Tumblr, Fandom, Private Spaces

My earliest experience with fandom was, by and large,  through private spaces.

In large part, at the time, this was a matter of simple logistics: in the late 90s fandom, like most of the internet, was a glaring unknown to studios, a shape-shifter that seemed to resist all attempts at reigning in, silencing, or slowing down.  Cease & desists were the order of the day and could spell certain doom for websites and webmasters great and small: no fan, nameless or BNF, was safe.

The easiest way to avoid the dreaded “C&D” was fairly obvious.  Early fan sites inserted script to keep themselves off search engines’ radar; early message boards and archives were password-protected, the webmaster serving as dual archivist and virtual bouncer.  My earliest interactions came through closed email groups and listservs, private conversations that arrived directly in my inbox, sometimes in bursts of five to ten at a time.  Like the ping of a Google hangout or the automatic refresh of a Facebook thread, each of these emails marked another line in an ongoing conversation: between two people, between fifteen.  It didn’t matter.  The broader point was the comradery.   The privacy of these spaces offered a certain amount of assurance, that these were fans invested enough to have dug down far enough into the internet to find each other.  Unity in absurdity.  I’m not mad, said Alice.  You must be, said the cat.  Or else you wouldn’t have come here.

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Fast-forward to 2016.  “Fandom” is big business.

Fandom, it seems, is everywhere.  The term is showing up in discussions about everything from the Chicago Cubs to The Great British Bake Off.  Can pastries have a fandom?

(Dean Winchester says, “yes.”)

At its most literal, “fandom” can be broken down into a portmanteau: “fan” + “kingdom.”  And increasingly, as ‘geek culture’ goes mainstream, we find the term “fandom” used to denote exactly that.  For instance, 2016 marked the first year that Time, Inc.’s “Fansided” released its “Fandom 250:” a website that “ranks” fandoms based on “longevity, size, worth, and the quality of the fandom, (1)” — a list resulting in “fandoms” for interests ranging from HBO’s hit series Westworld, to yoga (2).  Undoubtedly, the entries on “Fandom 250” all enjoy a cadre of loyal followers: but it would certainly be unlikely to find examples of “transformative” work within the Sephora (#166) or FOX News (#126) “fandoms” – creative output which opposes or negotiates with the culture industry in which these institutions are steeped.  Rather, the emphasis on this conception of fandom is on exactly that: being, above all, a fan.

The term “fan” has a history in and of itself.  First appearing in the 1920s as a shortened version of “fanatic,” the term was initially employed affectionately by sports writers to refer to their teams’ (male) fans.  It wasn’t long after, however, that the word became a pejorative in context: specifically, in the context of female theater-goers, who critics decried as shallow and vapid, only coming to performances for the appearance of the actors themselves (3).  In this context, the label of “fan” asserted authority.  Fanaticism is irrational and subjective.  It requires authority to counter its hysteria.  The fanatic needs the guiding hand of the critic, the writer, “the powers that be.”  Above all, the fanatic wants more.

And “more” is what legitimization of fandom has to offer.  As fandom has worked its way into the mainstream, so too has the chance to monetize it.  After-shows for popular programs like This is Us, Teen Wolf and The Walking Dead encourage network-sanctioned, ad-revenue-ready fan investment.  Amazon’s Kindle Worlds offers fan authors seeking a wider audience the chance to “publish” their fan fiction to a mainstream audience: in exchange, of course, for the rights to your story.  As a potential consumer base “fandom” has attracted the attention of marketing departments in even unexpected places — the personal lubricant company Astroglide, for instance, has become popular among Supernatural fans for its cheeky interactions with fans of the CW series.

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All of this, somehow, brings us to Tumblr.  Founded in 2007 by David Karp, Tumblr gradually rose to prominence as panfandom’s (4) de-facto “home” in the years following Livejournal’s sale to Six Apart, and ultimately to Russian company SUP Media.  In a marked contrast to the often text-heavy mailing lists, message boards, and ‘journal’ entries that previously dominated fandom discourse, Tumblr is not designed for conversation: indeed, it was only in 2015 that Tumblr added a “real” instant messaging service, finally allowing its users to connect with and converse with one another in real-time.  But even with the addition of messaging capabilities, with its lack of threaded comments, rapid-reblog posts and difficulty in tracking ongoing discussions, Tumblr is poorly suited for ongoing discourse.  Rather, Tumblr is a kind of aggregate, an odd combination of bite-sized insight, pretty pictures, moving images, & promotion.  Tumblr encourages rapid-fire consumption & dissemination: with interactive options limited to “like” and “reblog,” users are encouraged to turn favorite posts viral, while the website’s clean format and mobile accessibility make it easy for users to consume material rapidly and passively, scrolling quickly through hundreds of posts in a matter of seconds.

In many ways, the site itself is wonderfully built.  The layout is well-designed to showcase fanart, and the rapid dissemination of visual media has provided visibility to artists who would have once had to rely on text links and outside hosting.  But fan culture is not consumer culture.

There’s a common understanding in panfandom that fan culture is based on a gift economy: transformative works are offered to the community with no expectation of anything in return.  I would counter, however, that fan culture instead operates loosely on a kind of exchange economy: not one rooted in expectations of transactional parity, but one dependent on communal participation.  “Participation,” of course, takes on many forms, from writing fanfiction to leaving feedback on transformative work, to signal boosting and encouraging new projects.  A multi-fandom project like the holiday fic-and-art exchange Yuletide, for instance, works within this economy on two separate levels: on the one hand, producers of fic and art sign up to create and receive personally-tailored gifts on a 1:1 basis.  On a second level, however, the broader panfandom community participates in Yuletide’s exchange economy as well: as the challenge entries are released, readers and viewers (ideally) ‘exchange’ enjoyment of the fanwork for feedback in the form of recognition that the work was consumed and enjoyed.  The focus of this economy in any case is community: to participate in “fandom” is not only to consume fanwork, but to encourage its continued production.

But an exchange economy is by its very nature self-limiting.  It requires a community small enough to have an implicit understanding of a set of complex social rules, and invested enough to both understand the consequences of breaking those rules, and invested enough to care.  This is where panfandom has run into trouble.  Because Tumblr is not a listserv; it is not a dedicated message board.  It isn’t even Livejournal, where fan communities developed largely through webs of interconnected friends, communities, and circles of familiars.  Tumblr marks perhaps the first time that panfandom has found itself on one of the internet’s most popular social platforms at the height of its popularity.  Moreover, Tumblr is built for ease of access: type in a word, and you’re privy to every post tagged with or featuring that subject, from the casual to the deeply invested.  A search for “Dean Winchester” seeking a gifset from last week’s episode of Supernatural is as likely to offer the casual viewer links to Archive of Our Own as it is the images they were looking for in the first place.  And while there are benefits to fandom’s newfound accessibility, particularly for young fans drawn to the representation offered by transformative work, the collapse of striation between “being a fan” and “being in fandom” has produced a much larger audience for transformative fanwork, in the form of a casual consumer.

Certainly, lurkers have always been part of the panfandom community.  But Tumblr’s structure, post turnover rate, and massive cross-section of users pose a particular set of problems for fan culture.  Fanworks are often time-consuming and labor-intensive productions.  Beyond fanfiction and fanart, infrastructure-focused projects like community challenges and exchanges are designed to foster interaction between fans and to offer increased visibility for producers of fanwork, an opportunity for a wider audience and, possibly, greater participation in fandom’s exchange economy of reaction in exchange for creative output.  But both Tumblr’s structure and culture are poorly suited for this kind of transaction.  The repetitive “reblogging” format of the website discourages alterations to posts that are seen as ‘unsubstantial.’  The websites’s visually-focused nature is poorly suited for heavy text; a resulting cultural emphasis on “aesthetic” often leads to written work being ‘liked’ rather than shared, dampening the chances of it going viral.  Tumblr’s poor handling of text has also necessitated a full dependence on the fanfiction archive, Archive of Our Own – which, while well-designed and user friendly, often reduces feedback to the click of a heart-shaped “kudos” button.

But perhaps Tumblr’s biggest problem when it comes to fan culture is simply a question of consumerism.  When panfandom exists in the same ecosphere as officially-sanctioned transmedia marketing, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell a massive, incredibly varied cross-section of “fans” (for whatever the value of “fan” may be) what is and isn’t ‘good’ fandom.   Because however blurry the definition of “fandom” is becoming, its sources, and audience, is hazier still.  The official Supernatural Tumblr has a fanart tag; MTV sponsored a “Teen Wolf fanfiction contest,” with the prize being a trip to the series’ writer’s room.  It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that Tumblr has become a particularly outspoken site of prescriptivism regarding “appropriate” practices in transformative work, with popular posts and ‘watchdog’ communities dedicated to condemning fanwork and creators whose work includes particular pairings, themes, kinks, or otherwise ‘taboo’ topics.

I want to be clear of course that prescriptivism towards fanwork is nothing new.  Fanlore is filled with terms for handling it: “kinkshaming;” “YKINMKATO” (“Your Kink is Not My Kink And That’s Okay”).  And there’s a very real likelihood that a portion of the casual consumers, the “fans” on Tumblr, don’t fully understand fanwork: nor should we expect them to, frankly, when ‘official’ marketing often goes out of its way to look like fandom, and fandom is many times better thought-out and organized than its text of interest. (5)  But coupled with Tumblr’s otherwise failure to adhere to the social contract of fandom’s exchange economy, and the sheer (apparent) size of “fandom” on the site itself, the transition to Tumblr upended the structure on which fan culture is based.  Creators of fan work were being expected to produce for nothing.  A genuine gift economy, with the gifts going one-way.

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Fans are nomads.   Right now, we seem to be on the move again.

Fandoms will never leave Tumblr.  As long as it stays an influential social media platform there will remain a large fan community on the website, particularly emphasizing visual art and images.  With loosened restrictions on fandom and an increasing desire to court, rather than quash, fan artists in particular have had luck replacing a strangled gift economy with a real one, turning Tumblr’s consumer culture into genuine profit.

But “fans-in-a-group” and “fandom-as-a-subculture” are not the same thing.  NASCAR would be very different if they were.  And the panfandom corners of the website are slowing down gradually.  Posts have become links to outside sites, have eventually become Twitter handles and dark pages.  Conversations once had across awkward public messages have moved to whatsapp and google hangout.  As I write this, I realize I no longer know anyone who uses their Tumblr as more than an aggregate.

Instead, I experience fandom in a way strangely parallel to how I used to, when it was 1998 and getting online involved listening for hellhounds: privately.  The IM and messaging apps that were once supplemental to my fandom experience are now its primary location.  My thoroughly unscientific survey of those around me reveals this has become fairly common.  Did we all choose to jump ship without land in sight?  Are we the last of the truly Bitter Old Fandom Queens, falling to a new version of fan culture, or does the oppositional nature of transformational work make it inherently recoil from the obscene attempts to monetize it?

Is Tumblr just the absolute worst?

I doubt that last part, if only because I had a MySpace.  But I have no answers for the rest of it.  I do know that regardless, right now, we’re still missing the best part of fan culture: the watering hole.  The public conversations.  The chats that we’re all having privately, that message boards let us share, that Livejournal took across years and fandoms, that made us people to each other.  It’s entirely likely the days of having those conversations in public, in the internet’s equivalent of broad daylight are gone.  But there has to be some equivalent of a fandom living room.

(1) https://www.nhl.com/penguins/news/times-fandom-250-list-penguins/c-284462292

(2) http://fansided.com/fandom250/page/2/?view=list

(3) Rihannon Bury, Cyberspaces of Their Own, 35

(4) I use my own term here, “panfandom,” to broadly describe the loosely-interlocked community of various media, text and multi-form fans whose online involvement includes not only that text, but also an awareness of an engagement with the idea of “fandom” as a subculture, and an investment in the community thereof.

(5) One example of this odd conflation of the subculture of fandom and for-profit entertainment that always stands out to me is the accusation that linking to fic being referenced by the Tumblr “AO3tags” is somehow “too commercial.”

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