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[META] AdaCamp, Wikimania, and Console-ing Passions wrapup, part one: Fanworks as open source cultural goods

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.

[ADMIN] Dana says farewell

It’s been exactly a year since this blog was launched, and I am proud and pleased to have helped get it started. Thank you, Nina and Karen, for inviting me to the party! This will be my final regular post — I’m handing off blogging duties to what feels, to me, like the “Next Generation” of acafans! Andrea, Lisa and Alex will keep you thinking and entertained as our Symposium blog marks the beginning of its second year.

Back in 2007, when the founders of the Organization for Transformative Works announced the goals for this new group, I was immediately an enthusiastic supporter, and I remain a believer and a dues-paying member. No organization or group can speak for all of fandom, of course, but the OTW is doing things in regard to fandom that I completely support. The OTW and the journal with which this blog is affiliated are examples of the fact that fandom appreciates its own history and recognizes its importance, and that our fan works aren’t merely disposable scribblings, but worthy of celebration, preservation and study.

A formal affiliation with an organized group, or volunteering with the OTW or the journal, is by no means necessary to doing fandom, of course, and there are pretty much as many ways of doing fandom as there are fans.

That said, here are some things fandom has done for me personally — some benefits and some gifts I have in my life because of fandom.

–Friends around the world, mostly women, including some awesome and inspiring creative collaborators. (My touchstone here is the quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women seldom make history”!)
–An appreciation for a bunch of shows and movies I would never have discovered any other way, and the discovery of the myriad joys of fan fiction, vids and art inspired by those shows and movies. (I knew about The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek way before I found fandom, but there are a baker’s dozen of new-to-me fandoms I would never have discovered without the squee of my friends-lists.)
–An outburst of creativity unprecedented in my life before fandom, and a serious recommitment to fiction writing. Related to this: If I had not discovered fandom, I doubt I would have had the experiences that led me to volunteer for teaching creative writing at my university.
–Knowledge and growth in a range of subjects I would never have researched, studied or even cared about without being exposed to them through fandom, and the opportunity (and a platform) to share and discuss my learning.
–A sharpened commitment to feminism and minority issues, including LGBT issues, a heightened attention to media depictions of same, and also, new appreciation for how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.
–An internet community that’s helped me feel less isolated, particularly when my kids were in diapers and face-to-face socializing and support was hard to find in the almost suburbia/almost rural area where I live. Anyone who thinks online friendships aren’t real? Has never had one.
–New and amazing flavors of joy, fun, and humor.

I look forward to continuing to participate in fandom (and you might very well see guest posts from me here in the future), so this isn’t really goodbye. Keep misbehaving, fandom, in all your multifaceted identities and ways! And do keep in touch. You can find me on Dreamwidth at sterlinglikesilver.

[META] I am Mary Sue! Pheer me!

The most recent issue of “Transformative Works and Cultures” featured a fascinating interview with Paula Smith, the fan writer and editor who coined the term “Mary Sue” in 1973. Anyone who writes fan fiction that includes original characters in any form runs into this term sooner or later. And probably all fan fiction writers spend way too much time worrying if their original female characters are somehow slipping perilously toward this stereotype! Mary Sue’s are female characters in fan fiction who, Smith says, are “wish-fulfillment characters whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don’t notice that when it involves men.” These characters are way too perfect, take over the story inappropriately, and are often author-insertion characters. Smith says: “A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader.” Cynthia Walker interviewed Smith, and asked many fantastic questions. One that leaped out to me was their elaboration of why fandom and its source materials tolerate male wish-fulfilment and self-insertion characters way more readily than female characters of the same type. “Q: Why, then, do Superman and James Bond succeed, while we tend to pull back from the female version? “PS: Because the world we live in is not just a patriarchy; it’s a puerarchy—what gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there’s a turning point in men’s lives. There’s a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings.” I love how smartly and briefly Smith put that! Besides the very clear-eyed and historical look at Mary Sue and Gary Stu, in fan fiction and in our source material, the interview is a wonderful tour of the early years of Star Trek fandom and media fandom generally. That’s one of the chief things I love about this journal — its attention to our fannish history. So much to learn, and so much to be proud of here!

[META] The Flavor Text Roundtable on Avatar Secrets

Over at my new favorite blog earlier this week, the authors held the first Flavor Text Roundtable, a critique of Ramona Pringle’s Avatar Secrets, a geeky girl-oriented version of a self-help/relationship advice website. In the interest of full disclosure, I am typically quite positive about self-help in comparison with many of my academic, fannish, and aca-fannish friends. I’m an Oprah viewer, as well as O magazine reader (let’s be really honest and admit I once spent 8 Euro, then the equivalent of about 15 US dollars, on O magazine before a transatlantic flight), and I have a long-standing love affair with memoirs from the “Addiction/Recovery” section of my local bookstore.

However.

I quickly lose patience when I get the sense that a space of relative intellectual freedom and experimental identity exploration within digital culture is being converted into a profit machine (original Facebook, I’m looking at you). This is not because I’m so hopelessly naïve as to believe in a tech-utopian vision of the future, but rather because I refuse to accept that our conversion from users, fans, and readers, into market research subjects ought to be expedited. Norm at Flavor Text summarizes it best:

“But seeing search-engine optimized self-actualization drivel isn’t appealing to me, even when it’s dressed up in sometimes painful stories of learning how to play an MMO. While our internet dragons may not be easily understood by the mainstream media, the writing about games by gamers is almost devastatingly honest and straight-forward. My mister, when asked, described WoW bloggers’ motivation as ‘I love this so I am going to present what I think about it for free because I want other people to love it, too.’ I cannot help but feel that this business venture is an outsider trying to commodify one of my sub-cultures, and getting it hopelessly off-kilter.”

Again, to return to my original Facebook comment, the change that frustrated me most about Facebook wasn’t actually the obviously egregious privacy violations. Rather, I was most irritated by the conversion of almost every category from text box to drop down menu full of suggestions. Movies? My taste in movies? I’d love to talk about my taste in movies, yes, sure to people who are only kind of my friends. I’d love to talk about it in sentences, with references to the multiple origins of my interest in x or y. I would not love to fill out your survey about whether or not I indeed liked Inception, thus confirming your suspicion that…er…the film catered to tastes apparently common within my milieu.

Thankfully, I already have a place to do that, one which is at least more slowly transitioning from text box into a series of yes/yes questions about how much I’m enjoying my experience. WoW bloggers do, as well, and they can better help people seeking community through the game by continuing the excellent work so many of them are already doing, than can someone at the outskirts who wants to reduce the complexity of the experience to an algorithm of simple avatar identification, and the inaccurate assumption that the game works as a substitute for all-important RL interactions.

Although I do not currently play an MMO myself, I believe that media fans in general, and particularly feminist-identified media fans like myself, ought to forge and maintain alliances with gamers because of our shared stakes in a digital culture in which we can all intellectually, emotionally, and even “actually,” whatever that means, thrive. My personal mantra is about text boxes, but the more general principle is about people speaking for themselves. There’s nothing wrong at the core of the idea of self-help or dating services, but when these are presented in a way that reduces the complex and constantly evolving community they claim to want to address and serve, it is important to make clear that this is not what’s happening.

It’s great that Pringle and others with entrepreneurial interests are excited about the stories they hear about gamers and the cool community they’re building, but, as it is with any fandom or community, it’s better to start by lurking, listening, and asking questions, rather than making sure, a la movie!Divya Narendra, that getting there first is everything. It isn’t worth it.