The Fannish Potlatch

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Title: The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status within the Fan Community
Creator: Rachael Sabotini
Date(s): December 20, 1999
Fandom: panfandom
External Links: On the Fanfic Symposium
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The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status Within the Fan Community is an article written by Rachael Sabotini and published in the Fanfic Symposium in late 1999.[1]

It dealt mainly with how mailing-list-based fandoms (which meant most of them, at the time) negotiated status within the community, but many of the concepts travel easily to Livejournal. Interestingly, one of the biggest changes was that status on mailing lists was decided behind the scenes, as fans talked among themselves in private emails, on private mailing lists, in chat rooms, with all of that reflected in public behavior (extra attention paid to BNFs on list, loud calls for story sequels, following BNFs from one fandom to another, etc.) It was possible for someone to be a BNF and not get lots of feedback, not know who thought highly of them. On journaling services, with people publicly following other people's posts, there was less behind-the-scenes negotiating and more obvious BNFness; BNF status can often be inferred simply by the number of people subscribed to that journal.

In Sabotini's view, fannish status is created and maintained by way of a gift economy, using a potlatch as a metaphor:
Within North-west coast Indian cultures, potlatches were social occasions held by a host to establish or uphold his positionin society. A fandom-oriented email list, chat room, or convention is the fannish equivalent of that and acts in a similar manner, the main difference being that at the fannish potlatch, all participants vie for status, rather than the emphasis being placed on the host. The way that status is established and maintained in both worlds is through the creation of the feast and the distribution of gifts. The maintenance of the fannish order of precedence is not usually done on a conscious level, but is a function of the way people interact.[1]
In this gift economy, some gifts are valued more highly than others. For instance, someone who offers a steady supply of fanfic or fanart to the community is more highly valued than than someone who only offers one fanwork; almost all fanwork providers are more highly valued than someone who offers episode discussion or who provides infrastructure such as moderating a list or community; those who offer discussions or infrastructure are more highly valued as individuals by the community than those who only write private feedback or who lurk entirely.

Sabotini offers an equation to determine status, in which the status of a gift to the recipient, times the number of recipients who talk about it, times the frequency of gifts given to the community, equals the status of a fan within their fannish community. ("Note that amount of feedback a story receives is not part of the equation, just the number of people who talk about it, whom you may never see or hear about.")[1]

Status and pecking order affects not only individual fans, but also the fandoms they're in (high-status fans can steer a fandom in a direction they want; low-status fans generally can't), and fandom at large by affecting trends or even starting fights where fans band together behind their favorite high-status fan(s).

This gift economy also brings with it the tension that gifts are supposed to be valued equally, and thus that all fans should be valued equally, when clearly that's not the case. This leads to tension between fans who want to be able to talk critically about fanworks in order to improve general quality (or simply because the gift they have to offer fandom is discussion and analysis, and they want to share, too), and fans who believe that any non-praise discussion of fanworks is insulting and hurtful because it belittles the gifts that were offered.

As Sabotini says in her conclusion:
I feel bad about putting this essay together, because it points out the inequalities that exist in fandom. I'd like a utopian society where everyone was valued for doing their best, whether it was a feast dish or a gift. Unfortunately, I feel torn about that as well -- some gifts, no matter how well wrapped, will still be white elephants that I have to hide in my closet somewhere. It's a high-wire act we all perform, but ignoring it won't make it go away. Perhaps by acknowledging it we can examine the problems that status causes us and begin to solve them ourselves.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Sabotini, Rachael. The Fannish Potlatch: Creation of Status Within the Fan Community. The Fanfic Symposium Accessed October 2, 2008.
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