José Esteban Muñoz’s articulation of the “ephemeral trace” offers a useful concept that acknowledges both the artistic as well as the social aspect of most fan products. Ephemeral traces are that which is left behind a performative event, both hinting at and hiding the originating social engagements. Applying this notion to fannish artifacts helps us remain aware that much of the text’s meaning can be tied in with a specific place, time, and community in ways that make it difficult to read (let alone judge) these artifacts.[COLLABORATIVE PARATEXTS] Not only are the fan texts themselves important archives of the communities which create, disseminate, and read them, most texts are embedded in a complex network of accompanying paratextual information that serve interpretive and evaluative functions but that may change depending on the place where the story is placed. Paratexts have become an important academic concept in fan and media studies as Jonathan Gray’s recent book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts.
Gérard Genette, who originally coined the term paratext, restricts it to those textual traces where “the author or one of his associates accepts responsibility for it.” In contrast, I suggest that within fan studies a more inclusive understanding is necessary. Media fandom’s intertextuality with its varying degrees of collaboration invites an expansion of the paratextual concept: fannish reading practices contribute to the paratextual apparatus insofar as they produce and direct consequent readings of the source text.
As these paratexts shape and affect reading experiences of fan stories, they effectively form a shared, complex interpretive architectural frame for the fan fiction they accompany. These paratexts are a central aspect of the overall fannish response, which shapes how people engage with the television show they’re invested in. Indeed, paratexts play central roles in fan fiction communities, as these communities develop around shared readings and interpretations of television texts. These collective analyses, the debates surrounding them, and the fan-created texts responding to them create a dense textual network that forms a backdrop for fannish readings and writings.
More generally, expanding the notion of paratexts to include surrounding textual materials complicates the clear lines drawn between readers and writers, between creative and analytic writing, between aesthetic and affective responses. Understanding reader comments, textual debates, recommendations, and reviews as paratextual material broadens the scope of the interpretive frame and thus more accurately depicts the way in which fan texts are read. It also reflects the constantly shifting roles of readers and writers within creative fan communities and acknowledges the fact that many fan works are co-inspired if not actually co-created.[RHIZOMATIC STRUCTURES] LiveJournal and its complex interlinking is a prime example of how the architectural design of archival online spaces affects paratextual material. Whereas archives and mailing lists developed formal guidelines and etiquette surrounding paratextual material, social networking and blogging sites complicate the architecture of autonomous fannish spaces as they merge multiple discourses, such as the personal and the fannish. The rhizomatic structure of Livejournal, for example, often spreads conversations out over various communities and journals, some restricted to only some users, and, at times, other off-LJ web sites. In the aftermath of a story, private emails and IM conversations merge with public feedback and reviews, some of them analytic, others emotionally responsive; some theoretical, others fictional. At its best, then, the rhizomatic structure of fannish interaction decenters meaning production through multi-authored paratextual intertexts.
Different archiving platforms thus can have very different requirements and social norms regarding paratexts, both for author-created paratextual information, such as fandom, rating, pairing, thank yous, or warnings, and reader-created paratextual information, such as comments or recommendations. Thus if we look at paratexts as an important part of the fannish engagement, an archiving platform’s ability to include various forms of paratexts may be needed to replicate the social component of fannish engagement. On the other hand, many archives are created purposefully as long-term repository of the textual artifacts themselves. And yet, it is the ephemerality, the conversations and connections and contextual thoughts that are most in danger of getting lost.[CONCLUSION] In the end, given the ephemerality of online sites, redundant archiving is important, and central archives that strive for permanence may be a crucial way to archive fandom exchanges—even if all that remains is the ephemeral trace of the fan artifact without the accompanying paratexts. When fans are debating the advantages and disadvantages of dedicated archives as opposed to social networking platforms, the central arguments often tend to revolve around control and accessibility: can the fan delete her stories easily; can she control access; can fans who enter a fandom later on still access stories; will a fan’s departure mean her stories disappear as well; and related concerns.
One issue that rarely gets addressed, however, is the way fan stories may be more paratextual and their understanding more contextually dependent. And while safeguarding the artifacts is an important task and allows fan culture to create an archive of its own artistic history, what may indeed often disappear are the specific contextual circumstances, the paratexts co-created by writers and readers, leaving behind the story itself as an ephemeral trace of the fannish moment which created it and which, in turn, it commemorates.