Fandom and/as labor

Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Editorial providing an overview of the topic of fan studies and labor; and outlining the special issue's contents.

[0.2] Keywords—Community; Gift economy; Media industry; Value; Work

Stanfill, Mel, and Megan Condis. 2014. "Fandom and/as Labor" [editorial]. In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0593.

1. Introduction

[1.1] It has long been recognized both within academia and in the various communities organized around fandom that the practice of being a fan does not merely consist of passive consumption. Rather, fans are also producers, making everything from interpretations of their favorite television shows to extratextual products like wikis, fan fiction, and fan videos to data about their own consumption habits and those of their peers that can be used to market new products. It is now well established that watching television can usefully be conceptualized as work (Jhally and Livant 1986; Smythe 1977), and a labor framing has been applied to user-generated content by critical media studies scholars (Andrejevic 2009; Fuchs 2012; Hesmondhalgh 2010). However, fans have not often been approached this way. This disjuncture partially comes from the fact that fan activity is by all appearances both freely chosen and understood as pleasure, neither of which is typically associated with work. Instead, fan action has been framed as being active or participatory, and while these conceptualizations have been productive, when the lens of labor is applied, unique and crucial questions come into view.

[1.2] To speak of labor is to attend to the value fans generate—an antidote to surprisingly tenacious notions of fan activity as a valueless pleasure. Once we have conceptualized fan work as generating value, we can also inquire into how that value is distributed and whether work circulating between fans in gift economies or among fans and industry is potentially exploited labor. This special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures takes the premise that if fans are a vital part of the new economy, then we have to take the economy part as seriously as the vital part. When such a stance is taken, it turns out that fan labor, like duct tape or the Force, has a dark side and a light side, and it holds the universe—or at least fandom—together. The contributors to this special issue demonstrate a wide variety of ways that labor functions in fandom.

2. Come to the dark side (We use cookies—see our privacy policy)

[2.1] In the contemporary moment, labor issues are once again coming to the forefront of many people's political consciousness. When we proposed this topic, the February and March 2011 Wisconsin union protests were recent events, and Occupy Wall Street and its discourse of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent was still to come. Since then, this sort of conflict around labor and the distribution of resources to workers has become ever more central, with Walmart and fast-food worker strikes forming part of an increasingly mainstream struggle over dignified working conditions and a living wage.

[2.2] Labor conditions in media are also in the midst of a large-scale transformation. There was a marked increase over the first decade of the 21st century in what used to be called runaway production (and is now maybe just production), with TV series increasingly being produced in Canada and films increasingly being made in New Zealand. The same period saw an explosion of unscripted series. Both of these production strategies employ writers, actors, directors, and other personnel in ways that skirt the terms of union contracts in order to lower labor costs (Lotz 2007). One major issue in the 2007–8 Writers Guild of America strike was an insistence that Web content was creative work and creators were thus eligible to be paid at creative rates, rather than promotional work that creators were obligated to participate in for free (Gray 2010; Leaver 2013; Russo 2010). The kinds of paratexts or pieces of ancillary content that were at stake in the WGA strike are quite like what fans produce, and turning to fans rather than paid staff for such work thus looks increasingly good for the bottom line. After all, even against the baseline of declining labor strength in Hollywood, fan work is a bargain for industry.

[2.3] Fan value creation—in terms of meaning, loyalty, commitment, and promotion—is not new, but industry recognition and encouragement, as well as the contemporary expansion of monetization, are. The contemporary era has seen technologically enabled visibility of fan practices that in many instances existed before current media technologies (Bacon-Smith 1991; Coppa 2008; Jenkins 1992). One of the first to make sense of user activity on the Internet as labor was Tiziana Terranova (2000, 37), who contended that "free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time shamelessly exploited." We find that simultaneity of pleasure and exploitation to be key.

[2.4] For example, the video game industry has long been working to blur the line between labor and play in its own ranks by recruiting fans as beta testers for games that are about to be released. Companies routinely emphasize the benefits and the prestige associated with early access: alpha and beta testers are said to have the ear of game makers, to be influential in shaping the final product. Similar rhetoric abounds in recruitment materials aimed at young workers looking to break into the industry. Entry-level workers, like game testers (otherwise known as QA, for quality assurance), are promised a paying job that hardly feels like work at all. Who wouldn't want to spend their day earning money for doing something that they were already doing just for fun? Game industry workplaces are designed to create an atmosphere that further reinforces a playful aesthetic. Employees describe "an ambience of 'cool' built up around unregulated hours, lax dress code, studio pranks, free food, fitness facilities, lavish parties, funky interior design, and an array of other perks and promises" (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2006, 604). Some gaming companies have built entire marketing strategies around the notion that they are fun places to work: Sony, the maker of Playstation game consoles, made three seasons' worth of reality television competitions called The Tester in which it gave away QA jobs as the grand prizes (The Tester 2014).

[2.5] Unfortunately for fans who aspire to become industry professionals, the realities of game testing are far less glamorous than they initially appear. Game testing is a brutal, monotonous, repetitive, poorly paid, insecure job—and testers aren't the only ones in the games industry with grievances. Even workers with more prestigious, higher-level jobs in the industry run afoul of exploitative labor practices, such as crunch time, an "industry term that indicates an apparently unusual period of crisis in the production schedule" (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2006, 609). According to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), crunch time is "omnipresent" in the gaming industry (2004, 18). Gaming companies justify crunch time by pointing to looming deadlines such as a release date that will be in time to catch the Christmas rush (IGDA 2004, 18), and yet Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter describe crunch time as "apparently" unusual because, in fact, companies in the tech industry rely on crunch time as a cost-saving mechanism that is built into the corporate culture. Indeed, "normalized crunch time…points to a very elementary economic fact: it is a good deal, a steal in fact, for game companies" (2006, 609). In other words, from the perspective of games companies, crunch time panics are a planned feature of the working environment, not a bug. Such working conditions are made possible in large part by the exploitation of the blurry boundary between labor and fandom.

3. The light at the end of the tunnel may be you: Valuing fan work

[3.1] If one trajectory locates fan work as generating surplus value that is ultimately extracted and exploited by industry, a second would focus on the proliferation of value generated by fans for fans. Fandom runs on fan labor, and this work produces enjoyment, collectivity, and various material and immaterial goods that give fandom shape as a practice, community, or culture. Calling attention to this action as labor stakes an important claim to that production precisely as a production of value.

[3.2] It can be difficult to think of fan activities and labor in the same register. Fans freely engage in these activities—or they are at least not coerced by the intractable need to earn a living. People enjoy doing them. Thus, it seems as if it isn't really labor and fans don't require payment because enjoyment is enough, or because fandom rejects capitalist logics (De Kosnik 2012; Fiske 1992; Noppe 2011). However, fan labor also dovetails with contemporary labor practice through the rise of pleasurable work as a widespread or even normative phenomenon. Eran Fisher (2012, 173) describes nonalienated work as carrying the "possibility to express oneself, to control one's production process, to objectify one's essence and connect and communicate with others." Fan work is precisely this sort of self-expression and connection, which fans produce under their own control. This lack of alienation has frequently been noted as common in, if not endemic to, contemporary labor in general (Cohen 2012; Postigo 2009), but because of the heretofore rigid separation of leisure/pleasure from labor/drudgery (Meehan 2000), pleasurable labor often does not register as labor at all, as indeed it does not tend to with fan work.

[3.3] Rather than conceptualizing fan activity as labor, the production and circulation of goods in fandom has generally been described as a gift economy (Hellekson 2009; Scott 2009). Participants in such an economy use gift giving as the means to circulate goods and services; this exchange does not typify the colloquial notion of a gift as a freely offered expression of affection but rather is obligatory (Hellekson 2009; Mauss [1925] 2000; Pearson 2007) and is organized by status (Boyle 2003; Hyde [1983] 2007; Mauss [1925] 2000). To modify the open source software saying "Free as in free speech, not as in free beer," fan work is "For free as in a gift, not for free as in without pay." The emphasis in fan circulation of gifts is in producing and reinforcing fannish identities and relationships. As Abigail De Kosnik (2013) frames it, "'Free' fan labor (fan works distributed for no payment) means 'free' fan labor (fans may revise, rework, remake, and otherwise remix mass-culture texts without dreading legal action or other interference from copyright holders). Many, perhaps even most, fans who engage in this type of production look upon this deal very favorably." Because of the way fan gift economies run on identity, connection, and production according to one's own desires in a way antithetical to our usual beliefs about work, labor has not been a prominent conversation thus far.

[3.4] However, recognizing and valuing fan work as work is vital. Fan labor, for example, has enabled the crown jewel of online fandom, the Organization for Transformative Works' fan fiction archive, the Archive of Our Own, to recently pass the milestone of a million fan works uploaded (AO3 2014). Fans built it; fans maintain it; fans produce and auction off creative works to raise funds for it (ao3auction 2013). The light side is the work fans do for each other. Fans produce wikis and episode transcripts, allowing a depth of knowledge and engagement with objects of fandom that industry products alone could never satisfy. Fan work also produces things for other fans more concretely, as can be traced in the dedications and shout-outs appended to fan artworks. Perhaps most importantly, fan work creates fan community—fandom itself—through the production and maintenance of affective ties. Calling this work "work" opens up appreciation for the skills involved, much as with feminist insistence on care work as labor (Arber and Ginn 1995; England and Folbre 1999; Hochschild 1989). The labor framework provides a powerful way to value what fans are doing, in contrast to the dismissals that have long attended fandom. If industry has not framed fan action as work to avoid payment, then the pleasure framework sells fans short vis-à-vis what they do for each other. This special issue examines these considerations as well.

4. About this issue

[4.1] One theme running through the articles collected here is that of promotional labor. Matthias Stork discusses the ways the Fox series Glee has recruited its fans to do both the work of distribution for official promotional content and the creation of their own content that promotes the show, parsing how different kinds of labor are called for across what he calls Glee's transmedia geography. Rose Helens-Hart similarly describes how the design of the Web site for the Comedy Central program Tosh.0 teaches users to share its brand with their personal social networks. Christina Savage's analysis of the "save our show" campaign around the NBC TV series Chuck notes the promotional labor fans did to get others to not only watch but watch visibly—during the regular airing, by buying the sponsor's products, and by using a hash tag when making online posts.

[4.2] A second common refrain among the pieces gathered here is a consideration of gift economies and volunteerism. Bethan Jones's analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrates the ways in which much of the fan outrage over converting a fan fiction story into a commercial novel has to do with violation of the expectations of fandom as a gift economy. This, she argues, is why selling fan crafts is considered vastly more acceptable, as it is clearly a market transaction rather than a gift transaction. For her part, Bertha Chin contends that calling fan work "exploited labor" misses the role of the gift economy in organizing fan production; to understand this social phenomenon, she argues, we must attend to fans' own explanations of why they do what they do. Likewise, Robert Moses Peaslee, Jessica El-Khoury, and Ashley Liles contend that motivations of fan volunteers at media festivals include the desire to be a good citizen of the fannish community. Moreover, Stork notes that Glee positions its transmedia materials as gifts in exchange for fans' devotion, which he notes has been quite effective in getting fans to join in. Tisha Turk's Symposium piece is a careful thinking through of gift economies. She advocates moving beyond considering only traditional items such as fiction or vids to be gifts, suggesting that fans take seriously such gifts as an archive, a link, or an AO3 kudo. She also advocates getting past the traditional notion of one-to-one gifting to think about how fans give gifts to the community writ large.

[4.3] Other articles collected here focus on the dark side—the potential for harm to fans around or through their labor. Giacomo Poderi and David J. Hakken describe how pleasurable undertakings like the creation, play testing, and distribution of video game mods can cause fans to reconsider their relationship to the objects of their fandom by structuring that relationship as an act of labor as opposed to an act of play. Stork describes fans as being given false promises of interaction and access when Glee's production staff had no intention of actually including them. Jones notes the ways in which the conversion of gift economics to market economics undermines fan collectivity and trust. In addition, the roundtable discussion between Bertha Chin, Bethan Jones, Myles McNutt, and Luke Pebler questions the ethics of Hollywood's use of crowd funding tools like Kickstarter to generate funds for major motion pictures like the forthcoming Veronica Mars feature film and Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here. In the book review section, Stephanie Ann Brown asks in her review of Trebor Scholz's edited collection, Digital Labor: The Internet as Factory and Playground, whether fannish labor necessarily entails exploitation, and whether that exploitation resembles that described by traditional Marxist models. Simone Becque questions how it is that popular texts beloved by fans seem perfectly able to imagine any number of fantastic end-of-the-world scenarios even as they seem unable to imagine the end of capitalism in her review of Michael A. Peters and Ergin Bulut's edited volume Cognitive Capitalism, Education, and Digital Labor.

[4.4] In contrast, several of the other pieces focus on the savvy exhibited by fans. Savage describes how the fans of Chuck used their knowledge of how television is financed to convince the network to keep their show on the air by making a visible, public display of support to brands like Subway that advertised during the show. Joly MacFie provides a fascinating personal history of punk button badges and zines, discussing how the relationships between fan producers and artists in that era were relatively symbiotic. Chin describes the careful navigation of fandom and professionalism that gives the fan site runners she interviewed access and status. Indeed, status is a key counterpoint to harm, with Chin, Stork, and Peaslee, El-Khoury, and Liles all noting the desire to increase one's own social standing and influence in the community as something that should be taken seriously as a major factor in motivating fans to do such work. Finally, the book reviews also grapple with the potential for political upheaval that is sometimes hidden in popular culture. For example, Anne Kustritz's review of J. Jack Halberstam's Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal considers how silly or trashy pop culture vehicles, from romantic comedies to animated children's movies to Lady Gaga's concert performances might be martialed toward feminist and queer activist ends.

5. Coming up

[5.1] The next issue of TWC, No. 16, will appear in June 2014 as a guest-edited special issue: Bob Rehak edits a special issue on Materiality and Object-Oriented Fandom. TWC No. 17, to be released in September 2014, is an unthemed issue.

[5.2] TWC welcomes general submissions. We particularly encourage fans to submit Symposium essays. We encourage all potential authors to read the submission guidelines (http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/about/submissions#onlineSubmissions).

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] It is not possible to properly acknowledge the depth of appreciation we feel toward everyone who has helped make this issue of TWC possible. They have suffered hard deadlines, late nights, and short due dates. As always, we thank the authors in this issue, whose original work makes TWC possible; the peer reviewers, who freely provide their time and expertise; the editorial team members, whose engagement with and solicitation of material is so valuable; the board members, listed in the journal's masthead, for their support; and the production team members, who transform rough manuscripts into publishable documents.

[6.2] The following people worked on TWC No. 15 in an editorial capacity: Megan Condis and Mel Stanfill (guest editors); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Cameron Salisbury (Symposium); and Louisa Stein (Review).

[6.3] The following people worked on TWC No. 15 in a production capacity: Rrain Prior (production editor); Shoshanna Green, Karen Hellekson, and Christine Mains (copyeditors); Rrain Prior (layout editor); and Carmen Montopoli, Amanda Retartha, and Vickie West (proofreaders).

[6.4] TWC thanks the journal project's Organization for Transformative Works board liaison, Andrea Horbinski. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

[6.5] TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC's masthead, as well as the additional peer reviewers and Symposium reviewers who provided service for TWC No. 15: Lindsay Giggey, Simon Lindgren, Juli Parrish, Sharon Ross, Cameron Salisbury, and Olli Sotamaa.

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