Repackaging fan culture: The regifting economy of ancillary content models

Suzanne Scott

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Ancillary content model; Commercialization; Convergence culture; Fandom; Gift economy; Transmedia storytelling

Scott, Suzanne. 2009. Repackaging fan culture: The regifting economy of ancillary content models. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.


1. Protecting fandom's gift economy/Fandom's gift economy as protectorate

[1.1] Studies of fan culture have been returning with increasing frequency to Lewis Hyde's 1983 anthropological study The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property in an attempt to reaffirm the gift economy's central role in the construction and maintenance of online communities (Jenkins et al. 2009a; Hellekson 2009). In particular, recent work on online gift economies has acknowledged the inability to engage with gift economies and commodity culture as disparate systems, as commodity culture begins selectively appropriating the gift economy's ethos for its own economic gain. As "Web 2.0 companies speak about creating communities around their products and services, rather than recognizing that they are more often courting existing communities with their own histories, agendas, hierarchies, traditions, and practices" (Jenkins et al. 2009a), media fandom is rapidly being constructed as a fertile battleground where the territory between online gift economies and commodity culture will be negotiated. The oft-cited harbinger of such a conflict is FanLib (De Kosnik 2009; Hellekson 2009; Jenkins 2007b), a short-lived fan fiction archive that sought to monetize fan production in exchange for prizes and proximity to the participating shows' producers. FanLib's fatal flaw, according to Karen Hellekson, was "misreading 'community' as 'commodity'"(Hellekson 2009:118). In its attempt to commercialize fandom's gift economy, FanLib was overwhelmingly viewed as an attempt by "(male) venture capitalists to profit financially from (female-generated) fan fiction" (Hellekson 2009:117). FanLib remains the most histrionic example of an attempted (and failed) commercial co-optation of fandom, arguably overshadowing the discussion and analysis of more covert and complex instances of corporate attempts to construct their own fannish spaces for profit. My concern, as fans and acafans continue to vigorously debate the importance or continued viability of fandom's gift economy and focus on flagrant instances of the industry's attempt to co-opt fandom, is that the subtler attempts to replicate fannish gift economies aren't being met with an equivalent volume of discussion or scrutiny.

[1.2] There are a number of important reasons why fandom (and those who study it) continue to construct gift and commercial models as discrete economic spheres. This strategic definition of fandom as a gift economy serves as a defensive front to impede encroaching industrial factions. Hellekson (2009), for one, constructs the strictly anticommercial nature of fandom's gift economy as a form of legal and social protection. Correctly noting that "at the heart of this anticommercial requirement of fan works is fans' fear that they will be sued by producers of content for copyright violation" (Hellekson 2009:114) Hellekson goes on to argue that fandom's gift economy also functions as a form of exclusion, a way for fan communities to preserve their "own autonomy while simultaneously solidifying the group" (117). Thus, there is both a legal and social imperative to view fandom as transforming the objects of commodity culture into gifts, a transformative process "where value gets transformed into worth, where what has a price becomes priceless, where economic investment gives way to sentimental investment" (Jenkins et al. 2009b), and where bonds of community are formed and strengthened.

[1.3] For other scholars, who foresee the commercialization of fandom's gift economy as an alternately unnerving and empowering inevitability, the possibility of fans monetizing their own modes of production is posed as an alternate form of preemptive "protection." Justly concerned that fan fiction authors are potentially "waiting too long to decide to profit from their innovative art form, and allowing an interloper to package the genre in its first commercially viable format" (De Kosnik 2009:120), Abigail De Kosnik argues that the "rewards of participating in a commercial market…might be just as attractive as the rewards of participating in a community's gift culture" (123). Here, the possibility of fans initiating the commercialization of fan production is put forth as an alternative mode of preserving fandom's gift economy, thus gifting insiders, rather than outsiders, the right to profit. Although monetizing fan practice to preserve the underlying ideals of fandom's gift economy might seem counterintuitive, De Kosnik's structuring concern about who will ultimately profit from fandom is well founded. As the industry begins to solicit fan art and fan films/vids to include on their properties' advertisement-laced official Web sites with more frequency, De Kosnik's model clearly identifies the value of fan labor and encourages fans to develop a competitive model to profit from their labors of love rather than continuing to feed an industrial promotional machine.

[1.4] Richard Barbrook, reflecting back on his 1998 essay "The Hi-Tech Gift Economy" in 2005, acknowledges that constructing commodity culture and gift economies in binary terms is problematic. Describing the online economy as a fundamentally "mixed economy," Barbrook (2005) argues that "money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis," even as each economic model "threaten[s] to supplant the other." Far from existing on opposite poles, commodity economies and gift economies are always already enmeshed, and there is perhaps no better example of this than fandom itself (De Kosnik 2009), where grassroots production is inspired by the consumption of commercial media texts. Although few fans or scholars would deny that commercial culture is a defining component of fandom, directionality in terms of how these disparate economic forms mix has always been central to the celebration of fandom's gift economy. Fan studies embraces the move from consumption to production and the reconstruction of texts that circulate within commercial economy into fan-produced texts that circulate as gifts within fan communities. FanLib's efforts to supplant fandom's gift economy with a commercialized model of fan production, on the other hand, was vocally denounced by fans and ultimately led to the site's closure in 2008.

[1.5] Although De Kosnik asserts that "the existence of commercial markets for goods does not typically eliminate parallel gift economies" (De Kosnik 2009:123) and that the commercialization of fan practice might actually be empowering for female fan authors, it is precisely this parallelism that is disconcerting when applied to commercial appropriations of fandom's gift economy model. Again, this is an issue of directionality—specifically, in which direction the profits flow between fandom and the industry that is poised to embrace a narrowly defined version of fandom for purely promotional purposes. Media producers, primarily through the lure of "gifted" ancillary content aimed at fans through official Web sites, are rapidly perfecting a mixed economy that obscures its commercial imperatives through a calculated adoption of fandom's gift economy, its sense of community, and the promise of participation.

[1.6] The regifting economy that is emerging, I argue, is the result of the industry's careful cultivation of a parallel fan space alongside grassroots formations of fandom. By precariously attempting to balance the communal ideals of fandom's gift economy with their commercial interests, the regifting economy of ancillary content models in particular can be viewed as attempting to regift a narrowly defined and contained version of fandom to a general audience. This regifted version of fandom that ancillary content models represent exchanges grassroots fandom's organically generated output and fluid exchange of fan works for the regulation and resale of fan works through contests and the elusive promise of credibility. Although unofficial fan works and official ancillary content both contribute to the narrative world of a series and do similar textual work, the impetus behind their creation and exchange is fundamentally different. As Hyde (1983:70) stresses, "there are many gifts that must be refused" as a result of the motives behind their presentation; thus, the term regifting economy is meant to synthesize the negative social connotations tied to the practice of regifting with a brief analysis of why acafans and existing fan communities should be aware and critical of these planned communities and their purpose as a site of initiation for the next generation of fans.

2. Regifting: The Seinfeldian roots of a social taboo

[2.1] Popular culture may locate the popular origin of the term regifting and its negative cultural connotations in a 1995 episode of Seinfeld titled "The Label Maker." Elaine coins the term when she realizes that the titular gift, which she had given to a friend, has been recycled and given to Jerry. Jerry, trying to defuse the situation, suggests that it might simply be an homage to Elaine's original gift. Later in the episode, after the regifting is confirmed, Jerry and George have the following conversation about gift etiquette as Jerry contemplates trying to take back a pair of tickets he had offered to the offending regifter:

[2.2] Jerry: I can't call Tim Whatley and ask for the tickets back.

[2.3]George: You just gave them to him two days ago, he's gotta give you a grace period.

[2.4]Jerry: Are you even vaguely familiar with the concept of giving? There's no grace period.

[2.5]George: Well, didn't he regift the label maker?

[2.6]Jerry: Possibly.

[2.7]George: Well, if he can regift, why can't you degift? ("The Label Maker")

[2.8] George's fundamental disregard for the unwritten rules of etiquette that surround gifting, reinforced by Jerry's pointed remark that George isn't "even vaguely familiar with the concept of giving," situates George firmly within the logic of commercial culture, from his invocation of the "grace period" we associate with the purchase and return of commodities, to his moral relativism on the subject of regifting or "degifting" (defined in Seinfeld as taking a gift back). Conversely, we might frame Jerry as a spokesman for the moral economy of gift exchanges. Henry Jenkins and others (2009a), adopting the term moral economy from social historian E. P. Thompson and questioning its applicability to the exchange of digital media, state that the moral economy is "governed by an implicit set of understandings about what is 'right' or 'legitimate' for each player to do." As evidenced by Jerry's response in "The Label Maker" and in the term's ongoing cultural use, the social stigmas attached to regifting are rooted in the act's inherent subterfuge, breaking the rules of the moral economy by masking something old as something new, something unwanted as desirable. If "the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange [is] that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people" (Hyde 1983:57), then "we cannot really become bound to those who give us false gifts" (70). Regifting literally presents a false gift, in large part because no thought has been given to the construction or purchase of a gift that is meaningful or specific to the recipient, and consequently is less likely to forge a bond between the giver and the recipient.

[2.9] The social taboo of degifting does not originate in this episode, but rather is a politically correct reworking of the term Indian giver, broadly defined by Hyde (1983:3) as one who is "so uncivilized as to ask us to return a gift he has given." Hyde (1983:4) opens his analysis of gift economies and their function with a historical overview of the term's misuse, arguing that the original Indian givers "understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept." Framing the derogatory evolution of the Indian giver as capitalism's inability to comprehend "such a limited sense of private property," Hyde (1983:4) introduces the term "white man keeper" to describe members of commodity culture whose "instinct is to remove property from circulation." This construction of men as agents of capitalism with no understanding of the (frequently feminized) gift economy or its functioning continues to be evoked in anxieties surrounding the masculine/corporate exploitation of female fan communities and their texts.

[2.10] FanLib, whose male board of directors in no way attempted to understand or reach out to the female fan community from whose labor they were attempting to profit, is a textbook example (Jenkins 2007b), but it is also a spectacular case that potentially overshadows more covert examples. To some extent, we can characterize online female fan communities as the Indians in this Hydean analogy, and the media producers pushing these ancillary content models as the "white man keepers" of online fan culture who have failed to understand that it is the reciprocity and free circulation of fan works within female fan communities that identifies them as communities. By only encouraging circulation within the boundaries of a text's official Web site, or by restricting the circulation of fan works they've commissioned, media producers have made it clear that like the white man keepers before them, they fundamentally misunderstand how online fan communities form and continue to coalesce. Fan communities, in turn, continue to embrace the "cardinal property of the gift" (Hyde 1983:4): its unrestricted movement. These characterizations are compounded by the fact that male fans have historically sought professional status or financial compensation for their creative works more frequently than their female counterparts, and that fan practices deemed "masculine" (game modding, fan filmmaking) are generally considered more viable as professional calling cards (De Kosnik 2009). It has long been the case that male audiences are more valued and courted, but as media producers shape their definition of an ideal fandom, it is increasingly one that is defined as fanboy specific, or one that teaches its users to consume and create in a fanboyish manner by acknowledging some genres of fan production and obscuring others.

3. White man keepers: Ancillary content models and the regifting economy

[3.1] Ancillary content models, which are typically constructed around television series with cult or fannish appeal and located on the show's official (network-sponsored) Web site, offer audiences a glut of "free" narrative and behind-the-scenes content in the form of Webisodes, Web comics, blogs, video blogs, episodic podcasts, and so on (note 1). Positioned precariously between official/commercial transmedia storytelling systems (Jenkins 2006:93–130) and the unofficial/gifted exchange of texts within fandom, ancillary content models downplay their commercial infrastructure by adopting the guise of a gift economy, vocally claiming that their goal is simply to give fans more—more "free" content, more access to the show's creative team. The rhetoric of gifting that accompanies ancillary content models, and the accompanying drive to create a community founded on this "gifted" content, is arguably more concerned with creating alternative revenue streams for the failing commercial model of television than it is with fostering a fan community or encouraging fan practices. Grappling with the growing problem of time-shifting, ancillary content models create a "digital enclosure" (Andrejevic 2007:2–3) within which they can carefully cultivate and monitor an alternative, "official" fan community whose participatory value is measured by its consumption of advertisement-laced ancillary content.

[3.2] By regifting a version of participatory fan culture to a general audience unfamiliar with fandom's gift economy, these planned communities attempt to repackage fan culture, masking something old as something new, something unwanted (or unwieldy) as something desirable (or controllable, or profitable). Although it could be argued that fandom also polices its boundaries and subjects, its motivations for doing so are ultimately about protecting, rather than controlling, the ideological diversity of fannish responses to the text. As Hellekson (2009) notes, "learning how to engage [with fandom and its gift economy] is part of the initiation, the us versus them, the fan versus the nonfan." The "them," in this case, is both the creators of ancillary content models and their intended audience. That Hellekson frames fandom's gift economy, and learning to play by its unwritten communal rules, as an "initiation," a potential form of "exclusion," is especially telling. Although fandom responds to its own mainstreaming within convergence culture by fortifying its borders and rites of initiation, ancillary content models are opening their doors to casual viewers unfamiliar with what fandom has historically valued and how it functions. Whether or not ancillary content models are being actively deployed as a device to rein in and control fandom, they are serving as a potential gateway to fandom for mainstream audiences, and they are pointedly offering a warped version of fandom's gift economy that equates consumption and canonical mastery with community.

[3.3] When ancillary content models do actively attempt to replicate the reciprocity of fandom's gift economy by encouraging fans to submit their creative fan works (typically through contests for fan film or fan vids, or galleries for uploaded fan art), the legal and creative strictures they place on fans circumvents their efforts. One example is the Battlestar Galactica Videomaker Toolkit, which launched in 2007 (figure 1). In exchange for being offered raw downloadable audiovisual files from the series, fans would turn over the rights to their finished product to SciFi (now SyFy) and attach a promotional tag for the show. Importantly, the raw material offered to fans was primarily composed of clips of gun battles, Centurion robots, and ships careening through space—fodder that certainly targeted male fan filmmakers over members of the (predominantly female) vidding community. As this example suggests, ancillary content models offer few incentives for fans already enmeshed in grassroots creative fan communities to contribute, and there is consequently less opportunity for participants to be exposed to and initiated into those fan communities.

Figure 1. Partial screenshot of's (now Battlestar Galactica's Video Maker Toolkit (2007), illustrating the Toolkit's emphasis on the contest's terms and conditions and predilection for action-oriented clips. [View larger image.]

[3.4] More frequently than not, fannish participation is restricted to enunciative forms of fan production (Fiske 1992:38), such as posting to message boards and the collaborative construction of the show's wiki. Because the ultimate goal of these ancillary content models is ostensibly to create a "unified and coordinated entertainment experience" (Jenkins 2007a), it is unsurprising that a unification of the text, and an attempted unification of responses to the text, is a frequent by-product. This unification is frequently personified in the textual and creative authority of a fanboy author-god (note 2), who serves as both continuity watchdog and conveyor of meaning. The result, according to Kristina Busse (2006), is that "certain groups of fans can become legit if and only if they follow certain ideas, don't become too rebellious, too pornographic, don't read too much against the grain."

[3.5] Given the long, gendered history of fan communities and their relationship with producers, and the frequent alignment of gift economies with "feminine" forms of social exchange, it's difficult not to construct those overseeing these ancillary content models as convergence culture's white man keepers, in a literal sense. Similar to Hyde's white man keepers, their contemporary counterparts are characterized by a desire to restrict the gift's movement and find some way to capitalize on it (Hyde 1983:4). Despite its glib pop-culture origins, the Seinfeld episode pointedly illustrates the golden rule of regifting: you ought never regift to the original giver or any of the giver's acquaintances. Perhaps one of the central reasons why fans continue to cast a wary eye at these planned communities and their construction of a "legitimate" fandom is because they recognize the gifts being given mass audiences as their own.

3. Notes

1. NBC's Web site for Heroes ( is an ideal example of an ancillary content model, from the range of content offered to how frequently it deploys buzzwords like community and interactive to offer the guise of participation. For a more detailed discussion of Battlestar Galactica's ancillary content model and its potential impact on fan production, see Scott (2008).

2. Fanboy author-gods might include Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, 2003–2009), Tim Kring (Heroes, 2006–present), Erik Kripke (Supernatural, 2005–present), George Lucas (Star Wars, 1977 and later), and so on.

4. Works Cited

Andrejevic, Mark. 2007. iSpy: Surveillance and power in the interactive era. Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press.

Barbrook, Richard. 2005. The hi-tech gift economy. First Monday 3 (12), December 7. (accessed February 3, 2009).

Busse, Kristina. 2006. Podcasts and the fan experience of disseminated media commentary. Paper presented at the Flow Conference, Austin, TX. (accessed March 2, 2009).

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2009. Should fan fiction be free? In "In Focus: Fandom and Feminism," ed. Kristina Busse. Cinema Journal 48 (4): 118–124.

Fiske, John. 1992. The cultural economy of fandom. In The adoring audience: fan culture and popular media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, 30–49. New York: Routledge.

Hellekson, Karen. 2009. A fannish field of value: Online fan gift culture. In "In Focus: Fandom and Feminism," ed. Kristina Busse. Cinema Journal 48 (4): 113–18.

Hyde, Lewis. 1983. The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2007a. Transmedia storytelling 101. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, March 22. (accessed March 24, 2007).

Jenkins, Henry. 2007b. Transforming fan culture into user-generated content: The case of FanLib. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, May 22. (accessed June 1, 2007).

Jenkins, Henry, et al. 2009a. If it doesn't spread, it's dead (part three): The gift economy and commodity culture. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, February 16. (accessed February 18, 2009).

Jenkins, Henry et al. 2009b. If it doesn't spread, it's dead (part four): Thinking through the gift economy. Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, February 18. (accessed February 19, 2009).

Scott, Suzanne. 2008. Authorized resistance: Is fan production frakked? In Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica, ed. Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall, 210–23. New York: Continuum.

Seinfeld. 1995. Directed by Andy Ackerman. DVD. NBC.

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