Interview with Flourish Klink

TWC Editor

[0.1] Abstract—Interview with Flourish Klink of Chaotic Good Studios.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan works; Fandom; New media; Podcast; Transmedia

TWC Editor. 2018. "Interview with Flourish Klink." In "Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries," edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26.

[1] Flourish Klink is a long-term fan, acafan, and professional fan. At age thirteen, she cofounded FictionAlley, which became the largest Harry Potter fan fiction community online. She also helped organize several Harry Potter fan conferences. She then continued her interest in participatory culture at MIT, where she wrote a study of Twilight fans for her SM degree in comparative media studies.

[2] Klink is a prolific writer and transmedia storyteller. She is the founder and coauthor of Alternity, a collaborative transformative Harry Potter alternate universe, which ran for seven years, as well as author of a variety of fan fiction throughout a number of fandoms. She designed, wrote, and programmed the text adventure Muggle Studies, which won a prestigious XYZZY award. She is also a board member of the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, which seeks to preserve and support the creation of all forms of interactive storytelling.

[3] After leaving MIT, Flourish joined the Alchemists as chief participation officer, where she oversaw transmedia and social media strategy for Hulu's TV series East Los High (2013–) and was the lead producer and cowriter on the Transcendence: Origins mobile game for Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment. She is now chief research officer and partner for Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops and implements social media and fan strategy for studios, networks, and game developers across all media platforms.

[4] In 2015 she launched Fansplaining with Elizabeth Minkel, a podcast that mixes fannish, journalistic, academic, and industry approaches to media fandom in all its current forms.

[5] TWC Editor: You have been active in fandom for a long time. Can you talk about the ways it has changed over the past fifteen years and how you've observed those changes from your position within this environment?

[6] Flourish Klink: In my opinion there have been three major changes over the past fifteen years. The first is the transformation to a more visual fandom culture. Fandom has always been visual, but when I was first engaged in fandom, the visuals you were trading were JPG images, 600 by 800 pixels max. As a young person who didn't have the ability to go to many cons, and who didn't know anyone involved in the SFF [science fiction/fantasy] con scene, I don't believe I ever actually watched a fan vid until YouTube came along, even though I had some sense of what they were. It simply wasn't possible for me to get my hands on them. Free image hosting on Imgur or Tumblr created a second revolution in the level of visuals available.

[7] The second major change was the accessibility of fandom. Even though I was engaged with fan culture, I never had the chance to see a fan vid for years, because I didn't have a connection into the SFF con scene. It can still be difficult to learn about some corners of fandom, but widespread internet access, combined with effective search, has really changed that experience. Now, if I want to learn about an obscure fannish topic, I can easily discover other people interested in it. I can find out that there's a Dark Shadows (1966–71) convention two minutes after watching my first Dark Shadows episode, even though Dark Shadows hasn't been on in years. And if I don't want to go so far as going to a convention, I can easily chat with anyone who's also watching Dark Shadows. But more than that, even if I've never engaged with fandom before these things will come up for me. In the Game of Thrones (2011–) tag on Twitter, the newest Thrones fan will interact with the crustiest oldest George R. R. Martin person who's been following his career since before Beauty and the Beast (1987–90). Those people, that new blood, means that every new fandom is a feral fandom, as people used to call them. But equally, no fandom is a feral fandom, because each new fandom pulls in enough people who've encountered other types of fandom before to generally cohere with broader internet norms when talking about fan culture.

[8] The third major change is the way fandom interacts with The Powers That Be. This has gone through a variety of incarnations over the years—for instance, Star Trek fandom had a positive relationship with Gene Roddenberry for many years, of course. So I don't mean to suggest that The Powers That Be hated fandom in the past and they've slowly been coming to terms with it (although some people like that formulation). But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was definitely a period where entertainment companies felt threatened by the internet and internet fandoms—a period that I saw the tail end of, and then saw how they began to come to terms with this. Today, I would say that the biggest issue facing fandom is not shutdowns, cease and desist letters, or anything like that, but rather the fact that what was once a small, vibrant subculture has begun mainstreaming (via the internet). As it's mainstreamed, entertainment companies have taken notice and have begun using fannish concepts and ideas to sell their products. In one sense, fandom has won. The nerds no longer need revenge. But in another sense, the things that made early fandoms (especially SFF fandom and its media fandom relatives) vibrant subcultures are fading as the commercially viable parts of fandom are co-opted by entertainment companies. It's a real tension.

[9] TWC: You are both fannishly and professionally invested in helping pro–fan interactions. Are there any drawbacks to this position, either within fandom or within the media industry?

[10] FK: Absolutely. I have recently found that it's limited some of my fannish joy. The bigger the fan event, the less it's actually fannish for me now. The San Diego Comic-Con, for instance, is purely a work function. (I find smaller cons easier, because they aren't full of industry people.) And once you know too much about how the sausage is getting made in a particular show or franchise, it's hard to be fannish in the same way about it. I've had to draw a few bright lines around properties and actors I don't want to work with, because otherwise I know I would completely slip into a professional attitude.

[11] There's also the drawback, fannishly and professionally, that I'm torn between two worlds. I want the best things for fandom and for individual fans, but sometimes my job requires me to set those desires aside and think purely about what will make a franchise the most money. Usually the two things coincide, but not always. Those are difficult days. I try to present both sides of things, but I know that corporations will always choose money, and I can't blame them (#capitalism). I got involved in this work because I believe that fandom is going to become mainstream whether we want it to or not, and it only does good to have someone involved who's going to watch out for fans' interests, teach respect for fans and fandoms, and ensure that fans are dealt with fairly and not treated as simply receptacles for content. But of course working within the system always means compromise, and that is tough.

[12] Within my professional life, the biggest drawback is that there are a limited number of properties with large enough fandoms for my services to be necessary. There are relatively few new projects that feel confident enough that they'll attract a fandom that want to hire me to work with them from day 1. That's a relatively small problem; it just means that I have a niche, the same way that someone whose whole career has been working on horror movies has a niche. I think people whose professional lives don't hinge on fandom sometimes are judged for being involved in fandom, but for me, it's different. The nerdier and more outré by Hollywood standards I get, the better, because the whole point of working with me is that I can help very industry people understand their fans, and that means I have to actually do fandom myself. ("Have to." Ha!)

[13] TWC: What do you think networks think of fandom? What does the industry still get wrong about fandom, and what do many fans get wrong about the media industry?

[14] FK: As a whole, I think networks see fans as a powerful way to keep their intellectual property valuable. As many people have lamented, the world is full of reboots now. These reboots, and their success, have taught Hollywood that the presence of a strong fandom can lead to a big payoff. This is especially important as viewership numbers have radically fallen and TV budgets have gotten bigger. If you can't make money purely off advertising, then you need to make money in other ways, and those other ways to make money are all dependent on fandom. The only shows that can make it without strong fandoms are the most middlebrow of middlebrow—widely palatable sitcoms and cop shows. So networks like Starz, SyFy, and MTV have rebranded and refocused on fandom to varying degrees over the past five years, with varying success, and the CW has clearly designed their slate to appeal to fannish sensibilities.

[15] People in the entertainment industry, even network execs, are typically pretty emotionally engaged with the properties they're putting out. But they generally haven't taken part in fan culture because they're professionally engaged with the properties that fans are into. So they may be absolutely obsessed with Star Wars, but they may know nothing about the community that's grown up around Star Wars. It's a solitary kind of stanning, and one that they know how to turn off, because when they get into a professional context, they absolutely have to remain cool. That means, in my experience, that people can emotionally relate to fans, but they're overwhelmed by fan culture. (Of course this isn't always true—individuals are individuals!—but I would say it's more true than not.) Unfortunately, this means that sometimes they tend to rely on pure numbers more than they ought. "We have a lot of engagement this month, and the algorithm in our social listening software says it's positive; therefore, we did great." Well, maybe, but you might be setting yourself up for a fall later down the line if the positive engagement is all around something that you never intend to happen—say, a queer flirtation that you never intend to consummate. This tendency is compounded by how very big these companies are. When you have one executive managing five or six different shows, he is likely to simply ask for the most consumable reporting on how fan engagement is going—and that means numbers, which are usually too simplistic to actually communicate what's happening. There's no nuance.

[16] This hugeness of the companies—the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing—is the thing that fans still and most radically misunderstand. This is even more the case with movies than with television shows. Movies, as projects, are handed off from a development team to the production team to a marketing team, in that order. Typically no single team is responsible for communicating with fans and engaging them over the course of that cycle. When Movie #1 in a franchise comes out, there's a gap in which no one at all is messaging the public about the movie, because Movie #2 isn't in development yet. So not only do each of these teams have many, many people on them (sometimes hundreds of people) but they also have discontinuity. In other words, it's a miracle that anybody manages to have a coherent message about any movie franchise, ever.

[17] But humans are pattern-making animals, so fans tend to read way too much into every statement and decision made by a franchise, which can lead to huge disappointments. Ninety-nine percent of the time, fans need to use Occam's Razor. Is the simplest explanation for this just "nobody thought too hard about it"? That's probably the answer.

[18] TWC: In a 2016 article, you said, "Fandom isn't broken. What's broken is the way that fans and the entertainment industry communicate with each other." Is this still true? How can we improve communication?

[19] FK: It's definitely still true. I addressed how the entertainment industry could improve communication in my response to the previous question, somewhat elliptically: simply empowering consistent spokespeople to communicate with fans regularly, and speaking with authority, over the life of a franchise, would be a huge step in the right direction.

[20] Regarding what fans can do, unfortunately, the people who are most visible to fans—actors, directors, and writers—are typically not the people most empowered to make decisions that fans care about. Fans need to communicate with producers, studios, and networks, and they need to be aware that because the entertainment industry is a business, the way to communicate with them is primarily through money. (Prestige can also be powerful—for example, Mad Men [2007–15] was renewed despite low viewership numbers because of how prestigious it was—but fandoms typically don't have the power to create that kind of prestige.) So fans need to use carrots and sticks to express themselves.

[21] The only real stick that the entertainment industry cares about is when people stop watching a show or attending movies, and that leads to cancellation or no more movies, which is not what fans want. Therefore, it's incredibly important for fans to use carrots. When fans like shows and specific decisions made on shows, they need to show it in measurable ways, like watching on streaming sources that networks can track. Fans also ought to tweet from public accounts with lots of positive keywords using official hashtags, especially live tweeting. They need to tag advertisers to show that they've watched the ads. They need to buy merchandise from official sources, not only fan artists. Does this all sound soul crushing? From a fan perspective, I can see how it might. I certainly don't want to buy the merch when it's ugly, watch on a streaming platform that's inconvenient, or tweet in an annoying way. But because the industry relies so much on numbers, this is the best way that a relatively small group of fans can communicate their feelings and opinions.

[22] TWC: This special issue "aims to put emerging research on social media platforms and ongoing work on online fan culture in conversation to consider the impact the proliferation of those platforms is having on our understanding of the consumption and negotiation of television." From your experience, how has the expansion of platforms like Twitter and Facebook reshaped fan–industry interactions over the past decade?

[23] FK: The story of fan–industry interaction is a story of visibility. The ways in which fans are visible to each other, and to the industry, have changed a lot over the past decade. From the industry point of view, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to track buzz about any property. For example, the most accurate current forecasting of how well a movie will do is based on Twitter conversational data. They also provide a location to serve ads to consumers, allowing complex targeting that hopefully creates inexpensive awareness in the people who are most likely to see a show or film. These are the two most important roles they play in TV and movies. Because of that, it can be hard for TV and movie execs to see the difference between a casual viewer (who tweets or comments every once in a while about a property) and a committed fan. In the past, when the barrier to reaching out to the company was higher, only committed fans talked back through mail, conventions, and so on. Now the barrier is lower, but the industry hasn't entirely caught up. Often they still see all commenters online as fans and consider all their comments in exactly the same way, not recognizing that the variety of behaviors within that group is vast.

[24] Depending on how social media-savvy they are, actors, directors, and other public figures in the industry may share the same attitude as the broader industry, or they may have learned about the people who interact with them through their own engagement with social media and therefore have more complex models of fandom. These are probably much more accurate models than ever in the past, because they simply have more interactions with fans to extrapolate from. But the fact that these people are able to see a little more clearly often has to do with the fact that they aren't also juggling massive marketing budgets and trying to hold the needs of the most committed fans in their heads in the same space as the needs of casual viewers.

[25] In games, it's slightly different. People in games are used to using social media, and before that forums, as a two-way conversational space. Companies like Blizzard Entertainment have for many years engaged their most passionate fans in fan-only spaces. So these companies are often more aware of the complexities within fandom, and—most importantly—they're much more active in interacting with their fans than movie and TV companies are. (And of course, as we all know, YouTube is another thing entirely.) While game companies often empower multiple employees in widely varying roles (from QA to programmers to executives) to speak with fans on a regular basis, it's rare for people in most roles in TV and movies to ever be permitted to interact with fandom. This hasn't changed despite social media's increased importance in everyone's lives, and it's a major problem

[26] In short, fans have become more visible to industry because of social media, but then, everyone's preferences have become more visible. Therefore, sometimes distinctions aren't drawn along the gradient from "casual viewer" to "deeply committed fan." This is both good and bad, but it's certainly confusing from a fan's perspective.

[27] TWC: You were one of the first fans to realize that there was a potential career in managing fan–industry interactions. Is that still a viable career path? What are possible professional roles fans can occupy within the media industry these days? Is this a seat at the table or co-optation, or both?

[28] FK: I've been around the industry long enough to have seen companies rise and fall, and individuals' careers rise and fall (and to have had some rises and falls of my own). We are currently in the midst of a backlash on the idea of fandom. Companies have responded to social media campaigns that they interpreted as coming from fans and been surprised when their sales didn't necessarily increase. Others have suffered from the wrath of fans—seeing their work trashed online by people who professed to be its fans. I have a million opinions about these phenomena, of course (and most of my opinions don't have to do with fans being unimportant!), but the upshot of it for someone entering the industry right now is that it might not be the time to brand yourself an expert on fan culture unless you're a journalist writing about these controversies.

[29] On the other hand, I don't think that there is any shortage of professional roles fans can play. There is always the need for social media and community managers. Those roles can be a pink ghetto, though, and there are many other roles fans can and should be taking. We've seen vidders become film editors. More and more screenwriters who are open about the way that fan fiction helped them learn to nail tone in their scripts. These are roles that build on the skills people use in fandom, but they're also roles where it's beneficial to know about fan culture. There's hardly a role in the entertainment industry, at least on the creative side, where it's not beneficial to know about fan culture. I really believe that fans, especially female fans, need to stop assuming that there's an unbridgeable gap between them and industry roles. Of course it's difficult—I don't mean to suggest that breaking into the entertainment industry is simple. But it's not impossible, and I hope that more fans decide to try.

[30] As for co-optation: what subculture has ever come into the mainstream and not been co-opted to some degree? When I decided to work in industry, I did it because I saw the tide changing. I understood that corporations own the things we are fans of. Therefore, I realized, they naturally will try to co-opt fandom—there's not even a question in their mind about whether this is right or wrong. (It's an arguable point: how much do fans owe to the creators and owners of the things they love?) And they will do it; they'll see it through. There is nothing that will stop them, and nothing could stop them. The only question for me was, if I don't try to advocate for fans from within the entertainment industry, who will?

[31] At the time I was making this decision, I couldn't come up with a single name. Today, I could come up with several, and I'm grateful for that.

[32] Some days are hard. Some days I feel like I'm a cog in the machine, working for the man, and that I'm not doing any good, not making incremental change, just lending authenticity to bad choices. But other days, I find that my research has led a project in great new directions, or I have the power to put my foot down on a bad idea, or I see someone powerful's opinions about fan culture begin to change, and I know that I've done good. I wouldn't want everyone in fandom to take the same path I have, because I think that there need to be people who work outside the system as well as those within. But all in all I think that the "co-optation" versus "seat at the table" balance has come out in favor of "seat at the table."

[33] TWC: In creating the Fansplaining podcast, you're occupying a new (and growing) role: that of professional fangirl, or perhaps fangirl as entrepreneur. What do you think of fandom's more entrepreneurial developments, from fandom journalism to podcasts to Kickstarter projects, fan films, and artist stores? Are there lines, and are they correctly drawn?

[34] FK: I'm not sure what "correctly drawn" means in this case! These lines are a site of constant negotiation, but the negotiation isn't just between fans and corporations. Of course those negotiations exist. But there's also the negotiation between fans and other fans. Is it right for fandom journalists and podcasts to ask for money? (I, as you might guess from our Fansplaining Patreon, say yes: it takes time and effort to create professional-quality commentary on fandom, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, any more than there's anything wrong with an academic studying fan culture and getting tenure.)

[35] Then there's also negotiations within corporations. How much do entrepreneurial fans cost corporations? If people give Outlander (2014–) tours of Scotland and don't cut in Starz, Diana Gabaldon, or Ron Moore, is that really a net loss for them? The question is opportunity cost. If they would have set up official tours but are now being outcompeted by fans, that's one thing; if they never would have, it is probably worth it to them to let fans run those tours, because the tours help people get more and more invested in the stories and create an "evergreen brand." There's similar negotiations around things like what will degrade a trademark. This is something that is often invisible to fans; they only see it when a company sends a nastygram. But there are often widely varying ideas within that company about what is and isn't OK for fans to do.

[36] Personally, I am in favor of fans being entrepreneurial because I see it as a way that fans can gain power within the context of the entertainment industry. Money and viewership are the only two things that can make the industry sit up and take notice, and while I don't want every fan to take that route, I do think that it helps us all for some fans to do it.

[37] TWC: While the future is never certain, what would you anticipate to be the most significant space of negotiation in the future of fan–industry interaction?

[38] FK: I'm not sure. A lot depends, in my opinion, on the way that the entertainment industry sorts out its financial models. Right now, different shows and films are financed in quite different ways, and these differences have knock-on effects with regard to how fans are treated. With a set business model, it would be relatively simple to understand corporations' motivations in their treatment of fans as a whole, and work from there. But since properties have far more widely divergent models than ever before, there's not a single set of forces working on any property or corporation that impacts their treatment of fans. Without knowing which model will come to predominate—or if a single model will come to predominate—it's hard to predict what will become a space of negotiation.

[39] One thing is certain: I feel sure that fan films will continue to be a site of tension. It's simply too easy to make too high quality of a film—and the rewards for making fan films are too great. I consider this, though, to be more of an intraindustry problem than an industry versus fans problem, because the people who have access to the materials to make a fan film that will compete with industry are still largely involved in a professional capacity in some way. (That doesn't make them not fans; it only complicates the positioning.)