Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Gail DeKosnik (Part Three)

As we think about the challenges of developing a more diverse and inclusive media culture, you suggest that some archives do not simply collect existing works but are generative, actively shaping the culture that they collect, through various mechanisms. So, what role do you think fan archives have played in encouraging more cultural production by and about people of color?

Fan fiction archives are not merely repositories for works that already exist in the world; rather they are what Wolfgang Ernst calls “dynarchives” ­­ archives that change and expand with the proliferation of the cultural genres that the archives are built to store.

I go a step further than Ernst and argue that fan fiction archives are generative ­­ they incentivize fans to produce more of what is being archived ­­ and when archives host writing festivals, events, “ficathons,” and fic “exchanges” like Yuletide, they explicitly call upon a community to write more and more of a certain subgenre or category of fanfic.

In Chapter 4 of the book, I discuss a number of fan writing challenges, most of them staged by the group “dark_agenda,” that called upon fans to write stories about characters of color. These “archive events” seek to challenge the dominance of white characters in the larger Western Mediascape, the Western Media Archive as a whole (by which I mean the entirety of U.S.­ and European­produced audiovisual media texts, which all too frequently feature white leading characters, with non­white characters often supporting, propping up, or “pedestaling” them).

These writing challenges invite fans to reflect upon the ways that fandom, which is motivated by deep interior and individualized feelings, can be very heavily influenced and even structured by the biases and prejudices of the media industries. I view these challenges as challenging fans to try to link their politics (for example, a belief in racial equality) to their fannish practices, and to bring into being, if only in fan fiction, a mediascape that has more equal representation of races and ethnicities ­­ to help imagine and create the kind of mediascape that they think should exist in the world.

You were part of a generation of fan scholars who were, in many cases, introduced to the field through Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. One shared trait among many of you was the application of performance theory approaches to thinking about fan cultural production. What do we learn if we think about fan productions as performances rather than or in addition to being read as texts?

Francesca Coppa’s great essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which I teach at least once every year, is really the basis for much of my thinking around how performance studies and fan studies intersect. As I write in the book, I consider Coppa’s “Writing Bodies in Space” and Kurt Lancaster’s book Interacting with Babylon 5 to be the foundational texts of a line of scholarship that merges performance studies and fan studies.

Building on their work, I argue in Rogue Archives that fans’ desire to perform and re­perform, and differently perform, stories and characters that many people know and have in common, which is a fundamental drive in both theater making and fan fiction writing, has led to the rise of a different imperative in cultural preservation than any that existed before.

In other words, because digital culture makes constant re­performance possible to produce and share very widely, digital archiving has had to develop to account for that highly active performance culture. And digital archiving itself is not static, it evolves, and makes its own repertoires, and has had to alter and refine its own performance technique and its own technical levels of performance (as in “high ­performance”) as it has tried to preserve the explosion of creative output from Internet users.

If you attended a festival of plays where every play was being performed as many ways as different people could think to stage them, and where there was an infinite capacity for new stages to be built right away, and for new versions of each one of those plays to be staged, and if you tried to somehow preserve all of those, every iteration and variant of every play in that ever­ expanding festival ­­ that’s what Internet fan fiction archivists have been trying to do.

The prevailing logics of digital networked cultural production are quite different than those of print culture: digital culture is a performance culture, while print culture thought of itself as a text culture, a static culture, where works were “locked” into place and they were either “official” or “unofficial.” Everyone knows that it’s much easier to archive texts than performances. Well, now, digital archivists have to be in the business of archiving performances, not texts.

You dig back deep enough into fan history to describe the moment of transition towards digital fan culture and the resistances some fans had to moving away from a print­-based and face-­to-­face conception of fandom. What can we learn by understanding those resistances more fully? And how might we connect them to issues about digital equity and access more generally? What role did fandom have in overcoming the digital divide between male and female users and what might this suggest in terms of strategies for confronting other kinds of digital divides and participation gaps?

As you (Henry ­­ and also Cynthia Jenkins) told me in your interview for the book, fans who were active in real­world spaces, in face­to­face fan groups, meetings, and cons, at the time that the Internet was initially becoming a site of fandom, were quite attentive to issues of unequal access, to the “digital divide” between fans who had routine access to computers and the Internet (say, at their jobs) and fans who did not.

You and many others recalled that many fans whose fannish world had been defined wholly by print zines and in­ person interaction felt shut out, excluded, from this other world of fandom that arose in this virtual, online space. The temporalities of those fan worlds were dramatically different: fan conventions like Escapade took place once every year, new zine issues were published maybe twice a year or maybe monthly, but on the Internet, fan discussion took place daily.

So fans who had computer access printed out fan discussion threads and took those pages to meetings and passed them around, and they organized donations of computers to fans who couldn’t afford them, and there were cons at which some fans would set up a few computers in a room and demo Internet fan sites for fans who had never been online, and show them what participation in that world looked like.

Fans of that period, the early-­to-­mid­’90s, seemed to do a great job at outreach and onboarding, organizing tutoring events and equipment donations ­­ people who are working on issues of the digital divide and new literacies today can really learn a lot from that era of fan history.

At the same time, as I write in the book, there was a ton of strife between “print fans” and “net fans,” for many many reasons, because they experienced and defined and practiced fandom so differently (though, I note, many fans straddled both worlds and both identities).

In the past, researchers have thrown up their hands when asked how expansive fan archives really are given the difficulty of accurately counting these dispersed and partially underground collections. Yet you and your team have been using new tools and techniques to give us some more accurate data in response to this question. Can you give us a progress report on what you are finding?

I was fortunate enough to apply for, and receive, a $50,000 grant from the Hellman Fellows Fund, as well as some smaller grants from the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the UC Berkeley Senate Faculty Committee on Research which allowed me to fund a research team composed of myself, my colleague Prof. Laurent El Ghaoui (a statistician on Berkeley’s

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty), computer science Ph.D. and undergraduate students, and Ph.D. and undergrad students from humanities disciplines as well. I called that team “Fan Data,” and we worked for more than a year to build data scrapers that could “count” Internet fan fiction archives. I wanted to ascertain how large fan fiction archives are in terms of number of stories, number of authors, number of reviewers, etc., and I wanted to graph their growth over time, and I wanted to quantify their rates of productivity ­­ how many new stories were uploaded to each archive per month.

We scraped Fanfiction.net and the Archive of Our Own, mostly, but also did some interesting analysis of a Usenet X ­Files fan fiction community, the Gossamer archive (the largest repository of X­Files fanfic and the largest single­fandom fic archive, to my knowledge), and several H arry Potter LiveJournal communities. All of our visualizations can be found in the Conclusion to R ogue Archives.

Unfortunately, those scrapers aren’t available to the public, and I’m not sure that they should be, as we don’t want loads of people running scrapers on active websites all the time. (Apologies to FF.net and AO3 if our team caused any of the archives we scraped any inconvenience or interruptions of service!!!!).

I would love to conceive of some way that maybe my team could one day launch a service that would periodically measure these archives, ideally with their administrators’ permission (we did get the Gossamer archivists’ permission), and release that data to the public on a website. Perhaps we could ask scholars to pay us a nominal fee for conducting similar scrapes and creating visualizations of other websites with vast amounts of user­generated content.

Those are dreams I have for the future, but given that I can only pay researchers to work on such projects with grant monies, and grant applications take incredible amounts of time and don’t always (or often) meet with success, I have to weigh the costs and benefits of furthering my data science/digital humanities (DS/DH) research against doing more traditional scholarship (i.e., reading books and journal articles, studying cultural texts/objects/performances, perhaps conducting interviews and transcribing them, and writing essays or chapters). Because grant applications for DS/DH take SO much time, I do a lot more traditional humanities scholarship than DS/DH scholarship.

That said, I am committed to advancing DS/DH. I will be publishing another DS/DH article soon, in which I share the results of using a topic modeling tool on Twitter, for the controversial hashtag #CancelColbert. I like to work with graduate students interested in DS/DH methods, and a colleague of mine, Prof. Keith Feldman in Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department, and I are collaborating with a number of grad students in our working group, The Color of New Media (which focuses on scholarship at the intersection of critical race studies, gender and women’s studies, transnational studies, and new media studies), on a book project called # identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sex, and Nation, which will feature DS/DH research in some capacity ­­ potentially on a dedicated website that accompanies the publication of a print book.

I also got some teaching grants to support a seminar that I’m leading this fall, called “Making Sense of Cultural Data,” that brings together what I call “Data Science Professionals” or “DS Pros” and undergraduate and graduate students, to help students conduct their own original research projects, both individual and group projects, using leading­edge data science tools.

My goal with that course is to envision a new kind of curriculum that invites technical and non­technical faculty and students to collaborate and teach one another and learn from one another.

I think that the worlds of data science (text analytics including topic modeling, network analysis, geospatial mapping, new forms of image search, etc.) and the worlds of the arts, design, and humanities really need to come much closer together. We can’t have data science only ask and answer questions that matter to corporations and government bodies ­­ it has to ask and answer humanistic, social scientific, artistic, and design questions, too. And we can’t have arts/humanities/social science/design scholars ignore the potentials of data science; we have to get these scholars to embrace and love what data tools and computational approaches can offer them.

At least some students need to have a foot in both worlds, going forward, so that the “two cultures,” as C.P. Snow would say, can speak to one another and conduct new, original, and important research.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, bcnm.berkeley.edu) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS, tdps.berkeley.edu).  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).