Fandom: Open Culture Vs. Closed Platforms

Francesca Coppa is a founder of the Organisation for Transformative Works, a group run by fans who aim to preserve fan-fiction and other fan works. She writes about how the commercialisation of the internet has galvanized fandom and why what they do is important.

Image: CC-BY-NC-SA Flickr: thom

When fans celebrate, critique, retell and re-envision mass media stories, they create their fanworks without any of the commercial restrictions that give mass media stories their shape. As a result, fan culture gives us noncommercial versions of mass media stories. Imagine, for example, Batman or The Avengers as an indie film, as an explicitly erotic literary fantasia, as a screwball comedy, as a heroic song cycle. Fans don't need to get their stories approved by the networks, they don't have to worry about going over budget, and they don't need to make sure their films translate in the international market. Rather, fans can tell whatever story they want for the sheer pleasure of doing so: if movies and TV and big publishing is the storytelling supermarket, then fandom is the storytelling crafts market.

Fans have used many different technologies over the years to create and share fan works. Fans used mimeograph and photocopy machines to publish zines in the years before the internet, and they used film stills, VHS tape, and DVDs to make and distribute video before YouTube. More recently, fans have embraced the social networking platforms of Web 2.0; in fact, Web 2.0's primary accomplishment has arguably been the mainstreaming of fandom's participatory culture. More people than ever are creating fan fiction, art, and video, and even people who don't identify as fans "like" actors on Facebook or post .gifs of them on Tumblr, follow celebrities on Twitter or subscribe to their favorite band's YouTube channel. It's never been a better time to be a fan!

But while the tools of Web 2.0 have improved many aspects of fandom, they also pose some dangers to fan culture. The social networks of Web 2.0 are mostly for-profit, commercial enterprises; the web is no longer the loose network of university and government servers it was twenty years ago. Fans used to roll their own code and make their own webpages; now others own the ground beneath their feet. And the priorities of these businesses may or may not be the priorities of fans. Fans were early adopters of social networks and so were also quick to grow wary of them. Some platforms have adopted fan-unfriendly policies; others are happy to host fans and fanworks so long as it's profitable and convenient to do so, though they won't stand up for fans' underlying free speech or fair use rights. Few sites have any genuine commitment to fans or their works per se; as the video streaming site Imeem announced before abruptly removing all fanworks and other amateur videos from their site, "Simply put, there's no ROI [return on investment] for us in UGV [user-generated video]." And in fact, many fans resent being characterized as mere "users" when they see themselves as creators. Fans value their creative and discursive works, as well as their communities and networks.

The ongoing commercialization of the Internet, and the ways in which private companies do and do not consider issues of fair use and free speech, has galvanized fandom in many ways. Some fans have gotten politicized around issues such as net neutrality, online privacy, and intellectual property reform, including a strengthening of fair use rights and the public domain. Others have called for fans to take control back from corporations by creating their own social networks. Buttressed by larger cultural trends like the open source movement (which promotes the making of collaborative, free software code) and the free culture movement (which advocates the creation and distribution of free content), many fans have banded together to create their own online spaces.

The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), which I helped to found in 2007, is one of these fan-owned spaces. Created in the context of ongoing attempts by startups new and old to profit from fandom's networks and legendary productivity, the OTW is an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to preserving fan works and fan culture. The OTW is organized on the model of public radio: all our projects are free to use and supported by member donations. We have no sponsors and accept no ads. Our flagship project is the Archive of Our Own (AO3), an open source, fan-designed and fan-coded archive of digital fanworks hosted on an ever-increasing number of fan-owned servers; other projects include Fanlore, a wiki where fans can document fan culture in their own words, and Transformative Works and Cultures, an open access, peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to publishing articles about fan works and culture.

The OTW has also partnered with the Special Collections Library at the University of Iowa to create the Fan Culture Preservation Project to preserve analog fanworks like zines, convention flyers, memorabilia, photographs, VHS tapes, and other artifacts. In this, the OTW is only continuing the longtime practice of fans, who have carefully preserved and archived their fanworks over the years. Fans laboriously typed up zine stories for online preservation in the years before scanning was easy. They remastered VHS videos with DVD footage, and created any number of online archives before the AO3 came along. Like members of other artistic communities, many fans believe that their works should be available to future generations. Someone is always seeing Star Trek or reading Sherlock Holmes or buying Detective Comics for the first time, and fan-made stories and art interpreting and transforming these universes should be there for them to enjoy. But these works will only be protected if they – and the free speech and fair use rights that make them possible – are valued.

Francesca Coppa is a professor of English and film studies at Muhlenberg College and a founder of the Organization For Transformative Works. She's also a long-time fan. Follow her tweets at @fcoppa.

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By Francesca Coppa on Aug 14, 2012

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