A brief diversion into the ‘commodity of kudos’ has been niggling at me since that discussion, and as my academic research leads me to explore in more depth the impact of capitalism on virtual communities, I have been forced to evaluate and interrogate some of the earlier ideas around fandom I espoused in that podcast. Specifically, I have been giving a lot of thought to the notion of fanfiction as a 'free' enterprise.
In theory, fanfiction is free. It is the product of unpaid labour, for which writers receive no monetary award. There are some exceptions, specifically Amazon’s drive to host pay-to-read fanfiction, established to cater for certain fandoms with original creator consent. There are also charitable initiatives such as Fandom Trumps Hate (which raises money for progressive charities) in which authors are enlisted to produce fic at the request of people who make donations in return for a piece of fanfiction or fanart. There have been a number of other similar fandom charity drives which have responded to world events and raised funds for communities struggling in the aftermath of natural disasters or political adversity. Fanart is somewhat different, as it is more common to commission a fanartist to produce a bespoke piece of art work for which they will receive direct compensation, but those fanartists who take commissions also often produce a large volume of work for free. With the written stuff - fanfiction - it remains a largely a non-for-profit endeavour, both due to legalities around fair use of the original work and a desire to keep fanfiction free from becoming commoditised, accessible only to those who can afford to participate.
However, it is not strictly accurate to say ‘because it is free’ fanfiction doesn’t feel the effects of capitalist structures. Setting aside the more obvious connections to a capitalism with an exploration of the corporations behind platforms vital to fan communities (e.g. Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube), the remuneration received by creators of the canons on which fanfiction is based and the ’50 Shades of Grey’ effect of turning not-for-profit fanfiction into published original fiction, the most notable form of content-creator payment comes in the form of notes, views, comments and kudos. For those unfamiliar with Archive of Our Own, which I will use as the primary example for this piece, the site allows logged in users and guests to leave comments and kudos on openly published fanworks. The kudos feature operates in a similar fashion to a Facebook or Twitter ‘like’ and the comment function does as it says on the tin. There may be some less than savoury comments, flaming and content policing, but for the most part comments are the bright spot in the fanfic writer’s day. There is a certain fandom etiquette to commenting (i.e. if you don't have anything nice to say, don't bother saying anything at all), and comments are most often thoughtfully crafted feedback expressing enthusiasm for works the writer has created and published. This is one of the significant draws of writing fanfiction. Writing of any sort can be an isolating process, but within a fandom space, the authors often have an opportunity to garner instantaneous feedback and interact with readers about plot points, characterisation and the craft of story-telling.
Those who have been in a fandom for any significant length of time will have watched with interest the way trends emerge, disappear and, often, emerge once more as the fandom community adapts to new fandom platforms or community changes with long-standing participants bowing out, and new participants joining the ranks of content creators. Although posts from small blogs can often go unexpectedly viral, it is generally the more popular blogs that have the loudest voices, instantaneously reaching a vast and disparate number of followers, with an ability to control the narrative within fandom communities – namely the topics that get discussed and how they get discussed. So too, the authors whose works are perceived to be the ‘go to’ or the ‘must read’ pieces will often influence the shape of fandom content at large, irrespective of whether they intend to do so or not. Not only will they typically also have the big blogs (thus controlling the general narrative and introspective nature of fandom discourse) but their works will also attract other writers to emulate the themes, characterisations and manner of story-telling adopted by the original writer, because producing a work of fanfiction which attracts thousands of kudos and hundreds of comments is an incentive for most writers, even those who are generally dismissive of the importance of writing something ‘popular.’ Some of the most popular works even generate their own sub-fandoms and lead to more transformative works created within the particular universe that the original fanfiction author has created. These voices might once have been called BNFs or Big Names in Fandom, a term which doesn’t carry quite the same implications as it once did on journaling fandoms, but which, in my view, still applies, albeit in a different manner. Maybe now it's called being 'Tumblr famous.'
It is also not uncommon for readers to identify a ‘ship’ (romantic pairing) they wish to read, then filter the works they find on an archive such as AO3, with reference to kudos, which will list the most popular stories first. It’s how I read fanfiction, because nothing makes me back-button faster than stories which (in my subjective opinion) aren’t well written and for the most part those well-loved stories are a relatively safe bet in terms of quality of writing. That means that for any given pairing, devouring the first few pages of the most loved works will shape a new fandom participant’s perception of writing specific characters. Although fandoms attract plenty of canon purists, with fanfiction now ever more accessible, there are a growing number of writers who gravitate towards the stories produced within a fandom first and foremost and may start writing with limited canon knowledge, basing their characters on the recurring tropes, themes, characteristics and dynamics that occur in the most popular fics. This in turn goes on to influence the kind of stories being told and the way the characters interact with one another. Hierarchies begin to take shape within fandom communities almost organically, with groups of friends who enjoy a particular ship or characterisation bonding together and vocally supporting the authors whose works adhere to those ‘headcanons’ or ‘fanon’ ideals, or who bond over the ship itself, thus sometimes leading to opposing fandom factions and the dreaded ‘ship wars’ which pits groups invested in dominant ships against one another. Then there are the large rec blogs who spend an enormous amount of personal time promoting transformative works, who might (understandably) have a particular investment in the stories they subjectively appreciate, or avoiding the content they swerve or back-button, which can also influence content produced by new participants, for whom making a popular rec list is a great validation.
The moderators who create fests - a fandom event whereby dedicated fest communities post a series of fanworks over a short period of time - also have an influence. They devise the fest rules which may contain content or ship restrictions and the mod is the brainchild behind the fest theme, which drives the content creators to produce works with a particular lean, spin, characterisation or pairing dynamic. Sometimes the prolific number of fests skewed towards a particular theme or ship can leave other fandom participants feeling out of sync, depending on the numbers of moderators available to dedicate the time and investment to hosting fests within fandom communities. To a greater or lesser extent, the fest model is designed to avoid the popularity contest that fandom can sometimes become. The fest community will post works anonymously throughout a fest to avoid everyone taking the time to only read works by select, already well-known authors, and those moderators are always hopeful that new favourites might be discovered by readers prior to author ‘reveals’ which typically occur a week or two after the fest wraps up. However, I would suggest that the works produced for those fests have often already been influenced by the broader fandom stage. Fandom statisticians (for whom I have the utmost respect, together with the reccers, mods and of course the fanartists and fic writers I have already mentioned) have spent significant time charting trends towards a particular relationship (sometimes sexual) dynamic, content themes and pairing popularity over the years. They look at what's hot, and what's not, and analyse trends either across vast multi-platform fandoms, with a focus on a particular fandom or specific fandom platform (e.g. Archive of Our Own, Tumblr, Wattpad).
Fandom communities are rarely solely filled with unfiltered squee about their faves, with no other engagement other than pretty pictures which get reblogged on platforms such as Tumblr. In all fandoms, the fandom content is typically interspersed with political commentary, such as posts urging people to vote and information designed to raise awareness of the impact issues such as Net Neutrality might have on fandom communities. There will also be multiple 'meta' discussions around the diversity and politics of the original canon. Political fandoms aside, much of pop culture fandom discourse tends to be left-leaning and in opposition (very broadly) to conservative politics and, (perhaps) to a lesser extent, capitalism. The very work of the fanfiction author is often about challenging mainstream, commoditised media narratives and fandom participants can expect to see frequent posts on the ethics of original creators adopting a seemingly mercenary stance which encourages fans to pay for expensive pop concerts, merchandise, limited edition books or theatre tickets and so on. Yet the works within fandom themselves often become subject to a kind of embedded capitalist structure that is not always defined as such, but which operates on similar principals, rewarding productivity with incentives and impacting the shape of fandom and the content produced within it.
There has been a long history of debate around the extent to which fandom participants are resistant to capitalist structures, from the Utopian idealism of free virtual space, to a more cynical look at the way in which fan-produced academia (typically freely produced) ends up in texts sold for money, or the way in which the non-monetary rewards of fictional fandom serve to drive a narrative which is then willingly adopted and disseminated within fandom communities, in the pursuit of 'fandom mainstream popularity.' Just as commoditised pop culture and mainstream publishers respond to hot-button topics and consumer desires, fandom also develops along the lines of an unregulated market which theoretically provides a platform for all content, whilst simultaneously giving more weight to one type of story over another.
There is a danger that this kind of piece can be read as ‘anything popular is bad’ which is far from what I’m hoping to achieve. A lot of popular fics are very, very good. They are, after all, popular for a reason. This piece might also be read as a suggestion that fandom participants have been unwittingly hoodwinked by consumerism and that they are cogs in the corporate machine they so often critique. To the contrary, fandom communities acknowledge these trends can develop and devote time to challenging the impact a systemic investment in capitalist structures have on such communities, with anonymous posting during fests, fests created around lesser-known fandom ships (Rare Pair fests are common in many fandoms) or by seeking to give a voice to underserved identities, through, for example, fests focusing on asexual or trans identities. There are also fic reccing initiatives in multiple fandoms, designed to spotlight underappreciated works with a ‘less than X number of kudos’ rec rule. All of these initiatives involve fandom participants taking the reigns in an effort to expand the scope and diversity of fandom beyond the endlessly popular behemoth ships which are still largely white, cis-male dude slash ships.
I'm of the belief that an awareness of these issues merits discussion within fandom communities and that can be a tricky thing to instigate, without ostracising the very content creators you want on board, or without suggesting by implication that all fandom content should be serious, political, Pulitzer worthy fare, neglecting the monumentally important fun, frippery and unbridled pleasure that comes from creating works which are joyous, light-hearted and affectionate character studies of the canon fans love. These works serve their own deeply important purpose and offer escapism and worlds free from the oppressive and wearying reality of Real Life politics. The counter-balance is that it is important to acknowledge that fandom participants have a collective responsibility within their communities to allow discussions around trends, commoditised fanworks and free production of content the space to exist and breathe, with nuance and respectful interaction. The investment in a form of capitalised kudos-oriented fandom is to a large extent unavoidable, but when fandom spaces are increasingly becoming subject to toxic activism designed to stifle ‘problematic’ ships and content, it creates something of a perfect storm, which has a silencing impact and stifles not only the content creators are comfortable producing, but also any discourse around fandom resistance to the very models it so often opposes in a real world context.
I hope to revisit these thoughts at a later stage, as at the moment I am left with further questions, points to think about and not a lot of answers. This post might not offer anything particularly new in terms of critical fan theory, but it’s a starting point which I hope will serve as a useful introduction to non-fandom readers as I interrogate this subject in more depth in later posts. can be a tricky territory to negotiate.