Praxis

Constructing queer female cyberspace: The L Word fandom and Autostraddle.com

Kelsey Cameron

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Autostraddle.com is the most popular independently owned Web site for queer women and a central, organizing force in queer female cyberspace. It also grew out of The L Word fandom, though its appearance now occludes the history of fan recapping that laid its groundwork. In this article, I reconnect Autostraddle to The L Word fandom, tracing the gradual accumulation of online fan activity into a stable Web site and queer female social space. In doing so, I revise dominant conceptions of fan productivity as individual-centered and temporally bound, arguing for a more expansive consideration of the large-scale creations fans can build over time. My intervention is twofold: a plea for history where the Web can seem to be an eternally present medium, and an assertion of fandom's inseparability from the larger landscape of queer female life online.

[0.2] Keywords—Blog; Fan community; Fan productivity; Queer women; Recap culture; Web history

Cameron, Kelsey. 2017. "Constructing Queer Female Cyberspace: The L Word Fandom and Autostraddle.com." In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.846.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In this article, I analyze The L Word (TLW) fandom's role in establishing online spaces for queer women. TLW premiered in January 2004, when queer presence online was restricted to mailing lists, chat rooms like Gay.com, and certain sections of MySpace. Though there were some spaces designed explicitly for queer women (see Bryson 2004; Correll 1995; Rak 2005), most targeted gay men, catering to lesbians incidentally or as an afterthought. Queer female cyberspace as it exists today emerged alongside and often through TLW, as women gathered together online to discuss and critique it and then stayed together even after its run. Digital spaces for queer women did not spring spontaneously into existence; they had to be made, and I argue here that TLW fandom was essential to their making.

[1.2] In making this claim, I use Autostraddle (http://www.autostraddle.com) as a case study. Arguably the most-visited Web site for queer women worldwide (note 1), Autostraddle gets over a million unique views per month and over 3 million total; to put that in perspective, the United States' best-selling lesbian magazine (Curve) lists its readership at less than a fifth of the site's monthly total. Independently owned where all other major queer Web portals are run by established media conglomerates, Autostraddle describes itself as "an intelligent, hilarious & provocative voice and a progressively feminist online community for a new generation of kickass lesbian, bisexual & otherwise inclined ladies (and their friends)."

[1.3] What Autostraddle's "About" page occludes is the debt it owes to TLW fandom. The site grew out of TLW's online community, and its major players honed their skills at content production and community management through roles they played in fan spaces. That this history of development disappears behind an apparently atemporal surface is characteristic of the Internet in general and queer online space in particular: as Ben Aslinger points out, "the ephemerality of the web as a medium and the historical silences that render writing queer political, social, and cultural histories so difficult" can make it seem like the queer Web has no history (2010, 114). Part of my project here is to make visible that past, for it shapes queer online sociality's present even when it goes unnoticed. With reference to Autostraddle, that means tracing out TLW's shift from gravitational center of community to infrastructure invisibly undergirding online lesbian spaces. Using the site as a case study, I demonstrate how TLW served as an initial node for the organization of digital lesbian community and then dropped off the radar even as the spaces it made possible continued to thrive. My intervention is thus twofold: a plea for history where the Web can seem to be an eternally present medium, and an assertion of fandom's inseparability from the larger landscape of queer female life online.

[1.4] A number of other online lesbian spaces owe their existence to TLW, and other histories could be written around them. The best known is AfterEllen.com, where TLW drew together a community before it aired. In September 2002, AfterEllen creator Sarah Warn began writing about Showtime's upcoming lesbian ensemble drama (then titled Earthlings) on her Web site. AfterEllen was at the time a weekend project Warn ran alone, with a tagline reading "Reviews and Commentary on the Representation of Lesbians and Bisexual Women in Entertainment and the Media." Response to the first TLW article ("Will 'Earthlings' be the Lesbian 'Queer as Folk'?") was overwhelming, and as AfterEllen continued reporting on it the site's readership exploded. Warn brought on other contributors, and the site's success eventually drew attention from major media conglomerates: Viacom acquired it in 2006, and then Evolve Media took the reins in 2014. Thus AfterEllen is, in Warn's words, a business "built on the lesbian community's interest in The L Word" (2006, 2).

[1.5] I focus on Autostraddle rather than AfterEllen for two reasons. The first is that AfterEllen's link to TLW has already received substantive scholarly attention: in discussing AfterEllen's practices of film criticism, Maria San Filippo notes the "symbiotic" relationship between show and site (2015, 131–32). The second, more substantive reason is that centering Autostraddle allows for a different view of queer female fandom's economies. AfterEllen's 2006 acquisition tends to be read as a moment of corporate takeover, when capitalist logics of monetization intrude upon fan and community spaces. Such an account is not wrong, but it is also not the only story: centering Autostraddle allows me to attend to the entrepreneurial desires of fans themselves, nuancing the opposition between fans' authentic, community-oriented activities and corporations' exploitative, money-driven ones.

[1.6] My project draws on fan studies' insights and vocabulary, though I am conscious of its tendency to overlook LGBT women and their cultures. Henry Jenkins's work was essential to establishing fan culture as a legitimate object of scholarly inquiry, and most studies of online fandom owe a debt to Convergence Culture, which pioneered considering digital spaces in tandem with the televisual objects they are often organized around. As Jenkins himself acknowledges, however, the people he studies are "disproportionately white, male, middle class, and college educated" (2006, 23); the prevalent models of fandom—as a low-stakes form of association, as separate from identity work, as anchored in a single TV show—grow out of this demographic's particular way of engaging with media objects. They do not necessarily translate to queer women, who lack both identity reinforcement from mainstream culture, which Jenkins's subjects constantly receive, and the embodied sexual spaces that many position as key to the cultural lives of gay men (Dean 2009; Delaney 2003; Warner 1999). There is abundant reason to think that queer women's investment in media is the opposite of low stakes. Part of my project is thus to work through the tensions inherent in uniting queer women and fandom, and to explore whether "fan" is the right name for the people who came together around TLW.

[1.7] This article moves through three sections and a brief conclusion. The first is a consideration of previous scholarly work about TLW and fandom, through which I articulate the context and contribution of my project. The second and third trace two of Autostraddle's key players (Laneia and Riese) on their respective trajectories through TLW fan spaces, drawing on their own published accounts of this time and on archived fan sites (note 2). My analysis is centered in three Web spaces: Autostraddle itself, its predecessor blog The Road Best Straddled (where Riese wrote TLW recaps), and the Planet Podcast blog and forum (where Laneia was a moderator). In concluding, I examine Autostraddle's design to argue for a recalibration of how we talk about fan productivity.

[1.8] As sources, I use only publicly accessible materials with significant online circulation. Riese and Laneia are both public figures, and have discussed their lives and fan activities extensively on Autostraddle and their own blogs; their disclosures—which I analyze throughout this paper—are already subject to wider reading than academic discussion will expose them to (note 3). I refer to them by the names they write under, which are abbreviations but not pseudonyms, and provide links to all digital sources I reference. Thus, although my project shares certain values with ethnographic work—an investment in thick description and the lived reality of a particular social group (Geertz 1973)—I am not here doing ethnography as traditionally understood (note 4). Rather, my interest lies in documenting the architecture of an emerging lesbian space through collecting and analyzing publicly accessible digital traces.

[1.9] The archival materials I work with are neither complete nor impartial: Riese's and Laneia's writings are bound up in the work of self-promotion, of attracting a readership to Autostraddle and putting forward a particular account of its emergence. Others who participated in The L Word fan spaces might dispute their accounts, and in fact some do: in response to a post by Riese about Autostraddle's history, user ar1ana comments, "This blog post is entirely too inaccurate (and too self-congratulatory) to call itself 'an oral history' of anything" (Riese 2014, comment posted January 29 at 8:23 am). That a record is disputable does not compromise its value, however. I do not take Riese's and Laneia's writings as unvarnished truth, but they still provide an important window into the emergence and transformation of lesbian cyberspace.

2. Online with The L Word

[2.1] Before turning to my case study, I want to frame my project in relation to existing work on TLW and online lesbian sociality. Scholars tend to focus on OurChart.com, a lesbian social network Showtime both incorporated into TLW's storyline and attempted to launch in the real world. Kelly Kessler articulates the reasons for its prominence as follows:

[2.2] Sites with overt links to Showtime were not the only or likely even the most frequently visited lesbian-targeted sites on the web…however, the textual, mechanical, and aesthetic choices and interactions on Showtime's sites speak more directly to the possible economic and ideological underpinnings at the heart of media corporations' drive to capitalize on convergence. (Kessler 2011, 126)

[2.3] What OurChart uniquely reveals, in other words, is the intertwining of fan activity and capitalist imperative: the site stands as testament to Showtime's desire to profit off of fan labor, and analyzing it brings to light the means by which media corporations exploit and channel fan productivity toward commercially valuable ends. As Kessler argues, then, corporate design of fan spaces reveals the narrative of fandom as free play (Bryson 2004; Jenkins 2006) to be a myth: rather than enabling democratic, user-driven activity, OurChart produces "an utterly predictable and restrictive vision of the lesbian target market, while simultaneously usurping the supposed freedom associated with the increase in online fan activity" (Kessler 2011, 128).

[2.4] Kessler's is in many ways a valuable perspective—it is important to consider the costs of increasing lesbian visibility in mainstream media (Villarejo 2003) as well as who nonetheless remains invisible. However, such an approach obscures what TLW viewers actually build through fan activities, how they interact with and move between OurChart.com and other TLW-based online spaces. Kessler acknowledges that her study focuses on Showtime's "privileged discourse" (2011, 127); it cannot answer the question of how consequential that discourse is or whether it has meaningful impact on lesbian cyberspace as a whole. That a corporation wants to channel fan activity does not mean that it succeeds in doing so, for agency lies in both production and consumption. Writing of TLW viewing parties, Candace Moore notes that "the fan public both links themselves to the fiction (by their very presence) and surprisingly resists it (by exhibiting critically distanced or even disinterested forms of attention) (2009, 130)." Such resistance does not negate Showtime's structuring influence, but rather suggests that "the outcome of mediations between capital and fan laborers is far from a foregone conclusion" (Russo 2014, 109). In other words, we need to take into account what fans actually do in the context of corporate media structures rather than assuming blanket resistance or blanket assimilation.

[2.5] My goal, then, is to shift attention from corporations to people, from centralized structures to marginal fan activities. With TLW, that means contextualizing OurChart.com in a broader landscape of online queer sociality. OurChart's particular functions and failures as lesbian social space are well documented (Kessler 2011; Moore 2009; Russo 2014). Instead of retreading that ground, I want to point to what both Showtime's presentation of OurChart and scholarly treatment of it obscure: it was only part of a larger online constellation of lesbian sociality around TLW that began developing before the site's launch (at the end of 2006) and continued after Showtime abruptly shut it down (at the end of 2008). While Showtime's press materials cast OurChart as the "first lesbian social network" and academic work tends to accept this positioning, there was already at its inception a vibrant—if dispersed—community of queer women talking about TLW and themselves online. OurChart was unique in its legitimated, branded connection to the series (TLW's showrunner and stars were among its founders), but even at its most popular it was never the entirety of digital lesbian social space. I argue that you cannot separate OurChart from its context, for emergent, fan-based networks of digital lesbian sociality are prerequisite to OurChart's existence: such spaces had to be already proven viable for Showtime to invest in creating one. That OurChart drew both contributors and users from other TLW sites supports such a claim, as does the fact that these same people went on to participate in related ventures (like Autostraddle) after its demise. Thus, a narrow focus on Showtime's site—as unique, as isolated, as singularity—fails to account for the traffic between commercial and independent digital lesbian spaces, and grants corporate Web platforms a primacy they did not in fact hold.

[2.6] In placing OurChart in context, I hope to give a richer sense of TLW's role in the wider topography of queer female cyberspace—the way fans coalesced around it in a variety of online venues, many of which they themselves built. I do not have room here to detail all such spaces, and so I focus on the trajectories of two individuals: Laneia and Riese, driving forces behind Autostraddle. Both contributed content to OurChart, but both also entered TLW fandom through other, unofficial Web sites where they continued to play roles even as they participated in Showtime ventures. My hope is that analyzing their paths will clarify Autostraddle's particular history, as well as point toward the more general forces at play in the formation of queer online space.

3. Laneia and the Planet Podcast

[3.1] Laneia first encounters TLW in 2005; at the time, she is married to a man, raising a son, and a new subscriber to Showtime. Hence she has the channel on as she is doing work around the house, where she happens upon a marathon of TLW season 2 without immediately realizing what she is watching:

[3.2] And then it was Shane and Cherie [having sex] and I did that thing where you look around the room to make sure no one's seeing you, even though no one else is in the room, and I shut the door even though there was no reason to and sat on the edge of the bed and changed the channel, like I was never ever going to watch that seriously, I was not. And then I changed it back. And the next day I realized Google's full potential. (Riese 2014)

[3.3] The breathless, rushed feel to this narration ("And…and…and") suggests that this is a moment of importance, but also one that Laneia cannot immediately process in its entirety. Thus Google comes into play the next day, when she uses her computer for private research and viewing, taking advantage of the way search engines organize and make accessible online information. Engaging with TLW is here as much about going online as it is about watching TV; it is a combination of mediated experiences, linked to a technological milieu rather than any one medium. And the multiplicity of mediation becomes more pronounced when Laneia enters the fan community: her initial foray is through the Planet Podcast, the highest-rated L Word podcast, which she finds because she has just gotten an iPod and become "obsessed with podcasts, because you could listen to them while you cleaned the house" (Riese 2014). As she listens and grows more invested, she also becomes a commenter on the Planet Podcast's blog, developing relationships with the podcasters and other listeners enabled by the Blogger platform's investment in sociality.

[3.4] I want to focus now on the Planet Podcast and Laneia's relationship to it, for it provides a useful contrast to OurChart's corporate orientation. The podcast is produced by KC and Elka, two TLW viewers from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who describe their motivation for making it as follows in their first episode:

[3.5] All over the country today, people are going to L Word premiere parties. People who live in real cities, like Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York. There's probably somewhere in Oklahoma that's doing it but no, podunk Albuquerque has no premiere parties. We put up a post on Craigslist: come to our L Word premiere watching party, it'll be fun. But nobody—one straight girl, but you can't have an L Word party with one straight girl. So we decided to make an L Word fan podcast. Maybe somebody else out there is missing all the premiere night parties as well. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjAiBsCPPjg)

[3.6] Podcasting is here a gesture toward lesbian community in an environment without a local one: KC and Elka take the steps that enable social viewing in "real cities"—opening their home to others for a premiere party—but get no response in Albuquerque. Thus the podcast is initially figured as a response to lack, an attempt at conjuring mediated community where there is no readily available embodied one. Significant here is how spur-of-the-moment their decision to start podcasting feels: this is not a project KC and Elka labored over for months before it got off the ground, but rather an event roughly on the same scale of investment as throwing a party in one's home. That KC and Elka can transition with relative ease from viewers of TLW to makers of their own fan media brings to mind the eroding distinction between media consumption and production so often considered characteristic of digital technology (Benkler 2006; Manovich 2009; Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010).

[3.7] The podcast inspires further cycles of consumption-into-production in its listeners. At each episode's end, KC and Elka invite responses, listing a phone number, blog address, and email account for anyone who wants to "be part of the chart where we make a connection with our listeners"; note the attempt to foster an online version of TLW's diegetic chart years before OurChart.com would launch. Listeners do respond, Laneia among them, commenting on the blog to interact with KC and Elka and also, importantly, with each other. Laneia suggests that this many-to-many (or at least several-to-several) interaction was key to the growth of a community around the podcast:

[3.8] The thing was that we—the commenters on the blog—weren't getting enough of each other via the comments, and the majority of the comments started to be us talking to each other and playing off each other and FLIRTING, god whatever. So we started blogs of our own so we could, I don't know, be more? Like more of ourselves in this space. And a few of us would record ourselves doing whatever—telling a story usually—and upload it to our blogs. (Riese 2014)

[3.9] Again we see a progression from consumption to production: commenters want to be together with an intensity that exceeds the Planet blog's established spaces of reception, and so they begin to build their own venues for interacting. Note Laneia's repetition of "more"—"be more," "more of ourselves," which suggests a desire to forge greater contact with other commenters over a shorter period of time. Laneia, for example, starts blogging under the name "Green" and eventually makes a personal podcast with a fellow commenter; through it she becomes visible in the fan community in her own right. Important here is that the conversations developing out of the Planet Podcast are not necessarily about either TLW or the podcast: the Planet Podcast (like TLW itself) serves as a nodal point bringing together many queer women, who use the community spaces it enables to express their own interests and desires—sometimes their interests in and desires for each other.

[3.10] It is hard to say exactly how large the Planet Podcast community comes to be. The episodes and blog are no longer accessible, and translating number of comments or page views into number of community members is an inexact science at the best of times. (To give ballpark numbers: podcast episodes have hundreds of comments and at least one Planet forum thread has 30,000 views.) We can say, at least, that the community outgrows a Blogger comment section: KC and Elka create a members' forum as a space that—as they describe in a blog post titled "Where you at?" on April 8, 2006—"focuses more on Kelkians" (as their commenters were called) and "less on Kelka" (KC and Elka themselves) (https://web.archive.org/web/20060427212020/http://theplanetcast.blogspot.com/). This is an explicit shift in emphasis, from the podcast itself as media object to a user-driven lesbian social space. They ask Laneia to be a forum moderator because of her visible presence in the community; as we will see in the following section, here her story intersects with Riese's.

[3.11] Before I move on to that section, however, I want to address the relationship between online community and its embodied counterpart. The two are often opposed, and it can be tempting to see the former as a weaker form of connection, as less meaningful because it originates in mediation. I want to push back against this line of thought, which depends on two faulty assumptions: first, that each act of mediation represents a loss in the vitality of experience, a dampening or cheapening of sensation, and second, that we can separate mediated life from an originary state of unmediated connection. As Mary Gray argues, the possibilities media make available for LGBT people "are always interlocking with the material conditions of their lives" (2009, 164). The Planet podcast community is for its members less escape from the world than an extension of it, part of the fabric of everyday life. And, though it begins in a TV show and coalesces through a podcast, that community materializes in real-world gatherings; the first, "Kelka Pride," attracts 92 women from all over the country to KC and Elka's hometown for Pride. This is not so different from KC and Elka's original plan to have people over to their house, though at a scale and intensity far greater than a viewing party could achieve.

4. Riese, recapping, and the entrepreneurial impulse

[4.1] Riese's trajectory through lesbian cyberspace begins similarly, with a televised TLW encounter and subsequent Internet research:

[4.2] Before The L Word, I'd never seen lesbians who looked and talked like me and my friends…As a slut who'd been told all her life that lesbians were girls who "couldn't get a man," I found the character of Shane so revolutionary and empowering. She had this ego and strength that came from not wanting men, and really wanting women. I fell in love and googled her to death, which eventually brought me to The L Word Online, because they were big into Shane. (Riese 2014)

[4.3] Again, we see an initial affective connection that Google routes into fan space. The L Word Online (http://thelwordonline.com) is an unofficial but popular TLW fan site that, as Riese suggests, developed out of love for Shane and Kate Moennig, the actress behind her; its two founders, Slicey and Oz, began tracking TLW as soon as Moennig was cast, at first feeding information to established magazines and sites and eventually creating TLW Online as their own platform for information dissemination. As a site rather than a blog, TLW Online places less emphasis on commenting and reciprocal sociality; it provides links to social spaces, including the Planet Podcast blog, OurChart, and MySpace, but itself operates on a several-to-many, content-provider model.

[4.4] Through TLW Online, Riese finds KC and Elka and related TLW-derived media. Unlike Laneia, she has offline friends to enjoy the show with, but they do not satisfy the depth of her interest in the show: "I talked to a lot of people about it, and still my own inner life with it was so much bigger than theirs." Mediated community thus offers something "real life" doesn't: a deeper and more intense relationship to TLW, and the ability to form lesbian worlds around it. Where Laneia was happy to participate in someone else's community, Riese becomes active in fandom to build her own: "I saw the internet as a place for advancing my career as a writer…and so it was never about casual conversations about things I liked, it was always deliberate and 'on-brand'" (Riese 2014). Thus, where Laneia is a pseudonymous and largely behind-the-scenes presence, Riese works to establish her online self visibly and as a brand, a node around which people would gather rather than one of many gathered into some other community. In service of this goal and inspired by KC and Elka, among others, she herself begins to recap TLW as an offshoot of her established personal blog.

[4.5] Hearing "recap," it is easy to imagine "summary": a rote recitation of events that recalls to mind what happened during a show but offers little additional value. As Mark Andrejevic has noted, however, the practice of recapping television involves criticism and interpretation, often with the addition of humor: "Within this context, the show is no longer the final product but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor—some paid, some free—of recappers" (2008, 32). This is the tradition of recapping Riese enters into, and from her first recap she foregrounds the value she adds: her own stories, pictures, and reactions, which arise in response to TLW but are not reducible to it. It is worth reproducing that first recap's opening at length to demonstrate its functioning:

[4.6] KC and Elka of the "Planet Cast" do such an amazing weekly L Word round-up recap podcast that I can't even begin to compete (AfterEllen has its own fantastic recap as well) so I'm gonna do something a little different with mine. Oh also—I have learned a lot about making fun of television from the Americas Next Top Model recapper, four-four. So I must also thank him. Also I'd like to thank God and my mother.

[4.7] So, because I know I will never be KC and Elka, or FourFour, or ScribeGirl or whatever, I'm just going to post all the photos of breasts and tell you how good their breasts are. I'm going to track my bisexuality over the course of the program. (http://theroadbeststraddled.blogspot.com/2006/11/where-do-i-begin-l-word-season-three.html)

[4.8] First, Riese works through a lineage of established recappers—KC and Elka, AfterEllen's ScribeGrrl (whose name she misspells), and Television Without Pity's FourFour—and then she asserts her difference from them. They already do such a good job analyzing TLW and working through its significance that she is not trying to compete; instead, she makes herself into a character to be tracked alongside those from TLW. Recappers are always to a certain extent present in their writings—their accounts of the show are filtered through their own particular interests and experiences—but Riese takes this a step further: she presents herself as a mediated object, whom readers might attach to in the same way viewers do the women of TLW. Thus she narrates not just on-screen events but herself as event, which manifests as a playful tracking of her own position on the Kinsey scale via an infographic (figure 1). Later in this episode, for example, Shane's new haircut so offends Riese that her Kinsey position drops to an "exclusively heterosexual" 0; the head in the infographic slides from a central 3 all the way to the left.

A horizontal scale labelled from zero to six with the caption 'The Kinsey Scale' with a head sitting at the number three position

Figure 1. A movable head on the Kinsey scale, which appears in Riese's recaps. [View larger image.]

[4.9] And other people from Riese's life get drawn into the recap as well. An in-show argument between Bette and Tina provokes the following free-associative ramble: "Haviland won't even say that word ("cunt") out loud, and I say it all the time, but her and I are still great friends. See? Friends. And we're not in therapy. At least not together. I kinda like Tina's look this episode though. Hmm…" As the episodes progress, Riese begins incorporating pictures of herself and the people she watches TLW with and reporting their reactions as well; she ends up producing a whole cast of characters that her readers "watch" watching the show. She also makes clear her growing disappointment with the series, which spurs her to deal less and less with its actual content. Consider the opening to her recap of 4.11, "Literary License to Kill": "Okay. I'd like a literary license to kill the writer of this show. Arguably, that's sort of what I do here anyway, right? To make it through this week, I must imagine that I'm not, in fact, re-capping a tv show episode. Rather, I'm using the characters and 'storylines' of a teevee show as a starting point for my hot comedy" (http://theroadbeststraddled.blogspot.com/2007/03/l-word-season-4-episode-11-literary.html). Though it is framed as a counterfactual imagination, it seems to me that this is exactly what is happening here: TLW is a starting point, something Riese uses but ultimately wants to move beyond. Such movement is already present in these recaps, as the comments on them make clear: readers spend more time talking about Riese and her humor than they do the show, and a number declare that they read for her stories and comments though they no longer watch TLW at all. This trend away from TLW and toward viewer-generated content becomes even more entrenched with time, as we will see in the following section.

[4.10] In December 2006, Riese emails KC and Elka asking if they want to trade links (a common practice of reciprocal sociality at the time, wherein each party gains exposure to the other's audience). They agree, and also give Riese permission to post a link to her recaps on the Planet boards: Laneia's domain. When Laneia sees Riese's post, her instinct as moderator is to delete it, as it speaks in the language of self-promotion rather than accepted fannish lexicons. This interaction dramatizes the tension between fan productivity and economic productivity: Riese comes across as too entrepreneurial, too interested in profit rather than the enjoyment of mediated objects. The economic dimensions of fan activities tend to be read as imposed from the outside by the media industry—as companies like Showtime exploiting fans' free play—a narrative to which Riese's desire to both be a fan enjoying TLW and parlay her fan activity into an actual paying job someday stands as an important corrective. My goal in tracing both Laneia's and Riese's fan activities is not to set up a morally inflected binary between them—Laneia as the good, community-oriented fan and Riese as the bad, money-driven imposter—but rather to make clear the range of orientations fandom encompasses. I would argue, in fact, that the combination of entrepreneurial investment and community orientation is key to establishing and sustaining Autostraddle.

[4.11] After Riese and Laneia's initial encounter, they continue to interact in online spaces. Laneia begins reading Riese's TLW recaps, and when Riese posts a link to her personal blog in one of those recaps Laneia starts reading and commenting there, too. They become friends, and through 2007 and 2008 their online worlds are visited by many of the people who will later be involved in Autostraddle. A number of them, writes Riese, are "blog commenters who lived in the area and so gradually one by one we kept making plans to meet in real life." Note again the difficulty of separating fandom from "real life," online friends from the offline world. During this time, Riese is also imagining ways to bring together the various online pursuits she is engaged in. An initial idea is "All Our Powers Combined," a "landing page for our favorite queer bloggers" that would centralize and formalize the online community that had been formed through TLW but was moving beyond it (Riese 2014). By 2008, her imagining shifts to an online magazine, and she recruits Laneia and others to help her build it.

[4.12] In the midst of all this OurChart comes into play. Given that it has received the lion's share of critical attention about TLW and online lesbian sociality, I will not spend much time on its particular features here. Suffice it to say that when Ilene Chaiken and her team went looking for content providers outside the TLW cast, they found their way to Laneia and Riese through people they had gotten to know in the fan community: Riese was one of OurChart's first "guestbian" columnists (figure 2), and soon after Laneia became a paid member of the site's writing team. Thus, while TLW viewers did inhabit OurChart during its two years of functionality, their community was never contained within or reducible to it. As the next section will make clear, the queer female sociality that coalesced around TLW would outlive and outgrow the show itself.

Screen capture of the main page of OurChart.com

Figure 2. OurChart.com's design, prominently featuring the "guestbian" column where Riese would sometimes appear (http://albertsondesign.com/projects/ourchart-website). This image comes from Albertson Design, the company that designed the OurChart brand for Showtime. OurChart.com itself resists archiving, so this is one of the only remaining accessible images of it. [View larger image.]

5. Autostraddle: Fandom and beyond

[5.1] Autostraddle.com launched in 2009, as TLW's sixth and final season was airing. One of its earliest posts, "What Is Autostraddle 1.0," gives the following self-description: "Something new. Girlier than Queerty and gayer than Jezebel, Autostraddle aims to address all things terrible/AWESOME with a quick, queer and intellectual attitude. We're particularly passionate about independent movies and music, books, theater, visual art, cyberculture and sex as well as queer theory, social justice, feminism and GLBT rights." While Autostraddle articulates itself in relation to entertainment media, TLW is nowhere to be seen: television in general does not even make it onto the list of things Autostraddle is passionate about. Further down the page, under the subheading "Why Now?," the series does get a mention:

[5.2] I [Riese] have been wanting to do this for a long time—and though I've made serious steps towards very similar ideas with other ambitious visionaries over the past two years, this is when it's finally come together. For one, I don't want to lose the strong online community we've built around The L Word. It was a bad show anyhow. We're all here, let's do something good. (https://web.archive.org/web/20090313054931/http://www.autostraddle.com/featured-articles/what-is-autostraddle-10/)

[5.3] TLW, in other words, provided an opportunity: an initial rallying point that helped queer women find each other and jump-started conversation among them. The things these women build as a result—relationships, communities, Web spaces such as Autostraddle—are not, however, primarily about the show.

[5.4] Today, Autostraddle betrays no link at all to TLW. Though its original layout gave a prominent place to "The L Word Archives" (figure 3), the current menu offers no means of specifically accessing TLW content. There is a submenu dedicated to television (figure 4), but the shows it lists are ongoing or more recent: Pretty Little Liars, Orange Is the New Black, Faking It, Transparent, Glee, Orphan Black, The Fosters, American Horror Story, Bomb Girls, and The Real L Word. That final entry—a reality TV offshoot of TLW—is the sole implicit reference to the show so important to Autostraddle's founding. The site's blog-style design also contributes to TLW's forgetting: the most recent posts go at the top of the page, relegating past content to archives accessible only through a targeted search. Autostraddle is thus clearly not a TLW fan site, for you could spend hours clicking through it before encountering any reference to the show.

A text-only version of Autostraddle's main menu with limited content

Figure 3. Autostraddle's original menu as of March 2009, which offers a shortcut to "The L Word Vaults."

A modern version of Autostraddle's main menu

Figure 4. Autostraddle's current menu as of March 2016, which has no shortcut for accessing TLW content. [View larger image.]

[5.5] So, to return to the question of naming: does Autostraddle count as fandom? In his seminal Fan Cultures, Matt Hills cautions against the impulse to search for fandom's "rigorous definition," which flattens the contextual nature of fan activity in the service of producing manageable objects of study. He does give the following, however, as something of a working definition: "What different 'performances' of fandom share…is a sense of contesting cultural norms. To claim the identity of a 'fan' remains, in some sense, to claim an 'improper' identity, a cultural identity based on one's commitment to something as seemingly unimportant and 'trivial' as a film or TV series" (1992, xx–xxi). One way of approaching my question, then, would be to ask whether the viewers of TLW who built Autostraddle claim an identity based in TLW. The only response possible here is the eternally unsatisfying "yes and no": yes in that TLW initiates viewers into particular mediated identity formations, and no in that those identity formations find their anchor in lesbianism, bisexuality, and queerness as much as in the show.

[5.6] Fandom is of course never only or exclusively about a show. Study after study highlights the importance of sociality to fan experience, the pleasures people derive from discussing, critiquing, and interpreting their favorite objects together. In one of the first studies of online fandom, Nancy Baym emphasizes the tendency of fan groups to stray beyond their initial topic as they develop into communities. Analyzing the rec.arts.tv.soaps Usenet newsgroup for soap opera fans, she notes how members chat about major and minor events from their own lives alongside analyses of soaps, signaling messages that are social digressions by putting "TAN" (for "tangent") in the subject line. As Baym argues, "The fact that tangents are marked explicitly in the subject lines indicates that some people do not want to partake in r.a.t.s. when it goes beyond the soap. Although the establishment of the TAN genre sanctions a space for purely social chat, its marking also marginalizes it as outside the group's primary arena" (2000, 140).

[5.7] With TLW fandom, social tangents are not marginalized in this way. When Laneia and Riese put more and more of themselves into their fan presences, no one chastises them for straying too far from the primary arena of TLW. In describing the relationship she and queer women had to TLW, Riese writes, "We'd built whole worlds around this show!" (Riese 2014). Those worlds—the communities and connections forged with other queer women—are the point, and so the show itself becomes tangential. The formation of queer female community was a main thrust of TLW fandom, and that community remains its lasting legacy. And while Autostraddle may be an exceptional case—an unusually wide-ranging product of fan activity, which has cultural impact on the scale of TLW itself—the increasingly wide circulation of fan culture makes it necessary for us to rethink its boundaries and definitions. Exceptional cases are proliferating as the Internet makes fan works easier to access and circulate: consider Twilight-fan-fiction-turned-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, or the success of Harry Potter parody A Very Potter Musical, which launched Darren Criss into a mainstream television career.

[5.8] Thus, we need to add nuance to models that view fan activity exclusively through the lens of a central text and imagine fandom as something that should be separate from corporate economies. The recent turn to questions of fan labor (De Kosnik 2013; Stanfill and Condis 2014) is an important one, but it tends to focus on the small scale: fan videos, fan fiction, or other objects that one or several people make over a relatively short period of time. Fandom's productivity is visible here, but as Autostraddle makes clear, it also happens at other scales and over longer durations. Scholars are good at talking about how fans inhabit and expand the world of a show, the individual and communal creativity involved in remaking stories to one's own ends. We have less vocabulary for worlds built around a show that then outgrow it. I am not arguing here that Autostraddle is somehow better or more valuable than more commonly considered fan works, but it is a different beast, and its difference pushes us to think about where we draw fandom's limits. More specifically, it asks us to consider fan productivity as it intersects with structure: not just the individual projects undertaken by specific artists or writers, but also the way they build up and take on life of their own.

6. Notes

1. I say "arguably" because it is difficult to get exact information about page views and relative popularity. Autostraddle claims to be the most-visited lesbian Web site, and it is at least among the top three (alongside AfterEllen and SheWired.com).

2. Archive.org's Wayback Machine is an important tool here, for it archives the appearance of Web sites at particular dates, allowing users to see expired Web domains and earlier iterations of existing sites.

3. This is one reason I focus on the two of them, though many people were involved in Autostraddle's formation.

4. My project is closer to Internet-inflected versions of ethnographic practice like "trace ethnography" (Geiger and Ribes 2011). That I am a periodic reader of Autostraddle and have participated in lesbian fan spaces (though not those of TLW) provides motivation for and insight into this project, but nothing prevents others from finding the materials I work with here.

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