(Rage Against) The Fandom Content Marketing Machine

By Keidra Chaney

Even though I haven’t written anything even remotely resembling fanfiction in well over a decade, I still consider myself to be a part of fandom, just not a fan creator in a traditional sense. I still hold fan creators and fan communities in high regard, primarily because I remain a member of that nebulous category of “online content creators”:  people who create memes, videos, blog posts, etc. both professionally and out of passion. I’ll always defend the work of fan creators because fandom is a space to indulge in the kind of creativity that honestly gets discouraged from people who don’t do it for money.

The currency of fandom really is love and attention and people participate for a number of reasons, but a lot of it is community, a shared love of a fictional universe or music (shout out to music fandom, we don’t get love. ONE DAY I’ll rant about how music and other non-geek fandoms get the short end of the stick in this geek-culture obsessed fandom universe)

Even from the pre-social media fandom universe, there’s long been that tension that revolves around ownership, both formally/legally, on a copyright level, but also emotionally. Think about Star Wars right now, and the kerfuffle with George Lucas (and his unbelievably ignorant “white slavers” comment)  The new movie is not really his anymore but George Lucas, understandably, feels a continued ownership to this world he created.

And then there’s the fans, we also have our own sense of ownership to a particular story (or series of stories )in this world. We see, and create a universe, where Poe and Finn are in a romantic relationship or Kylo Ren is an emo aspiring Hot Topic employee, and whether or not those things happen canonically, we have a space to create those stories and they emotionally belong to us. The difference is, a big tension in the pre-social media fandom universe was around fan creators protecting the freedom to create these fan texts without fear of  getting being shut down by media owners. I recently scoured Wayback Machine for one of my favorite old school Star Wars fics from about 20 years ago. (IKR?) and I chuckled at the two paragraph disclaimer at the beginning of it. 1.) Like that disclaimed mattered 2.) the idea of “OMG if 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm ever finds this HE’S GONNA SHUT IT ALL DOWN” is so quaint now, in an age where fandom is pretty much built around jockeying for a shred of attention from your faves, whether it’s an actor or a showrunner or even demanding an immediate response from a network or a media owner.

Now that media companies see the economic value in engaging with fandom the ownership conversation becomes a very different one; you have consultants and entire companies built around developing engaging with and mobilizing fandom for marketing and public relations purposes. From Kindle Worlds to FanWatt, we’ve seen companies and projects built around fan creation/fan labor.

Which brings me to the Entertainment Weekly “Fanuary” theme. The magazine/website could easily be renamed Fandom Weekly because in the past five years or so it’s coverage has become very, very attuned to the conversations and content of online fan culture. Which is fine. This “Fanuary” theme embraces that very explicitly with a fanfiction contest, a fandom bracket, a lot of online fan culture friendly articles and activities. Hey, even they acknowledge music fandom, so I appreciate that.

On Tumblr, there’s been discussion about the fanfiction contest because of its rather sketchy fine print that implies EW (which is a subsidiary of Time Inc. ) essentially owns your fic if you submit it. Of course this raised a lot of red flags in that space, as well it should, and some copyright savvy folks have been really good about reading the fine print for the contest and spreading the word. Raizel is TLF’s copyright expert, so I’ll let her go on about that later, but I’m the political economy girl, and I can’t help but think about how much things have changed that a major media conglomerate is actually sponsoring a fanfiction contest.

And then it upset me. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint why. After all, how is this any different than those NIN fan remix contests that I loved so much in the early 2000s ? Why did this bother me so much? And it brought me back to the idea of online content  and institutional inequality that I’ve written about before; that the people who are creating much of the content online aren’t usually a part of the companies making any kind of money from it.

And with fanfiction and fanart in particular, that kind of labor is particularly gendered, so it bugs because its just another spin on that same system, (often) marginalized people donating content free and getting little from it. EWs “celebration”of fandom is just another way to funnel traffic from content they don’t have to pay for. And it doesn’t facilitate or nurture the communities of fans in any significant way, it’s ultimately just a new well of “user generated content” to dip into.

So… yeah, that’s what I am taking away from this and I, as usual don’t have any big answers. I just think about these things and wonder how online creators can continue to carve out spaces for themselves when online it’s so easy to have that capitalized upon.