Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom's gift economy

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Academic Commentary
Title: Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom's gift economy
Commentator: Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis
Date(s): March 15, 2014
Medium: online
Fandom:
External Links: TWC Article
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Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom's gift economy is a 2014 academic article written by Tisha Turk. It was published in Transformative Works and Cultures No. 15: Fandom and/as labor, which was guest-edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.[1]

Fandom has often been discussed, by both scholars and fans themselves, as a sharing economy, and specifically as a gift economy based on giving, receiving, and reciprocating (note 1). Within this economy, art objects—fan fiction, fan vids, fan art—have typically been the most obvious and appreciated gifts; Rachael Sabotini (1999) calls these art objects "the traditional gifts" of fandom. Reciprocation of these gifts may take a number of forms, both tangible (other art objects, feedback for the creator) and intangible (attention, recognition, status). This ongoing, reiterative process of gift exchange is part of what makes it possible to experience and analyze fandom as a community, or rather an overlapping series of communities, rather than simply a large and shifting number of people occupying the same affinity space.

While art objects may be the gifts most publicly recognized or validated by fellow fans, and while these gifts are indeed a crucial part of fandom's gift economy, we can better appreciate the scope of fandom's gift economy if we recognize that fannish gifts include not only art objects but the wide range of creative labors that surround and in some cases underlie these art objects. We can better understand the relationship between gift exchange and community formation if we see fandom as a system not just of reciprocal giving but of circular giving. And we can better evaluate the relationship between fandom and production if we attend to not just the giving but the receiving of gifts.

- Introduction to "Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom's gift economy"[2]

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

Generally speaking, media fandom operates on a labor theory of value—not necessarily in the Marxist sense of the phrase, but in the sense that value derives from work. Fandom's gift economy assigns special worth to "gifts of time and skill" (Hellekson 2009, 115), gifts made by fans for fans. The worth of these gifts lies not simply in the content of the gift, nor in the social gesture of giving, but in the labor that went into their creation.[3]

Media fandom runs on the engine of production, but much of what we produce is not art but information, discussion, architecture, access, resources, metadata. Think about all the behind-the-scenes labor, for example, that goes into commenting on stories, beta-ing vids, writing essays and recommendations, reviewing and screen-capping episodes, collecting links, tagging bookmarks, maintaining Dreamwidth and LiveJournal communities, organizing fests/challenges/exchanges, compiling newsletters, making costumes, animating .gif sets, creating user icons, recording podfic, editing zines, assembling fan mixes, administering kink memes, running awards sites, converting popular stories to e-book formats, coding archives, updating wikis, populating databases, building vid conversion software, planning conventions, volunteering at conventions, moderating convention panels—and the list could go on.

Such activities and their outcomes tend to be less discussed and commended, in both fannish and academic circles, than fandom's "traditional gifts," even though in many cases these activities facilitate the creation of art objects or provide the infrastructure that enables the dissemination and discussion of those objects. The sheer volume of fan work, in the inclusive sense of the phrase, necessitates further fannish labor; the navigation of online fandom is made possible by the creation of metadata, access points, links, and so on: important though sometimes underacknowledged work. These labors, too, are gifts.[4]

Fandom's gift economy is not just an accumulation of contiguous reciprocal relationships between individuals but a complex system in which the reciprocation of gifts, and by extension the reward for labor, is distributed across the community rather than concentrated in a single transaction.[5]
It is certainly true that not all fans produce art objects or, for that matter, any of the other forms of fan work. Fandom has a long tradition of lurkers. But Hills's dismissive reference to fan fiction and filk obscures not only the fact that fans, collectively speaking, produce far more than fic and filk but also the fact that many fans who are not producers participate in fandom's networked gift economy by consuming the gifts of fan works—and perhaps even reciprocating occasionally in the form of kudos on the Archive of Our Own, reblogs on Tumblr, or other low-threshold forms of feedback and redistribution. What, after all, are the lurkers doing if not reading episode commentaries, searching archives and rec lists, downloading podcasts, streaming vids, admiring cosplay, enjoying fan art, and so on? This concept of participation may still exclude "fans who merely love a show, watch it religiously, talk about it, and yet engage in no other fan practices or activities" (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2007, 3–4), but it does allow us to recognize the ways in which even nonproductive fans can participate in fandom's gift economy through their engagement with the fruits of fannish labor.[6]

References

  1. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.
  2. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.
  3. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.
  4. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.
  5. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.
  6. Turk, Tisha. 2014. "Fan Work: Labor, Worth, and Participation in Fandom's Gift Economy." 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.2014.0518.