Good News for Aca/Fen

Some of you have asked what the phrase, "Aca/Fan" means. Basically, it is a term I made up some years ago to refer to people like myself who have one foot in academia and one foot in fandom. It is a hybrid identity -- Aca for Academic, Fan for, well, fan. The fen in the title above is a longstanding bit of fan slang -- essentially the plural of fan. In my forthcoming book, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, I reproduce excerpts from a public dialogue I had some years ago with fellow aca/fan researcher Matt Hills for the now defunct online journal, Intensities. In that conversation, we talked a bit more about the relationship between fans and academics. Unfortunately, the interview itself is no longer online:

I think we need to consider different generations of scholars within fandom, and moments within which those scholars are working. I think there are at least three moments of fan studies that get conflated together as if they are a unified body of theory. There is a body of work that began to stress active audiences and the use of ethnographic methods, derived in part from sociological methods, and I would put early John Tulloch, John Fiske and Janice Radway in this body of work - they come from different places and so I don't want to lump them together as representing one totally unified body of work.

But it was important for these writers to be outside what they were writing about, to be free of any direct implication in their subject matter. They begin to acknowledge that audiences have an active role, but their prose is very depersonalized, there's often no acknowledgement of any affection they feel for the objects of study, or if there is, it's a token gesture. And there's sometimes an attempt to pull back from the fan community at the end of such writing and say, right, now we can arrive at the truth that the fans don't yet recognize about their own political activity. I've taken Radway to task for the closing chapter of Reading the Romance for that kind of gesture. That's the first generation.

I see myself and others writing at the same time, Camille [Bacon-Smith] to some degree , as a second generation that comes to a discourse already formulated around these axes of active/passive, resistance/co-opted. We're trying to find a way to alter that perception based on insider knowledge of what it is to be a fan, and struggling to find a language to articulate a different perspective that comes out of lived experience and situated knowledge. And it proves very difficult - there's a lot of resistance because the first generation are the readers responding to our manuscripts, the editors deciding whether they get published or not, the faculty deciding whether we get hired. So you end up struggling to negotiate between what you want to say, and what it's possible to say at a particular point in time, in order to get your work out at all. And there is a level of defensiveness there. When I was writing Textual Poachers I was so frustrated by how badly fans had been written about. As a fan I felt implicated in that writing and I wanted to challenge it; there are passages in the book that are just out-and-out defenses of fandom, and others that are trying to pull back and describe, analyze, critique....

Now, I think all of that work paved the way for a whole generation of aca-fen, as I like to call them; that is, people who are both academics and fans, for whom those identities are not problematic to mix and combine, and who are able then to write in a more open way about their experience of fandom without the 'obligation of defensiveness', without the need to defend the community. Therefore they can take up things like contradictions within it, disputes within it, re-raise awkward subjects that we papered over in our earlier accounts, and now there's a freedom to have real debate among ourselves about some of these core issues.

For those of you who have come to my blog in search of insights into participatory culture, you already know that I think fan culture is a particularly rich spot to understand ways that new media can be used to transform our relationship to mass media. I was asked about this by the fine folks at the British webzine, Big Shiny Thing, last week. Here's part of what I had to say:

Fans have been and are likely to continue to be the shock troops in this transformation of our culture -- highly motivated, passionately committed, and socially networked. They are early adopters of new technologies and willing to experiment with new relationships to culture. (We might also throw into this category other highly motivated groups such as bloggers and gamers.)

There are signs that fan culture practices and products are spreading throughout the culture. Recent statistics from the Pew Center of Internet and American Life found that more than half of teens online produce some form of media and many of them shared what they produced by others. They are part of the participatory culture I am describing. So are people who join discussion forms or sign up for RSS feeds to get more information about their favorite band or television program.

As writers like Will Wright and Raph Koster have suggested, there is a pyramid of participation. Not everyone will want to spend massive amounts of time generating new content -- some will simply want to engage with content others have produced. Not everyone will write fan stories -- some may share critical responses with the authors. Not everyone will want to spoil reality television programs -- some will simply enjoy the new relationships to the program the spoiler community helps to create for them. But the expansion of this participatory culture changes the context in which media content gets produced and distributed and thus it impacts all of us one way or another. Given this, I would imagine fans may still enjoy a privileged status in participatory culture but more and more people will benefit from the once invisible cultural work of fans.

New Blog on Online Fan Cultures

Given that, it should be good news to many of you that Nancy Baym, a prime example of that third generation of fan scholars I talk about above, has launched an interesting new blog focused around online fandom and designed to explore the intersection between fans and academics. Baym wrote one of the first and best studies of the ways that digital media was altering fan culture, Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community (1999). She is a classic example of a scholar studying their own fandom and coming away with intimate knowledge that would be closed to many outside that community. For a more recent book that deals well with the question of online fandom, let me also recommend Rhiannon Bury's Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (a book that deals primarily with fans of Due South and The X Files).

Baym's new blog has so far been at its best focusing on music fans online -- a topic to which I confess I know just enough to be dangerous but which is clearly central to any discussion of online fans as niche markets. Among other topics, she's posted so far about the way such groups as ABBA, The Who, and the Dresden Dolls relate to their fan communities. Some of the most interesting material to date centers on Madrugada, a Norwegian rock band I had never heard of. Small wonder: As Baym explains, "none of their records has been released in the US, they never tour here, and the only people I know who listen to them learned about them from me." Yet the group's website has allowed her and other Americans to feel a connection to this group despite the total absence of any attempt to market their music in this country:

Last fall the band toured Europe. Fans on that forum recorded several shows themselves, spent a good deal of time not just creating torrents, but also in some cases remastering the recordings for best sound. Others posted photos they had taken. Living in the States, it was a lot closer to getting to see them live than I ever would have gotten without the board. There is an archive of back concerts that are periodically reseeded and traded again. I've amassed enough live Madrugada recordings through the board that I have a pretty good sense of what they were like on each tour of their career. This is done with the band's tacit approval, with the understanding that there is no money exchanged and nothing available for purchase is posted, points which the webmaster gently enforces when need be. Not only did it keep fans who weren't able to make this tour involved with the band long after their last release might have stopped getting playtime, but it also brought in fans who didn't like the recent release, fans who wanted to know what old songs were being played. So it kept fans they could easily have lost involved with them. Would it have worked if it were a board run by the band? Maybe, if they were able to resolve the copyright questions in ways they and those around them could live with. Would it have worked if it were a board run by their label or any other third party? It could, but it would take a good deal more than simply "creating a fan forum."

She also ran an interview with Reidar Eik, a Norwegian who lives in Berlin and who runs the semi-quasi-official fan website for the band. It sounds like Eik has been able to achieve a symbiotic relationship with the band and its management, with his fansite linked off the official website and providing services for fans that the artists themselves would not be able to meet. Eik sees such relationships as possible if one works with smaller, lesser known groups which are still struggling to find their market:

Focus on the small bands that really deserve your interest and the time you put into the project. If you go for a band like Radiohead, thousands have already made better pages than yours will ever be, but if you go for the local band who sound like they should be selling millions of copies, you will be the first. They might turn out to be 'the next big thing' and it will be great, or they might dissolve into nothing. But hopefully they have tried, and you went along for the ride.

I know I will be eagerly awaiting more insights into the world of online fandom from Nancy Baym in the coming weeks. It is good to have other aca/fen out there blogging.

New Book on Fan Fiction

On other fronts, I also wanted to toss off a recommendation for an impressive new book for those of you interested in reading more about fan fiction -- Karfen Hellekson and Kristina Busse's Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. I had a chance to read this outstanding collection of new essays some months ago while it was still coming together as a book project and was proud to write a blurb. I have to say that I have been studying fans for more than twenty years at this point and I still managed to learn something fresh and new in pretty much every essay in this collection.

As Hellekson and Busse suggest in their introduction to the collection, their central focus is on fan writing as a collaborative, social process, one which involves not simply the interaction between fan and the inspiring text (which they see as the central focus of fan studies to date) but also the social relations between fan writers, editors, and readers, who work together to generate fresh perspectives and new experiences around pre-existing cultural materials. They emphasize fan writing as always a "work in progress" with a particular emphasis upon the writing and reading process as opposed to the cultural products produced within the fan community. While Baym and Bury write mostly about discussion lists as one manifestation of online fandom, these writers are much more focused on Live Journal as a new kind of space for the production and transmission of fan writing. There is a very interesting discussion of new forms of fan fiction as writers assume the role of fictional characters (including the personas of real life celebrities) and correspond with each other in character.

The book breaks a number of taboos which were respected by earlier writers, including an open acknowledgement of the once closeted practice of real person slash (that is, slash written about the real world personalities of media celebrities as opposed to the fictional characters they play in their movies) and a frank discussion of the erotics of women sharing erotic stories with each other. Both of these themes are apt to be highly controversial within the fan community itself -- so we can expect a certain amount of fireworks to surround the book's publication. I know a decade ago when I was writing Textual Poachers, I was specifically asked not to write about either topic and like a good anthropologist, I protected the secrets of my field community. The Internet has blown the cover on real person slash (even if it remains a hot topic among many fans) and the intimate nature of Live Journal -- where stories circulate alongside personal confessions -- has made the relations between fans (including periodic heated feuds) also a matter of public knowledge.

Many of the writers came together through their own Live Journal practices, which often merged the production of fan fiction with the theorizing of their own practices. The best writing here brings new academic tools to bear on fan writing practices (my favorites include some focus on earlier forms of literature which involved the active appropriation and rewriting of existing stories and some focus on fan fiction as a cultural performance which moves from the actor's performance of the character in the original material, the writer's evocation of that character through their fiction, and the reader's re-embodiment of that performance -- now transformed through the addition of new information -- within their imaginations.) As several of the contributors note, they are less interested in fan culture from an anthropological perspective and more interested in what fan fiction means as a form of literary production. Yet, the best essays also take advantage of what the contributors know as fans -- including a fair amount of autoethnography focused on their own reading and writing practices.

The final few essays move us from the web as a system for producing and distributing traditional texts to the use of games as a platform for the production of new kinds of fan culture -- including a very good discussion by Louisa Ellen Stein of the ways fans are making use of The Sims and by Robert Jones (the book's soul male contributor) on machinema. These chapters may be of interest to those in games studies who might not otherwise regard themselves as interested in fan culture and suggest the ways that the lines between different online communities are blurring as the practices of participatory culture have extended beyond their originating subcultures -- a theme with which I began this post.

Some of the writing may be heavy slogging for non-academic readers: These young writers are still trying to prove to their dissertation and promotion committees that work on fan fiction is a legitimate academic subject. Their need to credentialize -- a painful reality in academic life -- probably hampers just a little their stated desire to produce a resource which fans can use to better understand their own creative practices. But for those with the background or the inclination, there's a lot here to spark new thought about fan fiction.