Being an acafan to me means constantly negotiating two often quite competing codes of conduct and ethical expectations. In particular, I worry about the compromisesóboth fannishly and academically when I do acafannish research. I have a pretty strong fannish ethos in my research, i.e., I tend to not cite and reference material without the permission of its fannish creators and I am well aware of the limitations that may put on my research material (Fan Privacy and TWC’s Editorial Philosophy). Not only am I restricted by texts I know but I self-restrain to texts where I can easily contact the creator and likely get a positive response. In addition to this limitation, there still remains a desire to present fandom in its best guise; after all, if another scholar gets to read one story, sees one vid, I want it to conform to traditional aesthetic notions. My selections are thus restrained not only by the textís possible representativeness and accessibility, but also by my desire to not embarrass my community. There are enough shoddy journalistic pieces who point and mock, and the fan in me desires to impress the academicís colleagues.
The result, however, is that we as acafen are faced with not only the general problem of any qualitative scholar of popular culture on which texts to pick, but also compound the issue by having a variety of vested interests that complicate that selection. In my presentation at the SCMS acafandom workshop, I addressed “The Ethics of Selection: The Role of Canonicity in Acafannish Pedagogy and Publication,” and it is this conflict I continue to worry about. The problem is one of choice and selection and the responsibilities this entails. Doing qualitative research one has to pick and choose, and unlike my initial discipline of English literature, there isn’t a ready-made canon of important texts that anyone is expected to recognize if not know.
And yet, fan studies tends to create its own version of a canon, and while I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, I do worry about the fact that we do it seemingly unthinkingly. In fact, given the a wide variety and such idiosyncratic choices, it is surprising how small numbers of vids, for example, dominate academic vid shows, class showing, and academic papers. I’m just mentioning Lum and Sisabet’s “Women’s Work” and Lim’s “Us” here, two vids that might indicate that there is indeed a vid canon, after all.
The reason for that has a lot to do with what fans like and what academics like. In fact, these two criteria beautifully intersect in these two vids, making them ideal representatives, so to speak. And yet I see some danger in creating our own academic canon, so to speak, of texts that fit our theoretical frameworks, texts that are sufficiently experimental, queer, political, or whatever else we may decide to focus on. the problem is not that there shouldn’t be an essay on “Women’s Work.” There totally should! The problem is that by showing the vid every single time and namechecking it (as I’m doing right now :), we’re effectively construing a canon, a canon that then gets reflected back on fandom who, of course reads and responds to academic canon formation. Moreover, in so doing, we are on some level ignoring the thousands of vids not as experimental, not as political, not as well edited.
And the question is then whether there really is a problem in that and what political implications that may have. When we choose fan works that fit into our arguments, that make fandom look more creative, more political, more subversive to outsiders because that’s the image we want to give to the world at large, are we ultimately misrepresentating and betraying fandom? When we decide on picking exceptional texts, are we properly studying the fandom? How do we justify picking the three most excellent, most politically progressive genderswap stories while ignoring the dozens of stories that are misspelled and poorly plotted, that are reactionary or right out offensive?
Of course, it’s more fun writing about stories we like, stories we consider aesthetically and ideologically pleasing. I can spend time with a text I like; I can present my fandom in the best light; and I can get easy permission, because I can show my analysis and not offend the author. I can please academics, fans, and myself in the process. But I’d like to ask what texts and what forms of cultural expression we may ignore in the process, and that we remain vigilant to our vested interests when we decide to choose one text over the many available others.
I am certain that any subcultural member and scholar faces similar ethical concerns to remain true to their two competing codes of conduct: not to betray/expose/embarrass one’s community and not to do bad scholarship. But I also fear that the danger is always there that one part compromises the other. Constantly acknowledging and evaluating that balance is at the center being an acafan to me: I cannot let my academic side exploit my community yet I must be careful to remain aware of my biases without letting them control research.
I have to say I don’t feel like I’m trying to reconcile competing sets of expectations and codes of conduct in being a fan studying fandom within academia.
One reason for this may be the primary fandoms with which I’ve aligned myself. I was never involved in fanfic or vidding communities. I’ve always been involved in and studied fan communities where we talk about and critique what we’re into and it seems like the dynamics are different than in communities based on fans’ creative works.
I think it also has to do with the fact that I study people, not texts, and I study the relationships between people, so I come at fandom research from a different set of background contexts and assumptions. For me, canonizing within fandom just isn’t an issue since I’m not looking at fan texts per se. The parallel concern I encounter is how to sample examples of fan discourse or sites, but, I see my first obligation as both scholar and member of fan communities as trying to come up with a sampling that will leave fans saying “yes, that’s a fair take on what we do” and academics saying “I trust that she’s given me a representative view.” We always have a responsibility to situate what we study and teach within a wider context that includes some analysis of how representative our choices are.
Throughout much of these discussions (including those already posted) I feel like so many of the issues raised are not unique to academics who are fans and who study fans. The term “acafan” has never resonated with me. I’ve never felt that a disconnect between the two that was problematic or that called for special language to label, nor have I ever understood the problems in what we do as different from the core problems everyone encounters in doing qualitative ethnographic styles of research. “Acafan” was a response to a tradition of media research that I didn’t come from. I started in interpersonal communication and online interaction with methodological training in ethnography and qualitative methods. I’ve never thought of these issues as being any different from those that, say, people who enjoy using the internet and also study people who use it face – yes it colors our perspective and gives us access to some points of view and inside knowledge, and yes it makes some other perspectives harder to palate, but research is always guided by points of view. We always speak from perspectives. If fans who study fandom lack critical distance, that is a failure of their academic training, not of their being fans, and the same charge can be leveled against anyone who studies anything they are part of. This is what theory and methodology are for, to help us step beyond the everyday experience into an analytic mode that takes advantage of what we know and feel without being limited to it. In that regard, I do think methodological training is very important.
I will say, though, that I have often felt there is a risk to studying my pleasurable passion in that it can come to feel like work. That is the identity risk for me, not seeming not fannish enough, or not academicy enough, but not loving the music I write about as much because I am also interviewing some of the people who make it. I worry more about burning out on the pleasure than I do about not having the academy think it’s scholarly enough or the other fans thinking it’s too scholarly.
I come from an unusual place: by the time I was really involved in fandom, the term “acafan” had already come into general use. I knew the term “acafan” first from the fan’s perspective and not from the academic’s. What’s more, the conflict I experience regarding fandom and professional life is much more general than concern about acafandom.
The reason for this is because while academics do influence others’ thought about fans and fandom, the moment that they really begin to make immediate changes in fans’ lives is when they begin to work with the industry. I realized this when I began to work with the Alchemists: holy shit, people really take my advice about what to do. I had better make sure it’s good advice! Publishing an academic article, or a purely academic book, is one thing: it may change what people think about fans twenty or thirty years down the road. Actually getting into a room with entertainment execs is another thing entirely. The decisions that get made there will go into effect next quarter, and they may determine whether fan sites are harassed with C&Ds or whether they’re ignored or whether they’re solicited for advice.
It may seem silly and self-absorbed, but my concerns with regard to how to represent fans in these situations have even dictated whether or not I should dye my hair. If I am the only self-identified fan that a network exec meets in a year – should I have teal hair? Or not? Unlike the traditional scholar, my very embodiment of fandom is one of the things that helps me get my professional message across. To be honest, it’s part of my personal brand. With each client, I have to ask myself: what aspects of my personal fandom should I emphasize to most effectively get my points across? And that’s a worrying state of mind to get into: so calculating, it doesn’t feel fannish to me…
In comparison to these ethical conflicts (or “personal angsty excrescences,” if you’d like), concerns over the term “acafan” seem to me to be – not unimportant, but certainly not immediate, personally. My current contributions to scholarly work are not likely to go much further than a really good meta might. My contributions to the Alchemists, on the other hand, might influence the policies of next year’s TV lineup – which I think most people would rightly be concerned about! But there’s no pat term to speak about the conflict of professional and fannish responsibilities outside the academic realm.
We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.
Kristina Busse (http://kristinabusse.com) is an English Ph.D. who teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama. Kristina is co-editor ofFan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), and of the forthcoming collection†Transmedia Sherlock. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures.
Nancy Baym (http://www.nancybaym.com) is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Her recent work on independent Swedish musicians, labels and fans has been published in Popular Communication, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and First Monday. She blogs (now and then) at http://onlinefandom.com and collects links about artist-audience relationships at blog.beautifulandstrange.com.
Flourish Klink leads the Fan Culture Division at The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. She writes transformative works of fiction – both interactive and non-interactive – and studies fandom and popular culture. She is also a lecturer in the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and earned a S.M. in that same program; before that, she earned a B.A. in religion from Reed College. By the time she was 14, she had helped co-found FictionAlley.org, a Harry Potter fan fiction website. Most recently, she has been secretary of the board for HPEF Inc., which puts on educational conferences centering around Harry Potter.