Cultural porters and banyun in Chinese fandoms on Bilibili

Leiyuan Tian

London School of Economics and Political Science, London, United Kingdom

Fan Liang

Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, Jiangsu, China

[0.1] Abstract—Banyun is the grassroots transnational media flow of foreign media content on Chinese platforms, particularly Bilibili. In this case study, we explore the role of the practitioners of banyun, the "cultural porters," in relation to other fans and the original creators of the "transported" videos. We propose to understand banyun in Chinese online fandoms as a practice of partial storytelling through free digital labor, which shapes interpretative frameworks shared among fans and facilitates engagement with the fan object. We find that porters can transform their identities from fans to influencers with great fluidity, but they are also confined by negotiations of collaborative roles and boundaries of power with the original creators.

[0.2] Keywords—Content creator; Digital labor; Transnational media flow

Tian, Leiyuan, and Fan Liang. 2023. "Cultural Porters and Banyun in Chinese Fandoms on Bilibili." In "Chinese Fandoms," edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Entering the digital age, global fandoms have witnessed the proliferation of transnational media flows and transcultural communication where fan practices and identities evolved (Lee 2014). While the Chinese internet has remained a relatively closed environment isolated from the world, Chinese media consumers have developed strong interests in foreign media from their limited exposure to imported entertainment through censored domestic channels (Li 2019). With the help of VPN services, some Chinese users have been able to bypass the Great Firewall to discover content unavailable at home (Hobbs and Roberts 2018). However, most Chinese online users lack access or related language and digital skills to perform this task.

[1.2] To share resources abroad with fandoms on the Chinese internet, some Chinese fans have adopted the practice of banyun (搬运, transport), that is, the reposting and remixing of videos, pictures, and texts retrieved from foreign platforms on Chinese platforms. For sharing banyun content, the user-generated content (UGC) platform Bilibili has been a popular choice. Users practicing banyun are called banyun gong (搬运工, porters), who play mediating roles between media producers and consumers. While current literature on Chinese grassroots efforts to share transnational media content mainly focuses on fan subbing networks of zimuzu (字幕组, subtitle group), we call for scholarly attention to the practices of banyun and its implications for Chinese online participatory cultures.

[1.3] Through a qualitative analysis of data collected from Bilibili and personal communication materials, we explored three aspects of banyun in Chinese fandoms: the content provided by banyun, the identities of porters, and the relationships between porters and original creators. We argue that banyun functions as a practice of partial storytelling through free digital labor, where the transported content has been selected and reworked to deliver "partial stories" as the porters like. While de Saint Laurent, Glǎveanu, and Literat (2021) use the term "partial stories" to describe how internet memes function to disseminate fractured political narratives, we adopt this expression to illustrate the purposeful labor of remixing and presenting banyun content by porters. Porters also move across different identities, we argue, while negotiating their roles and boundaries of power with the original creators. Practicing banyun is working through tensions, as what sparks creativity and community spirits can also sow conflicts and copyright issues.

2. Literature review

[2.1] The study of fandoms as participatory cultures was pioneered by media research on entertainment cultures in the United States, focusing initially on television shows as in Henry Jenkins's influential Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) (Delwiche and Henderson 2013; Jenkins 2014). In the following decades, the internet and the expanding use of digital media have been transforming fan practices, fandom ecologies, and consequently fandom research (Baym 2000; Booth 2017). With nascent communication tools and collaborative spaces, networks of global fans have been exploring new approaches to fabricating collective creativity and intelligence (Bennett 2014). Moreover, going digital has enabled fannish modes of engagement to transcend fandom contexts and become increasingly adopted by mass audiences in daily online activities (Ford 2014). Moving from traditional to digital media, not only have previously marginalized fan communities become more appreciable to the masses, but the masses have also become more open to the idea of becoming and participating like fans.

[2.2] Indeed, the tendency for fandom scholars to overpraise the democratizing power of digital media has been criticized for neglecting the power structures within groups and boundary maintenance between groups (Hills 2013; Jenkins 2018). Instead of romanticizing online fandoms as perfectly democratic and collaborative spaces, scholars suggest that fandoms should be understood as entangled in constant processes of "internalizing and incorporating these tensions" between ideals of amateur-friendly grassroot populism and realities of elitist discourses celebrating professional competence and skillfulness (Hills 2013, 148). These discourses favoring and prioritizing certain participants over others create and sustain underlying power structures in online fandoms where not all fans play equal roles and not all interactions are deemed appropriate. The imbalance in the ability to cast influences on the community and norms of power relations are mutually reinforcing, shaping fans' attitudes toward each other, group-specific social etiquettes they learn to follow, and cooperative models in collective prosumption.

[2.3] While Western approaches to conceptualizing fandom remain influential in the field, researchers have shifted the focus to global fandoms in recent years, calling attention to international and transnational socioeconomic contexts (Darling-Wolf 2004; Harrington and Bielby 2007; Chin and Morimoto 2013). Chinese fandoms have emerged from this expanding research agenda, with many scholars addressing the influences of digital media (e.g., Zhang 2016; Fung 2019; Zhang and Negus 2020). In fact, many digital practices in Chinese fandoms today can be traced back to the transnational media flow in China since the 1980s. The reform and opening-up introduced eye-opening foreign cultural products to the Chinese audiences through restricted broadcasting of imported entertainment on mass media (Li 2019). It did not take long for Chinese youth to find themselves captivated by Japanese and American animations shown on official TV and mangas in magazines; thus began the burgeoning anime-comic-game (ACG) frenzy in China (Yin and Xie 2018).

[2.4] Unsatisfied with restricted broadcasts, Chinese audiences craved more personalized experiences. Meanwhile, amidst a transitional stage of economic reform, many of these hungry cultural poachers fell victim to the sharply increased income inequality (Naughton 2007). Unfulfilled demands and limited purchasing power have fueled wide circulations of pirated copies and fan subs (Yi 2018). The gaps in intellectual property laws and the general lack of copyright awareness further paved the way for piracy to proliferate in the Chinese media market (Li 2019). In the late 1990s, the production of pirated VCDs of Hollywood movies and Japanese TV dramas bred a lucrative business for pirating industries in China and across Asia (Hu 2004; Davis and Yeh 2004). Since then, transnational media consumption in China has been dwelling in gray areas.

[2.5] Despite the popularity of foreign entertainment, many devoted Chinese audiences back then did not see themselves as fans. However invested in the stories, they were dispersed around the country and isolated in their own fantasies, having nowhere to find each other. The rise of digital media has been a game-changer. With affordable and accessible internet connections, people started to connect with like-minded others and develop organizations of their own. The discovery of communities through online spaces turned out to be essential for Chinese fans in fashioning their fan identities (Fung 2009). For instance, Yin (2019) found that it was not until the internet and social media became widely used in China that clearly defined ACG fan identities came into being, though ACG content had been part of collective childhood memories since the airing of imported anime on TV. Intense feelings of passion and affection as well as actions of consumption and collection are not adequate for fan identification; being able to locate themselves in and engage with online communities was necessary. Currently, the crucial role of offering spaces for gathering and communal activities has been taken up by popular platforms such as Weibo and Bilibili.

[2.6] By facilitating participation and interaction, the digitalization of Chinese fandoms has not only provided the grounds for constructing fan identities and communities but also fostered what Turner (2011) describes as obscuring the demarcation between fans and audiences. The ubiquity of online participatory activities in all types of mass culture has gradually normalized and popularized fandom practices among Chinese people (Yin 2021). As fannish behaviors and mentalities become widely accepted, standards for self-recognition and social acknowledgement of fan identities also become less demanding. Clear and rigid rules for qualifying someone as a fan have noticeably diminished, carving out spaces for Chinese fans to frequently traverse across fandom from home and abroad while producing and consuming fan objects of different kinds (Yin 2019).

[2.7] Thus, the expanding degrees of freedom for fans to inhabit various fan spaces and flow across diverse fan communities suggest that China's digital fan culture is transforming into an open, fluid, and quasi-autopoietic "transfandom" (Hills 2014; Yin 2020). Being in this transfandom means that the fan identities of Bilibili users are always in flux as the users adopt vernacular expressions and shared practices of different communities on the platform (Chen 2020). It also indicates that a fan can utilize multiple platforms, such as Bilibili, Weibo, QQ, and so on, to celebrate the same fan object with various user groups using different "technologically facilitated language and practices" afforded by the platforms (Yin and Xie 2021, 3). Echoing Miller and colleagues' (2016) notion of "scalable sociality" which points to social media users' moving around scales of communicative spaces freely as they will, Chinese fans are embracing the flexibility in shifting across social spaces of online fandom(s). Fan identities become defined less by a single organization and more by the intersecting networks of fans that paint everyone a mixed profile.

3. Case study: Banyun on Bilibili

[3.1] The engaging and personalized fan experiences online have been powered by digital tools and platforms that significantly lower the entry barrier and costs for amateurs to participate in cultural prosumption (Yin 2021). With editing tools designed with various levels of automation and open-source platforms, more fans can actualize their creative interventions and gain communal recognition by sharing the outcomes with other fans. Digital labor thus becomes a more practical option for fans seeking participation and recognition; such is the case for porters practicing banyun.

[3.2] While few studies have directly addressed the case of banyun, an extensive literature has discussed the subtitle groups, or zimuzu, in Chinese fandoms. Understanding banyun vis-à-vis zimuzu could be a starting point for our discussion. Similar to banyun, zimuzu transports foreign entertainment content to the Chinese internet. Those who join zimuzu are often fans themselves and receive little or no financial compensation (Meng and Wu 2013). To be sure, zimuzu has enhanced the circulation of foreign media programs, particularly American TV series, among Chinese audiences, as these programs are often inaccessible on traditional channels (Kung 2016).

[3.3] However, there are distinctions between banyun and zimuzu. First, zimuzu translates the original content and offers Chinese-subbed versions, whereas banyun has different degrees of intervention, ranging from direct copies to complex remixes. Second, in banyun, a porter can be an individual or a group sharing the same account or persona, while zimuzu is a self-governed group with organizational structures, ethical norms, and collaborative conventions agreed upon by its members (Davis and Yeh 2017). Third, to efficiently subtitle the most up-to-date content, zimuzu is selective of its members. Candidates who met the entry criteria and finished the training join zimuzu with a clearly defined responsibility. Yet, banyun could be practiced by anyone who has a VPN and knows how to download content from foreign websites. Even language skill is not a must since banyun does not entail translation. Finally, a large zimuzu usually disseminates subbed content on its own private website (Hu 2013). Banyun, on the other hand, relies on UGC video-sharing platforms. It could be said that zimuzu takes part in a specific form of banyun that necessarily involves translation and subtitling, whose production and dissemination processes are less dependent on third-party support and more on networks of fans.

[3.4] Focusing on banyun on Bilibili, we seek to understand how banyun transports foreign/transnational media content to Chinese audiences and what roles porters play in Chinese online fandoms. Content posted by porters on Bilibili is by default discoverable by any Chinese user and thus capable of influencing the fan community, by intention or accident. Although some individual porters may view banyun as primarily a practice of personal collection or a time-saver to avoid making VPN connections every time they want to rewatch a video on Western platforms, we argue that the action of banyun in the default setting entails sharing when it is performed on Bilibili. Therefore, it is possible to discuss the de facto communal implications of banyun without clarifying whether it has been the porter's initial intention to achieve a wider impact. In light of this, our first research question asks for a contextualized understanding of banyun.

[3.5] RQ1: How can we understand banyun in the context of fandoms on Bilibili?

[3.6] Considering the differences in experience between porters and fans who simply watch transported content, the distinctive character of porters has stood out from average viewers. Therefore, the role of porters could be meaningfully explored by examining the relationships between them and other fans, namely, their audiences:

[3.7] RQ2: What are the relationships between banyun porters and their audiences?

[3.8] The role of porters has evolved as banyun become more and more common in fandoms of grassroots content creators and social media influencers. Unlike the pronounced power imbalance between unlicensed zimuzu and mass entertainment corporations, there is far more space for porters to negotiate their relationships with the original creators. When it comes to respect for copyright and privacy, most porters self-regulate to obtain consent for transportation and avoid crossing personal boundaries, but it has not always been the case. It is thus necessary to explore the relationships between porters and content creators:

[3.9] RQ3: What are the relationships between banyun porters and foreign content creators?

4. Data and methods

[4.1] Taking an exploratory approach, we used qualitative site research to address our research questions. All research data were collected based on relevance to the research questions and analyzed using the grounded theory method (Charmaz 1996). By following twenty porters on Bilibili for three months and observing relevant activities, we inductively analyzed empirical data on (1) discourses that directly addressed banyun-related topics and content, and (2) ordinary users' responses to and interactions with each other stimulated by banyun content. Moreover, we collected data from user-contributed blogs from zhuanlan (专栏, special column), announcements from porter accounts, and videos discussing banyun.

[4.2] We also gathered comment sections of transported videos and user reactions to promotional posts of porters' new uploads from their account timelines. In addition, we engaged in conversations with five porters through private messaging on Bilibili or offline meetings, during which they gave us oral consent to be anonymously cited in this study. To protect the privacy of our participants, we use random pseudonyms and ensured that no identifiable information is released for public viewing.

5. Practicing banyun: Partial storytelling and digital labor

[5.1] Focusing on RQ1, we analyzed observational data pertinent to banyun content and the practice of porters on Bilibili. To demonstrate how banyun works, briefly revisiting the history of banyun on Bilibili should be helpful. Both academic sources (e.g., Yin and Fung 2017) and vernacular discourses agree that Bilibili started as a parody of the Japanese ACG website Niconico Donga and gained its popularity by transporting a self-subbed version of the Japanese animation series Fate/zero, setting an early example for user porters. Since then, porters have flooded Bilibili with banyun content of all kinds while viewers are encouraged to actively engage with the content through its commentary systems, especially danmu (Zhang and Cassany 2020). At present, adding creative interventions into the original content has become a common practice among Bilibili porters, based on which different types of banyun content are classified, such as raw meat (生肉, unedited originals), cooked meat (熟肉, fully translated and subbed), and slides (切片, clips taken from the original). While viewers fluent in the foreign languages could choose to watch raw meat to instantly catch up with the latest updates, others have to wait for the porters to finish producing cooked meat to view the content.

[5.2] To make sense of the transnational banyun activities, we suggest viewing porters as cultural intermediaries whose work has been not only connective and communicative but also interpretative and persuasive. The concept of cultural intermediaries was proposed by Pierre Bourdieu (1984) to indicate a rising new middle class in the twentieth century who worked in "occupations involving presentation and representation (ales, marketing, advertising, public relations, fashion, decoration and so forth) and in all the institutions providing symbolic goods and services" (259). As the agency between production and consumption, porters could enhance communication between cultural creators and consumers.

[5.3] However, different from traditional situations where consumers have access to the original products, banyun assumes the disconnection between consumers and the originals in which filtered versions of the products from porters are the only accessible objects of consumption. Therefore, being cultural intermediaries in the context of banyun means presenting stories of the porters' own choice. As a result, the impact of banyun expands from quantity to quality of media consumption, from the intensity of video viewing made possible by the number of available resources to the construction of interpretative frameworks shaped by what porters have chosen to tell. Moreover, porters are further empowered by the flexibility in editing transported materials to assimilate others and influence fandom discourses. Since they emphasize their shared identification as fans with the viewers, edited content blends in naturally with regular fan vids. Porter intervention is thus unquestioned by the viewers and even preferred by those who seek confirmation from fans holding similar opinions.

[5.4] Although porters are not cultural monopolies who deliberately withhold resources to seize control of the market, the informational advantage they enjoy over other fans has yielded the power of gatekeeping to porters and lured some of them into telling partial stories of their own fantasies. A typical example we observed is Butter (pseudonym), a porter who has been transporting self-edited Twitch streams of video game players to Bilibili since early 2021. As Butter dug deeper into the fandom, she became obsessed with the relationship between two streamers. Her uploads served as evidence for her theories of potential romance, including clips of interactions between the streamers and broadcasts where they talked about each other affectionately. However, when the streamers' friendship ended in late 2021, Butter continued to transport videos from their streams where traces of this former friendship remained while preserving her old videos with the name of the ship (romantic pairing) in the titles. In the small community dedicated to this ship on Bilibili, most viewers used Butter as an unquestioned source of information and based their discussions solely on the content transported by her. Butter demonstrates one of the many cases where porters intentionally conceal part of the story to construct a narrative they wish to believe and/or tell. Combining their character as a fan who fantasizes and a storyteller who selects and presents, porters shape the collective interpretation of the fandom by sharing as well as hiding pieces of the story.

[5.5] Besides partial storytelling, banyun could also be understood from the perspective of digital labor. Indeed, the Chinese term banyun literally means "carrying and transporting" with strong connotations of physical labor. Although porters are themselves audiences and fans of the products they transport, the degree of engagement and commitment they have as digital laborers distinguishes them from general fans in significant ways. In other words, practicing banyun is engaging in a form of participatory digital labor. Meanwhile, the majority of banyun practiced by fans is nonprofit and voluntary "free labor," free in both senses of "unpaid" and "willingness" (Terranova 2000, 48).

[5.6] Contrary to popular impression, practicing free labor does not mean porters do it for nothing. Many porters started their banyun careers out of passion. During our personal communication with a porter of fan vids, the porter recalled that she began transporting YouTube videos simply because she was amazed by a fan vid's cinematography and felt that it deserved to be seen by more people. This passion is, on the one hand, grounded in an appreciation for the content and desire to give back to the creator, while on the other hand supported by an imagined community where sharing is a rewarding collective experience. Despite the lack of monetary incentive, porters understand their voluntary work as an act of gratitude for the high-quality content and meanwhile feel rewarded with the pleasure of participation and appreciation from other fans. In the eyes of the porters, the free labor of banyun is already paid for at the moment they first consume the original content, followed by bonuses when the community acknowledges and shows respect for their work.

[5.7] Concluding from multiple zhuanlan blogs posted by porters, the types of labor they perform in banyuninclude selection and downloading, editing, and strategic uploading. When selecting videos on foreign platforms, porters need to keep themselves updated with the status quo of the content creators, such as checking whether the creators are involved in any online conflict or have made hate speech about China and the Chinese. Porters also need to ensure the newness of the content being transported, which is a tricky task since newness is defined by the availability of the content on Bilibili. In other words, a video from five years ago could still be new if no one else has transported it to Bilibili, but a video that appeared just a few minutes ago could be old if another porter has been more efficient. Under constant stress of speed racing, practicing banyun can exhaust porters' deep passion for the original content.

[5.8] The work done after video publication involves more extrinsic motivations and social incentives. These types of labor include promoting the videos through posts on account channels, interacting with viewers in the comment sections, and responding to private messages from viewers. Viewers usually voice their specific banyun requests or suggestions about subtitles and editing through comments and messages. By spending time reading the messages and making timely replies, most porters also take demands of the community into consideration and negotiate their stories told with banyun.

6. The fluid identities: From fans to porters to influencers

[6.1] In online fandoms, porters have developed different ideas about their responsibilities and relationships with other fans. Meanwhile, ordinary Bilibili users' attitudes toward banyun practitioners have also changed and diversified. Viewing the role of porters as a mansion of many identities, this section examines roles that porters could play in their relationships with fans of the original content (RQ2).

[6.2] From our observation, the most salient role shared by almost all porters is simply a fan, a passionate devotee of the cultural object who has turned their affection into actions and participates in social activities with other fans. Indeed, without the genuine feelings they have for the fan object and the community, porters would not be able to develop the intrinsic motivation for practicing unpaid banyun. However, even among fans, attention and respect are distributed unequally. Fans who were the earliest to enter the fandom, fans who have been actively contributing to the fandom in meaningful ways, and fans with expertise in specific creative fields enjoy the highest status, and many porters combine all three qualities. As key participants of the community, porters are opinion leaders whose voices are the most valued in defining community boundaries and norms and providers who keep the fandom alive by bringing in new content.

[6.3] An interesting question is whether other fans view their relationships with porters in merely practical terms, treating porters as sources of entertainment or repositories of information, like a TV channel they watch every day but do not have intimate feelings for. We believe that this could be the case for some. Appearance-wise, the main pages of banyun accounts on Bilibili bear more resemblance to official websites of entertainment companies than social media accounts of real people, as they mainly display uploaded videos and lack space for personal information. However, most porters also use their banyun accounts to engage in emotional labor that builds interactions with their audiences, which increases the attraction for viewers to personify the accounts. Notably, in the accounts we followed, users tend to address the porters by nicknames or personal terms when they express gratitude for the hard work of porters. It suggests that relationships between porters and other fans could be interpersonal or parasocial beyond sheer media utility.

[6.4] In Butter's case, her persistence in transporting videos about the faded friendship has been encouraged by her audiences who share her passion for and interpretation of the streamers' relationship, with comments reading: "How sweet!" "This is so addictive, I'm dying!" and "Please make more videos like this!" Surrounded by the echo chamber, Butter's story appears more trustworthy and gains more persuasion power in the competition of fan narratives. Editing and remixing become her way of storytelling and gathering a congregation of storytellers. Together they preach an interpretative framework built upon their collective imaginations and appropriations of canon, however deviated from the changed realities.

[6.5] Based on their relationships with the audiences, porters could shift their identities from fans to influencers. Influencers are grassroots social media users who profit from their influences, that is, impact on their followers' buying decisions (Brown and Hayes 2016). By definition, fan porters do not earn profits from banyun, though there are some exceptions. What we mean by porters acting as influencers is that porters have become influential users on Bilibili. It is arguable that the original content creators should be credited for the initial impacts achieved by porters, but as porters work on their channels, their tastes for content, distinctive editing styles, and personal charisma have won themselves followers who are not all fans of the banyun content.

[6.6] For example, among the twenty porters we observed, some porters transport various types of content from different creators. Their followers may only identify as fans of one of these content creators or not a fan at all, but the mix of content selected by the porter has attracted them. In another example, when a porter took off all the banyun content on his channel due to copyright issues, he did not lose his followers who instead encouraged him to start making tutorial videos about professional editing. These examples show that porters can turn viewers of their banyun content into fans of themselves. In these cases, porters could be perceived as competent cultural producers who offer edits and services of content selection or charming individuals capable of engendering a fandom in which they are the new fan objects.

[6.7] Furthermore, like influencers, porters also exercise a particular form of advertising power, one that is noncommercial but capable of generating revenue, though not for themselves. The product being advertised is the banyun content, while profits go to the original content creators if conditions allow for fans to donate money or purchase the creators' merch. The Chinese internet slang anli (安利, recommending), for instance, has been used by fans to describe this purposeful advertising of content and content creators out of pure passion. In our conversations, some porters confessed that making the content they like available to potential audiences on Bilibili is inherently an act of anli. This explains why most porters put down links to the original creators' channels in descriptions of banyun videos and encourage users with VPN access to visit and support these creators, knowing that only a few are able to do so. It is thus no surprise that many porters take pride in themselves for helping their beloved content creators expand and reach fans in China. However, the relationship between porters and content creators has not always been as positive as supposed.

[6.8] Although the sequence of fan to porter to influencer seems to present a phasic evolution of identity, we observe that porters do not experience these identities like moving up through stages of development. Rather, the three identities can coexist in a porter, the person taking on different or multiple roles in different scenarios. When porters watch the original video on YouTube, they are clearly thinking like ordinary fans. When they start to transport the video, they often see themselves as porters but also as fans when they tell stories through editing, or even as influencers when they consider integrating viewer requests into their editing to attract more audiences. As porters, their self-recognition as fans is crucial for sustaining motivations for practicing banyun, while their influencer identities are cultivated through interactions with the community that can happen quite naturally if they take their work of sharing seriously. Porters transition between these identities with great fluidity, and other fans also perceive the role of porters in a mix of ways across the fluid identities.

7. Collaboration or infringement: Porters and original creators

[7.1] RQ3 addresses the relationship between Bilibili porters and original creators. Being fans themselves, porters have been portrayed as generous volunteers who contribute to the growth of the original creators without expecting anything in return. Indeed, porters share a profound understanding of content creators' ambitions and frustrations. Genuinely concerned about the careers of these content creators, they actively reach out to the creators to offer their business advice, especially on developing Chinese fan bases and seeking opportunities in the Chinese market. Sometimes these suggestions are utterly altruistic since having the official channel entering Chinese platforms entails the impotence of banyun. Porters behind a shared banyun account dedicated to a Minecraft streamer, for example, once reached out to the streamer's production team to propose the establishment of an official channel on Bilibili after seeing many accounts profit from reposting the streamers' content without giving credit. However, their intentions were mistaken, and the contact from the streamers' team demanded they delete all banyun content on Bilibili. Displeased by the situation, the porters still followed the instructions. Later, they received apologies from the contact but nevertheless decided to terminate their account. This incident represents a type of situation where porters mindfully maintain self-integrity by sticking to ethical norms of banyun regardless of how the creators interpret their actions.

[7.2] With the increased visibility of Chinese fans in recent years, more foreign content creators have come to understand the case for banyun and are more open to porters asking for banyun permissions. The agreement between porters and original creators has become a source of legitimacy, forging a collaborative relationship based on mutual consent: creators can cultivate their fan base in China by agreeing to have porters practice regular banyun, while porters can use the agreement as a weapon to dispel competitors from racing to transport the newest content. However, due to the exclusivity of this relationship, small porters complain about porters who have obtained banyun permission but do not take full responsibility for the creators. As an indie porter writes, "many porter groups don't work at all after receiving official permission, yet they forbid others from doing anything. Eventually, many of the creators they should be responsible for become forgotten on Bilibili. In this kind of situation, I should just take over the work of banyun anyway." In fact, shifting the burden of transporting all content to one porter/porter group is too much of a task for these amateur producers. It is impossible to require a porter to always devote tremendous amounts of leisure time and energy to updating banyun videos and always be loyal to that one single fandom or content creator. Therefore, consented collaboration between porters and content creators is difficult to sustain. The dynamics between a few creators and many porters complicate the process of reaching agreements, as permissions could not be issued multiple times, but porters might leave and move on.

[7.3] Moreover, new issues emerge when content creators accept the suggestion of establishing official accounts on Bilibili. Since 2020, many foreign content creators such as Pamela Reif and Hacksmith have created official channels on Bilibili. Initially, fans welcomed these official channels as they help creators monetize their content in China and allow porters to resign with relief. Yet, fans soon discovered that some of these accounts were poorly managed and not catering to the Chinese viewer experience. For instance, a YouTuber's Bilibili account only features a few uploads from long ago with YouTube auto-generated Chinese subtitles. One of the former porters who had been actively promoting the official channel felt irritated by its management team on Bilibili. "I was the first to follow and promote the official channel (on Bilibili)," he wrote in an announcement of his resignation, "immediately I helped them gain 20k active followers, but the team thought the growth was the result of their good management." In the comment section under this blog, users criticized the inaction of the official channel and expressed strong empathy for the former porter. In this incident, it was not the porter's intention to infringe the interests of the original creator but the choice of fans to turn their backs on the official accounts who abandoned fans on Bilibili in the first place.

[7.4] Thus far, the porters seem to be the good guys while the official accounts are the villains. However, there still exist porters who intentionally infringe copyright and profit from their banyun content. The most common offense is to mark their banyun videos as original instead of transported, since the former monetizes the video while the latter does not on Bilibili. Searching banyun on Bilibili, many tutorial videos about making money from banyun can be found, most of them repeating the same rhetoric that foreign videos "usually don't touch upon copyright issues" and "adding some original editing is enough." Taking advantage of foreign content creators' lack of awareness of Bilibili, some porters run banyun accounts as businesses. Fortunately, this practice is strongly condemned by most Bilibili users who will report it to the platform as well as notify the original creators upon discovery. To avoid being reported, a second strategy is to mark all banyun videos as transported and use them to attract followers. Once the channel gains a considerable number of regular viewers, the porter will start to upload monetized videos created by themselves. This approach is less despised by the users who may already see porters as influencers but still evokes copyright concerns.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] In this case study, we examine the practices, identities, and copyright issues of banyun porters on Bilibili. Our findings suggest two perspectives to understand banyun in Chinese online fandom: banyun as partial storytelling and banyun as digital labor. The former emphasizes the gatekeeping and narrational power of porters to shape interpretative frameworks in fandoms, whereas the latter explicates the participatory motivations for porters to engage in the unpaid hard work of transporting videos. Exploring the role of porters through their relationships with other fans as well as the content creators, we also found that porters are free to transition back and forth between identities as fans, as porters, and even as influencers. While most porters seek collaboration with the original creators for the sake of the creators, some infringe the copyright of the creators for personal interests. Therefore, being a porter is embracing both the freedom of fluid identities and the frustration of negotiating boundaries. With this case study, we hope to inspire future research that explores approaches to theorize banyun and make sense of the fluid identities of these cultural porters in a dynamic and contentious online environment of digital fandoms.

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