Monthly Archives: October 2007

Henry Jenkins and Fan Culture


The keynote at AoIR‘s Internet Research conference yesterday was given by Henry Jenkins. I’ve read Henry Jenkins, I’m very familiar with his work and his impact, but I’d never seen him speak before. I suppose it’s true of any outsider/insider community politics that it feels incredibly weird and empowering to hear an academic speaking, in a public and respectable forum, about something so secretive and taboo as online slash fandoms. His primary gift to fandom, I’d say, is that he legitimizes fandom by talking about fandom activities in a non-judgemental way. He doesn’t shroud it in shame. He talks about it like it’s a cool thing to do. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do for fandom.

What he said: fandom is good PR. Media owners give mixed signals. Fandom as collective intelligence, etc. It felt good to hear it in that forum. Definitely.

But when I walked away something else hit me. Sour grapes, probably, or a natural response to the insider/outsider online ethnography: Henry Jenkins didn’t tell us anything fandom didn’t already know. He didn’t say anything that fandom hasn’t already analysed ad nausem. I’m glad he gets it, I’m glad he understands how things work, someone has to be the one to tell the rest of the world how fandom concieves of itself and gets meta on itself, but I didn’t hear him say anything that wasn’t just direct reportage of what’s happening in fandom. I didn’t hear him express something that wasn’t just as well expressed, if not better, within fandom itself. And that made me a bit sad. He objects to media companies taking advantage of fans, but how is this really all that different?

I’m not sure what I really expect from him. But that was the sad feeling I had walking away from that keynote. It’s great that he gets it, it’s great that he talks about it in such positive terms, it’s great that he doesn’t shy away from talking about slash (and in fact, he seems way more interested in slash fandom than gen or het fandom, which is interesting). I wonder if all ethnographized people feel this way; why do you get to be famous for just looking at me and describing what I say to someone else? I suppose that’s the way it works.

He mentioned that he would like fans to get some kickback (money) from the media companies, and someone in the audience objected, saying that their fandom research subjects weren’t in favour of that. He said there was a minority that were in favour, and that it would be a good thing. I immediately disagreed, quietly; getting money for fandom activities is anathema, my gut said no, and my immediate reaction at the time was to say, “since you don’t own the characters to start with, getting money for it is considered inappropriate and dangerous, and would bring negative attention from the media companies that would have a terrible impact on the rest of fandom.” It’s also considered insanely wanky to ask for money for fannish activities. But that only makes so much sense as a criticism; what if it’s the media company handing out the money, and no bad press is involved?

In retrospect, there’s another reason why taking money is problematic, and I think, deep down, it’s this that fandom is reacting too when the money question rears its head. Fandom is not a money economy, but it is an ecomony nevertheless. It’s a complex gift economy, where creative production, feedback, and critical reflection are the products and name recognition, attention and feedback are the currency.

Fandoms are extremely hierarchical, in spite of all attempts to deny that hierarchy and others to subvert it; it’s a hierarchy based on subtle differences in reception, feedback, and attention. A person with high value in a fandom economy (a Big Name Fan, or BNF) writes a blog post about how she doesn’t like a particular kind of narrative, or particular characters, and her opinion echoes out throughout fandom, marginalizing some elements and making it more difficult to get positive attention and organization around those particular characters or narratives. People with high economic value in fandom dictate the nature of fandom, even without intending to. Fandom itself decides who those people are. Each indiividual within fandom is a part of creating that economy and providing the currency that enables that power. If the media companies start entering into the fray and give money to some fans, that utterly changes the way fandom economy works. Now people who get money will be immediately elevated in the fandom economy, but they will probably be seen as corporate shills. They will be seen, I would guess, as fakes; the company arbitrarily blessed them, in spite of them not understanding X or Y, or because they wrote a bad X character, etc. etc. Company blessing is like a parent chosing a favourite child and making a bit fuss about it; it’s unhealthy and builds resentment.

If media companies really wanted to do something nice for fans, there are a variety of creative ways to do it. First: hire them. Hire them to do stuff with them. Fandom liaisons, etc. Create insider/outsiders who can still at least peripherally participate in fandom while communicating to both sides at the same time. This will still cause ripples in the fandom economy, but the media company would be providing one person with information that they can share with the rest of fandom; that works into the natural fandom economy. Don’t pay them for fannish activity in the past, pay them to communicate in the future. The best things media can do is provide more raw material to fans; media companies, particularly tv and film, could release additional footage via their websites, without audio would be fine, for fans to use in their vids (video mashups that create alternative visual narratives). It could be outtakes, but if they really wanted to do fans a favour they could stage footage specifically for use by fans, pairing unusual characters in a scene or creating short scenes that would spur on particular kinds of stories and vids. Teaser video, essentially. That would have the added bonus of fueling the creation of free ads for shows that will, inevitably, pull in more viewers. Another idea, for book fandoms, is to arrange to publish an edited collection of stories written in a particular year; have fans submit work, be transparent about the criteria, and celebrate the writers with the publication. Allow them to maintain their anonimity should they wish to.

Money is not always the best way to reward fandom. Best to look at the internal structure of fandoms and reward them in ways that don’t destroy the economy and culture that already exists.

Ritual and Virtual Worlds


I went to an interesting set of presentations this morning about ritual as performed in virtual worlds. The first thing that stuck out for me is that everyone has a different working definition of the word ‘ritual’. For some, everything is a ritual, everything we do, from sitting in a room listening to an instructor or presenter to accepting the eucharist. Because of that wide definition, all kinds of things got crammed into a session about “ritual” and I’m not sure I’m completely in favour of that. For instance, one of the “rituals” presented was online gaming activities, like trying to kill a dragon in online Dungeons and Dragons. Gathering together and attempting to complete a task communally is ritualistic (hiding behind a rock, everyone with their task to accomplish, the order in which people stand in the virtual world, etc.). I can understand how there are traditions and customary activities in that context, but I seriously hesitate to call them rituals. That’s like calling everything that has any impact an icon, which I’m also not delighted about.

But the key piece that I’m going to take away from the presentations and the discussion is the sense I got that in moving ritual and religious experience online, we’ve in a sense brought it back to an earlier form. Religious authorities are not the only ones with rituals to preside over and religious knowledge to impart, and much as christian leaders needed to fight with local ritual and knowledge to be heard in a medieval and early modern European context, so modern religious leaders need to cope with the influx of religious information and authority that’s available online. And one of the points of discussion was this: can you have a legitimate ritual without a body? Apparently there is some debate around this. Can you? My goodness, how can you not? If Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila were given the opportunity to worship God in a ritual that did not include their physical bodies in any way, they would have jumped at it, I’m sure. Christianity has traditionally had such disdain for the physical body, I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that there’s even a question about whether the virtual ritual is possible. The virtual ritual has been the most desireable kind since medieval christians climbed up on pillars and stood on one foot for 10 years. Remove the impact of the body, remove it from your consciousness, and then you are free to approach the divine with your lustful, sinful flesh tamed and left behind. In many ways, Second Life ritual could be seen as the consumate religious experience.

Can the same be said for jewish ritual, however? Jewish traditions isn’t nearly as flesh-hating, and jewish ritual respects the physicality of the performing the ritual itself, often above the intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps jewish ritual cannot move into a virtual context, but I’d suggest that christian ritual absolutely can.

An interesting morning! I never though my Master of Theological Studies degree would could in handy at an internet researchers’ conference, fancy that!

Hacking Say


Jason already blogged it, so I suppose I should too. In order to qualify for the Second Life all-day workshop at AoIR‘s Internet Research Conference (“Let’s Play“), Jason Nolan (Assistant Professor at the school of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University) and I wrote a paper called Hacking Say, Chat Fatigue, Generics and Davy Jones’ Locker: Is there a Second Life in MOO?” Essentially, it’s a retrospective of the work we did in MOO, primarily based around the problems we faced using a virtual environment in an educational context and the solutions we devised to account for them. The entire paper is written in light of work we’re presently doing in Second Life; a sort of compare and contrast of the two worlds and some musing on whether or not what we learned and what we created in MOO has application in Second Life.

Conference Blogging and Twitter


Normally at conferences I can’t find enough time to blog all the things I want to blog about; there’s never a blogging break at these things, though this conference (AoIR Internet Research conference) would be the one to do it if anyone did. At this conference I decided to give Twitter a try instead, since that was about what my brain could handle trying yesterday; short ideas, 140 characters in length. I figured I could go back later and glean from it what I wanted in order to write a more processed, thoughtful blog post or 5. I have to say, I think i found Twitter’s calling doing that. What a great way to capture those fly-away ideas that come to you while listening to a presentation or participating in a group discussion. (My tweets are on the side of my blog, for reference.)

In perusing Twitter, I discovered that Howard Rheingold tried to use Twitter with his class during class, as a way to get observations and questions up on the screen while he was teaching. It didn’t work so well. He says: Multitasking to the point of paralysis. Maybe having tweets projected on screen not as coolly manageable as private chat channel? Too bad, eh? I thought that was a pretty stellar idea.

Lessons in How to Live: Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture”


It’s an hour and 44 minutes of the distilled wisdom of Randy Pausch: make time for it today. Seriously. Check out the teaser first if you’re not ready yet to commit the time; that will ensure that you want to. I can’t think of anything better to watch on Thanksgiving. In his own words:

Almost all of us have childhood dreams: for example, being an astronaut, or making movies or video games for a living. Sadly, most people don’t achieve theirs, and I think that’s a shame. I had several specific childhood dreams, and I’ve actually achieved most of them. More importantly, I have found ways, in particular the creation (with Don Marinelli), of CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center (, of helping many young people actually *achieve* their childhood dreams. This talk will discuss how I achieved my childhood dreams (being in zero gravity, designing theme park rides for Disney, and a few others), and will contain realistic advice on how *you* can live your life so that you can make your childhood dreams come true, too.

Thanks to Stephanie Booth for the link.