Henry Jenkins and Fan Culture
The keynote at AoIR‘s Internet Research conference yesterday was given by Henry Jenkins. I’ve read Henry Jenkins, I’m very familiar with his work and his impact, but I’d never seen him speak before. I suppose it’s true of any outsider/insider community politics that it feels incredibly weird and empowering to hear an academic speaking, in a public and respectable forum, about something so secretive and taboo as online slash fandoms. His primary gift to fandom, I’d say, is that he legitimizes fandom by talking about fandom activities in a non-judgemental way. He doesn’t shroud it in shame. He talks about it like it’s a cool thing to do. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do for fandom.
What he said: fandom is good PR. Media owners give mixed signals. Fandom as collective intelligence, etc. It felt good to hear it in that forum. Definitely.
But when I walked away something else hit me. Sour grapes, probably, or a natural response to the insider/outsider online ethnography: Henry Jenkins didn’t tell us anything fandom didn’t already know. He didn’t say anything that fandom hasn’t already analysed ad nausem. I’m glad he gets it, I’m glad he understands how things work, someone has to be the one to tell the rest of the world how fandom concieves of itself and gets meta on itself, but I didn’t hear him say anything that wasn’t just direct reportage of what’s happening in fandom. I didn’t hear him express something that wasn’t just as well expressed, if not better, within fandom itself. And that made me a bit sad. He objects to media companies taking advantage of fans, but how is this really all that different?
I’m not sure what I really expect from him. But that was the sad feeling I had walking away from that keynote. It’s great that he gets it, it’s great that he talks about it in such positive terms, it’s great that he doesn’t shy away from talking about slash (and in fact, he seems way more interested in slash fandom than gen or het fandom, which is interesting). I wonder if all ethnographized people feel this way; why do you get to be famous for just looking at me and describing what I say to someone else? I suppose that’s the way it works.
He mentioned that he would like fans to get some kickback (money) from the media companies, and someone in the audience objected, saying that their fandom research subjects weren’t in favour of that. He said there was a minority that were in favour, and that it would be a good thing. I immediately disagreed, quietly; getting money for fandom activities is anathema, my gut said no, and my immediate reaction at the time was to say, “since you don’t own the characters to start with, getting money for it is considered inappropriate and dangerous, and would bring negative attention from the media companies that would have a terrible impact on the rest of fandom.” It’s also considered insanely wanky to ask for money for fannish activities. But that only makes so much sense as a criticism; what if it’s the media company handing out the money, and no bad press is involved?
In retrospect, there’s another reason why taking money is problematic, and I think, deep down, it’s this that fandom is reacting too when the money question rears its head. Fandom is not a money economy, but it is an ecomony nevertheless. It’s a complex gift economy, where creative production, feedback, and critical reflection are the products and name recognition, attention and feedback are the currency.
Fandoms are extremely hierarchical, in spite of all attempts to deny that hierarchy and others to subvert it; it’s a hierarchy based on subtle differences in reception, feedback, and attention. A person with high value in a fandom economy (a Big Name Fan, or BNF) writes a blog post about how she doesn’t like a particular kind of narrative, or particular characters, and her opinion echoes out throughout fandom, marginalizing some elements and making it more difficult to get positive attention and organization around those particular characters or narratives. People with high economic value in fandom dictate the nature of fandom, even without intending to. Fandom itself decides who those people are. Each indiividual within fandom is a part of creating that economy and providing the currency that enables that power. If the media companies start entering into the fray and give money to some fans, that utterly changes the way fandom economy works. Now people who get money will be immediately elevated in the fandom economy, but they will probably be seen as corporate shills. They will be seen, I would guess, as fakes; the company arbitrarily blessed them, in spite of them not understanding X or Y, or because they wrote a bad X character, etc. etc. Company blessing is like a parent chosing a favourite child and making a bit fuss about it; it’s unhealthy and builds resentment.
If media companies really wanted to do something nice for fans, there are a variety of creative ways to do it. First: hire them. Hire them to do stuff with them. Fandom liaisons, etc. Create insider/outsiders who can still at least peripherally participate in fandom while communicating to both sides at the same time. This will still cause ripples in the fandom economy, but the media company would be providing one person with information that they can share with the rest of fandom; that works into the natural fandom economy. Don’t pay them for fannish activity in the past, pay them to communicate in the future. The best things media can do is provide more raw material to fans; media companies, particularly tv and film, could release additional footage via their websites, without audio would be fine, for fans to use in their vids (video mashups that create alternative visual narratives). It could be outtakes, but if they really wanted to do fans a favour they could stage footage specifically for use by fans, pairing unusual characters in a scene or creating short scenes that would spur on particular kinds of stories and vids. Teaser video, essentially. That would have the added bonus of fueling the creation of free ads for shows that will, inevitably, pull in more viewers. Another idea, for book fandoms, is to arrange to publish an edited collection of stories written in a particular year; have fans submit work, be transparent about the criteria, and celebrate the writers with the publication. Allow them to maintain their anonimity should they wish to.
Money is not always the best way to reward fandom. Best to look at the internal structure of fandoms and reward them in ways that don’t destroy the economy and culture that already exists.