Symposium

And now, a word from the amateurs

Dana L. Bode

Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Blog; Fan community

Bode, Dana L. 2008. And now, a word from the amateurs. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/51.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0051

1. Introduction

[1.1] In my online life, I wear four hats: professional writer, reader, fan fiction author, and academic. Although these diverse groups share a common interest in writing and communication, their differences sometimes lead to areas of conflict when they interact online—an increasingly common occurrence in the age of blogs. In this essay, I'll describe some ways and places I've seen these groups meet on the Internet, comfortably or uncomfortably, as their habits and practices mesh or clash.

[1.2] Within the online blogging environment, the rules of engagement for communication between professional and nonprofessional writers and readers are different depending on who the original poster is and where the online interaction is located—academic or fan or published novelist, publisher's Web site or LiveJournal or WordPress blog. Yet the similarity of the structure of blog post/comment in each location makes it difficult to agree on definitions for what behavior is appropriate, and in what context.

2. Netiquette, pro writers, and readers

[2.1] I've noticed the relatively new practice of blogging alter the relation of professional fiction writers with their readers. Although some writers have always met with readers at conventions, conferences, and book signings and through online discussion boards, most have traditionally been aware of their audience in the aggregate, through sales or circulation figures. Direct reader interaction for many professional fiction writers or journalists once was limited largely to fan mail and "letters to the editor" sections. Now, pro writers (or wannabe pro writers) are encouraged to create blogs for marketing and for staying connected with readers. Professional writers of fiction and nonfiction also use the Internet to blog about their writing process. Writers as well as other professional creators with interests as different as those of political columnist Gary Kamiya (http://dir.salon.com/topics/gary_kamiya/), fantasist Neil Gaiman (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/), TV producer Joe Mallozzi (http://josephmallozzi.wordpress.com/), and speculative fiction author Elizabeth Bear (http://www.elizabethbear.com/) are interacting with readers, viewers, and other writers through blogs.

[2.2] Further, the people who used to be defined as readers, viewers, or consumers are now critics, reviewers, and citizen-journalists in their own right, using the very same blogging platforms both to respond to the posts of others and to write their own posts. The sheer novelty of the online interaction for many, however, and the purely amateur nature of the reviews by readers who blog may result in confusion for both reader and pro writer. This is perhaps because until now, most writers have been used to the detached perspective of professional reviewers in newspapers and magazines, as opposed to the passionate opinions of their online fans. I have read blog posts from pro writers in which they snap at readers for comments that are perceived as too familiar, too disrespectful, or too proscriptive. I've seen pro writers use their own blogs as a way to mock or browbeat fans, like Donald Rumsfeld slapping down ignorant or aggressive journalists at a news conference.

[2.3] In readers' blogs, however, I've observed a developing point of netiquette: The author of the work under review should not show up as a commenter to answer criticism, explain his or her intentions, or engage detractors. The feeling among some amateur reviewers seems to be that the author got his or her shot at the topic in the book or original article—for which, furthermore, that author was paid—and the field of discussion should now be left to the readers. If the author does appear, it's almost seen as a Goliath stomping on the little guy. I've also seen bloggers in the LiveJournal blogosphere, which mixes features of discussion boards and blogs, move toward making a distinction between ranting in your journal or a community journal labeled as a "rant community" (okay), and taking your rants to other people's journals, whether pro or amateur, even if public (not okay), or to journals set up as multiuser communities (also not okay).

[2.4] Although much interaction is now taking place online, pro writers do still directly interact with readers at conferences, conventions, or book signings. These interactions have some distinct differences from online interactions because they are face to face. The real-time environment and crowded conditions at such events limit the kinds of conversations that can occur, compared with the relatively limitless and unbridled nature of online interaction. Perhaps people are briefer and more polite face to face, or perhaps readers in a group environment feel more like the audience for a speech or a play, and not like parties in a direct, two-way conversation, as they may in the comments on a blog.

3. Fans and creators

[3.1] The difficult online interactions between professional and amateur writers/readers mentioned above may stem from the status that readers assign to pro writers, especially pro writers who are celebrities. For example, a viewer of Stargate: Atlantis who comments on a blog is not possessed of the same status level as the blogger when that blogger is show producer Joe Mallozzi. An anonymous reader of the Sandman graphic novels is not on the status level of Neil Gaiman. Yet the grassroots nature of the blogosphere, and its ease of use, invites discussion. When pro writers get offended at blunt comments, it might be because they are used to traditional print readers who in some way look up to them or keep their distance, in contrast to the outspoken denizens of the Internet. Blogs have changed readers' former status by giving them readily available platforms for making their opinions known. And when readers or viewers join an online discussion, the fact that participants are amateur posters, commenters, reviewers, researchers, or writers does not have to imply slipshod research or poor technique. All amateur means now is "unpaid."

[3.2] Amateur writing flourishes in fan communities, where writers create work that is, by definition and by convention, noncommercial—that is, unpublishable for money. When such writers communicate online with their readers, there are fewer of the status concerns mentioned above. These fanfic writers are also usually fanfic readers, and because there is no economic transaction involved, the relationship between writer and reader is more egalitarian than the relationship between a pro writer and his or her buying audience. Fanfic writers are writing to, and for, an amateur community to which they belong.

[3.3] Inside the world of online fandom, as opposed to the general political or cultural blogosphere, I have posted blog essays and book reviews. Creating discussion, rather than publishing with no expectation of reader interaction, was the whole point of these posts. They were amateur projects, not the kind of marketing veiled as interaction that is sometimes the point of pro writers' blogs. Because when I post I assume that we are all fans together, if the authors of the essays that I was reviewing appeared––to comment or to join the discussion––I wasn't alarmed. I did not feel that the original author had shown up in order to hijack the discussion, nor did I think that her perspective would be unwelcome or proscriptive. In a couple of cases, perhaps because these authors were used to the more distant stance that a pro writer or academic writer takes when reading journalistic reviews in a newspaper or magazine, authors e-mailed me to thank me for the reviews and the discussion. They explicitly stated they did not intend to join in, but they appreciated knowing their work was being read and pondered.

4. Fans versus academics

[4.1] I've noticed that the discussions, critiques, and analyses that go on in fan communities have a peer-to-peer nature that reminds me of one form of academic discussion. Academic research and writing assumes that others with a well-informed background in the field will evaluate and criticize before, during, and after publication. When academics criticize each other's work, they are assumed to be on a level playing field in terms of qualifications. Although real and significant differences in status and expertise do exist among established researchers and scholars, the world of academic writing is based on the notion that whatever is written will be critiqued and evaluated by an audience of peers.

[4.2] But what happens when some of the fans in the freewheeling discussions that characterize media fandom are also academics? In watching various metadiscussions in fandom, I have been surprised at the hostility or wariness among some fans in the fan fiction community when faced with academics studying fandom, even when the academics are themselves fans, and not outside or commercial interlopers. I had assumed that fan culture is geek culture, and I had assumed that academia is geek culture too—but when the Organization for Transformative Works was formed, some fans took great pains to separate themselves from academics, who were judged to be controlling or elitist or both. I wondered at the reasons for this. It is possible that some fans simply feel so independent and fiercely protective of their identity as a proud, rebellious out-group or subculture that they automatically reject all self-appointed experts like academics. Also, some fans fear being studied—treated like lab rats or zoo animals by researchers who might not share their values or their sense of community spirit. It's also very possible that fans are used to being underground, while academia (and the mainstream news media that sometimes takes its cues from academia) seeks to drag them out into the light of day, where being noticed can mean being persecuted and labeled abnormal. Fans like feeling special and wild and fun. Being analyzed and summarized in research studies could be seen as tidying them up and applying rules to what is essentially a party. And I'm sure there are gender issues at work here too, which are beyond the scope of this essay, because the fan fiction community is so overwhelmingly female.

5. Interactions and expectations

[5.1] Besides the issue of the relative status of the participants, a major difficulty in online discussions is disagreement, or differing expectations, about the level of knowledge that should be assumed before discussion can begin. This is an area where journalism—which stresses the ability to evaluate information and separate fact from opinion, as well as skill at lurking and politely entering subcultures—has been a big help to me in navigating online communication. Online discussion inside fandom feels like an endless cocktail party on a cruise ship without a home port. You can step off at a convenient dock, then step back on and rejoin the party any time. Because it's amateur and voluntary, there is no membership card or entry fee. Yet entrants bring their own expectations to the party, and these expectations can both help and hinder when discussions become deeper and more layered than their beginning level. It's extremely difficult to keep a discussion accessible to new members, yet rich and interesting enough for experts.

[5.2] For some bloggers, the solution is to set their own terms for discussion explicitly and up front. For example, antiracist blogger The Angry Black Woman (http://theangryblackwoman.wordpress.com/) includes a list of "required reading," made up of past posts, for people interested in joining the discussion. The posters on her blog do not want to conduct the same gateway discussions about racism with every newbie who shows up to comment. They assume, and require, a basic level of knowledge, as do some forums for fan discussion, although "clueless newbie" or racially insensitive comments can't always be avoided even when such a baseline of knowledge is set.

6. Bridging the gaps

[6.1] The Internet, which gives everyone with an opinion a bully pulpit, exalts the amateur, and it's this exaltation that has caused the kinds of changes in people's expectations about communication that I've discussed here. People blog and comment for many different purposes. Marketing, self-expression, arguing for arguing's sake, Socratic dialogue, and creativity jostle together in our online discussions. The "professional versus amateur" split, as well as the monopolistic access that pro writing elites had to traditional mass communication channels not available to their audiences, have been highlighted and changed by the Internet.

[6.2] Criticism of a published work at a distance is, as we've seen, very different than getting into a conversation, in person, with the author—online or face to face. Also, discussing something with your friend, a fellow reader, feels very different than reading a review or a criticism in the newspaper. We readers feel entitled to our opinions and our loves, and why shouldn't we? But are informed opinions, educated opinions, expert opinions, and academic opinions somehow better than just anybody's opinion?

[6.3] Fan fiction communities' valuation of their members' opinions was summed up hilariously and elegantly by the metaphor "Fandom is a karaoke bar" (http://thedeadparrot.livejournal.com/386150.html), in a post by thedeadparrot at LiveJournal. She made the point that inside fandom, we are all amateurs, like karaoke singers. When someone stands up to sing and does an awful job, politeness dictates that you don't boo or demand that the bar refund your cover charge because you were expecting professional entertainment. But the metaphor only works inside the fan world, where bloggers and reviewers need not hold the material they are reading to the standards required of a professional author.

[6.4] The Internet's platforms for blogging and commenting make it possible for people from wildly different communities with wildly differing etiquette to come together. As a journalist enjoying my fan communities, I sometimes feel as if I'm personally bridging a gap between academia and fandom on the one hand, and between fandom and the pro writers or producers of our fannish material on the other. This journal could become another way that groups separated by ideas, habits, academic disciplines, and geography can come together to communicate. I've found old-fashioned journalistic skills to be a great help, but all kinds of fans—academics and other writers and creators—will have something to contribute.

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Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Contact the Editor with questions.