Henry Jenkins and Fan Culture

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.

0 thoughts on “Henry Jenkins and Fan Culture

  1. But isn’t this a chicken-and-egg situation? Is Henry Jenkins simply copying fandom’s own analysis of itself, or did fandom’s own analysis borrow heavily from Jenkins’ work to develop its own in the first place?

  2. Yeah, I mean, possibly! But a lot of what he was talking about today was very current; fanlib, the HP alliance, and whatnot; we’re not leaning on Henry Jenkins’ analysis to react to those things, among others. We analyse that all on our own. But yeah, I know, I’m of two minds about it, really. But it just felt weird listening to it, both weird and less good wierd. :/

  3. I’m not sure what I can say to add to this, except to say that many of your misgivings and questions mirror my own.

    Recognizing that yes, there are plenty of female academics out there, Jenkins continues to hold a special place in the hierarchy of fandom researchers, and I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about the way that a *man* has claimed the role of speaker to and about slash fans (the vast majority of which are female). Female acafans, in contrast, can’t seem to enter into thinking about fandom (as either fans or academics) without giving a nod to Jenkins, anymore than anyone can write about psychoanalysis without mentioning Freud. In both cases, I have some discomfort about the fact that a man has come to define the space, and that it is held to be valuable because *he* values it.

    That he should argue for what would amount to a fairly radical upending of the existing fannish gift economy (on the basis that a minority of fans agree with him) doesn’t at all surprise me, as he already exists in a commodifying relationship with fandom, selling his own books about fans and fannish work. He is already well outside the gift economy he studies, and for all that he claims to value it, there are clearly parts of it that he doesn’t value (and perhaps can’t value, without trying to attach monetary value to it).

  4. I really appreciate your thoughts, Miriam. I jotted this down in a sort of free-form way, and I’ve been sitting with it ever since, uncertain about anything I’d said. You’ve really crystalized a lot of what I was feeling in this comment. It would be interesting to see someone publish on the fandom gift economy, if that’s really the right term for it. It can be just as cut-throat as a money economy, and it seems as though this element of fandom is the least well understood (even by fans). I wish I knew more about economic theory to speak more eloquently about it.

  5. Hi to Rochelle and the rest. I am not a fan of anything really, I just happened to stumble upon your site while doing research on Henry Jenkins and his participatory culture theories for my paper (which is due tomorrow, wish me luck!). I just wanted to say that your feelings may be justifiable and I really can’t say much because I’m not part of a community. The fact that Jenkins is a man is a tad bit wierd as I know a lot more female fans than male ones. However, in the first part of Textual Poachers, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the primary thing he did was attempt to bust stereotypes about fans and the extremely misguided myths that exist in popular culture about fans. My respect for fan communities grew because of his book and I think everyone should read it. So, despite what you may be feeling about his speech, I think he’s done a great job with flipping on the light within this relatively unknown area. He really does make it sound cool and in fact, he makes it feel like the rest of us are missing out. Also, let’s not forget that Jenkins does say he considers himself a fan as well. So it’s really not like how you put it – that he’s merely looking in and describing what he sees. He is also inside, really.

    Hope I didn’t offend anyone, just wanted to throw some thoughts out there. This will help me articulate better in my essay as I’m experiencing major information overload atm!

    1. Just because he considers himself a fan doesn’t mean that everything that goes on in every fandom, insights posted, discussions engaged in and moderated, are his property and are his. In the talk I heard, he recited insights about media events exactly as parsed by members of my own community as if they were his own. (His fandoms are not the same as mine.) I didn’t notice him citing anyone; in fact, I don’t think he mentioned a single person or group as thinking deep thoughts about the way the community handled such media events, and there were many.

      I suspect everyone who is studied in this way feels like this. There’s no way academic thought about a group of intelligent people can be completely original; the lines just aren’t that clear. Being the object of study comes with an icky feeling, and that’s mostly what you’re reading here; the disappointment of feeling studied, not engaged with. That’s not to say HJ doesn’t engage with fandom, but he didn’t engage with the part of it (the part I was involved in) that he was talking about. Is it reasonable that he did this? Yes, it is. Is it great that’s he’s acting as a spokesman for fandom as a concept? Well, sure. But that comes with a bit of poaching too.

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