You say "User-Generated Content." We say "Fan Culture."
Let's call the whole thing off!
The differences between the ways corporations and fans understand the value of grassroots creativity has never been clearer than the battle lines which have been drawn this weekend over a new venture called FanLib.
FanLib -- "Where the Stories Continue"
I first learned about FanLib's latest plans about a week ago when Convergence Culture Consortium analyst Ivan Askwith reported on their efforts in our blog:
FanLib.com launched as hub for "fan fiction" writers. The idea is to provide a home for creators of one of the first "user generated" genres, fan stories written using popular movie and TV characters and storylines. Members can upload stories, embed promos and build communities around their favorite shows. FanLib, founded by Titanic producer Jon Landau, Jon Moonves and former Yahoo CMO Anil Singh, is also currently sponsoring the Ghost Whisperer Fan Finale Challenge on the site asking fans to write their own conclusion to the show's two-part finale.
Ivan concluded his post with some concerns about whether fans were going to eagerly embrace such a project:
Since fan fiction seems to be one of the last traditional forms of fan creativity that hasn't been widely coopted and encouraged (within specific, copyright-friendly parameters) by the entertainment industry...My offhand guess would be that fan fiction, unlike mashup videos, tribute songs, and so on, are harder to 'control', and leave a lot more room for individual fans to take characters, or narratives, in directions that producers and executives aren't comfortable with.
FanLib started promisingly enough, courting the producers of programs like The L Word and The Ghost Whisperer, and getting them to run official fan fiction contests. Fans would be able to write in these universes, safe in the knowledge that they would not receive Cease and Desist letters. They even worked with a book publisher to try to put together an anthology of amateur romance fiction.
But, FanLib didn't emerge bottom-up from the fan culture itself. It wasn't run by people who knew the world of fan fiction from the inside out. It was a business, pure and simple, run by a board of directors which was entirely composed of men. This last point is especially relevant when you consider that the overwhelming percentage of people who write fan fiction are women -- even if there has been some increase of male writers as fandom has gone on line. To give you a sense of scale, there were more than 700 people who attended the Harry Potter fan convention I wrote about yesterday -- most of them readers, many of them writers of fanfic set in J.K. Rowling's world. By my count, there weren't more than 20 men in the group. That's about 18 more men than would have been there if this was a fan fiction oriented convention 16 years ago when I wrote Textual Poachers! To suggest how out of touch with this community they were, their original ads featured the transformation of fandom from a 90 pound weakling to a more robust and muscular form, leaving many women to wonder if this implied a move towards a more masculine conception of the practice. The company later did produce a female spokesperson who expressed confusion about why gender was an issue here in the first place.
Keep in mind there's a history here of previous attempts by companies -- some affiliated with the production companies, some not -- to create a commercial space for the promotion of fan culture. Most of them have ended badly for the fans.
Consider, for example, this story in Salon in 2000 which describes a company called Fandom.com ("by fans, for fans") which asserted a claim to have trademarked the word, "fandom," and then tried to use its corporate control of the concept to try to shut down any amateurs who wanted to share their public via the web. Salon reported on a cease and desist letter that Fandom.com had sent out to a fan named Carol Burrell. As Salon reported at the time:
Fandom.com serves as an umbrella site for numerous "fandomains" -- formerly independent Web sites dedicated to popular, merchandise-friendly topics such as Star Wars, The X-Files and Lord of the Rings that now run under the Fandom.com banner. Each site contains the same structure and design, and there's a large copyright disclaimer placed at the bottom of every page....
The initial premise of Fandom.com was straightforward: to protect individual fan site owners from studio censorship (and sell a lot of nifty merchandise and advertising in the process) ....Fandom.com seemed to make sense -- by joining together the little guys, it would create an institution that could defend itself from the heavy hitters. But Fandom.com's letter to Burrell appeared to indicate something entirely different. Fandom.com was accusing Burrell of trademark violation -- a fact that was ironic on at least two levels. First: Fandom.com may not even own a trademark for the word "fandom." Second: A company whose individual sites flourished by pushing copyright laws to the legal limit was now turning around and itself playing the role of intellectual property bully.
Which leads to the question currently raging in the fan community: Who will protect the fans from Fandom?
Or consider another such effort which Lucasfilm created to "protect" Star Wars fans, one which was described in more detail in Convergence Culture:
In 2000, Lucasfilm offered Star Wars fans free Web space and unique content for their sites, but only under the condition that whatever they created would become the studio's intellectual property. As the official notice launching this new "Homestead," explained, "To encourage the on-going excitement, creativity, and interaction of our dedicated fans in the online Star Wars community, Lucas Online is pleased to offer for the first time an official home for fans to celebrate their love of Star Wars on the World Wide Web." Historically, fan fiction had proven to be a point of entry into commercial publication for at least some amateurs, who were able to sell their novels to the professional book series centering around the various franchises. If Lucasfilm, Ltd. claimed to own such rights, they could publish them without compensation and they could also remove them without permission or warning.
Elizabeth Durack was one of the more outspoken leaders of an campaign urging her fellow Star Wars fans not to participate in these new arrangements: "That's the genius of Lucasfilm's offering fans web space -- it lets them both look amazingly generous and be even more controlling than before....Lucasfilm doesn't hate fans, and they don't hate fan websites. They can indeed see how they benefit from the free publicity they represent -- and who doesn't like being adored? This move underscores that as much as anything. But they're also scared, and that makes them hurt the people who love them."
As far as long-time fans were concerned, the announcement that FanLib was going to create a commercial portal to support the publication of fan fiction was read as more of the same. Under the circumstances, there was going to be healthy skepticism within the fan writing community no matter how the company approached them, but so far, the company has approached the fans in all of the wrong ways.
What Went Wrong
There's an excellent summary of the issues surrounding this venture written by a fan. I don't want to repeat all of the details here. But here's how Icarussancalian summarizes the company's initial pitch to the fan community:
The founders of FanLib.com saw no reason they couldn't cash in on the internet traffic. Formerly from Google, Chris Williams, the CEO and co-founder of FanLib, has an impressive resume. FanLib has corporate backing and $3 million of venture capital invested into the site.
"My colleagues and I want it to be the ultimate place for talented writers like you," Naomi of FanLib wrote to fan fiction writers. "In case you're wondering, FanLib's not new to fan fiction. Since 2001, they've been producing really cool web events with people like CBS, Showtime and HarperCollins to bring fan creativity into the big leagues."
FanLib did their homework. "We scouted for serious fan fiction authors on various sites and invited only a few hundred based on their writing and impact in the community," co-founder David Williams says, and fans agree that their search focused on popular writers. What's a "serious" fan fiction writer? A serious fan fiction writer could have anywhere from 30 to 100 stories, with upwards of 700 regular readers subscribed to their blogs or LiveJournal accounts. Currently, fan fiction writers do their own marketing through networking with other fans, posting in blogs, fan-run archives, and various fan fiction communities targeted to their readers.
Unfortunately, FanLib did little more than ask the writers to hand over the product.
FanLib's creators immediately ran into trouble with fans critical of FanLib's plans to turn profits on their freely provided fan fiction with no compensation to the authors, beyond t-shirts and prizes. Fan fiction writers were also unhappy at a clause where FanLib owned the rights to any fiction they posted...
This post also notes that FanLib was emphatically not going to take any legal risks on behalf of the fans here, leaving the writers libel for all legal actions that might be taken against them by any production companies that felt that fan fiction was in violation of their intellectual property rights. Fans were going to take all of the risks; the company was going to make all of the profits, all for the gift of providing a central portal where fans could go to read the "best" fan fiction as evaluated by a board of male corporate executives. (Taken at face value, the company was trying to "cherry pick" the top writers from the amateur realm. At worst, they were imposing their own aesthetic judgments on the community without any real regard for existing norms and hierarchies.)
To add insult to injury, the company surrounded itself with self congratulatory rhetoric about taking fan fiction into the "major leagues," which showed little grasp of why fans might prefer to operate in the more liberated zone of what Catherine Tossenberger, an aca-fan who spoke at Phoenix Rising this weekend, calls the "unpublishable." Or the producers talked about making fan fiction available to "mainstream audiences," which clearly implied that the hundreds of thousands of fan fiction writers and readers now were somehow not "mainstream." This is a debate which has long surrounded fan fiction. Some seek to legitimize it by arguing that it is a stepping stone or training ground for professional writers as if commercialization of creative expression was the highest possible step an author could take. Others -- myself among them -- have argued that fan fiction should be valued within the terms of the community which produces and reads it, that a fan writer who only writes for other fans may still be making a rich contribution to our culture which demands our respect.
FanLib had done its homework by the standards of the VC world: they had identified a potential market; they had developed a business plan; they had even identified potential contributors to the site; they had developed a board of directors. They simply hadn't really listen to, talked with, or respected the existing grassroots community which surrounded the production and distribution of fan fiction.
Well, if they hadn't listened to fans before, they were starting to hear from them by this past weekend. Fans were rallying where-ever fans gathered, constructing arguments, deconstructing the company's FAQ, proposing alternative models for how this might be done right, writing letters to the managers, and trying to hold them accountable for their actions. You can get some sense of the intensity of their arguments by checking out some of the many posts found at Metafandom, a site where fans gather to discuss the politics and poetics of fan culture or as they would put it, just "wank."
As one reads these fan voices, one hears some of their deep ambivalence about the ways that the corporate embrace of "user-generated content" may be endangering the grassroots culture they have created for themselves. Here, for example, is almostnever:
This is the reason I have been involved recently in arguments about whether our community should accept the monetization of fan fiction. Because I think it's coming whether we accept it or not, and I'd rather it was fan-creators getting the benefit of the $$$, not some cutthroat entrepreneur who doesn't care about our community except as a market niche.
I don't think FanLib is the one that's going to change things, but I do see change coming. There's a lot of happytalk in the entertainment industry about the money to be made by bringing your audience in under your corporate wing, the better to do market research, sell to them, and make $$ from their conversations about your product.
But if, say, Paramount brings Star Trek fan fiction in-house, it wouldn't be smart for them to allow competition from fan-run archives and sites. If Star Trek fans' only choice was to post to a site like FanLib or get a C&D, then things could get lonely for Trek fans, if only from people dropping out of fandom or going underground to avoid the hassles.
These comments suggest two debates which are currently brewing in fandom:
1. the issue of whether amateur creators should be compensated for the work they contribute to for-profit sites like YouTube. This is an issue I've raised here before and won't discuss in depth now.
2. the concern that as companies construct a zone of tolerance over certain forms of fan activities, they will use them to police more aggressively those fan activities that they find offensive or potentially damaging to their brand. Fans have long asserted their rights to construct and share fantasies that may not be consistent with the ideological norms of media companies. In an argument which parallels debates in the queer community, they argue that as long as some of their fantasies are being policed, none of them have the freedom of expression which drew them into fan culture in the first place.
Angiepen, another fan, walked through a detailed critique of the site's terms of service, showing both the ways that they over-reached in asserting their rights to control and edit what fans produced and how they might threaten the uneasy zone of tolerance which surrounds fan fiction as far as at least some of the Powers That Be (the media companies and their executives) are concerned.
Almost everyone I meet in the media industry imagines we are moving towards a more participatory culture but the dispute surrounds the terms of participation. More and more media producers are adopting what I call the "collaborationist" model -- embracing fan creativity as a way of enhancing engagement with their properties. Others have adopted a stance of benign neglect -- willing to turn a blind eye to the proliferation of fan fiction online as long as people aren't making money from it.
As fans note, however, FanLib's efforts to commercialize fan fiction represented the worst case scenario: a highly publicized, for profit venture which left fan fiction writers even more exposed than they have before. Fans have long noted that there is no case law to determine what if any fan fiction constitutes fair use. They realize, however, that the "wrong case" could easily bring about the wrong kind of legal judgement on this entire space. Some, like AngiePen, went even further:
You know, this is probably just me being paranoid here but since the TOS prohibits any posting of material which violates someone else's copyright, they could in theory have set up this site to draw in as many fanfic writers as possible with the intention of turning around and smacking all of them for copyright violation, whether that means direct prosecution of people who are writing fics based on properties whose owners are represented on the FanLib board, or sending notification with names and e-mails and copies of stories to the copyright holders who are not associated with the site. I'm just saying.
How Not to Handle a Controversy
And so the debate continues. As icarusancalion notes in her summary, the company only made things worse for itself by responding to the criticism in ways which fans considered haphazard and patronizing and then trying to erase previous posts once they came under fire. For example, when fans systematically critiqued the FAQ for the site, the FAQ disappeared from public view, one hopes so that it could be reconsidered and rewritten but potentially to simply hide the history of the company's less than friendly interactions with fans. She quotes FanLib executive Chris William's post to the community as an example:
"hey everyone, I'm Chris one of the founders of FanLib. it's really late and i have been working on the site all day. I'm exhausted but i just realized what was going on here and all of the commentsts are making me sick. we're a small company with 10 emplyees who work 16 hours a day to try and make a great website. we're real people! with feelings and everything! we have been working on this and dreaming about it for a long time and you are just here to shit on it without giving us a chance. i care deeply about what you think but this is crazy. we're good people here and you make us sound like we're an evil corporation or the govt. sending your kids to war or something. we really are all about celebrating fan fiction and fan fiction readers and writers. im sorry this is so short and please excuse the fact that i am cutting and pasting this across a bunch of ljs but i gotta get some sleep."
Those of you in the media business will understand the frustration expressed in this post but it also can come across as sounding like the student who wants a good grade because they worked really hard on the assignment and not because of the results. Williams ignores the fact that a significant number of the fans involved in this dispute had worked for a decade or more, some for many decades, to generate a community around fan fiction and that's precisely why they didn't want outsiders moving in and trying to turn it into a revenue stream for their companies.
As the conversation continued, fans began to come up with their own proposals for ways that they could achieve the value of this venture -- a central hub for fan fiction -- while keeping the cultural production under the control of the fan community itself. Here's part of one such proposal for "an archive of our own" by astolat which is starting to get some real traction among the fans I've spoken with the past few days:
We need a central archive of our own, something like animemusicvideos.org. Something that would NOT hide from google or any public mention, and would clearly state our case for the legality of our hobby up front, while not trying to make a profit off other people's IP and instead only making it easier for us to celebrate it, together, and create a welcoming space for new fans that has a sense of our history and our community behind it.
I think the necessary features would include:
* run BY fanfic readers FOR fanfic readers
* with no ads and solely donation-supported
* with a simple and highly searchable interface and browsable quicksearch pages
* allowing ANYTHING -- het, slash, RPF, chan, kink, highly adult -- with a registration process for reading adult-rated stories where once you register, you don't have to keep clicking through warnings every time you want to read
* allowing the poster to control her stories (ie, upload, delete, edit, tagging)
* allowing users to leave comments with the poster able to delete and ban particular users/IPs but not edit comment content (ie, lj style)
* code-wise able to support a huge archive of possibly millions of stories
* giving explicit credit to the original creators while clearly disclaiming any official status
It's not hard to see the contrast between what these fans want and what the company is offering them. Given the speed with which this debate has grown and the skills held collectively within the fan community, I wouldn't be surprised to see such a site emerge from this fray.
What's Wrong with the "User-Generated Content" Model?
I have focused here on the fan's side of the story. It is worth keeping in mind that there may be, almost certainly is, a considerable gap between the ways that FanLib's directors see their venture and the ways that it is being perceived within the fan community. If FanLib is smart, they will take seriously these complaints which come from people who are at the center of the existing fan communities and will be trying to rework their plans to respond to this feedback. It is not clear to me that they can avoid some fundamental problems in the ways that their business plan intersects with the grassroots communities which they claim they want to serve and which some fans fear they want to exploit.
I hope that other groups entering the space of what the industry likes to call "user-generated content" study this story closely and learn from FanLib's mistakes and missteps. Perception matters. Community relations are make or break. You can't serve a community if you don't understand their existing practices and their long-standing traditions.
Let's start with the concept of "user-generated content." The industry tends to see these users in isolation -- as individuals who want to express themselves, rather than as part of pre-existing communities with their own traditions of participatory culture. FanLib's rhetoric seems to be caught between these two conceptions of the "user," talking about fan traditions but dealing with fans as isolated individuals and not respecting the community as a whole.
Second, the industry tends to think of "content" as something which can be commodified and thus isolated from the social relations which surrounds its production and circulation. Yet, fan culture stresses the ways that this material emerges from a social network of fans who have their own aesthetics, politics, and genre expectations. And for many fans, the noncommercial nature of fan culture is one of its most important characteristics. These stories are a labor of love; they operate in a gift economy and are given freely to other fans who share their passion for these characters. Being free of the commercial constraints that surround the source texts, they gain new freedom to explore themes or experiment with structures and styles that could not be part of the "mainstream" versions of these worlds.
Of course, there are already a large number of fans who are deciding to participate in the FanLib site, for whom its services do seem to represent what the corporate world would call "added value," and we probably need to develop a better understanding of why they are making that choice. I don't mean my discussion here to suggest that fandoms speak with one voice on this or any other matter. I only want to suggest that FanLib is bucking long-standing convictions within the fan community when it seeks to move fan fiction into the commercial realm.
A Public Invitation
That said, I would welcome response from the executives at FanLib. I would love to conduct an interview with them on this site in which they actually responded to the fan criticisms of their ventures. So, Chris Williams, if you or anyone else at FanLib is reading this, get in touch.
Update: Chris Williams has accepted my invitation to be interviewed in the blog. We are still working out the details. In the meantime, I wanted to solicit from my readers questions you would like to see addressed in such an exchange. My goal is to allow him to tell his side of the story and to speak to the concerns which fans have raised. Either send me your questions via the comments section here or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks. As always, my spam filter can be a little wonky so if you are getting error messages, send your questions directly to me.