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

You describe the role which British fans have played in helping to reconstruct and restore missing episodes of Doctor Who. Can you describe the situation for us and tell us what it suggests about possible collaborations between media companies and their consumers?

The case of the missing Doctor Who episode is, I think, one of the clearest cases of the "Digi-Gratis" economy, and particularly instructive in the way media companies and media audiences can reciprocally empower one another. During the early years of Doctor Who, the BBC erased many of the recordings of the show in order to save tape (this was a common practice at the time and not considered unusual at all). Richard Molesworth has written an extensive history of the production of Doctor Who that describes the multitude of reasons why this erasure occurred. One of the most pivotal early serials, "The Invasion" (1968), came from the sixth season of Doctor Who - and the BBC did, in fact, erase episode one and portions of episode four. They simply did not exist.

Or so the BBC thought. It turns out that many fans of Doctor Who, especially in the early years of the show before the invention of the VCR, collected bootlegged audio recordings of the episodes. These fans would hold microphones connected to cassette recorders up to the television speakers and audio record entire episodes as they were broadcast. Some kept these recordings for years, tucked away in shoe boxes under beds or carted from one home to the next.

When the BBC started to release DVD collections of Doctor Who serials, the erasure of the tapes became an issue: how to release an "authorized" collection if huge portions were missing? The short answer is that some of these audio recording fans of Doctor Who collaborated with the BBC and an animation studio called Cosgrove Hall to present an authorized animation of the missing episode that included a remastered original audio track culled from the scores of illegally bootlegged recordings from forty years previous. By combining the audio tracks from these recordings, the BBC created a master-track that was then animated by Cosgrove Hall to re-present the missing footage.

To me, it is a perfect representation of how the "Digi-Gratis" economy functions. For the commodity economy, the BBC was able to sell its DVD and finance the restoration. For the gift economy, the fans were able to respond to the positive emotion they had gotten from Doctor Who by giving back to the show. To look at this interaction as only one or the other is to limit that interaction: it is more meaningful to the fans that they participated and more meaningful to the BBC that they were able to create a product to sell. Both groups benefited; neither one at the others' particular detriment. I think it's particularly instructive for both media companies and audiences to see this interaction as a lesson. Doctor Who has a strong emotional resonance with fans, much stronger than many shows on the air. It would have been just as easy - and probably cheaper - for the BBC to link the episodes with voice-over, or had actors re-create the script. But by respecting the work and energy of fans, the BBC ultimately created a more robust product that acknowledged those fans' illegal practices.

(The story of Cosgrove Hall and the re-making of the serial can be found in the documentary Love Off-Air, produced by James Goss and Rob Francis, for the DVD of Doctor Who: The Invasion.)

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on a novel called Club Dumas. What new insights does this book offer for those of us working in fan studies?

Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas tells the story of Lucas Corso, an expert antique book collector, who uncovers a literary conspiracy among the world's elite book collectors. What fascinates me about this book is the way it specifically details two different popular conceptions of fans. On the one hand, Corso is an active reader of classic literature, who is able to piece together clues that have been inserted into various books throughout the ages to assemble a vast meta-narrative of literature. On the other hand, the evil literati in the book represent the opposite conception: the popular image of fans as fanatical, anti-social, and limited in human encounters.

While an interesting yarn in its own right, Pérez-Reverte's novel also demonstrates something that Roberta Pearson pointed out in her chapter of Fandom: namely, while we associate fan studies most strongly with genre fiction (mainly sci-fi, horror, romance, mystery, etc.), one can truly be a fan of anything - including, in the case of the characters in The Club Dumas, even ancient occult manuscripts. By opening up fandom to outlet, we universalize fandom. Fan scholars can apply the tenets of fan studies in a variety of cultural arenas, to explore new dimensions in cultural studies.

Indeed, good fiction can often spark relevant cultural studies arguments in new and exciting ways. For example, the Footage in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition is a direct and prescient representation of both spreadable media and what I call database narratives. In the novel, Cayce and other Footage followers have to reconstruct a meta-narrative from individual units of the film presented to them as narrative information. Published in 2003, though, Pattern Recognition helps us in 2010 recognize different ways media is spread - this fiction has become useful for analyzing contemporary cultural endeavors.

You examine Star Wars Uncut as offering an alternative model of fan authorship. Explain. How does it resemble or differ from the forms of fan fiction which other accounts have explored?

It seems that empirical data about fans can really only come from one of two sources. We can either ethnographically study fan communities, by joining fan groups, participating in fan discussions, or otherwise involving ourselves with fans; or, we can analyze fan-created texts that populate fan culture. In the ethnographic study, we can easily look at groups of fans - at fandoms - and see how the interaction between fans helps to stimulate interest in the objects of study. In the textual analysis, we can easily look at the creations of individual fans to form inductive conclusions about fandom. It is relatively easy to study either communities or texts, but it is relatively difficult to do both at once.

Star Wars Uncut is, in my opinion, a way of tying the two objectives together: at once, it is a textual analysis of a fan community and a study of a fandom-created text. According to its website, the creator of Star Wars Uncut, Casey Pugh "became interested in using the internet as a tool for crowdsourcing user content. Star Wars was a natural choice to explore the dynamics of community creation on the web - the response from fans has been overwhelming worldwide and the resulting movie is incredibly fun to watch." In practicality, individuals choose a 15-second clip from the original Star Wars (Episode IV, thank you very much) and remake it however they want as long as they follow the timing of the original precisely. Fans have submitted animated scenes, scenes filmed in restaurants or garages, and even one "acted" by the fans' dogs. The 15-second clip is then uploaded to the Star Wars Uncut server where the original music and dialogue from the film are inserted. All the clips are reassembled in the "Star Wars" order. The finished movie is thus the collaboration of literally hundreds of fans, each creating one moment out hundreds for the finished product.

To see Star Wars Uncut as a fan-authored text is slightly erroneous - not only is it the product of a collective, but it's also so completely adherent to the original Star Wars (the timing has to be perfect) -- it can hardly be called fan fiction. Instead, I like to think of this as a form of "Digi-Gratis Fandom." It's not fan fiction because it's the work of a collective (a fandom), and it's representative of this mashup between the commodity economy (Star Wars) and the gift economy (individual submission to Star Wars Uncut).

I think it's also telling that other groups have started to emulate the Star Wars Uncut model. For example, David Seger is crowdsourcing Footloose as Our Footloose Remake, and noted filmmakers Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald are making "Life in a Day" by compiling hundreds of YouTube videos. More ecologically-minded participants may also be interested in projects like "One Day One Earth," which similarly documents one day in the world's history via YouTube. To study fandom presents a useful way of examining these new crowdsourcing initiatives.

Throughout the book, you are exploring new forms of fan productivity and creativity which have emerged in response to the emerging affordances of the wiki, the blog, and other web 2.0 platforms. What do you see as some of the most promising experiments in fan expression? Why have fans been such early adapters and innovators of new media platforms?

In my opinion, one of the delights of studying fans and fan-created texts lies in observing how fan expression can be applied in areas outside fandom. As new technologies have emerged in our digital culture, we tend to examine them using traditional media descriptions; so, for example, when we talk about blogs we're mainly talking about blog entries and we tend to slight the important contribution of the blog comments (the important work of Roger Ebert in this discussion is a valuable exception). In my analysis of Battlestar Galactica fan blogs, for instance, I observed that the fiction itself functioned differently from what we might expect: that is, the blog entry (which was the main fiction story) served as a starting-off point for many complicated and intricate discussions about the meaning of that entry in the comment section of the blog. The community of fans, actualized through the comments, seems to be the focus of the blog in its entirety. The entry presupposes the comments, in a Derridean reversal of sorts.

Ultimately, the way fans interact with new technologies presents new forms of expression online. Another example I look at in the book is the wiki. Fans who contribute to Lostpedia, for instance, rework the confusingly multi-linear narrative of Lost into an inherently linear story on the wiki. But the way fans do this is through intense interaction and group collaboration. Like with Star Wars Uncut, the crowdsourcing inherent in Lostpedia indicates a shift in the manner of textual creation by fans.

One danger that I faced while writing this book was in mythologizing fans. Fandom, it must be noted, is not a panacea that cures all that ails media. At the risk of waxing lyrical about fandom, though, fans do seem to populate the extremes of media use, and many early adaptors of technology do seem to be fans of one sort or another. One thing that I've noticed about fans is that there seems to be a desire to delve incredibly deeply into whatever text they're examining: it's not enough to understand the plot as we see it, but we have to understand character motivations, subconscious desires, etc. Perhaps this intense commitment to the text extends to technology as well: the desire to learn everything about a technology may lead fans to greater and more rapid adoption of new technology?

You write of two competing pulls on all forms of fan writing - "one connecting it to a larger corpus of work and the other building a more cohesive document." What are some of the strategies fans deploy to try to resolve these competing tensions?

At its most basic, fan writing lies at the intersection of a palpable tension. On the one hand, fan writers must somehow link their writing to the extant text. Whether it's a relatively weak connection (setting the action in the same universe), or a strong connection (filling in the gaps between moments on screen, perhaps), the effect is the same: there must be some sort of intertextual link between the fan writing and the main text. On the other hand, though, fan writers must also create a work that stands on its own, that becomes its own text. To be too subservient to the extant text is to rely too heavily on unoriginal material. Fans must put their own spin on the larger corpus, but must also create a document unique unto itself. In order to do this, fans have to reference internally unique moments in the fan text - an "intra-textual" reference. Even an inherently derivative work - Star Wars Uncut - has to make itself somewhat unique to stand out and be noticed (hence the self-conscious nature of many of the clips).

These competing pulls, it should be noted, are not entirely unique to fandom. Mikhail M. Bakhtin described a similar type of tension inherent in language in his "Discourse in the Novel." For Bakhtin, language has two distinct pulls. One, the centripetal, pulls all language to a single, unified language, a correct way of speaking. The other, the centrifugal, pulls language away from a central discourse, towards a constructed view where language mutates and adapts to changes in culture. For Bakhtin, every utterance exists between these two pulls: one, trying to tie the utterance to a larger, unified discourse and the other trying to find alternate meanings and themes within the utterance.

To resolve these tensions, speakers of a language must make sense of a slew of material, much of it intuitively. Through context, genre, and other methods of cultural organization, the "proper" form of language becomes apparent. For example, we train children in school to write in the "correct" way, which is often vastly different (and may not be applicable in) their "real world" lives. To teach grammar and "proper" English is to take a decidedly monolithic look at language - yet the language students use on Facebook or in text messaging is decidedly different. SMS shorthand, Leetspeak, or Netlingo are not incorrect, given their situational context.

One of the interesting things that I found in my exploration of fan fiction on blogs is that the resolution of this intertextual/intra-textual tension resides in the dual nature of the blog form. Since fan blogs are made up of both fiction entry and non-fiction comments, the blog form as a technology helps to solidify this tension - one half of the blog document can refer back to the extant text (intertextually) while the other half can refer to the blog itself (intra-textually). The technology complements the writing. Taken as a whole, then, fan writing online uses technology in a new way to resolve old tensions.

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.