Rogue archives: Digital cultural memory and media fandom, by Abigail De Kosnik

Anne Jamison

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Digital history; Fan data; Fan fiction; Media studies; Media theory

Jamison, Anne. 2018. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom, by Abigail De Kosnik [book review]. In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.

Abigail De Kosnik. Rogue archives: Digital cultural memory and media fandom. New York: MIT Press, 2016. Hardcover $45 (440p) (ISBN 9780262034661); e-book $26.49 (7092 KB) (ASIN B01M1HQ1MK).

[1] Rogue Archives makes a strong, even unassailable case for the centrality of the fan fiction archive to online culture's history and present. In arguing that "memory has gone rogue" in the age of digital media, Abigail De Kosnik gives fan fiction and its communities starring roles in her ensemble cast of independent archives the internet has been home to since its inception. Fan fiction—presented as intimately interwoven with its evolving archives—emerges as distinctive but also representative of a rich and varied company of creative countercultural conservation efforts. From the omnivorous Project Gutenberg to the myriad smaller, more specialized archives devoted to marginalized interests, identities, and populations, these "rogue" archival projects have wrested control of public memory from the staid institutions of state power, transferring and dispersing it among diverse counterpublics. This is the book's broad and provocative claim, with its chapters devoted to delineating, from a truly virtuosic range of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives, exactly when and how this memory migration happened and why it matters.

[2] De Kosnik's study is productively if almost dizzyingly interdisciplinary in a way that is highly appropriate to the heterogeneous objects of fan fiction in particular and digital culture in general, but also in a way that can be—disciplines being not just different but at times even antagonistic—difficult to pull off. But Rogue Archives takes interdisciplinarity beyond academic buzzword or empty gesture to adopt and sustain a genuinely unique assemblage of divergent theoretical and methodological elements. For example, my own rhetorical gesture toward casting took its cue from the way in which De Kosnik encourages readers to think of archives themselves as well as the rogues that run them as actors in more than one sense. The book's theoretical framework and terminology draws liberally on its author's background in performance studies; she explains that her own work's "theatrical gaze" departs from the "cold" or deterministic gaze that has thus far guided archival studies and media archeology in order to "capture the participation of human as well as non-human actants" (53) in the important work of internet archiving. Archives and their human and technological constituents are also considered as actors in the sense of actor-network theory, the influential idea that in a sociotechnical system such as an internet archive, both humans and nonhumans have agency and can cause the system's other human and nonhuman constituents to act in specific ways. Along these lines, De Kosnik importantly highlights the role of the internet archives' "techno-volunteers" (an earlier generation called them "archive elves") and what she terms their "repertoire"—again drawing on theatrical vocabulary—of archival practices: the repeated, often unseen, marginalized, and background actions that make it possible "to 'save' the internet" (53). This repertoire "consists at least as much of managing human relations, including arbitrating majority/minority disagreements, as it does of providing technical services" (57). But design scripts and software versioning also play an important role. Building on the rapport her career establishes between the digital and theatrical, De Kosnik adopts design studies' appropriation of the sense of script as the directions technology gives to humans, but she folds it back into the theatrical term and the understanding that every actor's every performance of a script is different. This rapport between theatrical and digital culture in turn feeds into Coppa's (2006) notion that fan fiction's many repetitions and iterations of source elements are akin to the limitless performance variations of theatrical production. In this way—and in so many other ways—Rogue Archives interweaves existing scholarship, theory, and lexicon to produce a new account of the digital archive, an account that is not just exemplified but generated by internet fan fiction, its communities, and its practices.

[3] In addition to this exciting and unusual theoretical and methodological approach, Rogue Archives brings an invaluable wealth of historical detail and documentation about those parts of the internet archive that are most likely to get lost or be forgotten. An innovative structure of chapters and breaks adds to the buzzing sense of heterogeneity and interdisciplinarity that makes Rogue Archives such an engaging read and also invites readers to dip in and out according to their interests. That welcoming ethos also launches "Break 0," a glossary of key terms that introduces the volume's sometimes idiosyncratic terminology ("archontic production") and other specialized vocabulary and concepts—and fan and fan studies readers shouldn't assume this will be another list of terms like "slash" and "ship" and skip over it, because it also integrates discipline-specific definitions and assumptions into a somewhat skeletal précis of where the book as a whole will lead. These breaks are shorter and less dense than the chapters themselves and allow for introductions to the unfamiliar territories the book traverses—and I am certain that all readers of this book will be unfamiliar with some aspects of it, because it is by no means a frequently convened assembly of characters. A brief list must here suffice to give a sense of the range of material covered: chapters include the history of digital memory theory and practice since the 1950s; a rundown of the three main archival styles De Kosnik identifies and defines (universal, community, and alternative, which should be understood to mix and blend); the politics of queer and feminist archives; "Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice Fandom," which will be of urgent interest to many fandom and fan studies readers; the differences between print and early internet fan archives; new media performance; and the chapter "Archontic Production: Free Culture and Free Software as Versioning." The concluding chapter and appendix, "Fan Data: A Digital Humanities Approach to Internet Archives," may be the most eagerly devoured and widely embraced among fan studies scholars and fan commentators because of the paucity of reliable demographic and other statistical information about fan fiction, its archives, and its communities. The appendix also explicates the methodology of the oral history project that informs much of the volume and comments on the ethical considerations of studying fans and fan works.

[4] Rogue Archives is a vital work for anyone interested in digital history and its cultural meaning, and it should attract readers in media studies, cultural theory, digital humanities, digital sociology, computer-human interaction, information and archive studies, and, of course, fan studies. In fact, to my mind, one of the book's most crucial interventions is the way in which it understands fan fiction as integral to the development of the digital archive, situating fan fiction and its practices on a continuum with other digital cultural activities and thus presenting fan studies as a peer discipline among others more institutionally established. This methodological and disciplinary turn befits an argument that sees fan fiction as taking a leading role in shifting the archive away from institutionalized power—but that said, it must be noted that the rogue archive at the theoretical and practical center of the volume—Archive of Our Own (AO3;—is itself increasingly institutionalized in fan fiction generally and even more so in its study. In this focus and in some of its attendant accounts of fan fiction culture, Rogue Archives covers ground that may seem well traveled to its fan studies readers, however unfamiliar to its other audiences, and it also replicates some of those earlier studies' limitations (my own work included). The study's overall celebratory account of the archive's history and transformative politics—and more broadly the optimism with which Rogue Archives regards internet fan culture and its role in fostering and conserving the creative history of marginalized groups such as sexual and gender minorities—will feel familiar to many of TWC's readers and more in keeping with an earlier wave of fan studies than with the more critical moment both fans and fan studies scholars find themselves in today. Even the chapter on race, a topic fan studies (and much of fandom) has too long neglected, tends to emphasize fandom's potential to offer a corrective to the "symbolic annihilation" (168) communities of color face at the hands of mass media rather than focus on issues of erasure within fan works or on intrafandom racism. De Kosnik, who identifies herself almost from the outset as a woman of color from the Global South, hardly ignores conflicts such as RaceFail '09 or the long-standing critique that "fannish discourses and practices...reproduce many of mass media's biases and hierarchies" (182), but her emphasis here is on tensions between fan works and official culture rather than those between white fans and fans of color. The book's outlook is also positive about the potential for real-world social change as the result of fan action. As a part of this overall fan-positive narrative, Rogue Archives highlights accomplishments and successes, such as the important cultural work done by the dual-purposed creative and archival dark_agenda challenges, Chromatic Yuletide of 2009 and 2010, or the Racebending Revenge Challenge. These efforts will seem like ancient history to many fans and even some fan scholars today, such being the nature of internet time (also a topic of interest here). De Kosnik's work here resembles the rogue archival work her book describes, but Rogue Archives preserves these unstable internet histories (always susceptible to decay and disappearance) in the institutionalized print archive of a leading scholarly press that will be disseminated to hundreds of university libraries.

[5] As De Kosnik and anyone publishing on digital culture with a scholarly press well know, internet time and scholarly time are irrevocably at odds, which has the inevitable result of turning any study that aspires to be about contemporary culture into a work of history. For instance, part of Rogue Archives' methodological and scholarly interest lies in the ethnographic study its author has undertaken, interviewing fifty fan fiction community members who further identify themselves by age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, and location. These interviews were conducted in 2012—early on in the mass media mainstreaming of fan culture kick-started by the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, and relatively early in the rise to fandom prominence of Tumblr, which, as De Kosnik and some of her informants acknowledge, has entered into an unanticipated if productive symbiosis with AO3. It also means that the data predate both Gamergate (2014) and the 2016 US presidential election, when the dark side of social media, with its abusive trolls and state-sponsored misinformation, became impossible to ignore. If the accounts of some interviewees seem to hearken back to a less highly visible and in some ways gentler experience of internet culture, any one of these factors might be enough to explain it. However, it does seem to produce something of a generation gap (in terms of fandom time, not biological age).

[6] Rogue Archive's frame of reference with regard to contemporary fan fiction is limited in other ways as well. It absolutely traces important, neglected histories of a variety of archives, projects, communities, and styles, many of which are introduced in discussion well before AO3 makes its entrance. However, I could not help but notice that the very way the internet archive was being defined suited no fan fiction archive as perfectly as it did AO3. (Only archives that offer freely downloadable stories are included in the key definition, thus excluding; archives must be noncommercial, thus also excluding Wattpad.) The centrality of AO3, its creators, and its enthusiasts is entirely justified by the book's emphasis: this fan-owned, fan-designed, and fan-operated open source archive is the perfect poster child for the exciting potential of the combined forces and histories De Kosnik traces. AO3 is more multiply functional as infrastructure than any other fan fiction archive. Its transparency and metadata make it attractive as a research resource; its nonprofit, profan status is attractive for classroom and scholarly use as well as for pleasure reading; it attracts many longer-term fans (from among whom fan studies scholars are almost universally drawn); the list goes on. A data-based comparison between and AO3 details even more advantages AO3 seems to enjoy as an archive.

[7] Despite the many good reasons for AO3's centrality to contemporary fan studies, however, this archive, its founders, its users, and the stories it houses are not coextensive with the broader, global fan fiction ecosystem. I think no one—certainly not De Kosnik—would claim that they are. Nevertheless, a great deal of recent fan studies work uses this attractive specific to stand in for the general, and this slippage is something to be wary of. Rogue Archives thus replicates a limitation evident in other scholarship on fan fiction, although in this specific case the limitation is not a bug but a central feature: the book attends to specific archives and their attributes. From a fan studies perspective, though, it is worth emphasizing that whatever its founding charter and ambitions, AO3 is not a universal platform. While this book (given academic time) would have been completed long before a recent round of fan criticism of AO3's abuse policies and responsiveness to fans of color, these critical voices do challenge AO3's claims and ambitions to universality as well as illustrate the extent to which it is recognized as an established and even a hegemonic force within fan fiction.

[8] With all this in mind, Rogue Archives readers should be all the more aware that in (naturally) focusing on those active in founding and running AO3, the book amplifies some voices that have already played an outsize role in shaping the discourse around fan fiction and fan studies. These highly engaged fan-activists and fan-intellectuals are typical of those likely to donate their labor to archival projects such as AO3 as well as to other forms of fan advocacy and cultural conservation—among which scholarship can certainly be counted. Respondents are hardly limited to AO3 founders, workers, or prominent acafans, but these categories do provide a disproportionate percentage of the survey's fifty respondents. My concern is simply that such voices should not be taken as representative of fan fiction and its communities as a whole. Furthermore, the interviewees were all people either known to De Kosnik or suggested by people known to her, further limiting the sample's range, which makes sense given that fandom is identified in the book as connecting like-minded people who hold interests and practices in common. The respondents also skew older than many participants in fandom, which grants them the experience and perspective so necessary to the book's documentary and historical project but also excludes much of the active population of fan writers and readers (if not of archive builders). I must be clear that in general Rogue Archives is explicit and diligent about acknowledging its methodological and historical limitations. It centers archives and the work and workers necessary to establish and maintain them and not the wide world of fan fiction writers and the even wider world of fan fiction readers. It is simply to be hoped that its data-hungry readers will also keep these avowed limitations in mind.

[9] Many of my caveats about De Kosnik's respondents likely hold true for most people who would volunteer their time to answer surveys or participate in interviews, and hence these methodologies may always self-select for fans who view community activity, reciprocity, and building as more central to fan fiction than do lurking readers or writers who post fiction but who do not engage as much socially or who feel themselves to be marginalized or excluded. Because concrete demographic data on fans are much sought after but difficult to come by, any data will likely be cited by journalists, academics, and fan commentators, and my critical comments should be understood with that audience in mind. Rogue Archives' comparative data on fan archives is unique and invaluable, like so much of the book. Archives and their role in fan fiction systems have not been examined with anything even approaching this kind of rigor and detail, and De Kosnik sets an important direction in fan studies and the broader field of digital cultural studies. I eagerly awaited Rogue Archives, and it did not disappoint.


Coppa, Francesca. 2006. "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 225–44. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.