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Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

Gift Economies and Librarian Blogs

I’ve been turning over the idea of gift economies and the internet for some time now. For me it started with Henry Jenkins’ keynote at Internet Research 8 in Vancouver, when he suggested that fans who produce popular product should be paid by the company that owns the copyright. My gut turned sideways and I nearly shouted it, NO. NO NO NO. It registered at the top of the horribly wrong meter.

The more I thought about it, and examined my violent gut reaction, I started to think that adding money to the equation goes against the natural economy of fandom cultures. I’m pretty firmly convinced that fandoms revolve around gift economies, where fans create product that other fans consume, and the consumers are required to pay back the gift by providing feedback, linking others to the product, engaging in commentary about the product, or other fandom behaviours. I hesitate to say it, but another payback activity is deference. I shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s true. There are some fans who are seen to give more to the community than any individual can properly pay back, and thus resentments and frustrations are born. This is exactly gift economy theory, so I’m fairly certain it fits.

So my own reaction at the idea of adding money to the mix is justified; it’s the wrong kind of economy. It would swing the balance. It would increase resentment a million fold, because the people who get paid for their fandom production would become completely unpayable by fandom standards, and would be seen as a stooge of the original producer. I sell out. No longer fully part of the community. Untrustable. No spreading the wealth; any fandom creation is a product of the community, with inspiration and ideas from the community, build on the scaffold of commentary and conversation, beta readers, donations of art, video, songs, fandom trends and ideas, and communal construction of character interpretation. How can one person gain reward from something that is, at its heart, entirely dependent on the community?

So that said, I think I’m seeing the same thing happening in the librarian blogosphere, and I find it interesting. The Annoyed Librarian kept an anonymous blog ranting about librarianship. It was funny and wry and I don’t remember it being too terribly controversial in its blogspot form. People might have disagreed with her approach, but it was just one anonymous blog. There are many more named blogs to read.

But then Library Journal moved the Annoyed Librarian over to their website, and paid her to write her rants. Now she’s official, she’s part of the machine, and getting paid to do it. Perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention to the blogspot blog and its comments, but I think there’s a marked difference in the kind of comments she gets.

A Selection:
Since I am an Annoyed Librarian too, do I get a cut of the profits?
Rehashing old posts is the best you can do? Couldn’t you have just said this in a comment on the original post? How about some original material? I guess the AL cheerleaders are happy so that’s all that matters.
If you like light and fluffy posts, you’re in the right place. Not much substance here so far.

Generally speaking, librarians don’t comment like this on non-profit blogs. Now that the Annoyed Librarian is being paid for her trouble, that changes things. Comments that won’t help: when her attempt at humour is criticized, the Annoyed Librarian says this:

I don’t need Comedy Central, I’ve got LJ paying me to write this stuff.

And, the post that prompted me to write this post:

Set a date, tell your overlordier, plan a big finale, whatever you like, but give it up. Soon. Because the joke’s been played, we’ve all been had, you’ve picked up a few pennies, and now the joke’s just going to get old. Fast. And you know I know you know that.

I want you to hit it and quit. Can you hit it and quit?

In a world where librarians get book deals and we actually do get paid to do the work we write about, I was a bit surprised to see what I’m used to seeing in fandoms happening in the librarian blog world. But maybe it’s not fandom that generates a gift economy; maybe it’s something inherent in online communities generally. (Could that be so?) Apparently, we librarian bloggers also understand our blogs to be gifts to the community rather than something that aught to be remunerated financially. People are feeling skimmed off for cash. The understanding seems to be: you wouldn’t exist without us. If you get paid for what you do, you’re using us for your own profit. And you will pay our price for that.

I wanted to think about it in terms of fandoms and fandom culture, but maybe it’s much broader than that.



I heard a bit on the radio about the internet and microcelebrity, but I only caught the tail end of it. I found an article about the idea here, written by Clive Thompson of Wired, and found that it really resonated with me as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of idea. I wish this concept were more widespread in online discussion, and it’s implications more carefully considered. Even for those who know about it, few really take it seriously. I mean, Tay Zonday doesn’t really need serious deconstruction, does he? We watch him, we talk about him. So what?

I’m disturbed by our tendency to create and worship at the altar of alternative authority figures in online communities, and then to scoff about the whole thing because it doesn’t matter.

This is primarily why I hestitate over studies like Walt’s which seek to quantify popularity in the world of librarian blogs; I fear the creation of a hierarchy within this online community. Creating a list of popular bloggers creates more visible, more defined, and authoritative list of our community’s microcelebrities, encouraging others to vie for the top spot and pay closer attention to these community leaders. In reality this happens anyway, regardless of whether you quantify it, so I suppose I shouldn’t be so skittish about lists. But I feel like we don’t consider the implications of this microcelebrity enough, that we don’t stop to deconstruct the process enough and see what kinds of behaviours we unthinkingly adopt in its presence.

I’m interested in what it means to be a microcelebrity in any community, because I’ve seen in turn destructive and counterproductive so many times online. Why does this happen? Most people start doing what they do, putting themselves online, for a set of self-defined and often unique purposes: they enjoy writing out loud, they enjoy participating in a community of like-minded people with similar interests, they enjoy the challenge of alternative perspectives, they want a place to react and respond to the things that go on in their daily lives. They like to record their own growth and be urged on in that growth by people they do and don’t know. They want to get some feedback on something they’re doing, get some reaction and attention, perhaps. They want to create an online presence. Most people (I imagine) don’t enter into an online community with the goal of becoming one of that community’s celebrities; most people don’t realize that all online communities have their own homegrown celebrities. We don’t conceive of celebrity that way, and we don’t, as a rule, know the internet and it communities well enough to know that this is what happens. But I have never seen an online community that didn’t have them. It’s rarely a positive experience for anyone, even though “it’s not real” and “it doesn’t matter” and “who is it really hurting”. It hurts us. It reflects the way we build our communities, and being conscious of it will hopefully create a richer, more diverse environment.

What does it mean to be a microcelebrity, known in other circles as a BNF? It means that everything the microcelebrity writes about or focuses on gains more attention than it would otherwise; microcelebrities set the topics for discussion within the community, because everyone is reading what they say and wants in on the conversation. If the microcelebrity develops an interest in something relatively ignored to that point, that interest becomes a new fad. The microcelebrity coins terms that have currency in the community. The ideas, rough drafts, or work of the microcelebrity gets lots of feedback and response in the form of comments, forum posts, tweets, or blog posts; the work of the microcelebrity is more often cited and built upon than that of others. The ideas or work of microcelebrities become goalposts of the community, and everyone else is often compared against them. It’s a powerful position, but that power is often invisible to the microcelebrity, who is often just trying to do what everyone else is doing without recognizing the influence they’re having on the community at large. This definition of celebrity is so absurd to people that the power that comes with it is difficult for them to comprehend. It often feels like microcelebrities “run” the community, when in reality they do not and cannot. Their interests and activities just consistently receive more attention than that of others in the community.

It all sounds pretty positive, but there are downsides, and I think those downsides are dangerous for a healthy online community. Being under a microscope constantly by one’s own community of peers means that the microcelebrity is required to be increasingly careful about what kinds of ideas they espouse lest they inadvertently quash someone else’s project or cause drama. Clive Thompson writes: “Some pundits fret that microcelebrity will soon force everyone to write blog posts and even talk in the bland, focus-grouped cadences of Hillary Clinton (minus the cackle).” He doesn’t believe this is likely, but I’ve never been involved in a community where I haven’t seen it happen. As soon as everyone is staring at you all the time, and the slightest negative opinion sends some part of your community into a tailspin and your inbox to fill up with hate mail, things do get pretty bland. We talk about celebrities (micro or otherwise) as if they are not flesh and blood people; we can talk about them negatively without imagining that they would ever find and read our words about them. We curtail the people we read the most, in the end. The microcelebrity’s views and interests become more mainstream because mainstream is what we want from them; we want them to pet our egos, support our projects, and not stomp on any emerging subcultures or fledgling ideas, and we want to be able to eviscerate them for everything they say and do, as well. Why do we do this to each other? Why is this necessary? (Ask Jessamyn if she gets any hatemail. I bet she does. Do you?)

People approach microcelebrities to pimp their project or their posts, because the approval of a microcelebrity has such great weight; people post comments on these people’s posts just to get their names out there and visible within the community. People put microcelebrities in their feedreaders just to keep track of what they’re paying attention to, either to repost and respond to it, or possibly just to mock it. People get scornful of microcelebrities and everything they say and do, just because there is always a group of people who want to define themselves against what’s popular and shaping public discussion. Microcelebrities will always be judged as not as smart, interesting, or up-to-date as whoever is trying to build themselves up in their shadows. (“Why does she get all that attention? She doesn’t deserve it.“) They become heroes and an anti-heroes at the same time. It’s junior high all over again, and what disturbs me the most is that we don’t ruminate often on the nature of our interaction with microcelebrity at all. We don’t get metacritical about the way we build people up and use them as community signposts. We don’t question the way we adopt authority even when such authority is entirely fictional. We naturally shape our online communities that way and then chafe under them without investigating what underpins the construction of a community.

Being careful about what you post online is no great tragedy, but deliberately creating a hierarchy as a collective where a small subset of a community are expected to control topics and opinions, set trends, and give blessing to emerging subcultures, is self-limiting on all sides.

And this is why I object to creating “top 10 lists” of librarian bloggers; I know what ends up happening. People troll these lists for the ones to watch rather than exclusively following the people they would naturally gravitate toward or find interesting. We create a canon. Without the top 10 list, at least the people getting attention at any one time would shift and change a bit more; as soon as we publicly acknowledge those who get most of our attention, we’re starting to build up those hierarchies and cement them.

Microcelebrity is a real thing, and it can have a negative impact on an online community. I’d love to see a community structured to allow everyone to get the feedback and attention they want without any small subset becoming the de facto class presidents. Maybe we’re just not wired that way.

Edit: Seems I’m not the only one feeling uncomfortable with blogs and their communities today.

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.