In Dickens’s own time, however, serialized novels were hugely controversial. Novels themselves were only beginning to find acceptance in polite society; for upper-class commentators, serialization was entirely too much. From our perspective, Dickens is a literary master, an icon of a now threatened culture. From theirs, he represented the threat of something coming.
Worse, the format seemed dangerously immersive. In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review decried it as an unhealthy alternative to conversation or to games like cricket or backgammon. Anticipating Huxley and Bradbury by a century, he railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as further advances in technology continued to bring down the costs of printing and distribution, books and periodicals evolved into separate businesses and book publishers gradually moved away from serialization. The threat of immersiveness moved with them, first to motion pictures, then to television. Books, movies, TV—all were mass media, and mass media had no mechanism for audience participation. But the reader’s impulse to have a voice in the story didn’t vanish. It went underground and took a new form: fan fiction.
Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, location 1308-1321
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The first 12 minutes of Backyard Blockbusters, a documentary on fan films. Contains some interesting discussion on what people think makes a fan film “fannish”, exactly. (by ZTeamProductions)
Fanfiction sits at the margins of mainstream creative endeavour, and interrogates established views of what it means to be a writer; the meaning of intellectual property, creativity, originality, ‘ownership;’ and traditional boundaries surrounding these concepts, as well as the whole vexed issue of international rights. As a publishing person and daughter of an artist, I have an uneasy relationship with how fanfiction steps on these well-established fences, particularly with regards to the fanfiction based on novels, rather than TV or films. (The latter seems more ‘legitimate,’ but that might just be justification for my own interest.)
In many ways, fanfiction is, and has been for many years, ahead of its time in terms of its embrace of the possibilities and potential of digital technology, of community and niche interests, its very questioning of established domains of knowledge and ‘right/s,’ and its acknowledgement of the role reading plays in writing. As Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” The leaching of boundaries described above is exemplified by the infinite trail of hyperlinks on the web (Derrida anyone?). It is therefore apt that fanfiction should exist online, and make use of the technology that allows deferment of meaning and certainty; a metaphorical and literal leaking of content from the container (…).
Anna von Veh, What Can Trade Publishers Learn from Fanfiction?
Fanfiction as digital Text also embodies a paradox: it harks back to the days of Dickens in the way it is written and ‘published,’ and it shows a potential path for mainstream trade digital publishing.
Fanfiction shows that the web need not be just a technology for making or distributing books (e-books and print), or for social marketing, but a home, distribution and communication technology for long-form narrative content itself. Fanfiction and its fans take the web seriously; it is the default mode, not an afterthought. The online platform means that readers can be based anywhere in the world and are defined by their interest in the particular fandom and genre, rather than by their own geographical or political location. Might is not right in this environment. The idea that someone might limit the right to read a fanfiction to a particular region or country would be regarded as ludicrous and tantamount to abusive behaviour towards readers. There is a lesson here too for publishers.
Anna von Veh, What Can Trade Publishers Learn from Fanfiction?
The difference between mailing lists and LiveJournal as media for fannish discussion can best be understood in terms of focus. With the exception of author-centered lists (often used only for the posting of fiction, with perhaps the occasional discussion), mailing lists were organized around a particular topic. That topic might be as broad as “all things relating to this show” or as narrow as “fans in this region who want to talk about this pairing,” and posts not on that topic were highly discouraged (note 2). Perhaps most crucially, with the exception of a few multifandom lists (including the early Virgule list and the Symposium offshoot, FCA-L, groups.yahoo.com/group/fca-l/), mailing lists tended to be focused tightly on specific fandoms. Different lists would often have members in common, but discussion bled from one list to another only rarely.
LiveJournal, in contrast, is made up of many interconnected spaces, most of which are focused on individual people. On any given fan’s LiveJournal, she herself is the topic, choosing what to discuss or not discuss. Even LiveJournal communities sometimes serve only as link repositories, taking a reader back to a poster’s individual journal. The impact of this shift has been profound, and in many ways it has served to take the focus off the source and put it on the fan, and in turn, on fandom.
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.
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
Last year, Andrea Horbinski wrote a self-introduction post here that started out like this: There’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in an apartment in Kyoto, Japan, as I write this post. Three and a half years ago, on a Fulbright Fellowship to Doshisha University in Kyoto, faced with a lot of free time and nothing in particular with which to fill it other than reading manga, biking around the city, and searching for interesting things on the internet, I fell (back) into fandom, and thence into the Organization for Transformative Works. I didn’t know it then, but that was a transformative moment for me. I suppose there’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in a graduate student office at Doshisha University in Kyoto as I write my own self-introduction post. My road to Doshisha, and into the OTW, was completely separate from and unrelated to Andrea’s, but unfolded so similarly that I almost feel like I can point at her post and just skip my own introduction. She even likes the same titles I do. But I’ll take this opportunity to assert my individuality. I’m Nele Noppe, a Japanologist by trade, currently in the middle of a PhD fellowship at a Belgian university but spending a few years in Japan to learn about doujin culture (doujinshi and related fanworks). My research compares how English-language and Japanese-language fandoms exchange works. More precisely, I’m interested in the architectures and circumstances of those exchanges: what technology is used, what the legal limitations are, what languages are used, what the involvement of non-fans is like, and how all that influences what sort of works are made. I’m endlessly intrigued by what happens when technology, law, and large groups of very determined and enthusiastic people collide. As for the fannish side of things, I grew up on Franco-Belgian comics, but the American Elfquest was my first really active fandom. After buying a Zetsuai 1989/BRONZE mook at a con, I tumbled into yaoi and never looked back. I spent my last years of high school poring over dearly-bought Japanese-language BRONZE and Kizuna tankobon with a tattered kanji dictionary in hand, and enrolled in a Japapanese Studies program as soon as I could. More than half of my fannish life was spent memorizing everything on Aestheticism, roving around the old Anime Web Turnpike, and chatting on Yahoo! mailing lists. LiveJournal, fanfiction.net, and other big fannish hubs only came onto my radar after I wandered into Harry Potter fandom sometime around 2006. Right now, I write, read and draw mostly about Avatar: the Last Airbender, and lurk in a variety of manga fandoms. Avatar is a good fandom to be in right now, and not just because the new series The Legend of Korra rocks and I found a bunch of people who share my tiny OTP. As mentioned above, the clash of technology, fans, and law fascinates me no end, and parts of Avatar fandom have been getting into some pretty interesting clashes lately. Take the neverending string of online leaks from the new series, from clips to whole episodes. At first it seems to have been an insider who was smuggling out clips, but once they stopped, others took over and started tricking Nickelodeon’s website into giving up upcoming episodes early. Unless I’m mistaken, last week’s episode 5 was the first one that managed to air without being preceded by any leaks whatsoever. And of course everything that was leaked or uploaded to the official site was immediately re-uploaded elsewhere so fans outside the US could access it as well. Leaving aside the dubious legality of everything that’s been going on around Korra, what strikes me the most about this ongoing situation is how utterly unprepared Nickelodeon turned out to be to keep the leaks from happening, and people from sharing them around. (Viewer numbers for Korra were fantastic, leaks or no leaks.) Amazon met with a similar fate. The first part of the Avatar tie-in comic The Promise was supposed to be published only this January, but it was circulating online by November last year. Amazon made the issue available for pre-order and enabled the “look inside” feature, which shows every visitor a couple of pages from any book. A bunch of Avatar fans descended on the site, saved the handful of pages each of them could see, and started putting their puzzle pieces together. Nearly the whole comic had been reconstructed on Tumblr before Amazon realized what was going on and put some brakes on “look inside”. (Sales for The Promise were fantastic as well.) This is the sort of creative loophole-exploiting that, to me, is typical of the interesting times we live in. Individuals have technologies at their fingertips that even large companies couldn’t dream of just a few decades ago – and apparently can’t really grasp the significance of even now. The laws that govern the use of those technologies are completely out of sync with what people can actually do, or think they should be allowed to do. And there are a lot of people working together all around the world in order to communicate better and route around whatever hurdles are in their fannish paths. I expect that I’ll spend most of my Symposium posts talking about those things, and often from a transcultural perspective, given my focus on doujin. I’m thrilled to be here and get a chance to learn from you all.
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.