Fan studies, citation practices, and fannish knowledge production

Milena Popova

Rogue scholar, Bath, United Kingdom

[0.1] Abstract—Mapping the fine line we walk as fan studies scholars engaging with fannish knowledge production.

[0.2] Keyword—Acafandom

Popova, Milena. 2020. "Fan Studies, Citation Practices, and Fannish Knowledge Production." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

[1] Fannish activities and output of interest to fan studies scholars vary widely, as do the reasons why we are interested in fannish material. Alongside (or even as part of) their creative output, fannish communities produce commentary on and critiques of mainstream media, documentations of fannish history, statistics about fans, theories about fannish experiences, new forms of data management and archiving, and so on. I have in fact argued elsewhere that some fan fiction in itself constitutes original knowledge production on issues of sexual consent (Popova 2018, Popova forthcoming). Yet fan studies engagement with fannish output can at times be haphazard. It is tempting to treat fans as equals, regardless of where and how we are engaging with them. Most of us are, after all, fans as well as academics. I am both elmyra and Dr. Milena Popova, and so frequently I speak as both a fan and an academic. Others do this too: Matt Hills (2014) engages with and critiques fannish theorizing as if it were on an equal level to a published and peer-reviewed academic paper. On the other hand, we can also focus too much on treating fans' creations entirely as "data", thus failing to acknowledge that fans are knowledge creators in their own right. The submission guidelines for Transformative Works and Culture (Transformative Works and Cultures n.d.), for instance, focus on the protection of fan sources and recommend obtaining permission for using fan fiction stories and blog posts as research data. There is friction here both between our dual roles as aca/fans and between different orientations toward the material and communities we study. This friction is further exacerbated by the fact that academic and fannish communities have different rules of engagement, different knowledge production and validation practices, and different epistemological foundations. How, then, should we engage with fannish production and knowledges when we speak as academics in academic spaces? What responsibilities do we have to fan sources, not just to protect them but also to acknowledge their contribution to knowledge and to engage with it respectfully, taking into account that fannish and academic knowledge production do not operate on a level playing field? In the remainder of this piece I review three case studies (fannish chronicling of fannish history, fan stats, and fannish theorizing) to highlight some of the challenges and questions that arise from our dual positionality as aca/fans and our orientation to fannish material, particularly for our engagement and citation practices in academic spaces.

[2] The chronicling of fannish history is an interesting example when it comes to fan studies scholars' relationship with fannish outputs. This kind of chronicling can range from collaborative projects run by the Organization for Transformative Works such as Fanlore to individual fans' research of and writing about the histories of events, communities, or even tropes. Yet as historians know, there is no such thing as a single, impartial, and accurate historical account, and historiography tells us as much about the writer(s) as about the events they chronicle. As fan studies scholars, we engage with fannish histories in a range of different ways. We may find a Fanlore page or a fan's documentation of the origins of the A/B/O trope (netweight 2013) a useful starting point in our own explorations of a topic. But like undergraduates who've been warned against citing Wikipedia, we often shy away from acknowledging the contribution that fannish documentation of fannish history has made to our own work. We may, however, also want to approach fannish histories with a historian's eye and ask of these histories what they do tell us about both the writers and the events they chronicle, whom they might privilege and whose points of view they might erase, or how they compare to other histories of the same event. There is great value in asking these questions, as they may enable us to shed light on power structures within fannish spaces that may otherwise be obscured. When we do this, however, our orientation to the material changes: it becomes "data," or possibly something for us to argue against. Neither of these orientations is necessarily wrong, but each comes with a set of ethical considerations and questions we should be asking. Much like the fans we study, we too put our stamp on the material; we choose to silence some and privilege others, and in some ways we occupy a position of power vis-à-vis fannish communities—though the power relationship isn't one-directional or uncomplicated. Fans can ruin scholarly careers; scholars can draw unwanted attention and scrutiny to individuals or groups of fans. At the same time, leaving some material, fannish behaviors, or structures unscrutinized privileges the status quo even when that may actively be harming some members of fannish communities. There is potential for harm to be done in all directions, both by action and by inaction. Research questions, orientation to fannish material, and citation practices all have an ethical dimension to them, which we should consider throughout our research process.

[3] Statistics and demographic data are another area where fans have done substantial work (e.g., centrumlumina 2013, destinationtoast 2013, finnagain 2017) that fan studies scholars frequently rely on but sometimes struggle to acknowledge. I recently peer reviewed a paper in which the author had quoted numbers from a well-known fandom survey but cited a prominent fan studies scholar (who had presumably quoted the same numbers in their work) as the source. In my review, I gently encouraged the author to acknowledge the original source of the data instead. Fandom stats, however, have their own issues and limitations (as most fandom stats practitioners themselves would openly acknowledge). How a survey is promoted or how questions are phrased may significantly impact the responses, and whether such biases were intentional, the result of structural forces, or accidental despite the survey author's best efforts is often hard to tell. I use and credit fandom stats data in my own work, but I am also frequently frustrated by it. I wish some questions had been asked differently—sometimes because that would make my work easier, but frequently because a particular question doesn't work for me as a fan or as a person. Demographic questions about gender frequently fall into this category: I am a nonbinary trans person, and the surveys that have the right boxes for me (in any context, not just fandom) are few and far between. It is therefore sometimes tempting to critique survey design beyond the limitations acknowledged by the author when I cite fandom stats data in my academic work. Unless my work is specifically about fandom stats practitioners' ideas of gender (which it has not been to date), that impulse is not an academic one, and indulging it by having Dr. Milena Popova pontificate on survey design in an otherwise unrelated paper would not add value. Instead, I find ways of working around the limitations of the data and am careful to only make claims that the data as presented can support. Perhaps one day, wearing elmyra or one of my other fannish hats, I will reach out in private to fandom stats practitioners and say "Hey, do you think next time you do this you could word the gender question differently please, for these reasons?" And maybe I won't. The point here is that what hat I wear and the platform and approach I use all matter. Where elmyra can have a friendly conversation with a fellow fan, Dr. Milena Popova would be inappropriately leveraging a position of power.

[4] Similar considerations apply to fannish theorizing of fans' own cultures and experiences. Matt Hills (2014) uses a paper published in this journal to disagree with a popular blog post by obsession_inc (2009) that splits fannish activities along somewhat gendered lines into affirmational (such as memorizing and sharing trivia or collecting merchandise) and transformational (such as writing fan fiction, vidding, or creating fan art). Hills presents the case studies of Dalek building and Daft Punk helmet construction as examples of what he calls "mimetic fandom," which he claims confuses the affirmational/transformational binary. Hills quotes directly from obsession_inc's blog post on multiple occasions, and his orientation toward it is clearly that of a scholar addressing and critiquing a fellow scholar's work, dissecting the proposed model and pointing out flaws in it. In fairness to Hills, he also shows how the affirmational/transformational binary is influential in academic fan studies and argues for a problematization of it there. Yet in this, his orientation to obsession_inc is the same as his orientation to, say, Henry Jenkins. Now, it is possible that I don't move in the right fannish or academic circles, that I am not in on the big secret that there is another, academic side to obsession_inc, similar to my elmyra/Dr. Milena Popova hats. But even if Hills himself were obsession_inc, I would argue that his treatment of the affirmational/transformational fandom blog post is dubious at best. Fannish knowledge production and theorizing is produced by fans for fans. It builds on different intellectual traditions and knowledge bases. It may or may not have access to the same theoretical resources as professional fan studies scholars but certainly does not have the same cultural capital. It has epistemological foundations and knowledge validation procedures barely intelligible to academia as such. While it is absolutely right to acknowledge fannish knowledge production and treat it as such, we also need to recognize the power differential between fan studies scholars and fans and, if we wish to engage with fannish knowledge production, do so as much as possible on its terms, not ours, especially when we do so in academic spaces where we already have the upper hand.

[5] It can be difficult to decide how to engage with and cite fannish material, as by far not all of it is merely "data" in our research, and even when it is there can be complications. Above all, I would like to advocate for a wider recognition of fannish knowledge production as such. Alongside this, we need to acknowledge that such knowledge production is sufficiently different from our own that we cannot simply treat fans as fellow scholars. Where we are building on fannish work, we need to give the proper credit through citation. Where we are tempted to argue back, we need to be extremely conscious that the playing field is not level and that while most of our colleagues are also fans, not all fans are colleagues. Our citation practices for fannish output, then, should take into account our orientation to the material, the ethics of the research, and the power relationships involved.


centrumlumina. 2013. "Limitations and Uses of the Data." Tumblr, September 30, 2013.

destinationtoast. 2013. "It's Time for Fandom Stats: Omegaverse Edition!" Tumblr.

finnagain. 2017. Fandom and Sexuality Survey Summary Report. By Fans 4 Fans, LLC.

Hills, Matt. 2014. "From Dalek Half Balls to Daft Punk Helmets: Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas." In "Materiality and Object-Oriented Fandom," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

netweight. 2013. "The Nonnies Made Them Do It!" Archive of Our Own, October 28, 2013.

obsession_inc. 2009. "Affirmational Fandom vs. Transformational Fandom.", June 1, 2009.

Popova, Milena. 2018. "'Slight Dub-Con but They Both Wanted It Hardcore': Erotic Fanfiction as a Form of Cultural Activism around Sexual Consent." PhD thesis, University of the West of England.

Popova, Milena. Forthcoming. Dubcon: Fanfiction, Power, Consent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Transformative Works and Cultures. n.d. Submissions. Accessed May 30, 2020.