Why we don’t talk about fan labor

ecu3dveerx9fsx3owlrhby Keidra Chaney

A few weeks ago I was invited as a speaker to a Chicago event called Homeroom 101 where speakers give an intro talk about different subcultures and activities (I spoke at the event a few years ago and did an, er, memorable PowerPoint presentation about the history of Heavy Metal, which you can see here. But trust me, it’s better with me and tequila in the mix)

This time, I was invited to talk about the history of fandom and fan-fiction (along with the delightful Ray Van Fox) which was flattering and a bit hilarious, because I checked shortly after the invite and the last time I wrote anything coming close to fan-fiction was in 2004, which means there are kids who are about to start thinking of junior high, who were born when I last wrote fic. And even though you didn’t ask, it was for Gundam Wing.

Even though I haven’t been active in fic-writing in a long time, clearly it’s still a topic that holds a lot of interest for more on a broader level. I still occasionally read fic, I still read and review books and articles about fandom and fic. If I had the time, I’d probably be knee deep in Pacific Rim fandom, but I’d rather just watch the movie again. The point is, even though I’m more fandom-adjacent now than I was several years ago, it’s still a topic that I’m passionate about, mostly because I think I think fandom is – or at least can be – a fantastic and supportive community for burgeoning creatives of all stripes; fiction writers, filmmakers, coders, costume makers, remixers, visual artists, it’s a way to dip a toe into a creative endeavor and experiment with a voice that is both uniquely yours but also everyone’s, almost like training wheels for creativity. At least that’s what fandom has been for me.

It’s been awhile though, and I’ll admit I have not been hip to what’s hot in these fandom streets. The Homeroom talk was interesting for me because not only did it give me an opportunity to wax poetic about the now-ancient days of pre-Tumblr, pre Archive Of Our Own fandom, where us now-wisened crones used a medium called “electronic-mail” to collectively share and read fic (and before that, a prehistoric communications tool called “print zines”) but I learned a lot about how contemporary fan culture has evolved for participants in a unprecedented fan-friendly era, where San Diego Comic-Con is an event with the same kind of national press attention as South By Southwest, and MTVU can hold its own Fandom awards, complete with a slash category. It’s a brave new world.

Back in 2010 I wrote a TLF post about how fandom would soon become “serious business” and for the most part this happened. Here’s what I said then:

This year will be the year where fans/fan labor becomes a major, influential player in online (and offline) entertainment.

Of course, this has already been happening. Recent TLF posts on anime fansubbing and streaming video have explored how not-quite-legal fan labor has impacted how corporate media producers distribute their products. Earlier in the year, we talked about the Nine Inch Nails crowdsourced fan concert video that was officially condoned and encouraged by Trent Reznor. We also talked about a fan-driven campaign that kept the NBC spy drama Chuck on the air (for at least this season) while managing to raise money for charity as well.

Between anecdotes like this and the seemingly unabated growth and influence of social media marketing – an industry where customer input and interaction is not just key, but crucial to success, I think we’re gonna see a real push toward “professionalizing” fandom in a way that we’ve never seen before. Particularly in the music industry we’ll see fan culture and user-generated fan content become integrated into marketing and public relations campaigns as a first line of defense, rather than an afterthought.but not quite in the way I had hoped.

Well, of course this didn’t happen in the music industry, because the music industry is perpetually stuck in 1982. But elsewhere? Hell yeah. All of it happened, in addition to things that I never would have imagined (like aforementioned fandom awards, or the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, or the rise and fall of Kindle Worlds)

Like then, I am still largely ambivalent about whether the commercialization of fan labor is ultimately a good or empowering thing for fan creators: if fandom activity is only deemed valuable and worth supporting for its profit potential, it leaves fan creators in the position of being used as unpaid marketing for media companies and potetially shut down if they no longer serve that purpose. I said as much at the Homeroom event, and when it was over, someone in the audience chatted with me. “I never thought of fandom from a Marxist perspective before,” she said. It’s funny, because I never thought of this perspective as particularly Marxist myself. More than anything, I see it as an extension of the idea of a gift economy, or even more so, of an open information/community mindset, which doesn’t necessarily get in the way of a media owner making their money from a creation; it just also doesn’t get in the way of the gift community of fan creators largely creating for each other.

But that’s the thing, in an environment where fans are seen as an economic engine and media owners are making marketing decisions around fan creation and online activity, the gift economy model has been disrupted. Fans still create for each other but also (if not mostly, these days) for the market because the market now recognizes it. Fans know they are essentially an engine for marketing and negotiate their worth in that space. (the battle cry isn’t so much “let us create!” but “give us more of what we want to consume”) It’s why at this point fans are much more likely to mobilize over diversity and representation issues rather than ownership or copyright (with the exception of say, YouTube, where the fight over parody and ownership still flares up every once in awhile and YouTube as a company has made its own steps towards commercializing fan economies.)

As a fan and a creative, this all still fascinates me, and there are some fantastic resources and articles over at the Journal of Transformative Works about this very issue. (like this great article by Tisha Turk) It’s still a battle, I think, even if it’s not a very noticed one, and as media content creation by fans continues to evolve into its own wobbly economy the voices of fan creators are more valuable than ever.

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