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 Fanlib.com. This week's piece looks back at and
analyzes the Fanlib.com controversy from earlier in the year, and next
week's piece will look more fully at the current state of Fanlib.com,
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
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 email@example.com.
In This Issue
Opening Note: Xiaochang Li on the Fanlib.com
Controversy (1 of 2)
Glancing at the C3
Closing Note: Joshua Green on Memes and Viralness
Fanfic, Inc.: Another Look at
Fanlib.com (1 of 2)
Last May, Fanlib.com, 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, Fanlib.com 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 Fanlib.com 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 Fanlib.com 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 Fanfiction.net
(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 Fanlib.com 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 Fanlib.com 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
More to the point, however, many fans felt that, in
aligning with corporate sponsors, Fanlib.com was setting up a system
through which undesirable fanfiction content could be policed. This
fear was supported by the fact that Fanlib.com'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
Fanlib.com 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 Fanlib.com, 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 fanlib.com:
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, Fanlib.com's disappearance into fandom obscurity seemed
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 Fanlib.com 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 Fanlib.com'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
Fanlib.com, 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 Fanlib.com 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About FoE2: Around the Blogosphere (2 of 3). This post contains
links to a variety of accounts and posts based on the remaining panels
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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” -
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
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.
Green is the research manager for the Convergence Culture Consortium
and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Comparative Media Studies
program at MIT.