television than it is with fostering a fan community or encouraging fan practices. Grappling with the growing problem of time-shifting, ancillary content models create a “digital enclosure” (Andrejevic 2007:2–3) within which they can carefully cultivate and monitor an alternative, “official” fan community whose participatory value is measured by its consumption of advertisement-laced ancillary content.

By regifting a version of participatory fan culture to a general audience unfamiliar with fandom’s gift economy, these planned communities attempt to repackage fan culture, masking something old as something new.


[META] In Search of the Hybrid Economy

In the current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, my friend Nele Noppe has a piece on Why we should talk about commodifying fan work. In her article, Noppe reviews much current English-language scholarship that considers the possibility of some kind of legal and legitimate “hybrid” fannish economy emerging, and concludes that, while such an economy may very well emerge at some point, for a variety of reasons, it’s not here yet. In particular, Noppe notes that

A final reason why a viable hybrid economy for fan work is unlikely to emerge soon is that many of the fans who would power it may not be prepared to imagine the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of such a system. Up to now, fans and fan scholars have rarely even speculated about the potential inherent in linking fan work to commodity culture. … The most important question here is not whether fans will at some point be given the option to commodify and monetize their works, but how the fan community in general will deal with new modes of fannish production emerging alongside the traditional gift economy.

It strikes me, however, that the issue here may not be a question of waiting for new modes of fannish production to emerge, but of recognizing the fact that, in many cases, they already have emerged.

Noppe mentions the example of the Japanese dôjinshi market several times in her piece, quite sensibly in light of the fact that the fannish/”amateur” dôjin production sphere is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a hybrid economy. In Japan, fan-created comic books and, in recent years, animation, video games, and other forms of media have not only been wildly successful in the semi-sequestered fannish economy, but have been picked up by professional companies for further production and wider distribution, going on to launch their creators into fully professional careers and spawning mega-hit transmedia franchises that have defined whole eras in the Japanese contents industry. Moreover, despite a lack of explicitly permissive laws, the line between professional and “amateur” or fannish production in Japanese media is often quite fuzzy: professional creators routinely sell fan works of their own professional media creations, or even actual professionally produced elements of their creation such as production stills, at dôjin (“like-minded”) markets, the largest of which is Comiket in Tokyo.

Although the Japanese contents industry undoubtedly possesses the most highly developed “hybrid” economy in the Laurence Lessig-derived sense that Noppe discusses, there are ample signs that the English-language contents industry is already starting to develop in a similar direction, particularly in the world of book publishing. Multiple professional authors working today in YA and SFF avowedly came out of fandom, whether putting their fan fiction-honed writing skills to work on wholly original works or “filing off the serial numbers” and selling works that were originally fannish as entirely “original” novels and stories. Moreover, while it seems that formerly professional authors were reluctant to discuss their roots in fan fiction, more and more authors (not coincidentally, overwhelmingly female) are not only willing to own their fannish roots, but to “cross streams” and jump back into fandom for exchanges such as Yuletide, among other forms of fannish activity.

At the same time, the rise of ebooks and of high-quality self-publishing operations such as Lulu have made it easier than ever for fans to make their content, whether original or fannish or a hybrid of the two (never, as the above discussion should make clear, very clearly separated in the first place), available to others for free, at cost, or for profit with very little extra effort. These developments are transforming not only fandom, but also the contents industry, leading not only to reactionary legislative efforts such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. Congress but also to true innovation in both the fannish and professional contents spheres, some of which Henry Jenkins has discussed in his continuing investigations of professional transmedia storytelling.

So, where is all this going? As a historian, I am professionally allergic to predicting the future, but inasmuch as these developments are happening right now, it seems clear that some kind of rapprochement is in order, not only between fannish and professional content creators, but also between fans and themselves. English-language fandom has historically been highly leery of anything that seems to violate the spirit of the “fannish gift economy,” and with good reason; the non-commercial principles by which fandom has operated are one of the things that set it apart from the mainstream of global cultural economies. But the twenty-first century, for good and for ill, is not the twentieth, and it seems clear that fandom is already in the process of evolving into a different configuration vis-a-vis professionalization and the contents industry. The sooner we recognize that it’s happening, the sooner we can begin to think about and consciously decide how we want to do fandom, and be fans, in light of that fact.

[META] “What’s with the fucking chicken?”: Anonymous culture in fandom

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:

Distraction economy
Counter-public sphere
Communal confessions
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