Fandom squared: Web 2.0 and fannish production

Jeff Watson

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

[0.1] Abstract—By comparing how businesses and fan communities conceive of, foster, and manage participation, I outline the tensions that reveal the emerging shape of fan practice in the era of Web 2.0. The producer-consumer relationship does not map neatly onto the producer-fan relationship. The more that media companies integrate fans into the process of producing and developing content, the less agency fans actually feel.

[0.2] Keywords—Resistance; Social media; Web 2.0

Watson, Jeff. 2010. Fandom squared: Web 2.0 and fannish production. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

1. Introduction

[1.1] At first blush, the real-world, real-time Web might seem a dream come true for anyone involved in producing or consuming media. After all, the Web 2.0 business model, canonically described by Tim O'Reilly and John Batelle in their 2009 white paper, "Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On," is all about leveraging the torrential data flows generated by ubiquitous computing and social media in order to build applications and services that are responsive to the needs of their users. Unlike earlier iterations of the Web, such applications don't just serve the networks of people who use them. Rather, they are constituted by them and depend on them for their existence and refinement. For media producers, this shift in technology and practice has created a wide range of new methods for generating, monitoring, and communicating with audiences. For fans, it has empowered them as never before to band together, engage creatively with content, and have their voices heard. In many respects, this new arrangement seems like a win-win situation.

[1.2] Of course, the reality is that while there are many key harmonies between Web 2.0 and fan practices, there are also many differences that are hard to reconcile. Being a fan has always been about more than just "voting" for a particular story world. Indeed, in contrast to the streamlined logics of Web 2.0, fandom is a dynamic and sometimes elusive set of "social structures and cultural practices created by the most passionately engaged consumers of mass media properties" (Jenkins 2010). As such, fandom often exists (at least in part) beyond the boundaries of taste and canon sanctioned by the creators of those properties. While it is sometimes gratifying to know the companies behind media franchises are keen to listen to and directly address their properties' fans via real-time Web applications, in many cases, those fans would actually prefer to be left alone. It is through such tensions that we can see the emerging shape of fan practice in the era of Web 2.0. Here, I outline several such tensions by comparing how Web 2.0 businesses and fan communities conceive of, foster, and manage participation.

2. Media remix, data remix

[2.1] The remix is a foundational component of fan practice. Fan fiction remixes stories and characters from a variety of sources in order to generate new texts and perform identity. Fannish gaming practices, from live-action role-playing games (RPGs) to pen-and-paper RPG spinoffs to massively multiplayer online games like Star Trek Online, arguably succeed or fail on the basis of their capacity to enable the remixing and repurposing of their source material. Vidding uses songs and footage from television shows and movies to "comment on or analyze a set of preexisting visuals, to stage a reading, or occasionally to use the footage to tell new stories" (Coppa 2008, ¶1.1). The list goes on.

[2.2] Such practices have been with fandom since its earliest days. But in the Web 2.0 era, this kind of reordering, repurposing, and remixing of media archives is no longer solely the province of the fan. In a sublime symmetry, the media industry itself now sees its economic salvation as being dependent on its ability to interpret and remix the productive output of its fans. Social media data flows and other explicit and implicit metadata sources—including everything from user-generated folksonomies such as those found on sites like Flickr or Delicious, to automatically generated data such as GPS coordinates embedded in photographs taken with cell phone cameras or interpersonal connectivity maps made available by social networking services—constitute a massive archive of texts that media companies and entrepreneurs can analyze and structure in order to divine and shape the desires of their audiences, real and imagined. As independent filmmaker Lance Weiler notes, understanding how to productively filter and interpret data is quickly becoming essential for anyone hoping to survive in the rapidly changing media industry:

[2.3] We are swimming in a sea of data. On average, Americans wade through 34 gigs of information a day, according to a recent report by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. The ability to "filter" this information will drive future innovation. How people are posting, commenting and clicking will greatly impact the ways films are created, curated and shared over the next decade. (Weiler 2010)

[2.4] This kind of mapping "from unstructured data to structured data sets" (O'Reilly and Batelle 2009) is both a consequence of and a driving force behind the evolution of the real-world, real-time Web. Studios and broadcasters would be remiss if they failed to find a way to make sense of the wealth of data flowing through global information networks. By so doing, they create a demand both for better interpretive algorithms and for a diversification and expansion of sensor and social media inputs. To some extent, the relationship between media companies and fans has always been interactive; but in Web 2.0, we see this feedback loop approach a kind of apotheosis.

[2.5] As O'Reilly and Batelle (2009) note, a "key competency of the Web 2.0 era is discovering implied metadata, and then building a database to capture that metadata and/or foster an ecosystem around it." This ecosystem then itself produces more metadata, giving rise to new opportunities, new databases, new brand initiatives, new fan remixes, and so on, presumably ad infinitum. Put differently, the new technological and economic regime has not only expanded the means of media production out from the industry that had previously monopolized it and into the hands of the fans; it has also imported and translated core fan practices into the industry.

3. Fans are more than just sensor systems

[3.1] Feedback loops such as the one described above are at the heart of Web 2.0. Indeed, any business activity in the context of the real-world, real-time Web must engage and leverage a variety of feedback loops in order to acquire the markers of success necessary to confer value in the marketplace. Consequently, Web 2.0 companies endeavor to maximize the degree to which they are attentive and responsive to the desires and conditions of their users. This approach, in its emphasis on efficiency, fluidity, and rapid capitalization, epitomizes the producer-consumer relationships of late capitalism, and in so doing, it fails to map neatly onto the considerably more complex terrain of the producer-fan relationship. To understand this mismatch, consider the design of the location-based social gaming service Foursquare. When Foursquare launched, the company knew its initial fan base would be largely code-savvy early adopters from the tech development community—that is, lead users. To maximize their engagement with this fandom, Foursquare prioritized the release of an application programming interface (API) that would enable such fans to create mash-ups and mobile apps that connected to their service. Founder Dennis Crowley notes:

[3.2] [We] rolled the dice a bit and built an API before anything else. That turned out to be a good bet because that's how we got the Android app. It started at South by Southwest where we met some kids who wanted to make an Android app for us. It took four months. There were three or four of them doing it in their spare time, which was great. And in a lot of ways, I think the Android app is better than the iPhone app that we built ourselves. And now, because there's so much interest around our Android app, we brought an Android developer in-house to help manage the open source developers. (Slocum 2010)

[3.3] On the face of it, this is something of a win-win situation: Foursquare is happy because people are using its product and extending it at their own expense, and the app's lead users are happy because they're participating in something that permits them to perform and play in ways that make sense to them. Further, the lead users' productive energies funnel back into the product they admire, informing its future development such that it is likely to become more aligned with their desires. But while this putatively frictionless system might be perfectly consonant with the Web 2.0 business model, it lacks the nuance and complexity on display in more traditional fandoms. Most notably, because of the hyperefficiency of the feedback loops that exist between Foursquare and its productive fans, there is an absence of the critical distance and antinomy that inform and inspire many kinds of fannish production, particularly those who seek to express or invoke notions of resistance.

4. Productive tensions

[4.1] Cooperative feedback loops such as those generated by Foursquare and other Web 2.0 enterprises are far less common in fan practice than are indifferent or even antagonistic one-way channels. Indeed, much of fannish production manifests itself through various kinds of conflict between the originators of a media franchise and its fans. From a Web 2.0 business perspective, this kind of contentious relationship might be cause for concern. In a system dependent on the free and smooth two-way flow of data, there's no room for discord of this kind. But such mutual disapprobation (or, at the very least, neglect) is not necessarily a bad thing from the point of view of productive fan communities—and herein lies the crucial divergence between fan practices and the Web 2.0 business model. From a simple human perspective, there is too much to be gained from having something to write or act against to remove all conflict from the producer-fan relationship. If the most extreme proponents of brute-force Web 2.0 were to have their way, and media artifacts, imbued with superpowers born of densely interconnected sensor systems and interpretive algorithms, were somehow able to adapt in real time to the desires of their fans such that fans only heard or saw or experienced what they wanted to hear or see or experience, fans would go elsewhere. And that is true not merely because people need a symbolically contested space within which they can express and enact resistance to the real conflicts they face in their lives (although that is indeed an important factor here). It is also because, ironically, the more that media companies integrate fans into the process of developing and producing their content, the less agency those fans actually feel. No one wants to be reduced to a function in a virtuous feedback loop. Standing outside a media franchise, being separate from the apparatus of its production, affords fans the distance and autonomy necessary to perform their own identities. As media companies grapple with Web 2.0, this autonomy must remain protected.

5. Works cited

Coppa, Francesca. 2008. Women, Star Trek, and the early development of fannish vidding. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0044.

Jenkins, Henry. 2010. Fandom, participatory culture, and Web 2.0. Confessions of an Aca-Fan, January 9. (accessed April 9, 2010).

O'Reilly, Tim, and John Batelle. 2009. Web squared: Web 2.0 five years on. Web 2.0 Summit. (accessed April 9, 2010).

Slocum, Mac. 2010. Foursquare wants to be the mayor of location apps. Interview with Dennis Crowley. O'Reilly Radar, March 1. (accessed April 9, 2010).

Weiler, Lance. 2010. This decade is about the filter. Filmmaker Magazine. (accessed April 9, 2010).

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