Acafandom and Beyond: Week Three, Part Two (Kristina Busse, Flourish Klink, and Nancy Baym)

Kristina: I think it’s interesting to look at three of us and how our different background quite strongly affects not just the way we do research but also the things we worry about. Coming from a straight up literature department (in the middle of High Theory no less) and teaching in a philosophy department, I worry a lot about what represents, both in research and in teaching. Meanwhile, my fan life feeds directly into my academic research, so that I feel a strong responsibility toward my fan friends to neither exploit nor to misrepresent them.

Unlike Nancy, I was trained to analyze texts, and it actually took me a long time to negotiate my solely text-based background with, for example, ethical concerns for my research subjects/fan friends. In other words, it was my fannish background that made me create a research ethics that to most social scientists is probably totally obvious. At the same time, though, moving back and forth between studying texts and studying people, looking at blog posts as textual artifacts and looking at them as revealing material about a person, has forced me to address these issues in ways I feel many literary scholars don’t (they often subscribe to the notion that everything that’s accessible online is citable and in an almost New Critical way follow an author-less text model) and many social scientists don’t (insofar as they erase the identity of individual fans when they don’t name names).

As for Flourish, I can’t really speak to her experiences except that for me fandom is something that isn’t connected to production and industry. As a fan I don’t want to engage directly with actors/writers/directors, and as an academic, I don’t care about that side either. I know it’s an important area, and I’m very happy that we have good and smart people explaining and representing fandom, but to me fandom is mostly about what we as fans do. I’m passionately and hopelessly in transformational fandom, and I am interested in tracking and analyzing what fans do on their own rather than how fans interact with the industry. [And I am well aware of the gendered aspects of that attitude and its drawbacks!]

The other thing that I notice a I’m looking at the three of us is generational. I don’t know Nancyís age but I know she published already when I was just entering English grad school, so I think of the three of us possibly representing not only different disciplinary backgrounds but different fan studies generations. And maybe that means that Flourish’s industry collaboration indeed is the future?

Flourish: At least within transformational fandom, I do think that you’re right about the generational issue, Kristina. Right around the time that I was getting involved with fandom, my friends began getting cease and desist letters about their Harry Potter fanfiction – this would be around 1999 or 2000. Partially, I think, because Harry Potter was a more or less “feral fandom,” people resisted rather than going underground – and it worked. So, on a personal level, I’ve never experienced fandom as something separate from industry; it was always very clear that industry knew about us, cared about what we did, and often misunderstood us. Even the most transgressively transformative works, for me, are inextricably tied up with issues of industry and production – recall the ëTwins Against Twincest sign, held up by the actors who play Fred and George Weasley! I think that that experience is probably more common among young fans, especially young fans who didn’t grow up going to media fan conventions.

Nancy: Uh oh, I think I’ve just become a grandmother! Give me a few more years! I published my first piece about fandom in 1993. Like most of that work, until it took book form in Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom and Online Community (Sage, 2000) it was being positioned primarily as work about online interaction, not as work about fandom (even in the book, it is at least half and half). Again this colors why the term “acafan” has never seemed relevant to me. I wasn’t positioning myself as a fandom scholar, I was a qualitative internet researcher who studied what fans do.

I like Flourish’s points about industry and I appreciate her bringing them in as a third party to the personae we balance as people who study and participate in fandom. I love that people like Flourish are working with industry. In the last several years I have begun to speak at industry events and talk more with people in industry, particularly the music business, and the more I see, the more convinced I am that we really need fans represented in those rooms where Flourish sits with her teal hair (and I sit with my asymetrical hair with streaks of color that don’t belong there). As fans we are constantly being viewed as ATM machines – “let’s connect so we can monetize you!” – and I believe that the sustainability and long term future of the entertainment industries relies on a new kind of engagement with fans that must be informed both by those within fandom and by academic research.

I keep going back again though to the notion that these concerns are not unique to fandom in any way. It’s always incumbent on researchers to recognize the different audiences who have a stake in our work and to figure out the ethics of treating them all appropriately. These are rarely problems with obvious answers that fit everyone. They are ongoing processes we all work through on moment by moment and project by project bases.

I don’t think we all have a responsibility to speak to industry, and I totally get where Kristina is coming from in saying she wants to keep fandom for the fans. I do think, though that we have some responsibility within fandom to listen to the voices of the industry. Actors, musicians and writers are also real people with real feelings. I interviewed a woman in a band who had stumbled across fan fiction about her having an explicit erotic encounter with another female musician whom she knew in real life. She read it and the fan responses (which were along the lines of “wow, what a cool pairing”) and felt both violated and kind of mortified about ever having to see her friend again without thinking about that. I believe in transformative works, but to me, this is a problem. As I’ve interviewed musicians about their interactions with fans, it’s become clearer to me that some of the things fans do to gain status within fandom hurt the musicians. I’m not saying they shouldnít do them, and I do advise musicians to toughen up and let things go, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how we might raise fans’ awareness of how they affect the people they are discussing as well as the industry’s awareness of how they affect fan discussions and academics discussions about both.

Kristina: Oh, Nancy, I apologize, but then academic generations!=actual age :) I think I may indeed be older than you, but I didn’t even start studying fans and fandom until almost a decade after you, so that’s where my generational idea came from. In fact, what made the analogy so enticing is that we do indeed represent such different views in terms of where fans, academics, and industry relate to one another. And I must sidestep the academic aspect for just a second to focus on the fan-specific engagements with industry that both of you brought up. Like Nancy I see a problem in having a celebrity reading about fantasized sexual encounters. Unlike Nancy, however, I do not think that writing and even sharing the fan fiction is the problem. Instead, I think that fans behaving inappropriately is the issue and, just maybe, celebrities connecting to fans in likewise too intimate ways.

In other words, when you present a version of yourself that may make fans believe that you’re open and accessible to reading about your hot steamy romance and then google yourself, it might be in part your responsibility. In turn, I’m a big fan of warning pages and robot/spider blocked pages so that you need to be looking and knowing how and where to look in order to find the material. So, in the end, I blame a celebrity culture and a fan/industry intersection that makes it seem OK to erode boundaries that I am perfectly happy and comfortable keeping up. I don’t think it’s appropriate to shove sex toys, references to underage incest, or manipulated sexualized images into actors’ hands–just like I wouldn’t give those things to strangers or random acquaintances unless in an environment where this is collectively acceptable.

In turn, I feel like I don’t owe the industry all that much and so for myself I kind of disagree with Nancy that as a fan I need to (or that all fans need to) listen to the voices of the industry. My particular corner of fandom, for example, is mostly not that interested in industry and production or even the actors and celebrities in themselves, even if we’re not naive about the intersections. I’m pretty indifferent to industry that has yet to prove itself to me in any way, shape, or form, so I feel like we’re left as fans to create the characters, characterizations, and plots that move beyond the interests of white, straight, cis, male able-bodied 18-34 year olds. Given that this industry still doesn’t speak to and for me and mine, I frankly have no interest in being “their” version of interpellated fan and play by their rules.

And that may indeed be my age showing: maybe, Flourish, you have better experiences, and maybe, Nancy, your situation is different when you engage with musicians one on one, but my creative heroes, the people I want to meet and talk to, want to engage with and write fan letter to are my fellow fans. And I’m perfectly happy not sharing our conversations with the musicians who form the blueprint for potential fictionalized adventures, or the actors whose characters we extrapolate and interpret, or even the writers who provide the characters and worlds we continue to play with. And I know that there are fans who love that interaction, but for myself, that’s not where my fannishness is.

Shifting back into acafan mode, I think that there’s a lot of different fan communities and fannish ways of interacting with industry (including not interacting at all) that we need to study. But I also think that the way we approach academic fan identities is deeply affected in the way we think about our fan identities by themselves, isn’t it?

Flourish: Nancy, your story about the band member makes me think about fans’ reactions to the academic articles they themselves are in. That’s a productive comparison, I think – “fans are to acafen the way that band members are to RPF writers” – because I think it opens the door to discussing the competing ethical responsibilities we have. Part of defining oneself as an ‘acafan,’ I think, is about making an ethical commitment to the fan community, yes? So that when they read your academic work, they don’t feel like that band member – misrepresented and kind of miserable. On the other hand, as a fan, Kristina is eager to reject any responsibility towards the creators of source texts for transformative works (or the actors and musicians whose lives provide source texts).

Obviously, there”s some important differences – an academic is making truth claims, whereas a fan is not; academics have cultural power, whereas fans rarely do; fans do not (usually) put themselves forward as public figures, whereas musicians and actors must by the nature of their work. But ultimately, academics and fan fiction writers both mine preexisting texts and come up with narratives that make arguments about our world, right? They aren’t the same, but they are similar.

While I’m sensible to the argument Kristina is making about industry’s interests not intersecting with hers (and the implicit argument I think she’s making about industry’s power and desire to control fannish behavior), I think it’s interesting to think about the question of whether academics’ interests actually match up with fans’. For many years, I pooh-poohed the idea that academics publishing about fandom would have any impact at all on what industry understood or thought – but now I see people in industry independently bringing up articles that have appeared in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures. (One result of having an open-access journal is that, yes, fans can read the articles published therein, but so can folks in industry.)* If there are fans who truly want to be left alone, they haven’t been helped by academics, not one bit.

Besides, that horse has already bolted. Whether fans like it or not, there are more academics studying fandom than ever, and there are more people in industry sniffing around than ever. At this point, there’s no reversing it. As Nancy suggests, the only thing that’s left to do is to think about how to create some kind of balance – how to make sure that everybody can co-exist. Academics do play a role in that, whether we want to or not – which is one aspect of being an acafan that’s not usually highlighted.

*Yes, I realize that this somewhat contradicts what I was saying above about industry having more of an impact on daily life than academia. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Nancy: I’m not sure how major a point it is for this discussion, but I am troubled by the idea that a performer who presents herself as willing to engage fans is thus obliged to be written about in public spaces in explicit sexual terms and, should she encounter that work, obliged to ignore it. I have no issues with people imagining and writing sexual encounters between fictional characters, but I do think that for fans to treat real people as fictions for their own and one anothers’ imaginations can be selfish and even cruel, and that is not the fault of a musician for daring to be nice while looking good. I stand by my sense that one thing academics ought to be doing is giving fans frameworks for at least thinking critically about the ethics of what they do, just as we are well positioned to argue to the industries about the ethics of the choices they make towards fans.

Our conversation seems to have revolved largely around ethics and accountability. When I first started studying fandom and read much of the textual analytic work on soap opera fans I was mortified by the willingness to make claims about what fans got out of the genre without ever actually looking at what fans did or talking with them about it. Not surprisingly, these textual analyses often led to analyses of fans as deeply screwed up people living vicariously through texts. I was also struck by the fact that so much of that work was written in language that was borderline incomprehensible without a Ph.D. in the area. In response, from the start, my core obligation has been to write about fans in a way that honors their perspectives and in a way which they can read easily [as a sidebar, open access publishing is an increasingly important part of this]. But ‘honoring’ does not mean ‘fawning.’ When fandom misbehaves, when there are fan works that are problematic or poorly done, when there are fans within communities who pull weird power plays or whatnot, we mustn’t paper over that in order to make sure fandom looks good. We are often eager to criticize previous research in order to situate the value of our own, we need to be willing to criticize the fandoms we study too. Similarly, there are temptations to paint fans as good guys and industry professionals as bad guys, which is just as intellectually sloppy.

What academics contribute isn’t necessarily “truth” as Flourish said – I’d argue truths are multiple and contestable when youíre talking social behaviors and meanings – but insight. I see my role as an academic as doing systematic and rich analysis that provides a basis for understanding social phenomena. All of the relevant identities we experience as researchers can be mined for their contribution to understanding if we are reflexive throughout the research process.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at hjenkins@usc.edu and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

BIOS

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 of†Fan 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.

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