Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom's gift economy

Tisha Turk

University of Minnesota, Morris, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Community; Gift culture; Participatory culture; Work

Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fandom has often been discussed, by both scholars and fans themselves, as a sharing economy, and specifically as a gift economy based on giving, receiving, and reciprocating (note 1). Within this economy, art objects—fan fiction, fan vids, fan art—have typically been the most obvious and appreciated gifts; Rachael Sabotini (1999) calls these art objects "the traditional gifts" of fandom. Reciprocation of these gifts may take a number of forms, both tangible (other art objects, feedback for the creator) and intangible (attention, recognition, status). This ongoing, reiterative process of gift exchange is part of what makes it possible to experience and analyze fandom as a community, or rather an overlapping series of communities, rather than simply a large and shifting number of people occupying the same affinity space.

[1.2] While art objects may be the gifts most publicly recognized or validated by fellow fans, and while these gifts are indeed a crucial part of fandom's gift economy, we can better appreciate the scope of fandom's gift economy if we recognize that fannish gifts include not only art objects but the wide range of creative labors that surround and in some cases underlie these art objects. We can better understand the relationship between gift exchange and community formation if we see fandom as a system not just of reciprocal giving but of circular giving. And we can better evaluate the relationship between fandom and production if we attend to not just the giving but the receiving of gifts.

2. Production: Acts of labor

[2.1] Generally speaking, media fandom operates on a labor theory of value—not necessarily in the Marxist sense of the phrase, but in the sense that value derives from work. Fandom's gift economy assigns special worth to "gifts of time and skill" (Hellekson 2009, 115), gifts made by fans for fans. The worth of these gifts lies not simply in the content of the gift, nor in the social gesture of giving, but in the labor that went into their creation. Commercially purchased gifts, such as the virtual cupcakes and balloons that can be purchased in the LiveJournal shop, may be given and appreciated, but will generally be worth less, in the context of fandom, than gifts made by the giver (note 2). This labor theory of value is often invisible or unarticulated until something goes wrong: a site skin doesn't work as anticipated, a vid is plagiarized, a story in progress—or an entire archive—is abandoned. These events remind us that our experience of fandom depends on the labor of others: "A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us" (Hyde 1979, xi).

[2.2] In practice, of course, not all labors are equally appreciated or even acknowledged. The phrase fan work is typically used, by both fans and academics, in the sense of work of art; it refers to fan fiction, fan vids, fan art. Within fandom, these objects are "the main focus of most discussion outside of the show itself" and are "highly prized" because they "require some level of artistry to master" (Sabotini 1999). They are the objects, and thus the labors, most likely to be publicly assigned value (in the form of comments, kudos, likes, reblogs, recommendations, etc.) by other fans and to be studied by academics.

[2.3] But there are many other forms of fan work, including work that does not necessarily result in objects for recirculation. Media fandom runs on the engine of production, but much of what we produce is not art but information, discussion, architecture, access, resources, metadata. Think about all the behind-the-scenes labor, for example, that goes into commenting on stories, beta-ing vids, writing essays and recommendations, reviewing and screen-capping episodes, collecting links, tagging bookmarks, maintaining Dreamwidth and LiveJournal communities, organizing fests/challenges/exchanges, compiling newsletters, making costumes, animating .gif sets, creating user icons, recording podfic, editing zines, assembling fan mixes, administering kink memes, running awards sites, converting popular stories to e-book formats, coding archives, updating wikis, populating databases, building vid conversion software, planning conventions, volunteering at conventions, moderating convention panels—and the list could go on.

[2.4] Such activities and their outcomes tend to be less discussed and commended, in both fannish and academic circles, than fandom's "traditional gifts," even though in many cases these activities facilitate the creation of art objects or provide the infrastructure that enables the dissemination and discussion of those objects. The sheer volume of fan work, in the inclusive sense of the phrase, necessitates further fannish labor; the navigation of online fandom is made possible by the creation of metadata, access points, links, and so on: important though sometimes underacknowledged work. These labors, too, are gifts.

3. Community: Gifts of labor

[3.1] Most discussions of fandom's gift economy have conceptualized gift exchanges as one-to-one transactions, what Lewis Hyde calls "reciprocal giving" (1979, 16): an author's gift of a story is reciprocated with a reader's gift of a comment (or, in a smaller number of cases, with the gift of fan art or another story). In fact, most fannish transactions, and fandom's gift economy as a whole, are considerably more complicated than that. While some gifts are made for and presented to specific fans, whether in the context of a preexisting friendship, a prompt or request, or a fest or challenge, they are typically made available not only to that individual but to the community as a whole, to be taken up by whatever subsets of the community are interested. (There are exceptions; some user icons, for example, are made for one person only and are therefore marked as "not shareable." However, the very fact of this designation demonstrates the extent to which, within fandom, "shareable" is the default—and commercial gifts, unlike fannish gifts, are generally not shareable in a fannish context.) Put another way, gifts within fandom are not simply given but distributed—and potentially, via links and reblogs, redistributed, sometimes well beyond the corner of fandom in which they first appeared. Fandom gifting is not just one-to-one but one-to-many.

[3.2] Community, therefore, is not just an abstract byproduct of the fannish gift economy but a recipient within that economy; Sabotini's metaphor of the potlatch, the community feast, as discussed by Marcel Mauss (1967) and Hyde (1979), is thus especially apt. Many or even most of the art objects distributed within fandom are not gifts meant for specific individuals; they are meant for everyone who wants them, and once presented, all in attendance are welcome to help themselves. This open-ended gifting is even more true of non-object gifts: it would be highly unlikely, to say the least, for someone to create an archive or organize a convention or maintain a newsletter for just one fellow fan. And in those cases, gifting may well be not one-to-many but many-to-many, either because the work is done by a team or because the full effect of the gift depends on the aggregated labor of many individuals (note 3).

[3.3] Many large-scale fandom endeavors involve multiple types of gift. To take just one example: the organizers of Festivids (, the annual rare-fandom vid exchange founded in 2009, match participants offering vids to participants requesting vids for the same shows or movies. Each participating individual both gives and receives at least one vid (one-to-one). Each vid is also publicly posted and therefore available not just to the intended recipient but to any interested fans, including fans not participating in the exchange (one-to-many). And the cumulative effect of Festivids—the festival effect—relies on the participation of many givers doing parallel work (many-to-many).

[3.4] Fandom's gift economy is therefore fundamentally asymmetrical: because a single gift can reach so many people, and especially because it can go on reaching people well after the initial moment of distribution, most fans receive far more gifts than we give. Even the most productive fans generally don't make as many vids as we watch, code as many sites as we use, moderate as many convention panels as we attend, or create as many links as we follow. This asymmetry is critical to fandom's functioning because it balances out the asymmetry in the other direction: not every gift recipient will reciprocate with "the gift of reaction" (Hellekson 2009, 116), and even when recipients do respond, few fans would argue that a single reblog or comment, however detailed, constitutes full reciprocation for the gift of a carefully crafted vid or an expertly recorded podfic or a painstakingly compiled rec list.

[3.5] From a systemic point of view, the inconsistency and unreliability of full reciprocation is not a failure of the gift economy but an integral part of it. Hyde points out that "if a man gives a second-rate necklace in return for a fine set of armshells, people may talk, but there is nothing anyone can do about it. When we barter we make deals, and if someone defaults we go after him, but the gift must be a gift" (1979, 15). While fully reciprocal giving does occasionally take place within fandom, the fannish gift economy as a whole more closely resembles what Hyde calls "circular giving": "when the gift moves in a circle no one ever receives it from the same person he gives it to…When I give to someone from whom I do not receive (and yet I do receive elsewhere), it is as if the gift goes around a corner before it comes back. I have to give blindly…When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith" (1979, 16). Fandom's gift economy is not just an accumulation of contiguous reciprocal relationships between individuals but a complex system in which the reciprocation of gifts, and by extension the reward for labor, is distributed across the community rather than concentrated in a single transaction (note 4).

4. Reception: Uses of labor

[4.1] Although not all fan gifts, and therefore fan labors, are equally likely to be publicly acknowledged or specifically reciprocated, that doesn't necessarily mean that those gifts and labors are not valued. Gift economy exchanges are made up not only of giving and reciprocating but, importantly, receiving gifts. As Hellekson demonstrates, "gifts have value within the fannish economy in that they are designed to create and cement a social structure" (2009, 115), but the way in which they create and cement that social structure is not just by being given but by being accepted—which is to say, consumed or used. We see the value of fan labor, then, in fans' consumption of the gifts produced and distributed by fellow fans. Fans may write stories or essays or make vids or art because we feel an internal compulsion to do so, but we distribute them for other fans to read and watch. It's hard to imagine fans maintaining an archive or designing new vid-encoding software purely for the sake of doing so or even for exclusively personal use; fans make these things for other fans to use. Use is therefore the clearest sign of a gift accepted.

[4.2] Thinking about the gift economy as a matter of not just giving but receiving allows us to reexamine what constitutes "participation" within fandom. Fandom has famously been described and discussed by many fan studies scholars, beginning with Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers, as a "participatory culture which transforms the experience of media consumption into the production of new texts" (2013, 46). In recent years, however, some scholars have criticized the narrowness of this definition of fandom. Matt Hills argues that emphasizing production has resulted in a misguided "attempt to extend 'production' to all fans" when in fact, as he notes, some fans "may not be producers" in the sense that they "may not be interested in writing their own fan fiction or filk songs" (2002, 30). Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington concur when they argue that "petty producers" are "only one, and possibly the smallest subset of fan groups on a wide spectrum" (2007, 8).

[4.3] It is certainly true that not all fans produce art objects or, for that matter, any of the other forms of fan work. Fandom has a long tradition of lurkers. But Hills's dismissive reference to fan fiction and filk obscures not only the fact that fans, collectively speaking, produce far more than fic and filk but also the fact that many fans who are not producers participate in fandom's networked gift economy by consuming the gifts of fan works—and perhaps even reciprocating occasionally in the form of kudos on the Archive of Our Own, reblogs on Tumblr, or other low-threshold forms of feedback and redistribution. What, after all, are the lurkers doing if not reading episode commentaries, searching archives and rec lists, downloading podcasts, streaming vids, admiring cosplay, enjoying fan art, and so on? This concept of participation may still exclude "fans who merely love a show, watch it religiously, talk about it, and yet engage in no other fan practices or activities" (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 3–4), but it does allow us to recognize the ways in which even nonproductive fans can participate in fandom's gift economy through their engagement with the fruits of fannish labor.

5. Notes

1. For a brief overview of this concept (including its roots in the work of Marcel Mauss, Lewis Hyde, David Cheal, and others) and its application to fandom from a scholarly perspective, see Hellekson 2009. For recent academic discussions of the future of fandom's gift economy and its intersections with commercial economies and commodity culture, see Scott 2009, Booth 2010, 130–38, and Noppe 2011. For a few examples of fannish accounts of the gift economy, see Sabotini 1999, Purpleyin 2006, Mazar 2007, Doctor Science 2012, and lady_songsmith 2012.

2. There are exceptions; some gifts, such as donations of money or objects, may be highly valuable in both commercial and fannish economies: a check to offset web hosting costs, a new computer to replace a vidder's damaged one, an e-reader for reading fic during hospital stays. Such gifts are not necessarily fandom-specific, though they may be organized and funded through fannish networks or used by the recipient for fannish purposes.

3. Many-to-one gifts are possible but tend, like one-to-one gifts, to be distributed publicly, thus becoming many-to-many in practice while still retaining a special connection to the original, singular recipient. For example, if a group of friends creates a private community for collecting or recommending fan works created or curated with the recipient's tastes in mind, that gift might remain private but is more likely to become public and shareable at the time of gifting.

4. This may or may not be a consolation when, say, the vid into which you put so much effort gets fewer than ten responses.

6. Works cited

Booth, Paul. 2010. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. New York: Peter Lang.

Doctor Science. 2012. "50 Shades of Fandom: Publishing. Part IIb.", May 16.

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. 2007. "Why Study Fans?" Introduction to Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, edited by Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, 1–16. New York: New York University Press.

Hellekson, Karen. 2009. "A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture." Cinema Journal 48 (4): 113–18.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Hyde, Lewis. 1979. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge.

lady_songsmith. 2012. "Fandom Economy.", May 24.

Mauss, Marcel. 1967. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. New York: Norton.

Mazar, Rochelle. 2007. "Henry Jenkins and Fan Culture." Random Access Mazar, October 20.

Noppe, Nele. 2011. "Why We Should Talk about Commodifying Fan Work." In "Textual Echoes," edited by Cyber Echoes, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8.

Purpleyin. 2006. "Gift-giving and Fandom Theory." GateWorld Forum, February 2.

Sabotini, Rachael. 1999. "The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status within the Fan Community." The Fanfic Symposium.

Scott, Suzanne. 2009. "Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

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