Symposium

Nothing but Net: When cultures collide

Cathy Cupitt

University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia

[0.1] Keywords—Fan community; Fan vid; Politics

Cupitt, Cathy. 2008. Nothing but Net: When cultures collide. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/55.

doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0055

[0.2] There's no personal story to engage me. Knowledge and theory become disembodied words on the page and I lose connection. I want to linger in the world of experience, you know, feel it, taste it, sense it, live in it.

—Ellis and Bochner, "Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography"

1. Discrimination and collaboration

[1.1] Originally I thought I might begin this discussion with "once upon a time…," as though it were a story. Something cohesive, but personal. This seemed a useful strategy, as my main interest in fan practices is in the ways we tell each other stories, and my understanding of ideas such as convergence culture is intrinsically intertwined with my immersion and participation in fannish metatext(s).

[1.2] However, the more I thought about it, the more problematic "once upon a time" became. "Once" really doesn't apply to the kinds of fan works we produce, which are never closed, never finished (Derecho 2006:64–65). Even worse, "once upon a time" implies that I'm outside the story, an author(ity) with no part to play in the narrative. This is not only untrue, but also counter to several of the cultural practices—known under the umbrella term of Web 2.0—I discuss in this essay, such as information sharing, participatory culture, and collective intelligence.

[1.3] Instead, I begin in medias res, in my classroom:

[1.4] "There aren't any good sources on nanomedicine," one of my students—let's call him Vlad—said to me last semester. "I looked but I couldn't find anything," Vlad complained, clutching the rolled-up first draft of his report in one hand, so that my penciled-in comments were concealed.

[1.5] I replied, "Where did you look? Did you try the university's academic databases?"

[1.6] Vlad broke eye contact with me, staring down at the carpet. "I tried Google Scholar," he said, "but all the good stuff was locked and I couldn't access it."

[1.7] I've called this paper "Nothing but Net" because of this trend; more and more often, the students who come through my classrooms start and end their research on the open Internet. Their first choices are Google and Wikipedia, and a lot of them refuse to be budged from that practice, no matter how much they're told that marks will be lost if they don't reference more widely or acknowledge these sites' lack of academic credibility.

[1.8] It's easy to write this trend off as laziness—it's quick and easy to do a search online, and there's no need to carry heavy books home from the library, or try to wade through turgid academic prose. But there are other explanations, and they are wrapped up with Web 2.0 and the way our attitudes toward information are changing. How many scholars, after all, now do a quick Web search on their topic to get an overview, before moving on to more specialized searches in academic databases? I certainly do, and it's a very useful strategy—I get a feel for the keywords and issues and what other critics have focused on, before getting into the nitty gritty of new papers and research. In addition, Web 2.0 topics change so quickly that print sources can't keep up—if they have an entry at all—so it is not unreasonable to begin a search on nanomedicine online, as my student Vlad did, in the expectation that it would be a similar kind of topic.

[1.9] Certainly, I would not accuse of laziness the colleagues who presented academic papers at a recent science fiction symposium I attended. Yet several of them referenced Wikipedia. The difference between their usage and Vlad's was one of discrimination—Vlad had explored no further; my colleagues were engaged with Wikipedia and other examples of Web 2.0 as one aspect of research among many, and they contextualized what they found.

[1.10] So what are the defining features of Web 2.0, other than newness and a need for approaching sites with discrimination? Wikipedia defines Web 2.0 as

[1.11] a trend in World Wide Web technology, and web design, a second generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, which aim to facilitate creativity, information sharing, collaboration, and sharing among users. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0)

[1.12] The words that jump out at me here are creativity, information sharing, collaboration. These are the ideals underpinning Web 2.0, and they are ideals that run counter to mainstream capitalist and academic cultures, which focus on objectivity, authority, individual responsibility, and profit. Already, then, this definition offers some insight into why students of the Web 2.0 era might be reluctant to go one-on-one with books: They can't ask a book questions (limited information sharing), all the knowledge sharing is in one direction (no collaboration), there are no networking or technological shortcuts to accessing the most relevant information, and there are no alternative points of view hyperlinked or embedded in the text (little room for creativity).

[1.13] Of course, this change in culture has more implications than just students with ideas about research that don't mesh with the single-author book paradigm of the academy.

2. Media convergence

[2.1] The implications of Web 2.0 and what they might mean in terms of changing culture are the focus of Henry Jenkins's book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006). Jenkins argues that Web 2.0 is about a whole heap of different technologies and cultural practices converging online to create a new way of thinking about knowledge, work, and play. He defines convergence as "the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences" (2), and he highlights three main aspects of this cultural shift: media convergence, participatory culture (such as fandom, which was an early adopter), and collective intelligence (2–3).

[2.2] There are many examples of how this convergence is playing out in fandom, but one that is useful to consider because of its easily traceable impact on fannish culture is the launch of FanLib, an archive for fan fiction, in May 2007.

[2.3] The idea behind FanLib was to offer free user accounts for fan writers and space to archive their stories—which is typical enough for a fanfic archive. However, FanLib sweetened the deal with promises of competitions and prizes related to the media franchises (http://web.archive.org/web/20070618080730/http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/070510/20070510005297.html?.v=1).

[2.4] It seems like a ready match between corporate structure and participatory audience. However, there was a catch. Fanfic culture has traditionally tried to fly under corporate radar and is resistant to being controlled; for these reasons, it is also strongly anticapitalist about making money from fan works. FanLib, on the other hand, was not set up as a hobby but as a business planning to make money from advertising on the archive. In effect, FanLib's business plan was to use the archived fan works to create eyeballs it could sell to advertisers. This is actually pretty standard practice across social networking sites like LiveJournal. The difference is that traditionally fan archives have been run by fans and are usually ad-free, or at least not for profit, and this proposed corporatization of fan works didn't go down well. When fans looked more closely at the fine print, they liked the deal even less. FanLib was planning to raise the profile of fan works with franchise owners but offered no legal protection to the fan writers and artists, who would be left carrying the can if there was a lawsuit.

[2.5] Even that, however, wasn't the biggest problem, as no one had previously indemnified fan works. The problem was that in many fandoms, fan fiction is predominantly written by women, for women, as part of a gift culture. Further, fandom in the blogosphere had just been involved in a wide-ranging discussion of feminism and fan fiction, thanks to the post "How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor" by Cupidsbow (http://cupidsbow.livejournal.com/239587.html, April 26, 2007).

[2.6] In light of this, fandom quickly noted that the FanLib board of directors was composed exclusively of men, and men who clearly didn't understand the etiquette of interacting in social networking sites. They came across as contemptuous, venal, sexist, and ignorant of the product they wanted to sell. The general fannish consensus was to boycott the FanLib archive.

[2.7] As an effect of the anger toward FanLib, Astolat suggested that fans needed "An Archive of One's Own" (http://astolat.livejournal.com/150556.html, May 17, 2007). This was the impetus for the creation of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) (http://transformativeworks.org/), a fan-run nonprofit organization established to provide free services to fans, such as a fiction archive, and to advocate for fans who need assistance when convergence culture comes calling in the form of legal issues or the media. Its establishing board of directors were all fans, all women, all part of the online fannish gift culture.

[2.8] FanLib's story, however, did not have such a happy ending. By giving shallow lip service to how media convergence works—as a collaborative, open source, and participatory culture—without following through in practice, FanLib hobbled their chances of success. In July 2008, they announced that the site would be closing, and as of September 2008, it has closed (http://www.fanlib.com/).

[2.9] This example and its outcomes give a taste of convergence culture, but participatory audiences are about more than just corporations reaching out to fandom in an attempt to make money, or franchise creators endorsing fan products. Participatory audiences are like rhizomes—offshoots spring up everywhere, inspiring new critiques, celebrations, and creative works. The effects rarely start and stop with one or two texts, or even one or two authors. Rather, participatory cultures are involved in an ongoing textual conversation that intersects with and influences what's happening socially.

3. Participatory culture

[3.1] It has often struck me that stories are the universal language of Web 2.0, and I think the importance of participatory audiences is the reason why. The giant metanarrative of fan fiction is not unlike the interweaving strands of open source projects such as Wikipedia, or the memes of Anonymous (the self-adopted name of a loose coalition of Internet users organizing and acting anonymously, probably best known for protesting against Scientology) and social networking in general, all of which enable and value multiple points of view.

[3.2] So, let me tell you a story…

[3.3] Once upon a time, a graphic novel by Frank Miller was adapted into the movie 300. While the movie was positioned firmly as a product of corporate entertainment, as an adaptation of an earlier work it was already a text with palimpsest-like qualities.

[3.4] Once upon a time, there was a vidder, Luminosity, who went to see 300. Not happy with the misogyny and sexualized violence of the film, Luminosity replied with the songvid "Vogue." In her introduction, Luminosity wrote: "Considering the discussion going on right now, I believe that this is a vid whose time has come. Bite me, Frank Miller" (http://sockkpuppett.livejournal.com/442646.html, August 15, 2007).


300 Vogue - Luminosity

Vid 1. Fan vid "Vogue" (2007) by Luminosity.

[3.5] Creation, adaptation, appropriation, and critique are, however, only part of this story. There's also the story about the story: In November 2007, New York Magazine published a double-page feature on Luminosity (http://nymag.com/movies/features/videos/40622/) and also ranked "Vogue" as the 15th funniest Web video of 2007 (http://nymag.com/movies/features/videos/40663/).

[3.6] And because this is Web 2.0 and the text is never closed, there is still more.

[3.7] With the rise in popularity of sites such as Imeem.com, many vidders who had previously password-locked their works had, by late 2007, released them more openly. As a result, vidding was growing in popularity, and a canon of widely recommended songvids was forming. The inclusion of vidding as a fandom in its own right in the LiveJournal recommendation community crack_van in December was indicative of these changes. One of the songvids recommended was "Vogue" (http://community.livejournal.com/crack_van/2838975.html, December 14, 2007).

[3.8] Another indication that songvids had developed a recognizable canon was the popularity of Counteragent's meta songvid, "Destiny Calling" (http://counteragent.livejournal.com/14447.html, January 10, 2008), released for More Joy Day, which sampled other songvids, including Luminosity's "Vogue" and several others featured in the crack_van set.


Destiny Calling: A tribute to vidding - Over 40+ vidders represented!

Vid 2. Fan vid "Destiny Calling" (2008) by Counteragent.

[3.9] It is noteworthy that both Luminosity and the OTW are referenced in this fan work: Luminosity was one of the first people to ask the OTW for help, specifically in helping her hone her responses to the New York Magazine interview questions. In "Destiny Calling," "Vogue" and the New York Magazine article are visually referenced with the lyric "we may be famous," and the OTW's Web site is referenced with "get a little wiser." Counteragent's commentary is a snapshot of the fannish zeitgeist of that moment.

[3.10] "Destiny Calling" is not the end of this story, but it is a useful place to stop. A work like "Destiny Calling" cannot be easily read by someone unfamiliar with a version of the story I've just outlined, as it requires a large body of contextual knowledge; it samples the work of over 40 vidders, including Kandy Fong's famous Kirk/Spock slide show, plus it refers to the wider fannish metatext with screen captures that include a major vidding guide, YouTube, the OTW's Web site, and the New York Magazine interview. The songvid is firmly embedded in a context of creativity, shared information, and communal intelligence, and it offers an encapsulation of the story I've just outlined, side by side with several others happening at the same moment.

[3.11] What these kinds of fan works demonstrate is that a songvid can be a feminist discourse in addition to an ode to male beauty, or an expression of joy as well as a snapshot of a subculture's politics; that a story can be critique, erotica, and/or history; and that one person can simultaneously be an author, academic, filmmaker, and fan. Jenkins suggests that when it comes to this kind of participatory culture, "rather than talking about media producers and consumers as occupying separate roles, we might now see them as participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands" (2006:3).

[3.12] These new rules mean that I, for instance, am part of this essay, part of this story, not only in the writing, but also in at least two other roles, one of which is as an establishing board member of the OTW. You may think it unusual to find me, your narrator, suddenly in this story—but this is exactly the point. Participatory culture has no edges; the fan, the retailer, the academic, the pro writer, the vidder, the company director—we are all entwined, often in one body, and the demarcation lines are blurry.

4. Collective intelligence

[4.1] Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.

—Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture

[4.2] I became involved in the OTW because I wanted to help protect and preserve the multivoiced metatext being created by fan culture. The OTW's projects are geared toward achieving this goal by creating a free fiction archive, an academic journal, a fan wiki, public relations help for fans who find themselves in the spotlight, and a legal advocacy service. At present, the OTW is a little over a year old, but there are already over 100 volunteers working for the various committees, and the organization is still growing.

[4.3] Producing communal resources through this kind of group collaboration, and more anonymous collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia, are central to both fandom and Web 2.0 more generally. The LiveJournal community Metafandom is a well-known fannish example: It has a team of information collectors, and it posts links to multiple items of diverse fannish interest every week. Both the creation of content and the effort in collecting links are voluntary and constantly changing, but they come together on Metafandom to present a combined information source that's larger than the sum of its parts. Wikis are probably the best-known example found more widely in Web 2.0 culture—they are, in fact, the epitome of collaborative effort, with all the positives and negatives that implies.

[4.4] And there are negatives, not only in the academic mantra of lack of credibility, but also in terms of how power is shifting as a result of convergence. The critiques of convergence culture tend to focus on such power shifts, because even as the theory attempts to negotiate the complexities of media practices, cross-platform corporate stakeholding, grassroots creativity and activism, participatory culture, and collective intelligence, it has a tendency to mash these issues together. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that Web 2.0 is made up of many individual voices, creative works, philosophies, resistances, and cultures. As one of the chief proponents of convergence theory, Jenkins also has a tendency to frame his examples with the impact on corporations and their business enterprises, while much of online culture is still about free culture and has a divergent set of priorities.

[4.5] Critics such as Lawrence Lessig, who actually wrote the book on Free Culture (2004), see a grave danger in the trend toward convergence. This is largely due to corporate strategies directed at increasing control and closing down free culture, which can be broadly split into two related trends: a tightening and extension of copyright laws far beyond what was originally considered reasonable, and an increase in cross-media monopoly ownership.

[4.6] I don't want to go too far into copyright here, but it is worth mentioning that trying to avoid total monopolies of intellectual property (IP) ownership—which are bad for culture—has been a constant problem with copyright ever since it was established. Copyright expiration has been the traditional compromise that allows for individual ownership of IP without locking it away from the public domain in perpetuity. Convergence culture is actually making the tightening and concentration of corporate IP monopolies easier, because a property can be owned all along the cultural food chain by a single entity—the book, film, game, Web site, mobile phone, ISP, proprietary software, snack foods, platform, digital surround sound. Everything.

[4.7] I think my students, with their "nothing but Net" philosophy, are instinctively resisting this same trend toward monopoly control of information. Despite my frustrations, I have some sympathy with their instinct to resist. In light of the creativity and reflexivity currently available as part of Web 2.0, I too choose to resist the danger of monopoly control. I would prefer a world in which academic journals were open source and easily googleable, like the OTW's Transformative Works and Cultures, to a world in which much of the information and knowledge is locked up and available only to those who can afford it. I would prefer a world in which many voices, information sharing, and collaboration are valued and we all have a stake in creating our culture.

[4.8] Collective intelligence is the aspect of convergence culture that offers a useful method of resistance. As Net citizens who benefit from free culture, I think we all have a duty to speak and act in defense of these ideals, and our voices raised together have strength.

[4.9] Convergence culture's "once upon a time" is long since past—it's happening on Internet time, after all. However, the ending is still a long way off, and there are many choose-your-own adventures to be had along the way. Right now, we are in the middle of the complication, and it's unclear how things will turn out. In fact, it isn't even clear who all the characters are yet; in convergence culture, today's corporate bad guy could just as easily be tomorrow's pseudonymous hero, and vice versa. But whatever directions convergence culture ends up taking, online fandom is going to be on the front lines, creating and consuming and fighting for it all.

[4.10] This is our story.

5. Works cited

Derecho, Abigail. 2006. Archontic literature: A definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the Internet: New essays, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 61–78. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Ellis, Carolyn, and Arthur Bochner. 2006. Analyzing analytic autoethnography: An autopsy. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 35:429–49. [doi:10.1177/0891241606286979]

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

Lessig, Lawrence. 2004. Free culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin.

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