The intensely homoerotic Buffy and Faith storyline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was developed partly as a direct response to fanfic writers’ interpretations of the show in this light
As an undergraduate I read English Language and Literature at one of the oldest and most traditional universities in the world. Even the non-canonical texts came from a canon of the non-canonical – hence, by definition, whatever our course declared to be literature, ipso facto, was such. Recently, though, in the course of our Arts Council research I’ve browsed a fair amount of creative writing online – and found myself increasingly unsure about notions of the canonical or literary in the context of the net.
In search of some perspective, I met up with Roz Kaveney, an expert on one type of creative writing both quintessentially internet-based, and also quintessentially non-‘literary’. Fanfic – or fan fiction – is any story written using the characters, settings and conventions of a fictional universe – ‘fandom’ – such as that of Star Trek.
I learned from Roz that fanfic proper appeared with the Trekkies. The internet made it a mass phenomenon, as fans took advantage of low digital barriers to self-publication to evolve this new way of engaging with a fictional world. These days, while keen fanfic writers maintain their own archives, Livejournal is the hub of fan activity. Across the net, fans of particular shows, characters or fandoms gravitate in online communities, share work, commission stories about particular fandoms or pairings in ‘ficathons’, proof-read and critique one another’s stories and collaboratively generate massive archives of often elaborate, imaginative, well-written – and sometimes disturbing – narratives inspired by existing fictional universes.
Fanfic works through peer-to-peer commissioning and editing, and repurposing of others’ imaginative works as the springboard for its own ‘transformative’ endeavors. And this collaborative and (by the standards to which the ‘literary’ tradition of writing holds itself) ‘derivative’ nature contrasts intriguingly with the fixation on originality so inseparable from literary fiction. This fixation with originality and identifiable authorship is, in turn, inseparable from the economics that have underpinned the print industry for the last three centuries.
So, predictably, in this world of fanfic money is something of a contested issue. Keen to avoid rocking the copyright boat and alienate the creators of the fandoms they love, fanfic writers self-police strictly: attempting to monetize your work is frowned upon. “Printing out a few copies for friends is one thing,” Roz says, “but flogging your work at conventions just isn’t done.” Rather, it recalls Chris Anderson et al’s theories of the internet as a peer-to-peer economy of abundance. Fans write it because they love the fandoms, identify with particular characters, and enjoy exchanging these nuggets of narrative passion with others of the same persuasion. Stories become transactional units in a gift economy driven by the ludic desire to requite a free gift of pleasure with a return in kind.
If the literary is the critical and isolationist superego of writing, then, fanfic is the id: messy, pleasure-driven, reluctant to censor its proclivities. existing fictional universes. It’s always been transgressive, genderbending, complicatedly queer. Slashfic (erotic fanfic) appeared at the same time as fanfic, and slash stories often see heterosexual fans penning homoerotic slash; any taboo can be the subject of a slash story.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the net follows a fairly consistent pattern not of replicating, but of inverting the tradition of the book: boundedness becomes boundlessness, authority becomes unreliable opinion, fixity becomes fluidity, physicality becomes virtuality, the presumption of universality becomes an awareness of the contextual nature of everything written there. So I did a speculative compare and contrast between the mainstream literary world and that of fanfic. And the principle seems to hold for this most popular internet writing form: take the literary world, and turn it inside-out.
Fanfic is 90-95% female, in contrast with the canon of authors I studied at college. It’s often collaborative, and engages with an existing fictional universe, while – say – literary fiction is generally written by single individuals and is fixated on the idea of originality “without realising”, Roz says, “how overrated this concept has been since the Romantic era”. Fanfic is structured socially around a gift economy of stories, and money is frowned upon; literature writers usuall aspire to earning a living from their work. Fanfic is pleasure-oriented; literature intellectual; fanfic is non-hierarchical and networked, while literature tends towards canons.
And last, but not least, fanfic in its current state evolved online, and is impressively well-supported in that space by its communities – a stark contrast to the modest successses of more ‘literary’ outputs online. Perhaps, with a long tradition of print publishing, the literary world has simply not yet paid much attention to the internet, and this will change as it becomes more familiar and pervasive. Or, perhaps, more of the attributes that constitute what we think of as ‘literary’ content are more inseparable from meatspace than might be immediately apparent.
I’ll write more about all this as our research goes on. But meanwhile this cursory glance at fan fiction invites many questions about the forms natural to the internet and to print, about the social and cultural assumptions that underpin these two, and about the implications of each for the economics and value-systems of cultural production.
This began as a quick follow-up to my post last week on Jonathan Lethem’s recent activities in the area of copyright activism. But after a couple glasses of sake and some insomnia it mutated into something a bit bigger.
Back in March, Lethem announced that he planned to give away a free option on the film rights of his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Interested filmmakers were invited to submit a proposal outlining their creative and financial strategies for the project, provided that they agreed to cede a small cut of proceeds if the film ends up getting distributed. To secure the option, an artist also had to agree up front to release ancillary rights to their film (and Lethem, likewise, his book) after a period of five years in order to allow others to build on the initial body of work. Many proposals were submitted and on Monday Lethem granted the project to Greg Marcks, whose work includes the feature “11:14.”
What this experiment does, and quite self-consciously, is demonstrate the curious power of the gift economy. Gift giving is fundamentally a ritual of exchange. It’s not a one-way flow (I give you this), but a rearrangement of social capital that leads, whether immediately or over time, to some sort of reciprocation (I give you this and you give me something in return). Gifts facilitate social equilibrium, creating occasions for human contact not abstracted by legal systems or contractual language. In the case of an artistic or scholarly exchange, the essence of the gift is collaboration. Or if not a direct giving from one artist to another, a matter of influence. Citations, references and shout-outs are the acknowledgment of intellectual gifts given.
By giving away the film rights, but doing it through a proposal process which brought him into conversation with other artists, Lethem purchased greater influence over the cinematic translation of his book than he would have had he simply let it go, through his publisher or agent, to the highest bidder. It’s not as if novelists and directors haven’t collaborated on film adaptations before (and through more typical legal arrangements) but this is a significant case of copyright being put to the side in order to open up artistic channels, changing what is often a business transaction — and one not necessarily even involving the author — into a passing of the creative torch.
Another Lethem experiment with gift economics is The Promiscuous Materials Project, a selection of his stories made available, for a symbolic dollar apiece, to filmmakers and dramatists to adapt or otherwise repurpose.
One point, not so much a criticism as an observation, is how experiments such as these — and you could compare Lethem’s with Cory Doctorow’s, Yochai Benkler’s or McKenzie Wark’s — are still novel (and rare) enough to serve doubly as publicity stunts. Surveying Lethem’s recent free culture experiments it’s hard not to catch a faint whiff of self-congratulation in it all. It’s oh so hip these days to align one’s self with the Creative Commons and open source culture, and with his recent foray into that arena Lethem, in his own idiosyncratic way, joins the ranks of writers shrewdly riding the wave of the Web to reinforce and even expand their old media practice. But this may be a tad cynical. I tend to think that the value of these projects as advocacy, and in a genuine sense, gifts, outweighs the self-promotion factor. And the more I read Lethem’s explanations for doing this, the more I believe in his basic integrity.
It does make me wonder, though, what it would mean for “free culture” to be the rule in our civilization and not the exception touted by a small ecstatic sect of digerati, some savvy marketers and a few dabbling converts from the literary establishment. What would it be like without the oppositional attitude and the utopian narratives, without (somewhat paradoxically when you consider the rhetoric) something to gain?
In the end, Lethem’s open materials are, as he says, promiscuities. High-concept stunts designed to throw the commodification of art into relief. Flirtations with a paradigm of culture as old as the Greek epics but also too radically new to be fully incorporated into the modern legal-literary system. Again, this is not meant as criticism. Why should Lethem throw away his livelihood when he can prosper as a traditional novelist but still fiddle at the edges of the gift economy? And doesn’t the free optioning of his novel raise the stakes to a degree that most authors wouldn’t dare risk? But it raises hypotheticals for the digital age that have come up repeatedly on this blog: what does it mean to be a writer in the infinitely reproducible non-commodifiable Web? what is the writer after intellectual property?
There was some discussion here last week about the ethics and economics of online publishing following the Belgian court’s ruling against Google News in a copyright spat with the Copiepresse newspaper group. The crux of the debate: should creators of online media — whether major newspapers or small-time blogs, TV networks or tiny web video impresarios — be entitled to a slice of the pie on ad-supported sites in which their content is the main driver of traffic?
It seems to me that there’s a difference between a search service like Google News, which shows only excerpts and links back to original pages, and a social media site like YouTube, where user-created media is the content. There’s a general agreement in online culture about the validity of search engines: they index the Web for us and make it usable, and if they want to finance the operation through peripheral advertising then more power to them. The economics of social media sites, on the other hand, are still being worked out.
For now, the average YouTube-er is happy to generate the site’s content pro bono. But this could just be the honeymoon period. As big media companies begin securing revenue-sharing deals with YouTube and its competitors (see the recent YouTube-Viacom negotiations and the entrance of Joost onto the web video scene), independent producers may begin to ask why they’re getting the short end of the stick. An interesting thing to watch out for in the months and years ahead is whether (and if so, how) smaller producers start organizing into bargaining collectives. Imagine a labor union of top YouTube broadcasters threatening a freeze on new content unless moneys get redistributed. A similar thing could happen on community-filtered news sites like Digg, Reddit and Netscape in which unpaid users serve as editors and tastemakers for millions of readers. Already a few of the more talented linkers are getting signed up for paying gigs.
Justin Fox has a smart piece in Time looking at the explosion of unpaid peer production across the Net and at some of the high-profile predictions that have been made about how this will develop over time. On the one side, Fox presents Yochai Benkler, the Yale legal scholar who last year published a landmark study of the new online economy, The Wealth of Networks. Benkler argues that the radically decentralized modes of knowledge production that we’re seeing emerge will thrive well into the future on volunteer labor and non-proprietary information cultures (think open source software or Wikipedia), forming a ground-level gift economy on which other profitable businesses can be built.
Less sure is Nicholas Carr, an influential skeptic of most new Web crazes who insists that it’s only a matter of time (about a decade) before new markets are established for the compensation of network labor. Carr has frequently pointed to the proliferation of governance measures on Wikipedia as a creeping professionalization of that project and evidence that the hype of cyber-volunteerism is overblown. As creative online communities become more structured and the number of eyeballs on them increases, so this argument goes, new revenue structures will almost certainly be invented. Carr cites Internet entrepreneur Jason Calcanis, founder of the for-profit blog network Weblogs, Inc., who proposes the following model for the future of network publishing: “identify the top 5% of the audience and buy their time.”
Taken together, these two positions have become known as the Carr-Benkler wager, an informal bet sparked by their critical exchange: that within two to five years we should be able to ascertain the direction of the trend, whether it’s the gift economy that’s driving things or some new distributed form of capitalism. Where do you place your bets?
John Holbo has an excellent piece up on the Valve that very convincingly argues the need to reinvent scholarly publishing as a digital, networked system. John will be attending a meeting we’ve organized in April to discuss the possible formation of an electronic press — read his post and you’ll see why we’ve invited him.
It was particularly encouraging, in light of recent discussion here, to see John clearly grasp the need for academics to step up to the plate and take into their own hands the development of scholarly resources on the web — now more than ever, as Google, Amazon are moving more aggressively to define how we find and read documents online:
…it seems to me the way for academic publishing to distinguish itself as an excellent form – in the age of google – is by becoming a bastion of ‘free culture’ in a way that google book won’t. We live in a world of Amazon ‘search inside’, but also of copyright extension and, in general, excessive I.P. enclosures. The groves of academe are well suited to be exemplary Creative Commons. But there is no guarantee they will be. So we should work for that.
There are several reasons that Yahoo! released some of their core UI code for free. A callous read of this would suggest that they did it to steal back some goodwill from Google (still riding the successful Goolge API release from 2002). A more charitable soul could suggest that Yahoo! is interested in making the web a better place, not just in their market-share. Two things suggest this—the code is available under an open BSD license, and their release of design patterns. The code is for playing with; the design patterns for learning from.
The design patterns library is a collection of best practice instructions for dealing with common web UI problems, providing both a solution and a rationale, with a detailed explanation of the interaction/interface feedback. This is something that is more familiar to me, but still stands as a valuable resource. It is a well-documented alternate viewpoint and reminder from a site that serves more users in one day than I’m likely to serve in a year.
Of course Yahoo! is hoping to reclaim some mind-space from Google with developer community goodwill. But since the code is general release, and not brandable in any particular way (it’s all under-the-hood kind of stuff), it’s a little difficult to see the release as a directly marketable item. It really just seems like a gift to the network, and hopefully one that will bear lovely fruit. It’s always heartening to see large corporations opening their products to the public as a way to grease the wheels of innovation.
For the next two days, Ray and I are attending what hopes to be a fascinating conference in Cambridge, MA — The Economics of Open Content — co-hosted by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare.
This project is a systematic study of why and how it makes sense for commercial companies and noncommercial institutions active in culture, education, and media to make certain materials widely available for free–and also how free services are morphing into commercial companies while retaining their peer-to-peer quality.
They’ve assembled an excellent cross-section of people from the emerging open access movement, business, law, the academy, the tech sector and from virtually every media industry to address one of the most important (and counter-intuitive) questions of our age: how do you make money by giving things away for free?
Rather than continue, in an age of information abundance, to embrace economic models predicated on information scarcity, we need to look ahead to new models for sustainability and creative production. I look forward to hearing from some of the visionaries gathered in this room.
More to come…