“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries — a world where anything is possible.
“Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”
— The Matrix (1999)
I had the rare privilege of hearing Prof. Henry Jenkins speak at the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities recently, on the subject of “Transmedia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” It was quite enjoyable, and very interesting, but in the end I found myself in an odd place, acafannishly speaking.
It’s always a weird experience for me as a fan to go out and get the unfiltered reactions of non-fans to fandom. The little titillated murmurs that ran through the crowd at the sight of some teen-rated Spike/Angel fanart, or the gobsmacked expressions that greeted the “Buffy Stakes Edward” vid, or the surprised hilarity that the “I am the 1%” superhero macros earned–it’s useful, but also jarring, to remember that my quotidian experience of media, the internet, the world, is often perpendicular to that of people who aren’t fannish. In the Q&A someone asked whether there’s any character or canon that can’t be transformed; rightly, I think, Jenkins answered “no” before proceeding to qualify that answer somewhat in terms of his ideas about what transmedia is, and where it’s going, while I simply considered how, after seeing what people get up to for Yuletide, I’m certain there’s nothing beyond the reach of fandom.
I don’t think there’s a more astute observer of transmedia than Jenkins, at least in English, but the other half of my reaction came from the fact that (as perhaps befits a talk co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for New Media) in the end I found Jenkins, for all that he admittedly stressed the liberating and equalizing potential of transmedia in his talk, dissatisfyingly focused on the corporate rather than the fannish portion of the transmedia equation. In some senses, that focus is all to the good, since I do believe it behooves fans to have a good sense of where the contents industry, so to speak, is headed. But on the other, focusing on industry-produced transmedia totally effaces the fact that fans have been producing transmedia for years, and in many cases, doing it far more radically than any corporation could or will.
To speak concretely, in his talk Jenkins cited DC Comics’ Elseworlds series as, in his view, one of the most radical industry experiment in transmedia storytelling yet: in fannish parlance, Elseworlds is a series of authorized “far” alternate universes, self-contained except for the fact that they feature DC characters. One Elseworld, for example, featured a Soviet Superman; another had him, in a Doctor Who fusion, as the “last son of Gallifrey!” Significantly, as Jenkins pointed out, in the wake of the DC reboot this summer, the Elseworlds line will not continue: even as they embrace transmedia, industry creators are also seeking to control and shape the fannish experience of their canons. (J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore is another excellent example of this trend, as Jenkins discussed.)
Jenkins explicitly noted that, in his view, Elseworlds was “in some ways more transgressive than [the fanworks] we were studying 20 years ago,” which is an interesting observation that certainly speaks to the vastly different levels of personal technology available to fans in the developed world then and now. But Elseworlds is not particularly radical in terms of current fannish practice, and in light of that fact I have to wonder whether corporate and fannish transmedia practices will ever be able to meet, or whether the two are doomed to become increasingly opposed as industrial content starts looking more and more like earlier fannish content while seeking to retain its corporate control. Certainly the fannish freedom to innovate is directly tied to disregard for copyrights, whether under the banner of legal fair use or not: the amount of rights wrangling that must have gone into that Superman/Dr. Who Elseworlds fusion, for example, doesn’t bear thinking about. Conversely, in fandom all someone has to do is think, “Superman/Dr. Who fusion? Awesome!” and start creating it.
In some ways my entire issue is a question of focus: whose changing practice is the more exciting story, fandom or corporations? Which has the greater potential to influence our lives? As for the former, I think both are fascinating; as to the latter, particularly after Jenkins argued persuasively that the global Occupy Wall Street movement must be understood as having a transmedia activist dimension, there’s no way to tell which will ultimately have a greater impact. The quotation that begins this post comes from the end of the first movie in The Matrix franchise, which is Jenkins’ best-known example of a (not entirely successful) transmedia venture outside of Japan (which has been incorporating transmedia into contents industry practice for a long time): Neo could just as well be speaking for fandom to the contents industry as he is speaking for humanity to the machines. The contents industry in general is undoubtedly in a stronger position in broader society than fandom is, and its practices and responses do unquestionably shape fannish landscapes much more than the opposite. But capital may be the only thing, in its ongoing relationship with fandom, on which it has anything like a monopoly. And as corporate content starts looking more fannish, there’s no telling what might happen, to corporate content or to fandom.