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In a 2011-2012 discussion on the talk page associated with Wikipedia's Fan fiction article, Wikipedia editors discussed the status of "fan labor" as a non-fannish term applied to fannish activities primarily by other Wikipedians (as opposed to fanac, which has its origins in sci-fi fandom):
[Longchenpa, 29 September 2011 (UTC)]
Is this the correct term? I understand the need to have a broad term that encompasses various media, but I haven't heard the term "fan labor" within the fan communities or in the published academic works I've read on fanfiction. "Labor" doesn't seem to capture the flavor of "fan works" which is what I've more commonly heard.
While this may have been true at the time, the term "fan labor" is certainly now in more common use in academic writing on fandom, and it is also used by some fans to describe their own practices. The academic usage appears to be more prevalent than fan usage. The term certainly appeared in scholarly writing pre-2011, though often in the context of discussions of user-generated content; this usage, while related, seems somewhat distinct from more recent writing on fan labor in transformative fandom.
Transformative Works and Cultures No. 15: Fandom and/as labor (2014)
Published on March 15, 2014, Transformative Works and Cultures No. 15: Fandom and/as labor considered different elements of the relationships between fandom and labor. Guest editors Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis wrote in their introduction:
It has long been recognized both within academia and in the various communities organized around fandom that the practice of being a fan does not merely consist of passive consumption. Rather, fans are also producers, making everything from interpretations of their favorite television shows to extratextual products like wikis, fan fiction, and fan videos to data about their own consumption habits and those of their peers that can be used to market new products. It is now well established that watching television can usefully be conceptualized as work (Jhally and Livant 1986; Smythe 1977), and a labor framing has been applied to user-generated content by critical media studies scholars (Andrejevic 2009; Fuchs 2012; Hesmondhalgh 2010). However, fans have not often been approached this way. This disjuncture partially comes from the fact that fan activity is by all appearances both freely chosen and understood as pleasure, neither of which is typically associated with work. Instead, fan action has been framed as being active or participatory, and while these conceptualizations have been productive, when the lens of labor is applied, unique and crucial questions come into view.
To speak of labor is to attend to the value fans generate—an antidote to surprisingly tenacious notions of fan activity as a valueless pleasure. Once we have conceptualized fan work as generating value, we can also inquire into how that value is distributed and whether work circulating between fans in gift economies or among fans and industry is potentially exploited labor. This special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures takes the premise that if fans are a vital part of the new economy, then we have to take the economy part as seriously as the vital part. When such a stance is taken, it turns out that fan labor, like duct tape or the Force, has a dark side and a light side, and it holds the universe—or at least fandom—together. The contributors to this special issue demonstrate a wide variety of ways that labor functions in fandom.
This volume of TWC includes articles on fan labor in a variety of fandoms, including Fifty Shades of Grey, Chuck, Glee, and Tosh.0, as well as articles on fan sites, badges, and video games, and fan work in fandom's gift economy. The volume also includes a conversation about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter and crowdfunding, and several book reviews.
Examples of Academic Commentary on Fan Labor
This is a partial list of academic commentary on fan labor.
- Labours Of Love: Affect, Fan Labour, And The Monetization Of Fandom by Jennifer Spence of the University of Western Ontario. (2014, MA thesis)
Fans who launch campaigns to “save our show” or protest storytelling decisions typically see their efforts as standard fannish practices, but these “labours of love” must also be considered, as the name suggests, as labour. Using affect theory, I argue that fan activities and activism are motivated by affect, which in turn drives the affective, immaterial, and digital labour that makes up fandom. While fandom operates on a gift economy, the world of media production is fundamentally capitalist, and as fan labour becomes increasingly visible to producers, it also becomes increasingly susceptible to co-option and monetization. Through analyses of fan campaigns targeting As The World Turns (CBS, 1956–2010), Torchwood (BBC, 2006–2011), and Chuck (NBC, 2007–2012), this thesis explores the ways in which fan labour intersects with the dominant capitalist interests of mainstream media culture and considers how fans understand and position their own fannish practices and labour.
- Fan film on the final frontier: Axanar Productions and the limits of fair use in the digital age by Sarah Elizabeth Lerner of the University of California, Santa Barbara. (2018)
The separation between fandom as a subcultural social practice and the mainstreaming of fan culture wherein "fannish values and reading practices spread across the entire viewing public" in ways supported by media corporations is noteworthy (Jenkins 2006). In the mainstreaming of fan practice, media industries use the labor of fandom, whose practices have been altered and molded, in service of another group of fans, ultimately for corporate gain. While mainstream fans might become members of fandom, as Jenkins points out, the Star Trek fan film guidelines place fans associated with fandom in the middle of a tug-of-war between corporations and mainstream fans. This tug-of-war parallels the structure of the Axanar case: where Peters might have taken advantage of other fans' donations and engaged in copyright infringement, the corporation prepares to regift and control fan films, using the labor of one fan group to generate support for mainstream fan platforms. As Stanfill concludes about media industries appropriating fan labor, "The same corporations filing takedown requests on fan transformative works are quite willing to appropriate fan labor by monetizing those works, and they often profit from appropriating other artists who never get to count as artists" (2015, 137). In this scenario, neither Peters nor Paramount/CBS seem especially ethical. There is realized and potential exploitation on both sides.
Fandom Trumps Hate, a multifandom auction first organized in 2016, used the term "fan labor" as one of the five categories of fanworks eligible for the inaugural auction: "fan labor, which includes but is not limited to betaing, brit/japan/america-picking, etc." The term has been used similarly by other fandom auctions (likely inspired by Fandom Trumps Hate), including 1D Fanworks for Charity.
Fandoms generally have extremely low appreciation for translators of canon, and at the same time they feel like they're entitled to all the translations and will whine endlessly when there aren't translations available. But when people actually do translate, very rarely will any of those people actually thank them. It's very much an invisible fan labor.
but of course, you’re never going to have better ideas or get better at expressing them without practice. for myself, my beliefs about what kind of ideas deserve to be put into art have changed a lot, and I kind of think–I think that we’re fed a lot of bullshit about artistic inspiration being some kind of divine insight striking the artist out of nowhere, and if you believe that, you’re never going to feel like your ideas are worth bringing into the world, because they come from someplace far too mundane to be truly artistic.
so, I figure, fanart–or maybe more accurately, fan labor–is the answer. By putting the kind of devotion into fan work that I would any other creative endeavor, valuing it as highly as anything else I might make, using the same quality of materials, spending the same amount of time, cherishing and critiquing the finished product just the same as any other work, I can both rid myself of that stubborn reluctance to grant my own original ideas the value required to justify my efforts, as well as actually express in practice the deep-ass feels I have about my relationship with fandom and the relationship of fandom with Shit At Large.uh… so… basically, resources you waste in creating aren’t … wasted resources…? something like that. pretty much.
- For example, searching the fan labor tag on Tumblr pulls up a number of results - but in a February 11, 2019 search, the majority are referencing academic articles on the topic. Google searches for the term present similar results. Some fans are using the term, but often in conversations from from or responding to academic writing on the topic.
- For example, see R.M. Milner's 2009 article Working for the text: Fan labor and the New Organization on Fallout fan labor.
- Stanfill, Mel, and Megan Condis. 2014. "Fandom and/as Labor" [editorial]. In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0593.
- [Spence, Jennifer, "Labours Of Love: Affect, Fan Labour, And The Monetization Of Fandom" (2014). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 2203. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/2203.
- Lerner, Sarah Elizabeth. 2018. "Fan Film on the Final Frontier: Axanar Productions and the Limits of Fair Use in the Digital Age." In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1429.
- Which Fanworks Are Included?. Fandom Trumps Hate. Posted on December 19, 2016. Accessed on February 11, 2019.
- For example, 1D Fanworks for Charity uses the same language for the categories of eligible fanworks as used by Fandom Trumps Hate, including FTH's language on fan labor. Many fandom auctions were inspired by FTH, using their materials (with encouragement and permission) to organize fandom-specific auctions.
- 1D Fanworks for Charity FAQ. Posted on May 12, 2018. Accessed on February 11, 2019.
- fail-fandomanon comment. Posted on July 24, 2014. Accessed on February 11, 2019.
- Tumblr post by drbrucebananer. Posted on December 14, 2012. Accessed on February 11, 2019.