Volunteerism in fandom

Francisca B. B. de Alvarenga

University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

[0.1] Abstract—An examination of the topics of labors of love, the gift economy, and the digi-gratis economy related to volunteerism within fandom platforms highlights issues related to monetary compensation, enjoyment of labor, and relationships between fan labor and the job market.

[0.2] Keywords—Affective labor; Digi-gratis economy; Gift economy; Labors of love

Alvarenga, Francisca B. B. de. 2021. "Volunteerism in Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The study of fans and fandoms has attracted the attention of academics since the late 1990s, particularly issues connected to labors of love and the potential economic and social impact that fans can have on the products they consume and rework. However, little attention has been paid to the fans who—besides developing fan artifacts such as fan artworks (fan fiction, videos, art), actively participating in social media sites through critical analysis, or sharing content—also work to maintain fan-made and fan-run platforms. These fans both effectively and affectively contribute their resources, including time and knowledge, so that the entire community can have free access to platforms where they can share and access each others' work.

[1.2] Such volunteer work has not been sufficiently addressed; scholars and acafans tend to prefer to focus on fans creating transformative art, not maintaining infrastructures that permit fan engagement. After an initial discussion of voluntary work within fan platforms providing a brief overview of important theoretical inputs and problematizing the links between volunteerism in fan platforms, the discussion turns to their potential relationships to larger discussions around labor in general.

2. Gift and digi-gratis economies

[2.1] The term "gift economy" is often used when talking about fan exchanges. This model is characterized by the active and willing exchange of gifts, be they material or virtual. Examples include creating fan fiction or fan art, or editing someone else's fan fiction. These exchanges have no market value, but they are imbued with symbolic and emotional value thanks to the reworkings made by fans and the meaning that is attached to them.

[2.2] Karen Hellekson (2009) points to the essential role of gift giving in fandom and to its characterizing elements: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. This exchange results in the creation of social relationships based on shared interests, thus serving to tighten community ties. All of this happens within a context: one needs to know where to find fan fiction/fan art, and one must know the appropriate mode of payment, whatever form that may take. These gifts come in various forms and modes and have "no value outside their fannish context" (115).

[2.3] However, Paul Booth (2016) problematizes the use of the term "gift economy," preferring instead the term "digi-gratis economy," which he thinks is better suited to the fannish context. When talking about fandom, the market economy and the gift economy exist simultaneously, but without necessarily coexisting in the same space. This happens because fandom resorts to market-like structures where monetary exchange is not necessary or is not considered appropriate in order to carry on its gift economy.

[2.4] The main difference between digi-gratis and gift economies is that despite their being anchored in the building and maintenance of social bonds, these exchanges are not mandatory. Despite social rules that require reciprocity, there is no actual need to give anything back since nothing is lost in the first place. Booth (2016) points out that according to the logic behind a gift economy, there is an obligation to gift back because when one gifts, one also loses a tangible object. These exchanges, then, can simultaneously both reinforce the bond between fandom and capitalistic models of exchange and be subversive, anticapitalistic systems.

[2.5] Tiziana Terranova emphasizes this relationship by noting that a gift economy is not that independent from capitalist economy: "It is important to remember that the gift economy, as part of a larger digital economy, is itself an important force within the reproduction of the labor force in late capitalism as a whole" (2000, 36). Furthermore, Terranova states that free labor is an essential condition to the "creation of value in the digital economies" (36). Although she is talking about internet workers and knowledge workers in general, Terranova (2013) makes the important and useful distinction between exploitation and free labor. Although one can mean the other, it is not always so; indeed, fandom is an example of this because it usually constitutes the fine line between the two. Going forward, it may be useful to think of a concrete fan platform where fans volunteer their time and skills to help keep the platform running, accessible, and free to access. A good example is the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW; This nonprofit organization relies on volunteer work, particularly to maintain its online presence and associated fannish tools, with wide-ranging functions including translating, managing tags, and computer coding. Most activities depend on volunteers deploying marketable skills; that is, all of these activities could, for another entity, be performed by professionals engaging in paid labor (translators, web designers, web managers, and so on). Yet as Terranova (2013) points out, such volunteerism cannot be considered full-on exploitation; nor is it empty of reward.

[2.6] On the one hand, fans are directly (via donation) or indirectly (via volunteerism) providing revenue or its proxy, unpaid professional work, to OTW. Volunteers carry out tasks that in a traditional job market would be monetarily compensated, yet they do not receive such compensation. On the other hand, as Terranova (2013) points out, this labor is willingly provided, which complicates the ready attribution of exploitation to such activities; Terranova hypothesizes that the compensation given to these fans can, and perhaps should, be given in forms other than monetary. OTW performs this function by, for example, providing online badges to longtime volunteers indicating their duration of service, thus publicly acknowledging their work. In the case of fan creations, fans gain social and creative interactions. But in the case of fan volunteerism, what do fans gain? The answer to this is less clear, although it is not too far-fetched to hypothesize that the same exchanges and gains may apply.

3. Affective labor

[3.1] According to Michael Hardt, affective labor permits the "constitution of communities and collective subjectivities" (2009, 89). Affective labor is a part of what Hardt calls "immaterial labor," which is defined as "labor that produces an immaterial good, such as service, knowledge, or communication" (94). Even if the activity in fandom is immaterial, it has material impact on the object it reworks: "Affective immaterial labor is now directly productive of capital…[It] has achieved a dominant position of the highest value in the contemporary informational economy" (97).

[3.2] Despite the real effect fans have, fandoms and their work are still often relegated to a secondary position, even ridiculed. Monica Flegel and Jenny Roth (2014) examine the issues surrounding the dichotomy of free (affective) labor versus paid labor when it comes to the production and reworking of cultural goods, suggesting that "the concept of 'writing for free' as part of what has been referred to as the 'fannish gift economy'…provokes intense anxieties about the value of both the creative product and the creative labor of those who produce it" (1092) because the free laborer and the paid worker are "the abject double" of one another (1093). These authors point to the fact that "the decline in paid work in the cultural/media industry has been matched by an increase in unpaid labor in the digital economy" (1096).

[3.3] This correlation seems apparent, but it may not be quite so straightforward. Unpaid labor is often the only option for people who work mainly in the culture industries, perhaps even for people who work in the humanities in general, to gain experience because the opportunities for internships and/or paid work are few. Certainly some OTW volunteers benefit from volunteering their time because it can help them develop a professional skill set and gain experience.

[3.4] This correlation may also be the result of exhausted workers who see themselves as constantly being exploited, with their having to accept little to no pay for activities that demand a certain level of training and strain, and who therefore turn to activities that they enjoy, even if it means not getting paid for them. As pointed out by Terranova (2013), this problem is especially prevalent for knowledge workers. It also calls to the fore discussions related to the separation between work and fun. Flegel and Roth (2014) point to the fact that fan labor can be perceived as fun, so not receiving money may be considered acceptable. However, much like Terranova (2013), Flegel and Roth identify the legitimation of work via other nonremunerative sources, pointing to a link between "paid, obligatory labor and unpaid, chosen labors of love" (2014, 1099).

[3.5] Relatedly, in the monetized work market, unqualified people may develop tasks or perform work that should be carried out by professionals. In the work market, especially in freelance work, it is common to see people who do not possess a particular specialized education developing or performing a task anyway, thus actively contributing to the discrediting of the area as well as reducing the chances of paid work for its professionals. However, fan communities work for themselves, which dissolves some of these issues even if the dynamic of a mainstream, capitalistic market still applies. It could also be interesting to investigate whether monetary remuneration would alter fans' relations to fannish volunteerism and the activities they develop for these platforms. Would OTW's translators feel differently if the work they did were to be paid? Would it make a difference? Would it change their relation to OTW, or to the task of translation itself?

[3.6] Flegel and Roth state that the gift economy does not necessarily have to exist as an "or" to the capitalist market, noting, "Gift economies are incredibly powerful, and they can produce effects that the market cannot" (2014, 1102). Such effects might include affective ones such as loyalty, collaboration, and sharing. These are produced at more than one level by both fan creators and fan volunteers—not just because these two groups often overlap but also because these effects can be produced in favor of big companies and fan platforms themselves. Flegel and Roth add that "to argue that fandom is based on either a gift economy, or is held captive by the market economy, is a gross oversimplification of the complex relationship between creative labor, writing as hobby, and writing as profession" (1103). This is particularly true when considering fan volunteers. Fan volunteers present particularities of their own, with complicated and complex relationships with not just the platforms they volunteer for but also the labor market in general.

[3.7] Going forward, it would be relevant to theorize about the relationship between tendencies within the formal labor market and the tendencies within fannish and affective labor. It would be particularly interesting to look into the mechanisms that fans use to negotiate between the skills they acquire and/or develop and their social status as fans with fannish social expectations regarding this kind of work. Studying fandom and the fans who actively—and affectively—work to keep free-access structures up and running, as in the case of OTW, could benefit a wide range of workers, academic and not, particularly those working in areas mainly affected by the changes in working habits and demands pointed out by Terranova (2000), in which the nineteenth-century industrial machine worker has given way to the twenty-first-century knowledge worker who sits behind a computer, working with more flexibility while often receiving less, although with fewer conditions than their counterparts in more traditional working environments.

[3.8] These hypotheses could benefit from some much-needed actual contact with fans and a critical analysis of the content produced by fans about such topics. It is relevant to know whether fans are aware of this exploitation, or whether they even consider it to be an exploitative endeavor. Further, we must learn about their relation to and views on remuneration for the work they perform willingly and freely.

4. References

Booth, Paul. 2016. Digital Fandom 2.0. New Media Studies. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang.

Flegel, Monica, and Jenny Roth. 2014. "Legitimacy, Validity, and Writing for Free: Fan Fiction, Gender, and the Limits of (Unpaid) Creative Labor." Journal of Popular Culture 47 (6): 1092–108.

Hardt, Michael. 2009. "Affective Labor." Boundary 2, 26 (2): 89–100.

Hellekson, Karen. 2009. "A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture." Cinema Journal 48 (4): 113–18.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2000. "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy." Social Text 18 (2): 33–58.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2013. "Free Labor." In Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, edited by Trebor Scholz, 46–77. New York: Routledge.