C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

Amidst the battlegrounds of final paper and research deadlines for our graduate student investigators, the C3 team has been hard at work over the past few weeks. As mentioned previously, we will feature some of our own team's work here this week and next, as well as in the first issues of 2007 after we return from the holidays. Meanwhile, we're staying busy with our YouTube and viral media projects, in addition to the research being presented here in the newsletter.

Xiaochang Li includes the first part of a two-part series this week about This week's piece looks back at and analyzes the controversy from earlier in the year, and next week's piece will look more fully at the current state of, based on interaction with current users of the site. Meanwhile, the final part of Eleanor Baird's "Valuing Fans" series will be featured in next week's Closing Note. C3's Research Manager, Joshua Green, provides this week's Closing Note, both pointing toward a piece he wrote for Vodafone's Receiver, in relation to the work the Consortium is doing on "viralness."

The social networking piece previewed last week will be available on the site shortly. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Finally, the new year will bring with it information about the Consortium's next event here at MIT, the internal C3 retreat we host here each spring. This event is to bring together Consortium members and consulting researchers to talk about a variety of research interests, built around some of the issues C3 has been looking at in the past year and looking ahead at futures directions of our work. We will be providing more details in January about the 2008 retreat.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at


In This Issue

Editor's Note

Opening Note: Xiaochang Li on the Controversy (1 of 2)

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Closing Note: Joshua Green on Memes and Viralness

Opening Note

Fanfic, Inc.: Another Look at (1 of 2)

Last May,, a site that set out to monetize thriving fanfiction communities, debuted to a firestorm of criticism from the very groups they were trying to court. They quickly became known throughout the technology and marketing blog-o-sphere as the model of what not to do when courting online communities. The only point of contention between the many vocal fic writers and bloggers seemed to be whether Fanlib was actively evil or just offensively ignorant of their target audience. Now that the dust has cleared, has emerged with more than 10,000 members, many of whom are incredibly prolific, despite the intense animosity and reproach the site faced from many of the most influential and well-networked sectors of fanfic writers. The unexpected popularity of the site suggests that we should take another look at and its place in the shifting landscape of fanfiction communities.

Fanlib, a venture-funded "People Powered Entertainment™" company, was founded in 2002 by film producer Chris M. Williams, filmmaker Craig Singer, and former Yahoo! executive David B. Williams as a division of their online media and production company My2Centences.

Prior to the launch of their site, Fanlib ran a number of promotional fan-writing contests in cooperation with companies such as Showtime and HarperCollins. Their most highly publicized contest was the L-Word "fanisode," in which the fans were given plot points to write a scene on. The scenes were then posted and voted on by other fans. The most popular work would then be "polished" by one of the show's writers and incorporated into a script that Showtime would have the option to produce. The benefit to Showtime, as expressed by Co-Founder David B. Williams, was to transform "fans into active advocates," since fans would be promoting the show as they actively promote their own work to get more votes. The benefit to the fans, however, was more ambiguous. While there was a grand prize of $1,000 and a trip to the set to watch the scene filmed, the incentive seemed primarily to be a chance for formal acknowledgment of their work.

Then, in March 2006, FanLib started to build this model further. The company invited a large number of the most popular fanfiction writers from established archives such as (the largest archive of fanfiction on the web), popular fan message boards, and the Livejournal community (one of the most prominent and influential divisions of fan writers) to participate in the beta version of the site. Fans were immediately suspicious of the recruitment email and quick to point out the inconsistencies and vagueness in descriptions of the site's background and purpose.

The for-profit status of the site also gave people pause, making fans feel that the site was at once taking advantage of them and putting them at legal risk of copyright crackdowns. When the site went live in May, their terms of service exacerbated these fears of exploitation and exposure while their promotional materials and FAQ made it apparent the executives in charge had little understanding of, and, as many fans suggested, little respect for, the members and practices within the fanfiction community.

From there, the backlash began in ernest, with an almost unprecedented level of cross-fandom unity, though many of the most vocal opponents were based within the Livejournal community. Fans carefully deconstructed and responded to the terms of service, invitational emails, FAQ, and press release, line by line. Much of the initial criticism stemmed from the fact that was a top-down approach to fandom which many felt used fan labor to gain promotional revenue, with nothing to offer in return except token prizes. Not only did fanfiction writers consider this a bad deal, it also went against the gift-economy model of fanfiction that has been in place for decades. As Henry Jenkins pointed out in his blog:

The industry tends to think of 'content' as something which can be commodified and thus isolated from the social relations which surrounds its production and circulation. Yet, fan culture stresses the ways that this material emerges from a social network of fans who have their own aesthetics, politics, and genre expectations. And for many fans, the noncommercial nature of fan culture is one of its most important characteristics.

There was additional concern that the Terms of Service, while protecting and its corporate media sponsors, essentially hung fans out to dry. Given fan creators' long, contentious history with copyright "cease and desist" orders, these fans were understandably resistant to a site that would grant fanfiction writers high levels of exposure, force them out of the non-profit safe zone, and then leave them to fend for themselves should the IP lawyers come knocking.

More to the point, however, many fans felt that, in aligning with corporate sponsors, was setting up a system through which undesirable fanfiction content could be policed. This fear was supported by the fact that's TOS granted the site distribution rights as well as the right to "edit" content posted there.

Additionally, fans were quick to discover brochures produced by Fanlib for their corporate partners, as well as an imediaconnection case study of their L-Word "fanisode" contest by co-founder David B. Williams that promised "steadfast content moderation," to ensure anything produced would offer "the best of both worlds: content that is audience-driven and viral while also being professionally controlled." Given that one of the central appeals of fanfiction often cited by fanfiction writers is the freedom to explore themes or forms not always viable within "legitimate" media, this served to compound the feeling of exploitation and resonate with one of the these fans' greatest fears: censorship of their work.

Finally, in response, Chris M. Williams assured the writers that much of this was a misunderstanding. The Terms of Service and FAQ were consequently edited, though not to the full satisfaction of the fanfiction writers. Williams also maintained that all the brochures referred to earlier contests run by Fanlib and had nothing to do with the policies of the site itself. Fans found the argument to be less than convincing, especially given the information provided about by H.I.G. Ventures, one of the site's supporters, that claimed the site would provide "more manageability for producers and, most importantly, more fun for fans," without acknowledging any potential conflicts between the two interests.

For these fans, the damage had already been done. Instead of promoting the site, many of the people that were initially approached issued public statements encouraging people to stay away from, citing the site's murky policies and patronizing attitudes in claiming to take fanfiction into the "major leagues" and connect fans with one another when many felt that their work was already legitimized amongst the people that mattered: other fans. In a recount of the entire ordeal, icarusancalion gave a succinct explanation for the dominant ill-feelings in the community toward

Fan reaction against FanLib was as angry and intense as if they had discovered a fraud. At the very least FanLib was guilty of exploitation. While FanLib earnestly marketed to their advertising partners, they never attempted to get a buy-in from the fans themselves, seeming to assume that the fans would play along the way children will follow an ice cream truck. Not so. David and Chris Williams, FanLib's co-founders, were caught flat-footed, outsiders in a culture they had hoped to profit from, but did not understand.

Given this unambiguous condemnation by fanfiction writers in a show of dramatic and unprecedented solidarity and agreement across a significant number of communities, message boards, and blogs,'s disappearance into fandom obscurity seemed inevitable.

Yet, here we are, a little more than half a year later, and the site, while nowhere near the size of the larger fan archives and communities, seems far from going away.

In trying to understand the site's rising popularity in light of its near-catastrophic launch, I spoke closely with several of the most prominent and most popular writers on the and quickly discovered that most didn't know about the surrounding controversy that circulated furiously through prominent fan message boards and the Livejournal community this summer. Those that had heard of it were not familiar with all of the arguments in detail and often accepted's contention that it was all a big misunderstanding.

This points to the central misconception about the fanfiction community -- namely, that it can be conceived of as a singular, monolithic whole. In the common rhetoric regarding fan cultures, fans are frequently divided up into a value hierarchy in which the relatively small percentage of fans who produce content sit at the top.

This sector, however, is by no means uniform. While the practices of fan producers may appear the same to outsiders like, there are more nuanced distinctions within communities. Content production isn't necessarily an indication of community participation. It is the distinction between producing content and participating in the community, and an acknowledgment that these two modes of engagement can overlap to varying degrees for an individual fan, that can help us understand and evaluate the apparent success of

Next week, I will examine in greater detail these modes and speculate on what it might mean for in the second part of this series.

Xiaochang Li is a graduate student investigator with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a member of the Program in Comparative Media Studies' Class of 2009 here at MIT. Her work includes a focus on emerging narrative forms in the digital landscape and production and community-building in fandom.

Glancing at the C3 Blog

FoE2 Links: Anderson Podcast and Rik Hunter. Hear Kare Anderson's recent interview with Sam Ford about FoE2, interview with him on Kare Andreson's "Moving from Me to We," as well as notes on the conference from other blogs.

Five Things About the Convergence Culture Consortium. In light of recent requests to reveal five things readers might not know about him, Sam Ford provides C3 details instead.

FoE2 Podcast: Fan Labor. The fan labor panel from FoE2, featuring Raph Koster (Areae), Mark Deuze (Indiana University), Jordan Greenhall (DivX), Catherine Tosenberger (University of Florida), and Liz Osder (Buzznet), is now available for audio and video download.

FoE2 Podcast: Metrics and Measurement. The metrics and measurement panel from FoE2, featuring Maury Giles (GSD&M Idea City), Bruce Leichtman (Leichtman Research Group), Jim Nail (Cymfony), is also available for audio and video download.

FoE2 Podcast: Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. The opening comments from FoE2, from C3's director and research manager, are now available for audio and video download.

Writing About FoE2: Around the Blogosphere (3 of 3). This collection of links from FoE2 refers to a variety of blogs and articles written about the conference as a whole or multiple panels at the event.

Writing About FoE2: Around the Blogosphere (2 of 3). This post contains links to a variety of accounts and posts based on the remaining panels at FoE2.


Writing About FoE2: Around the Blogosphere (1 of 3). This post contains a variety of links to online discussions about the MIT Communications Forum event with the team from Heroes and the opening comments and mobile media panel at the mid-November conference.

Gender and Fan Culture: Wrapping Up (4 of 4). The final feedback on the Gender and Fan Studies conversation from Henry Jenkins' blog features comments from Cynthia Walker, Will Brooker, Francesca Coppa, Robin Anne Reid, Jonathan Gray, Karen Helleckson, Anne Kustritz, Barbara Lucas, Eden Lee Lackner, and Robert Jones.

Gender and Fan Culture: Wrapping Up (3 of 4). Henry Jenkins provides more feedback on the Gender and Fan Studies conversation from Abigail Derecho, Matt Hills, Melissa Click, Derek Johnson, Julie Levin Russo, Catherine Tosenberger, Sam Ford, Kristina Busse, Robin Anne Reid, and Deborah Kaplan.

Gender and Fan Culture: Wrapping Up (2 of 4). Henry Jenkins provides feedback on the Gender and Fan Studies conversation that took place on his blog from Bob Rehak, Kristina Busse, Lee Harrington, Alan McKee, and Lori Morimoto.

Gender and Fan Culture: Wrapping Up (1 of 4). Henry Jenkins provides his own take of the Gender and Fan Studies conversation that took place on his blog over the past several months and through 22 rounds. The series featured participation from C3's Joshua Green and Sam Ford, as well as C3 alum Geoffrey Long and consulting researchers Aswin Punathambekar, Robert Kozinets, and Jason Mittell.

Follow the Blog

Don't forget – you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog.

Closing Note

Hai Again!

I recently wrote an article for Vodaphone’s Receiver about LOLCats and Internet memes for a themed issue about "communities." The article is available here:

It argues that, while the Internet meme is generally regarded as a weightless, goofy curiosity, they can be understood instead as devices for community formation as legitimate as any other. I come at this from two angles, suggesting first the somewhat cryptic nature of many memes - such as the peculiar Engrish of the LOLCat phenomenon or the obscurity of the humor in something like All Your Base - represent barriers to understanding that allow the formation of particular communities of understanding around these cultural objects. Understanding, or tolerating, or participating in the language jokes at icanhascheezburger requires the application of a certain form of expert knowledge:

These elements are seen as odd when the objects interact with broader culture, and they often become a source of fascination for a short period of time, fueling the memetic spread of such materials. The oddity of these features produce a particular set of linguistic barriers that enable the lolcat community to distinguish itself and patrol it’s boundaries. In some respects, communities such as these are akin to the expert communities we associate with education and authority. The lolcat community would seem in some ways similar to the science community, which likewise requires certain modes of linguistic performance in order to gain entry. Understanding the scientific method, and its requisite report style, comprises a barrier to entry perhaps comparably complex as being able to decipher the Engrish of lolcat forums. Or perhaps not.

Second, however, I argued the act of passing on this content, of participating in a meme, was one that facilitated the formation of tactical communities, providing globalized citizens with common cultural touchstones:

Participating in the energy an Internet meme can create, can provide an act of community formation that is tactical for the dispersed consumer. The buzz that emerges around a meme can provide short term status as an insider; participation in a community that comes without the obligations and investment required for long-term sustenance. This is the form of community we see emerging around one-shot curiosities, of which Tay Zonday’s ‘Chocolate Rain’ is a good, recent example.

It is this latter point I want to touch on briefly here. The team has been thinking and working for the past few months about "viral media." Especially if you listen to the sounds coming from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, "viralness” is the new-old thing. Fueled by the rise of online video, the emergence of social networking sites, the increased networking of the developed world, and the harnessing of fans as advocates and evangelists, water-cooler discussion and email forwarding are amongst the the hottest modes of message dispersion in the convergence media space. Which is great, if you’re the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Some of the things we’ve been talking about, however, includes what "viralness” might actually mean, because, if every sort of WOM pass-along can be considered viral, the term itself loses specificity and any real value. The team has been looking into ways to really understand and distinguish viralness, examining the influence attempting to "go viral” has on the construction of marketing messages, on the real success of some recent viral campaigns, and on the opportunities it provides for distributing content, as well as the tools that might be required to effectively make something "go viral” - look here at the recent TechCrunch furore on the authenticity of viral videos and the ethics of their application.

This will produce some really interesting work that will complement the coding we’ve also been doing on YouTube videos which digs into the sort of uses that people make of YouTube. It is this question of use that I want to raise briefly with the extended C3 community before we slink off for holiday tidings.

One thing I didn’t quite get to in the Receiver piece is the fact predominant thinking about Internet memes and viral content seems somewhat techno-deterministic. Talk about Internet memes regularly refers to this material as "self-replicating” across the Internet (I did myself, though I glanced the argument off Time magazine), as if the content spreads itself autonomously. This fits well with analogies about ‘viral’ media distribution and meets with frequent biological metaphors for the media "ecology." But proposing the Internet meme as self-replicating strips the people out of the system, essentially masking the role they play in passing along this content.

Absenting people from this process might be spurred by the often autonomous aura Internet memes have; they are said to bubble up faddishly from the Internet, itself a seething, quivering, belching mass of good and bad information. Especially when they come to you as a fwd: fwd: fwd: fwd from your mother’s co-worker or as a random YouTube video your brother’s friend shows you, the author is frequently obscured in the email trail or click-path. And this sense of anonymity is often harnessed for corporate viral campaigns.

But absenting people from this process also allows Internet memes to exist as essentially disposable, as part of the "snack-ification” of popular culture Wired wrote about this year. If the content spreads itself, then each of us are excused for laughing at it; it requires no further thought, no greater investigation. This works to malign such content and the communities existing around that content (however impenetrable they may seem) as essentially worthless. And, if it is essentially worthless, then why did we feel compelled to forward it on in the first place?

The discourse of autonomy and the absenting of human agency resigns the Internet meme to the potato chip bag, a treat freshness-sealed in foil coating and packed with air to both cushion its insubstantial nature during transit and give it an appealing, full appearance on the shelf. As Henry suggested in response to Wired’s argument, this suggests that the content is without intrinsic value because of its short length (denying the segmentation and unbundling of the media landscape generally) and that the process by which it is passed around the culture sphere is essentially without meaning.

These are some of the questions we’re unpacking at the moment here in the Consortium. Understanding the way content circulates via viral modes illuminates changing patterns of meaning and significance within convergence culture. We look forward to publishing some of this work in the early part of the Spring semester, and of course, we welcome any feedback from our readers.

Joshua Green Joshua Green is the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.

The Fine Print

Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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