The Fan Meta Reader

“The Economics of Fandom: Value, Investment, and Invisible Price Tags,” by saathi1013

Okay, so. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fandom in terms of the value/devaluation spectrum. It’s a useful framework for my current mode of fandom behavior analysis. For instance, when talking about the hate-on that some prominent fandoms have for Canonical Female Love Interests (CFLIs) and/or characters of color, it’s handy (for me) to think in terms of value: tagged hate is an active attempt to devalue those characters, dedicated ‘celebration’ weeks/months/challenges/communities are an active attempt to (add/recognize) value (to/for) frequently-devalued characters or ships, and so on.

And then I read this post by Rose Lemberg regarding recent Science Fiction/Fantasy fandom issues – issues which, not incidentally I think, seem to parallel a lot of current transformative works fandom (TWF) issues. In it, she says:

“…we see a flow of social capital from fans, in form of sales, praise, and support, towards […] powerful fans…”

And I went “oh, shit, yes, social capital.” That’s the piece I was having trouble locating in the whole puzzle of fannish value spectrums. Because when I say ‘value,’ people probably think of two things: money and quality.

But in a [sub]culture like TWF, where money is not the primary tool used to represent goods and services and where, in fact, goods and services are ostensibly offered/exchanged ‘freely’ among the community, it’s easy to misread ‘fannish value’ as representing quality. Which is, I think, profoundly misleading.

Transformative Works Fandom has an economy. And I think calling it a ‘gift economy’ misses the mark.

In “real”-world economies, the primary currency is, obviously, money. At its most basic level, money is a representation, a symbol, of work (goods produced or services rendered) and of influence. Now I know capitalism is a convoluted and thorny topic, well beyond the scope of this discussion, so I won’t render any value(quality)-based opinions here on the justness of a capitalistic money-based system, or how well they function in the real world, but I think that definition of money is a fair (if suuuuper-basic) one.

Just like in money-based economies, TWF has goods (including but not limited to: fanfiction, fanart, fanmixes, etc) and services (stuff like betaing, britpicking, moderating, reccing, cheerleading, signal boosting, etc). [ETA: check out “Fan work: Labor, worth, and participation in fandom’s gift economy” by Tisha Turk for more on fannish ‘goods and services’]

Yes, I just said that ‘goods produced and services rendered’ were called ‘work’ in money-based economies. This is perhaps a radical definition, for some – but simply because it’s voluntary work in fanspace doesn’t mean it’s not the same thing. It’s very, very easy to mistake ‘work’ for ‘the thing we do because we have to, not because we want to,’ but in the simplest terms, ‘work’ is an expression of time and emotional energy.

I could say ‘enthusiasm’ instead of ‘emotional energy,’ but I think that’s not quite right, in part for reasons that I’ll talk about later, but also because the friendships forged in fanspaces aren’t always about enthusiasm, but can also be about support in rough times, commiseration, advice, and other immensely valuable elements that go beyond ‘enthusiasm.’ I could add ‘skill’ as a component of ‘work,’ too, but then we veer again into quality-based definitions of value, which as I said before can be misleading and create inaccuracies in this kind of discussion.  Just as “real”-world economies don’t consistently – or primarily – reward ‘skill,’ neither does fandom. Not to mention, ‘time’ and ‘emotional energy’ are essential aspects of skill-building, because it’s rare to see ‘skill’ without some form of dedicated practice and some kind of learning process.

The other thing that I said money can represent? Influence. And the thing that TWF sometimes hates to admit is that we do grant greater influence to some members of our community – some call them BNFs (Big Name Fans), but that’s a title many eschew due to negative historical connotations. Whatever you call them, we do value some voices more than others, and are more willing to ‘invest’ in their creative outputs (see below about ‘costs’).

And yes, this can be a reflection of privilege, just as influence often is in “real”-world economies. One’s language fluency (which language(s) and how fluent) can dramatically affect their experience in fandom; so, too, can access to technology (like the internet), or the amount of free time available to spend in fanspaces. Also a factor: the money a fan can invest in things like travel, attending conventions, buying merch or canonical ephemera (tie-in comics or novels or soundtracks or Blu-Rays with full supplemental features, etc), or in creating tangible fanwork (like cosplay, non-digital fanwork – and even digital fanwork, if we’re talking about buying art software and making prints to sell at cons or whatever), among other things…

And let’s not forget intellectual ability &/or higher education. Fandom still responds better to certain ways people express themselves and articulate their thoughts and feelings than to others. ’Correct’ spelling and punctuation, clear (if not always formal) rhetoric – these things may get shrugged off in “ZOMG FEELS!!1!” threads, but are absolutely valued in fanfic – and also in, say, meta essays like this one.

So: without money, how do we express value in fanspace? Different platforms (/venues) offer different methods of expressing value. The kudos button on AO3, the ‘like’ button on facebook, and the little ❤ or ☆ symbols on Tumblr and Twitter are simple enough to understand as ‘reward values.’ Reblogs are another example: positive gifs and “THIS” and “+1” in reblogs/comments can add extra value. Recs – a fannish ‘service’ – are a form of value. Thoughtful positive feedback/comments express greater value, as they take more time and emotional energy (again: work) to employ.

This is, perhaps, why people wanting to create derivative work of other fans’ transformative works – podfic of a fanfic, or fanart for a fanmix, or graphics for awards, or etc – is one of the most prized occurrences.

Basically: fandom exchanges work for work. The greater the value people have for your work, the greater the reward – in terms of the work other fans are willing to do in exchange.

Now let’s talk about costs. In fandom, everything is ‘free,’ right? Nope. I hate to get all TANSTAAFL on ya’ll, but um, in this case it’s true. In order to value a work, one must first ‘consume’ – read, look at, listen to, possibly buy – it. And if ‘work’ is ‘time and emotional energy,’ well then, consuming fanwork is an investment.  It takes work to consume fanwork. When someone says ‘this fic was so bad I had to hit the back button a quarter of the way through,’ that means that they did not feel they received the value they expected, and decided to invest the rest of their time and emotional energy elsewhere. ’Unfollowing’ has the same connotation – space in one’s ‘feed’ (tumblr, twitter, lj/dw, subscriptions on dw, RSS feeds, etc) is investing a regular fraction of your attention. This is why reblogging and reccing and other forms of ‘sharing’ work have slightly greater value than kudos or likes: because someone valued something enough that they thought that others should invest in that work, as well.  ’Investment’ of work – of time and emotional energy – is the ‘invisible price tag’ in online communities and in fanspaces.

Another way to devalue work in online communities, aside from the ‘back’ button and unfollowing, are negative responses. There’s no ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ or ☹ buttons on some of the platforms I mentioned before, though there are things like ‘downvoting’ in some forums or comment threads. There’s also negative gifs, flames, or other forms of negative feedback. In TWF, ‘flames’ (negative comments on fanworks) are generally frowned upon, but that’s a nicety that not everyone observes. It seems that TWFans generally perceive such devaluative work as wasted effort (“just hit the back button if you don’t like it, sheesh”) – and since I’m defining effort/work as a reward in the TWF [sub]culture, the reasoning works out.

(And, on the other end of the spectrum: if someone takes the time to thoughtfully refute or rebut a post, it may not merely be a devaluation of that post, but an assertion of value for an opposing viewpoint. This is where fandom economics gets tricky and kind of fascinating: competing conceptual values within the fannish ‘marketplace.’ In some cases, it can even show that someone considered the topic valuable enough to invest work in discussion instead of simply ignoring/dismissing it.)

That’s why I call ‘posting character/ship hate in the tags’ a devaluation – it takes time and emotional energy to create such a post and to tag it, and for those folks who are fans of [tagged character/ship], it can feel like negativity that saps them of a fraction of time and energy… which can pile up, hence some fans’ angry reactions, mobilizing into “defense squads,” or blogs like this. Think of ‘tagged hate’ as a devaluative microaggression. And sending anon hate is devaluative aggression.

Moreover, if creating transformative works is, well, work, then it makes sense that collective devaluation can discourage creators from investing in some things they might otherwise value highly. Reluctance to invest time and emotional energy in something that the community won’t value enough to even notice – or fear that their work will be actively devalued – can seriously effect creators’ output and enthusiasm.

And this, perhaps, provides a framework for why I try to promote thoughtfulness and consideration for all kinds of fans, especially from those with greater influence within fandom… or why I promote ship egalitarianism, and I dislike ship wars and single-perspective declarations about interpreting canon. Because if one OTP [One True Pairing – ed.] “wins” and drives away all other kinds of shipping, or all fanon save a single interpretation is devalued into silence or nonexistence, then we have a smaller community, a smaller amount of collective value to share and (re)distribute.

In short: those situations mean there’s a monopoly on the social capital in that fandom. And furthermore, if a TWF ‘monopoly’ reflects kyriarchal constructs, instead of being truly ‘transformative,’ then I think we’ve lost one of the greatest values our community has to offer.

(but as always: ymmv)

The Economics of Fandom: Value, Investment, and Invisible Price Tags” ©saathi1013, originally posted on June 18, 2014

One comment on ““The Economics of Fandom: Value, Investment, and Invisible Price Tags,” by saathi1013

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2014 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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