Fandom and innovation

I was trying to figure out just what to write about for this blog post on fandom/folk culture and creative self-expression, and I’m afraid that there might be a little too much for this to be a very coherent post. To start with, I feel like some of the articles we read betrayed their own bias in not actually being written by fannish practitioners so much as people interested in fandom as a concept. Or maybe just an extremely different definition of fandom than the milieu I work in. And that PBS video we watched? Felt extremely off the mark in terms of who fanart creators are and what fanart is really about — not only was the film populated entirely by guys, when one of the subjects of the video doesn’t know why Watson likes jam, something is wrong. Fandom is about queering the text, and I didn’t feel that most of the texts we read reflected that.

Kate Beaton sees what's up with Sherlock and Watson.
Kate Beaton sees what’s up with Sherlock and Watson.

And, as a side-note (and sorry for linking!) I really would have liked to see what folklorists like Trevor Blank have to say about TV Tropes. Not only is there a fascinating study in what tropes become popular in what media and over what kind of time period, but aren’t so many of these just ways to give Campbell’s hero another thousand faces? And so many ways to mix tropes (domestic zombies) and poke at the flaws in a story or act as a conduit for new stories (Star Trek: Wagon Train to the stars!).

Which is what fandom’s really all about. Asking ‘what if?’ What if Twin Peaks hadn’t been cancelled after 2 seasons? What if so-and-so had died in that cliffhanger? What if so-and-so hadn’t died? (#coulsonlives being a prime example) What would an NPR broadcast during a zombie apocalypse sound like? What happened to Mulder and Krychek while they working together? ‘Working.’ Right. What would it be like if the gender and sexual identity ratio in this show was closer to the norm? In a cast of 10, there should be at least 2 queer people, right? And more than one non-white person.

Etcetera. Fandom lets you kill the author (and the characters) time and again, and explore all the aspects of a show that you want to, whether it’s a serious exploration or you just really like these characters and want them to be happy for a while instead of constantly angsting and getting shot at, so you decide to explore what it would be like if Bruce Wayne dealt with his parents’ death in a responsible and sane manner, adopted a bunch of kids who’d also had parental issues, and ran a coffee shop, with reeeeally good dark roast.
God bless you, Ryan North

If there’s a scenario you’ve wondered about, chances are, fandom has created some form of media work that treats on that topic. There’s, uh a lot of stuff out there. And that makes it a little hard to find. Shannon Fay Johnson’s article (2014) does a great job of laying out the basics of systems of tagging that have been used over the years to create discovery systems for fanfics, podfics, fanart, and more over the years, but I’d like to fill in some of the details, especially in regards to how limitations and affordances of various digital platforms have affected fannish discovery systems over the years.

Daniel Perkel (2011) correctly points out that while each individual website has its own culture, they don’t exist in isolation. The fanfiction and creative end of fandom moved from zines and paper-based fan clubs and slide decks set to music to Usenet and dubbed VHS tapes to email lists (not necessarily invite only, but membership could be controlled) to journaling sites (which had various privacy levels, allowing selectivity in who could see posts, and had the additional affordance of requiring membership, which until 2003 required getting an invite to join Livejournal), with personal sites hosting vids and fandom-specific fanfic sites existing alongside. Now people publish fanfic and post fanart on a multiplicity of platforms, from pics and microfics on Twitter to works longer than War and Peace on the Archive of Our Own (AO3), and everything in between.

The affordances of the technology and the community both influenced what was considered important metadata. In addition to the examples listed by Johnson, which continue to be important, the size of the work is also an important consideration in the digital age, where you can’t size up a work by the size of the printed work. In archives prevalent in the dial-up age, the important thing was file size: how long would it take to download the work. So older sites like the X-Files archive Gossamer (which has a fascinating history of its own from a long-term digital archival perspective) the metadata would contain the usual title, author, pairings, fandom-specific tag concepts, and the file size. With no context, someone coming to the archive today (or even in the 00s and you just weren’t the one paying the internet bill, or someone from today just used to current fannish metadata) might look at a work labeled ‘vignette’ and wonder how it could be 125k. Hint: that’s not word count. That’s kilobytes.

I couldn't help myself, OK? I'm not even a Sherlock fan.
I couldn’t help myself, OK? I’m not even a Sherlock fan.

Johnson mentioned LJ’s switch to free tagging post platform adoption by fandom, but an additional detail is that when it was introduced in 2005, tags also had a length limitation, and you could only filter by one tag. At a later date filtering via multiple (read: two) tags was introduced at a later date, but as a for-profit site with tiered membership, there still exist plenty of other artificial restrictions on tagging. These limitations were part of the appeal of tagging-oriented bookmark sites such as Delicious. Even more popular, in the face of that platform’s decline, is Pinboard. Maciej Cegłowski just intended to create a bookmarking site. When he discovered how much fandom had taken to his site, and asked them what features they were interested in, you won’t believe what happens next.

By 2012, LJ was developing a poor relationship with fandom, and a forked version, Dreamwidth, was developed by fandom-involved former LJ workers and volunteers. At around the same time, due to similar frustrations, many related to DMCA, others were working to develop the OTW and the AO3.

I could go on about the AO3 and its tagging system all day long, but I’m going to try to keep myself limited to expanding on affordance limitations. If you’re curious about further details about specific aspects of working within the AO3’s structure, please feel free to comment or otherwise contact me, or if you’re really interested, maybe post some of your own work! Meta (fans writing about fandom) is on the AO3 too.

Like every site that gets popular quickly, the AO3 has had its share of performance issues. And this has, from time to time, influenced user-tag interaction. In mid-2012, server and scalability issues meant that the entire tag filtering interface had to be disabled while the database filters were restructured (and I believe at the end of that it involved re-indexing the entire database of tags. There are — a lot of tags on the AO3). Currently, due to similar back-end issues, wrangling of tags that can belong to any fandom (which are some of the most frequently-used, and complex) has been extremely restricted, which means there is a long list of changes waiting to be made. Manual tag editing has its downsides.

Another desired feature that is still somewhere a ways down the development roadmap is ‘parallel’ tags. The AO3 is meant to have international appeal, but canonical tags tend to be in English, unless it’s dealing with a fandom that originates in another country, and even then it tends to prefer Latin characters. Canonical tags in multiple languages would require a way to make equivalent canonical tags, which at this time the code cannot do. Another helpful tool that is also not yet on the horizon: an API. Being staffed entirely by volunteers, often working around full-time jobs, the AO3 doesn’t have the kind of quick turnaround time a commercial venture does. And until the servers are more consistently resting on stable ground, the increased hits of an API would only be a drawback.

One of the more unforeseen influences on tagging practices on the AO3 has been the advent of Tumblr. The visibility of fanart has increased as fandom has moved to Tumblr, and while the ease of reblogging something on tumblr is quite high, for text-based media there are slightly more issues. For one, unlike journaling platforms, there are no threaded comments or in-post replies. Also, privacy settings are scant if available at all. Secondly, for some reason, on tumblr a large number of people decided to start putting text reactions to posts in the tags instead of in the text of the post. Unfortunately, tumblr’s tagging system is not the greatest (warning: strong language). This extremely casual and freeform style of tagging has made its way into many of the tags introduced by users of the AO3, which has been a cause for great debate. The AO3’s official response was to reiterate that users are free to tag however they want, but some still feel that the current method of tag wrangling is unsustainable.

Only time will tell. Possibly fandom will move on to a new platform before it becomes too great an issue, and the metadata debate will start all over again when we need to figure out how to tag with appropriate warnings on our brain-sharing server.


Two treats: one of my favorite vids, which is currently in a museum show about remixing in Vancouver, and a fic involving fandom and folksonomies/cultural references: Oolon Colluphid Was Right.

6 Replies to “Fandom and innovation”

  1. fandom, fan fiction, and the original work are all related in very interesting ways people do not think about at first. Not only does fan fiction act as a very good starting point for learning how to write it also illustrates the types of values the fandom has. What is interesting is that despite what most people believe fan fiction and fandoms have be around for a very long time. the first real fanfiction i know of was actually pup novelettes and newspaper strips. The most notable is the ones on sherlock holmes.

    1. Fan fic, art, etc allows for a range of creativity — some people use it to get started writing, some people who are professional writers still write fanfiction, and the same with artists. Its flexibility is one of the things I like about it.

  2. Concerning the queering nature of fan art, I am particularly interested in the power dynamics and the debates surrounding the act of tagging and censorship. It seems anonymity and ephemerality are often the code of conducts in the fandom. This notion brings me back to the Agrippa and other fading art works; and how their fragments (obtained almost regardless and/or contrary to the designed intention of the work) keep the records of their historical significance. With queering fan arts that are meant to defy the contemporary social norms, it seems all the more agreeable to have the community to work on the preservation. Such archival efforts may be interesting for the community to redefine “queer temporality,” by looking at the creativity of fandom, etc.

    p.s. If you are interested in learning more about the treatment of fandom in academic settings, Alexis Lothian at the UMD’s Women’s Studies has “fan-tastic” courses, talks, and the likes:

    1. Fandom can be very insular — there have been plenty of cases of academic outsiders studying parts of fandom, fandom finding out, being displeased, and tearing into them (I’d link, but as it’s a privacy-related issue, I’d rather not do so publicly – it made this whole post a little hard). And like a lot of anthropological contexts, it really helps to have insiders who can bring proper context to the works. Luckily, there are a good number of library and archives oriented people working on the structure of these projects, so these things do tend to be taken into consideration, even if it’s decided to go a different path, that more users worldwide will be able to understand and follow.

  3. Wow! Thank you for so much info on the fandom world. One of the things that’s really interesting about your post is specifically what you mention in the very beginning. It’s clear from the PBS video we watched and from your post that there are multiple different approaches to the world. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you are presenting a much more “grass roots” approach (i.e. “killing the author”) whereas the PBS version formalizes the process a bit to present a succinct vision.

    A couple of Qs about AO3: how much art do you actually store there? It seems like it’s a tenuous storage location. Do you feel that your material is “safe” there long term? Also, do you think AO3 will actively curate materials for sustainability, or do you think repositories such as this one will have to develop a means for monitoring file deterioration, not just storage and access?

    1. The AO3’s technically actually not got image hosting yet, it’s still down the road, in the same way that the dark archive is. So in that sense, it’s not there yet. You can post the art, but they can’t yet host the art. I think once it does it’ll be fine, they’ve had no problem with losing the data they’ve been given. As a fandom-friendly alternative in the meantime, I’d suggest DreamWidth, the LiveJournal fork I mentioned above. It’s got image hosting space, but it is primarily a journaling platform.
      As far as monitoring stability of hosted files, I really can’t say. They might have that for the dark archive, since it’s got actual archival properties, but the AO3 as such doesn’t consider itself that kind of an archive. After all, they also allow people to delete their works (you can ‘orphan’ them instead, which disassociates the work from your account, and you lose control over it – this is irreversible).

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