ARGS, Fandom, and the Digi-Gratis Economy: Interview with Paul Booth (Part Three)

As I read your discussion of “database” narratives, I was reminded of Otaku: Database Animals which was recently translated into English from the original Japanese and has a number of key arguments to make about the way the model of the database is impacting fan creative expression. Do you know this work? If so, how would you position your arguments in relation to its core claims about the encyclopedic nature of Otaku culture?

I hadn’t heard of Otaku: Database Animals until I saw your question, but after reading it, I can definitely see the connection between Hiroki Azuma’s work with database cultures and my own work with database narratives. I think there are some truly interesting parallels as well as some differences between my thinking and Azuma’s which elucidate some of the more conceptual ideas in both. For Azuma, Otaku culture seems to reside in a similar place in society as does fan culture: “those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on” (p. 3). But I think what intrigues me most about his analysis of Otaku is the way it plays so heavily into cultural theory.

Namely, the shift from modernist culture to postmodernist culture in Japan can be chartered, according to Azuma, through the relationship Otaku have to the media texts they enjoy. This philosophical sea change represents a shift from a mode of fan action based on narrative to a mode of fan action based on the database. I hate to simplify the complex philosophical argumentation and the wealth of examples Azuma brings to the table; but in brief, modernist media texts maintain a “grand narrative” behind the tale – that is, we watch to try and figure out the “deep inner layer” of the story. Each individual mode of narrative – television show, action figure, video game, etc. – represents a minute glimpse into this grand narrative, and by piecing them together, we can find the “truth” behind the complex narrative. In contrast, the postmodernist media text has no “grand narrative,” and instead each individual media text exists solely in relation to other media texts, forming a database of information. From this database, Otaku can construct any number of individual narratives. Thus, for Azuma, even derivative works (what I would call fan-created texts) have equal value in this model, for these derivative works contribute equally to this database.

I agree that fan-created texts can, indeed, have equal value for fans as do extant texts. However, while Azuma focuses his work on the move from narrative culture to database culture, I tend to look more at the relationship between the database and the narrative in fans’ digital texts. Indeed, I look at how fans represent the linear causality of narrative within the inherently non-linear structure of the database. For example, Azuma describes the encyclopediazation of characters from Otaku culture into massive online databases that allow Otaku to create their own characters from common attributes (TINAMI searches). He writes that this database culture is opposed to narrative, even describing it as “non-narrative.” In contrast, I describe the way wikis promote modes of fan expression that use and play with narrative form, like narrative re-purposing and textual spoiling.

For example, I examine Lostpedia as a fan-created wiki that reconceptualizes narrative from a linear model to a hypertextual model. Delving into narrative theory, I argue that fans read the discourse of Lost, re-write the story, and then re-present that story in a new context on the wiki, thus transferring the temporality of Lost into a spatial reconstruction of the narrative events. Ultimately, like in Otaku: Database Animals, this argument presents a postmodern view of media texts as divorced from definitive authorship, but one that emphasizes the connection between narrative and database.

You talk in the book about “ludicity.” Can you explain what you mean by this word and what it might suggest about the relationship between fan expression and play?

Ludicity is related to one key concept that I return to again and again throughout the book: a particular “philosophy of playfulness” that seems to inhabit contemporary media use. By using the word “ludic,” I don’t necessarily mean that all media are games, or even game-like, but rather that the manner in which contemporary audiences use media is playful, fun and exuberant. We don’t watch YouTube, for example – we interact with it, play with it, and search for clips that match the mood we may be in. Today’s media are certainly interactive, but the manner of that interaction simulates more closely the way one might play with a game rather than the way one might watch a film.

This playfulness is one reason I believe the Alternate Reality Game features heavily as a metaphor for contemporary media. To “play” an ARG is a vastly different experience from “playing” a board or video game. For one, playing an ARG relies on not knowing whether you are playing or not – the “magic circle” defined by Johan Huizinga envelopes all media. To play an ARG hinges on making all media interactions playful, for a player may never know if an interaction is part of the game or merely real. In contrast to traditional games, therefore, ARGs are boundless.

For fans, this philosophy of playfulness emerges in their interactions with the extant media text. One can often read a sly “wink wink/nudge nudge” feeling from fan-created texts, one that playfully remarks upon the intertextual relationship between fan worlds. I call this feeling “ludicity” in the book, poaching the term from Tom Brown’s “The DVD of Attractions’?: The Lion King and the Digital Theme Park.” I use the term “ludicity” to refer to the playfulness – silliness, even – with which contemporary media audiences can engage with media texts. For fans, the playfulness of the fan content indicates a close, lively relationship with the text. For example, fans seem to assert this ludicity in the way they articulate the illegality of their fan fiction in their disclaimers. One fan text remarked, “Yes, I blatantly stole ideas from both Battlestar Galactica and Return of the Jedi … please don’t sue me for doing it. This is for amusement and nothing more.” The author here understands copyright (“I blatantly stole ideas”) and the necessity for acknowledgment (“This is for amusement and nothing more”), but playfully skirts the issue of legality/illegality (“please don’t sue me”) with a humorous comment.

Ludicity as a concept of (and in) media studies helps to acknowledge that, despite the seriousness with which we examine fans and other media audiences, it is often matched with a converse silliness – which simply makes studying fans much more interesting.

Some critics might argue that your book is drawn towards the fan boy cannon, focusing on such works as Heroes, Lost, Doctor Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Is there something specifically masculine about the forms of fan productivity you are discussing? What would your argument look like if you applied it to shows, such as Supernatural, White Collar, or True Blood, which have a stronger female fan following?

I think it’s important to note, though, that just because a show may be weighted masculine, that doesn’t mean the fan culture that surrounds it is. While there may be a more masculine bent towards the fan objects I examine, I’m not entirely convinced that a show necessarily geared “feminine” or “masculine” plays out that way in fan discussion. Especially in the cases of Doctor Who and Heroes, I see many female fans participating in online discussions and fandom (and of course both BSG and Lost have many female fans).

But your larger question is quite intriguing – is there something specifically masculine about the fan creativity I discuss in the book? To be honest, I don’t think there is. One of the conceptual guides I use to describe fan content creation throughout the book is the “Web Commons,” or a conception of the web as a source for community and communal action. To conceptualize the web as a commons (and I am far from the first to do so: Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons is instructive here, as is Yochai Benkler’s in-depth The Wealth of Networks) is to see its primary function as facilitating communities. My research on fans looks at fans from this angle – not as primarily producers but as members of a community. If anything, I would gender this emphasis on community as a more feminine-style discourse; but I’m cautious to do so because I don’t think fans in the Web Commons can be so essentialized. Ultimately, I think that fans do what we all do – join communities, discuss their passions, and find commonalities with others which they can share.

An interesting concern here is the attempt to link work on the narrative complexity of contemporary television (such as the work of Jason Mittell) on the complex practices which fans deploy in processing those narratives. Do the new complex narratives depend on the kinds of participatory infrastructure fandom expands? If so, do they rise and fall with their fan bases?

I’m really interested in complex narratives and how they function within our culture of decaying attention spans. We are often warned that we live in a multi-tasking society, where students spend more time on Facebook than they do writing papers, that we are faced with so many screens we can’t focus, and that our attention span is atrophying. But the success of shows like Lost, Heroes, The Sopranos, and other long-form complex narratives seems to indicate that at least some portion of the population embraces complexity. Even contemporary cinema provides a glimpse into this tension: Christopher Nolen’s Inception is one of the most complex narratives from Hollywood in a long time, and it’s also been incredibly popular this summer, raking in nearly 150 million dollars in its first two weeks. It has also led to hundreds, if not thousands, of online discussions.

I think that there is a link between the complexity of a narrative and the fan practices that accompany it. If there wasn’t an audience for complexity, these types of narratives wouldn’t get made. But success is not always guaranteed. The case of FlashForward is a good example, as on the surface it would seem to be a textbook case of narrative complexity: a serial narrative, an expansive cast of character, multiple (global) locations, deep mysteries and mythic undertones. Yet, the show never truly caught on, and lost viewers nearly every week. Perhaps with some more time, the show would have succeeded – a second season may have saved FlashForward. But the networks seem to want television that hits that perfect storm of complexity and clarity – a tall order given that many complex narratives deliberately take time to understand. For every Lost there are loads of Happy Towns.

Of course there are a multitude of factors that play into whether or not a show succeeds, not least of which is the quality of the writing (a fault that is difficult to forgive in today’s market). But fan participation does, I think, have a major factor on shows that air. The work of fans to keep Star Trek alive and thriving is well documented, and other shows have had similar help: Roswell, Jericho, Firefly, Family Guy, and Futurama, just to name a few. But I think, just as Sharon Ross does in Beyond the Box and Jonathan Gray does in Show Sold Separately, that it’s also the indirect work that has a great effect on whether shows survive or not. What I mean is that fans can actively petition a network to keep a show on the air, and/or they can participate online to keep communication about the show alive. By keeping a show in the popular discourse, by creating spreadable media that can be shared among fans and non-fans alike, fans can have a grassroots effect on media, and I think this is where the Internet and digital texts have the greatest power.

Along these same lines, fans also demonstrate that our society’s attention span isn’t necessarily atrophying – it’s simply moving onto different texts than what we’ve concentrated on before. We are intrigued by complexity, narratives, and games – playful texts that challenge as well as entertain. By using the lessons learned from studying complex (fictional) narratives, we can experiment with new ways to harness this attention. Games such as World without Oil or Ghosts of a Chance tell stories in ways that connect with the types of complexity that we do concentrate on, but also harness that storytelling for social good and educational purposes.

You offer a fascinating rethinking of the gift economy in relation to digital media: “The new gift, the digital gift, is a gift without an obligation to reciprocate. Instead of reciprocity, what the gift in the digital age requires for ‘membership’ into the fan community, is merely an obligation to reply.” Can you explain the distinction you are making here between reciprocation and response? Does the obligation to reply create as strong a set of social ties as the obligation to reciprocate?

This is one of the key assertions of the book: that the gift economy itself functions differently in a digital space than it does in traditional spaces. The reason for this difference is, I think, due to the fact that it has to be situated complementary to the commodity economy. The mashup of the two, the “Digi-Gratis” economy, isn’t just about the interaction between the gift and the commodity, but is also about the way each changes the other through that interaction. In traditional gift economies, of the type originally described by Marcel Mauss, there is a three-part structure that governs gift exchange: the giving of the gift, the receiving of the gift, and the reciprocation of the gift. Mauss is quite direct about this third obligation: “The obligation to reciprocate worthily is imperative. One does lose face for ever if one does not reciprocate, or if one does not carry out destruction of equal value. The punishment for failure to reciprocate is slavery for debt” (p. 54).

To envision the digital economy as a type of gift economy, as Rheingold’s The Virtual Community does, means a change in the type of interaction presented both by the communities and by the technologies involved. Instead of reciprocation, which implies equality in interchange, I argue that digital environments instead embrace the reply. That is, instead of giving back equally, as would participants in a traditional gift economies, fans in the Digi-Gratis economy need merely respond to the “gifts” they’ve been given. For example, posting a video on YouTube may garner a few video responses, but to participate in the community formed from this content-creation, one need only respond with a comment. To “give” a blog fan fiction post to a community does not mean that the author wants the community members to each write their own story, but rather to comment on the original post. To create a MySpace profile of a character from Gilmore Girls or Doctor Who doesn’t mean that everyone must create a profile, but that fans should reply through accepting a friend request.

In traditional gift economies, the power of the gift resided in its tangibility and transferability. That is, it was valuable because once it was given, the owner no longer possessed it. In the digital, unlike in a traditional gift economy, the gift does not disappear after the giving. When one “gives” a blog fan fiction entry, it is public and universal, and one does not lose it. To reciprocate is therefore unnecessary – one acknowledges the presence of the blog gift (usually with positive reinforcement or constructive criticism) through a response, but does not have to fill the void the gift left.

While I think the social ties created by replying instead of reciprocating are different, I don’t think they’re any less valued in the fan community. The community lies at the heart of the fan practices I observed for the book, and both the gift and the reply function to cohere that community. It’s not that members of the community necessarily fit into prescribed roles. Many repliers also write their own fan-texts and similarly await their requisite replies. But at least in the fan communities I observed, the heart of the interaction remained the strength of the community that was formed by the social ties. In that respect, at least, the gift and the reply seemed to form a more consubstantial relationship with each other – that is, they go hand-in-hand in constructing a digital community.

Paul Booth, Assistant Professor of new media and technology at DePaul University, is a passionate follower of new technological trends, memes, the viral nature of communication on the web, and popular culture (especially film, television and new media). He studies the interaction between traditional media and new media and the participation of fans with media texts. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Paul teaches classes in communication and technology, popular culture, science fiction, fandom, new media, and the history of technology. His book Digital Fandom: New Media Studies investigates how fans are using “web 2.0″ participation technology to create new texts online, and how their works fits into our contemporary media culture. He has also published articles in Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media and Culture, Narrative Inquiry, The Journal of Narrative Theory, American Communication Journal, and in the book Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy. He explores topics in video games, science fiction, social media, politics, philosophy and narrative theory. He is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

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