February 10, 2008
Fans, Producers, and when Real Person Fic actually becomes about Real People

As indicated by the recent piece for the C3 Weekly Update newsletter we distribute within the Consortium on Fanlib and my previous posts (here and here) about Friday Night Lights and fandom, I've been thinking quite a bit recently about the relationship between fans and media producers that results from fan production in general and fanfiction in particular.

Two recent personal incidents around this issue come to mind, the first regarding the discovery a couple of weeks back, of RPF (Real Person Fic, or fanfic about celebrities) about people that I actually know. It wasn't tongue-in-cheek meta-RPS like the infamous Henry Jenkins/Chris Williams, but unironic fan work about a couple of guys in a band who used to live around the corner from me in Brooklyn.

I found myself disconcerted and even a bit scandalized.

Not by the sex, which I never actually got to, but by the simple fact that someone I know had walked into a room and said something innocuous in a fan story on the internet. And not just any story posted by an enthusiastic 14-year-old on Quizilla, but fanfic that was very much a part of the social economy of fandom, written by people whose fannish identities were based much more heavily on their role as a fan writer than as a fan of this particular band. In short, my friends didn't just have a fan fantasy written and posted online -- they had been brought into the social culture of fanfiction as a product, in the way a new spinoff of the Stargate franchise might be.

But more than my shock as finding the stories, I found my own shock surprising, since RPF was certainly not a new concept. There was something about seeing it that felt like a sudden and unexpected invasion. As I probed this further, though, I realized it was not the invasion of fandom into my real life that put me off. Rather, as someone who identifies as fannish though I'm currently not an ardent fan of any particular media property, it was the idea that my real life could somehow invade the fannish domain without my permission. I had the irrational urge to call up the band in question and tell them to stop butting into fandom.

Online, there have been a number of conversations and debate brewing around the relationship of fans and producers as fanfiction in the past several years has become a bigger and bigger blip on the mainstream media radar, but the question of these limits are foregrounded when the media property in question is actually a real person. While one of the central premises of RPF has always been that these public personas that celebrities construct are no more "real" than a fictional television character, it becomes difficult to maintain this conceit when the "characters" in question begin acknowledging and commenting on the fics in interviews and even in fan communities.

While the reaction to this has ranged from excitement (at being acknowledged) to outrage (mainly at other fans for publicizing fanwork to celebrities and effectively "outing" fandom), a significant number of fans have expressed varying degrees of discomfort and unease with the whole prospect. What it boils down to is that fanfiction isĀ  frequently conceived of as a privately public space, with its own social rules and regulations that are completely separate from those of media producers and even "typical" fans.

More importantly, it possesses its own audience, which does not include the creators of the media property being written about. But the inoculation of the fanfiction community (and especially the RPF community in its fannish safe-space) within the economy of fan creators and fan audiences is getting more and more difficult to maintain with growing media attention and highly visible fan projects like OTW.

And people like me, with access to both fan-insider knowledge and media producers, find it increasingly difficult to navigate which set of rules to follow. The central question then becomes one of how fan practices have changed online. I am interested in how the growing accessibility and exposure of fandom and a large-scale re-thinking about the relationship between producers and consumers in general will come to change how fans relate to their fan fiction work and to one another, as well as how all of this will shape the fannish experience in years to come.