Fan Culture as User-Generated Content: Hits and Misses

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. That's as true for working with fans as it is for anything. One of the reason I always use the term fan culture is that fans are just that: a culture with their own history, rules, and rituals.

The latest victim of this lesson seems to be Entertainment Weekly with its "Fanuary" fan fiction contest. Whoever came up with the contest probably thought fan fiction writers would appreciate the mainstream exposure. And, in turn, the contest would generate buzz and good will for EW. Sounds like a win/win, right? 

The big question these kinds of contests raise isn't "should media companies benefit from fan culture" -- you can argue that's already inherently part of fandom anyway. After all, fans buy the tickets, they collect the t-shirts or action figures or comic books. No, the big question is, how can media companies tap into fan culture in a way that respects fan activities, doesn't trample on independent fan communities, and recognizes that fan culture is more about personal expression than about trying to impress "the powers that be"? 

Looks like EW could have learned a lesson from the crashing and burning of FanLib.

FanLib began in 2001 as a place for media companies to host fan fiction contests. The company boasted successful collaborations with THE L WORD, GHOST WHISPERER, and some others. In 2007, FanLib attempted to expand into a fan fiction archive by recruiting several hundred popular and well-rated fan fiction authors from around the web. The invitation letter enthused that the site's founders wanted to "create the greatest fan fiction site the web's ever seen!"

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The backlash against the site was near unanimous. Fans objected to everything from the site's copyright policy (the site claimed ownership and right to edit and remove content as it saw it fit) to its leadership team (an all male team with no apparent roots in fan culture and an all-too-apparent profit motive). However, at the root of fans' anger and lack of trust seemed to be a sense that they were, once again, being misunderstood. Part of fan culture's appeal for many is the feeling that it is a safe space, for expression, or discussion, for re-interpretation, and for building a community based on shared passions, especially at a time before nerds were suddenly cool and loving things like sci-fi, comic books, fantasy was decidedly uncool. 

In its correspondence with fans and its marketing of the site, FanLib repeatedly put forward the intention to "bring fan creativity into the big leagues." This idea that fans create anything with the intention or the motivation to make it into the "big leagues" is a fundamental misunderstanding that continually plagues any attempt to turn fan culture into user-generated content for media companies. Of course, some fans do write fiction or make vids or fan art or music as a way to hone their skills for a potential professional career. But for many fans, the call to the "big leagues" is directly opposed to the idea of a safe, private space based on shared values.

What is perhaps most interesting about the FanLib story is that it indirectly led to the creation of The Organization for Transformative Works -- a true non-profit by-fans-for-fans venture that maintains, among other services, the Archive of Our Own (AO3) fan fiction collection. The idea of fans having "an archive of our own" to showcase their creations was a proclamation that fans did not want to be at the mercy of an outside organization like FanLib to provide a platform. Fans want their own platform, without control, agenda, or exploitation.  

The problem with EW's contest was in its original terms and conditions, which read:

Entries become sole property of Sponsor and none will be acknowledged or returned. (http://www.themarysue.com/not-cool-ew-fanfic/)

Predictably, fans responded with a hearty "um, yeah, NO." EW has since revised the contest rules, removing that pesky "sole property of the Sponsor" bit, but the damage with the fan community is likely done.

However, the history of fan culture is not necessarily littered with the corpses of media companies' unsuccessful attempts at collaboration. One project that arguably did it right was the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW) project, which published annual collections of amateur short stories from 1998 to 2007. Essentially, SNW was a showcase for fan fiction, albeit fan fiction that had to follow specific rules in terms of length, themes, characters, and settings.

What SNW did right, first of all, was to make no attempt to profit from or interfere with existing fan fiction. Authors had to submit stories to participate, so there was no sense that SNW was trying to invade or co-opt pre-established fan fiction communities. Those who wrote fan fiction for personal expression could continue to do so uninterrupted. SNW did not assume that all fan fiction authors wanted to play in the big leagues, but it gave an opportunity to those who did. Many SNW authors did go on to write professionally. Second, SNW acknowledged that fans' creations had value, and compensated published authors both per word and with a share of the royalties. 

SNW illustrates what Henry Jenkins has called a “collaborationist” model of engaging with fan culture: "embracing fan creativity as a way of enhancing engagement with their properties" (henryjenkins.org). Media companies like to assume that, because fans exist around a media property they own, that they somehow own the fans, by extension. Collaboration is a much more useful approach and should be a key guiding principle for media companies; the implication being that it rests on respect and understanding.