Symposium

On symposia: LiveJournal and the shape of fannish discourse

Rebecca Lucy Busker

Parkland College, Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan community; LiveJournal

Busker, Rebecca Lucy. 2008. On symposia: LiveJournal and the shape of fannish discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/49.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0049

1. Introduction: A little history

[1.1] In June 1999, I fired up my Netscape Gold Composer and created a Web site called the Fanfic Symposium (http://www.trickster.org/symposium/), a site that proclaimed itself a repository for essays about all things fanfic. My motives for doing so were entirely selfish: I was myself an essayist in search of a venue.

[1.2] Participatory media fandom, defined as those fan activities and communities centered around the creation, consumption, and discussion of fannish product (including fan fiction, fan vids, fan art, and even detailed discussion of the source), has used a variety of media and technology to facilitate these activities and communities over its history. In 1999, fannish discussions were taking place in multiple venues, both online and offline. Mailing lists in particular were a popular choice in the fandoms I frequented. Services such as ONElist, eGroups, and later Yahoo Groups (http://groups.yahoo.com/) were emerging as a viable choice for those fans who wanted to start lists but did not have access to a server, although the days when every character or pairing had its own list, or even when individual fan writers had personal lists, were still around the corner. Lists remained fairly concentrated, with perhaps two or three discussion and/or fiction lists largely accounting for the discussion in a given fandom.

[1.3] These lists were good for many things, but longer, detailed, carefully organized essays were not among them. In addition, although lists to discuss issues and themes across multiple fandoms existed, they weren't always easy to find. Perhaps just as problematic was an implied and even overt hostility to critical discussion. Any nonpositive reaction to an individual story tended to be greeted with recriminations, and even a discussion of the problems of a particular theme or genre was likely to be shouted down as potentially silencing of fiction writers, and thus unacceptable.

[1.4] Several writers I knew had solved this problem by adding rant pages to their fiction sites, places where they might expound on various topics. However, because I wasn't producing anything in the way of fiction at the time, I didn't see how I could attract readers to such a site with only my essays. Then, a solution presented itself: a site where anyone could submit essays. Surely there were others like me out there, looking for a space to hold forth. And indeed there were. The remainder of 1999 saw 38 essays posted, and although things slowed down a bit after that, the site remained active for another 6 years.

[1.5] Why only 6 years? Perhaps the single most significant fannish change in the last 10 years was also the reason the Fanfic Symposium itself is no longer active (note 1): the move from mailing lists to LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com/), a combined blogging, discussion, and social networking site. The Symposium was born out of a desire for a space that allowed not only for longer explorations, but also for discussions of themes and issues that crossed fandoms. LiveJournal not only allows for those discussions, but in many ways actively promotes them. The kinds of discussions that once took place on the Symposium have become the norm in LiveJournal-based fandom, and have in some ways abstracted even further.

2. The center cannot hold: Fannish spaces

[2.1] The difference between mailing lists and LiveJournal as media for fannish discussion can best be understood in terms of focus. With the exception of author-centered lists (often used only for the posting of fiction, with perhaps the occasional discussion), mailing lists were organized around a particular topic. That topic might be as broad as "all things relating to this show" or as narrow as "fans in this region who want to talk about this pairing," and posts not on that topic were highly discouraged (note 2). Perhaps most crucially, with the exception of a few multifandom lists (including the early Virgule list and the Symposium offshoot, FCA-L, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/fca-l/), mailing lists tended to be focused tightly on specific fandoms. Different lists would often have members in common, but discussion bled from one list to another only rarely.

[2.2] LiveJournal, in contrast, is made up of many interconnected spaces, most of which are focused on individual people. On any given fan's LiveJournal, she herself is the topic, choosing what to discuss or not discuss. Even LiveJournal communities sometimes serve only as link repositories, taking a reader back to a poster's individual journal. The impact of this shift has been profound, and in many ways it has served to take the focus off the source and put it on the fan, and in turn, on fandom.

[2.3] One such impact has been an increasing awareness of multiple fandoms. When LiveJournal was just beginning to overtake mailing lists as a dominant medium, one of the purported benefits was customization of the fannish experience. Simply put, each fan could choose which LiveJournals she did or did not read, and thus which other fans she did or did not read. However, this customization extends only to people, not to topics. Although LiveJournal does allow the creation of custom filters, a given journal can only be on the filter or not. No mechanism for filtering posts on a given topic exists. In concrete terms, a person who reads my journal for my posts about Batman must also see my posts about Supernatural (2005–present), at least for however long it takes her to scroll past them. And that assumes I keep my fandoms in discrete posts. Pressure not to spam one's friends list with multiple posts (not to mention just our own pressures on time and attention) encourages the posting of several topics in one post. Thus, if I watch Doctor Who (2005–present) and The Middleman (2008) in one night (something more and more likely the age of TiVo and torrents), I might very well comment on both in one post. The fan who wants to see my reaction to the new Who episode will thus at least run her eyes over names like Wendy Watson and Ida.

[2.4] As a result, fans have an increased peripheral, and sometimes even very specific, knowledge of other fandoms. Indeed, a popular meme that recurs every so often involves posting "what I know about fandoms I am not in." The results are sometimes humorous, but are also often fairly accurate. There was a time I could perhaps identify one song by *NSync if I heard it on the radio. And yet I knew the names of all the members, I could identify them by sight, and I even knew a few personal details.

[2.5] Perhaps more critically, awareness of controversies within fandoms has increased. In the days of mailing lists, awareness of the arguments on a given mailing list or across a fandom's mailing lists (such as the occasional rivalries between Sentinel fandom's slash-only fans and gen-only fans) might spread outside the fandom, but only to those who happened to know someone on the list. Moreover, because lists were focused on individual fandoms, it was highly unlikely that people would be discussing a Sentinel-fandom dust-up on a Highlander list. However contentious the argument became, the discussion (if not perhaps the personal fallout) tended to stay within the fandom itself.

[2.6] Again, LiveJournal has changed this. The near-inability to have a reading list that comprises only one fandom means that fannish discussion and contention (or kerfuffles) now often cross fandom lines, and people who have never seen so much as an episode of the show in question are not only aware of the discussion, but often involved as well. In addition, linking communities such as Metafandom (http://community.livejournal.com/metafandom/) and its predecessor, Metablog (http://community.livejournal.com/metablog/), which were formed in an attempt to bring some kind of centralization to fannish discussion, also contribute to this awareness. Certainly anyone reading Metafandom is already likely to be interested in multifandom discussions, particularly given the rise of fandom-specific links collections (newsletters). However, the fan joining to follow discussions on critical feedback will also become aware of discussions about misogyny in fandom or depictions of religious issues in a source as well. This is to say nothing of communities like Fandom Wank (http://www.journalfen.net/community/fandom_wank/), whose purpose is to present fannish kerfuffles to a broader audience for the purposes of mocking. Although Fandom Wank is now located on JournalFen, the majority of the incidents reported there occur on LiveJournal, and many of the fans who participate (or just read) Fandom Wank are also active on LiveJournal. The effects then often become cyclical: someone who belongs neither to Metafandom nor to Fandom Wank may well have some people on her friends list who do, and the likelihood of at least one person posting about the discussion is quite high. That fan may in turn post, thus spreading at least peripheral awareness of the discussion even further.

[2.7] To say that this change in the medium of fannish discussion has had an impact on the content of fannish discussion would be an understatement.

3. Meta, meta, who's got the meta?

[3.1] I would argue that one result of the increased awareness across fandoms has been a tendency to abstract not only to general issues common across fandoms, but to fannish behavior itself. As someone not involved in bandom, or even remotely knowledgeable about the bands themselves, I can't comment on, for example, a given band's tendency to engage in homoerotic behavior in concert. Thus, when a fan disparages this tendency, I can't engage in the discussion. However, once people on my friends list begin talking about it, I may find myself with things to say about how fans discuss sexual orientation, or how they react to criticism of a new fandom, or how this kerfuffle reminds me of something I was involved in.

[3.2] Thus, as various fans have observed, fandom in many ways now spends as much time talking about itself as it does talking about TV shows and movies and comics. And indeed, the levels of meta often seem to construct and reinforce each other. Metafandom by its very existence raises the level of meta, as one person's random post becomes the subject of more posts, which themselves prompt responses. In addition, as I argued in my own post, "Bakhtin vs. LJ" (http://cereta.livejournal.com/340275.html), the degree of abstraction is complicated by a tendency not to link back to the original post and instead to focus on more general issues. This practice can sometimes create levels of remove so extreme that the "poster zero" is left wondering how her post could possibly have prompted this.

[3.3] This is not to say that fandom-specific discussions aren't happening. Episode reactions, response to a particular story or vid, excitement for a season premiere, anxiety over cancellation: all of these things still occur. However, these too are likely to be abstracted to metaissues. A slew of joyful posts about a new episode of Supernatural is followed with a post and ensuing discussion on whether negative comments to a post of "squee" are appropriate. Reactions to an episode of Stargate: Atlantis that has disturbing racial issues eventually becomes a discussion of how fans do and don't deal with racial issues.

[3.4] Indeed, the second example points to another critical impact LiveJournal has had on fannish discussion. Much as fannish discussion has abstracted to meta themes, it has also dug down into underlying issues, including questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, class, and other sociopolitical issues, not only as they manifest in a given show or comic, but as they manifest in fandom itself. Although such discussions certainly did occasionally take place on mailing lists, the constraints of topic would keep them focused on the reaction to an individual female character, or the lack of fiction about a given character of color. LiveJournal presents no such constraints, and indeed, the nature of the personal journal, with its mixture of fannish and personal, often fronts such topics. If the personal is political and the political personal, then a medium that by its nature mixes the personal with the fannish must contribute to increased awareness and discussion of the sociopolitical.

[3.5] I don't wish to overstate the case here: certainly increased awareness and discussion of racial issues in particular has been the result of strong effort by fans of color and their allies. However, LiveJournal's focus on people rather than topics, and in particular again the inability to filter by topic, has shaped this discussion and the reaction to it. Indeed, although this may more properly be the subject of its own essay, several recent discussions on racism and misogyny in sources and fandom itself demonstrate many of the discursive effects of LiveJournal: awareness of and participation in the discussions by those outside the fandom, rapid moves from discussion of the topic to discussion of the discussion itself, and a mixing of the personal and topical.

4. The more things change

[4.1] Fandom as I know it has changed dramatically in the nine years since the Fanfic Symposium was created, and many of these changes can be attributed at least in part to the shift from mailing lists to LiveJournal. The decentralization of discussion and the move to spaces focused on individuals rather than topics has shaped discussion, helped open and even normalize previously taboo fiction topics like RPS (real person slash, where the actors, not their characters, are the subjects) and incest, and encouraged diversity and experimentation in fan works of all kinds.

[4.2] At the same time, even some of the earliest columns on the Fanfic Symposium would not be out of place on Metafandom today. Topics like story warnings, "why we slash," and critical feedback to specific stories continue to be discussed, dissected, and disseminated, not only by newer fans who have never had these discussions, but among the fans who have had them many times. Fans on LiveJournal have demonstrated that inasmuch as our spaces shape us, we in turn shape our spaces, and that the more some things change, the more others remain the same.

5. Notes

1. Fairness compels me to say that it is not the only reason. Significant changes in my own life have certainly contributed. However, those changes merely added to the existing situation wherein keeping the site active required me to pursue essays by combing LiveJournal.

2. Indeed, Senad, a discussion list for Sentinel slash fans, required that any off-topic post include a snippet of Sentinel fiction to make it relevant. These snippets were called "ObSenads" (Obligatory Senad content).

Comments on this article

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