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Category Archives: fandom

Last week, I talked about the various economic and legal issues involved in Kindle Worlds, like unpaid labor, extraction of value, fair use, and ownership of one’s own creative products. (And that’s what you missed on Glee!)

And now, for the exciting (and quite long) conclusion, a discussion of the cultural issues at stake.


One recurring comment about Kindle Worlds is that it is set up in a way that suggests a lack of understanding of fandom, as in this comment from Aja Romano (via @bertha_c):

Or this exchange between Melanie Kohnen and me:





The question “Is it really fanfic?” has repeatedly been raised, with Karen Hellekson noting that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write… fiction. But what Amazon Worlds is doing is extending the opportunity to writers to work for hire by writing, on spec, derivative tie-ins in a shared universe, under terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject.”

Noah Berlatsky of The Atlantic playfully noted that “you could even say that Amazon is turning the term ‘fan fiction’ into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it.” John Scalzi also questioned whether it’d qualify as “fan fiction,” deciding that it is and it isn’t.

However, some fannish commentators have been in favor of Kindle Worlds, untroubled by these factors, such that they might also, paradoxically, be open to the charge of not understanding fandom.  Rebecca Pahle, writing for The Mary Sue, noted that some may be upset that “giant corporations (the publisher of Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and Vampire Diaries is owned by Warner Bros.) will be making money off of the labor of their fans. That’s not a viewpoint I share, though, because that’s what happens anyway: Fans put thousands of hours of effort into creating fic, graphics, crafts, etc., expecting nothing in return other than the object of their fandom being good,” adding that “I for one want to see more authors earn money off of it.”

At OTW Fannews, Curtis Jefferson noted that while some are “concerned about what this development will mean for fanfiction communities, though the less they know about them, the more likely they think of Kindle Worlds as a great development.”

As suggested by Jefferson, acceptance or rejection of Kindle Worlds seems to be related to whether people are embedded in the community. Now, there isn’t really just one community, but people who have been in fandom for a while, and in several fandoms over time, have been exposed to and/or acculturated into a set of practices and values that has had some continuity.

In that very limited sense, as an amorphous and internally heterogeneous thing, “the community” singular isn’t totally unreasonable. It’s an imagined community rather than an actual set of interconnections among the people. In fact, assume scare-quotes on it going forward.

One main part of this norm is that fandom in general and fan fiction in particular should be noncommercial. This is an ideal rather than a fact; as Kristina Busse noted in an email exchange in which I participated, “I think the longer I’m in fandom, the more I see that the economies always have overlapped,” and Pahle’s point above gestures toward this, too. Fandom isn’t isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media.

But normatively those things have traditionally been kept apart, as shown by the extensive work on gift economies in fandom (some of my favorites: Hellekson’s A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture and Suzanne Scott’s Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models).

Part of this is that fans understand themselves as getting other, nonmonetary benefits. As Livia Penn put it, “I keep seeing people saying ‘you’ll get 20% to 35% of the profit. And that’s better than nothing!’ (Well, sidebar: I don’t get ‘nothing’ from writing fanfic. If you’re not a fanfic writer who shares their fic with a community of readers, it would take me another two thousand words to explain what you *do* get, but trust me. It isn’t nothing.)”

Scalzi likewise notes that “there’s a difference between writing fan fiction because you love the world and the characters on a personal level, and Amazon and Alloy actively exploiting that love for their corporate gain and throwing you a few coins for your trouble.”

So there has to this point been a fan community with some (rather) loose norms about how fiction works, among which are a non-monetary system of reward and exchange and a relationship to industry somewhere between wary and hostile.  This is what fan scholarship has long described, due substantially to the fact that two generations of scholars (maybe two and a half or three) have been to varying degrees embedded in this community. This comes out of the founding of fan studies as a project of fan-scholars wanting to speak for themselves and their own community.

But I am beginning to wonder if the community, already minoritized in the world at large and within fandom, might also become minoritized in fan fiction itself. That is, while Kindle Worlds is not fan fiction as it has been, it might be fanfic as it will be.

Generational turnover in the population has happened, and from my own limited and anecdotal experience, younger fanbases are often not within the tradition. I don’t know if they know it exists and have rejected it; or the influx of fans was too great to teach them all how it had been done before; or they don’t know at all because searchability provides different routes to finding out that there is such a thing as fic in the absence of knowing how it has traditionally been done.  (Actually, can someone do the research and find out why, plzthx?)

So, this generation shift is one route by which we may see the end of fan fiction as we know it. It seems to me that the proportion of writers that aren’t within the tradition is steadily rising: lots of fic I am seeing doesn’t use beta readers, the reciprocity of feedback as payment for creativity is decaying, some of the old rules about acceptable content have vanished, etc.

I take no position on whether this is shift in the normative way of writing fic is good or bad. I like the tradition, and I think it is valuable, but I’m not one for prescribing how people go about doing things that give them pleasure. However, I do think it’s important to consider carefully whether this is a large-scale change and think about its implications.

I also have to wonder if the fact that most of the scholarship has been done by people embedded in the tradition might be why we haven’t seen this coming. This isn’t to critique those people or their work per se (and indeed there is some recognition that there are other ways, as with Busse’s comment that “maybe there is a market–it just won’t be ours, I think”) but rather to point to the tradeoff that every angle of vision makes some things more visible than others.

Related to this question of generations and fannish continuity, the comparisons of Kindle Worlds to the 2007 for-profit fan fiction archive FanLib were not long in coming. Scott asked whether fandom would “respond as quickly/vehemently this time around,” and I think that the (potential) ongoing generation shift has to be taken into account in answering any such question. Has fandom hit a tipping point (which it hadn’t at the time of FanLib) over into a critical mass of people who will see this as legitimate? That will, I think, be the deciding factor.

That point of contact, between fan norms and industry action, is the other place to think about the end of fan fiction as we know it. The practices and populations seem to be changing, or at least new ones are being added, and only some versions are being built into industry logics.

Kindle Worlds, like many other projects at this historical moment, is about–as Jenkins, Ford, and Green parse the distinction in Spreadable Media–“’fans,’ understood as individuals who have a passionate relationship to a particular media franchise,” not “‘fandoms,’ whose members consciously identify as part of a larger community to which they feel some degree of commitment and loyalty” (p. 166).

What I want to suggest is that Kindle Worlds is part of a broader shift to incite fans-the-individuals to ever-greater investment and involvement but manage them though disarticulating them from the troublesome resistive capacity of fandom-the-community.

On one hand, this is part of the monetization of everything. As Busse commented, “I think the thing that unsettles me is when copyright holders ask us to create material to sell it back to us,” which she noted is something that “many of the recent fan studies works have all but explicitly encouraged them to do.” Or, more snarkily, “Don’t you know that things don’t exist until some dude somewhere makes money off it?”

But there is also a sense in which industry is defining this (and maybe only this) as fan fiction, despite the fact that it’s not the only way and traditionally hasn’t been the primary way. As Hellekson notes, “‘work for hire, on spec, for certain tie-ins’ doesn’t really have the ring of ‘fan fiction,’ does it? By using the term fan fiction, they are shorthanding their future writers as well as their perceived audience.” That “shorthanding” stakes a claim on those writers and readers.

And that claim has weight as a definitional move, as is clear from Sean P. Aune’s wondering at TechnoBuffalo (via OTW Fannews) “if the studios that license the properties will continue to allow fans to publish their works for free around the Web. In theory not much should change, but there is now a financial stake in this sub-section of fandom where companies can earn money from the work of others, so there might be an incentive to drive people towards the pay version of fan fiction.”

Or Betsy Rosenblatt, chair of the legal committee of the Organization for Transformative Works,  who noted to Wired that the narrow range of acceptable content in Kindle Worlds “underline[s] the importance of unrestricted fan platforms, like OTW’s Archive of Our Own, which ‘allow fans to express the full range of their creativity and appreciate the creativity of other fans through fair use.’”

Scalzi puts it in broader context: “I suspect this is yet another attempt in a series of long-term attempts to fundamentally change the landscape for purchasing and controlling the work of writers in such a manner that ultimately limits how writers are compensated for their work, which ultimately is not to the benefit of the writer. This will have far-reaching consequences that none of us really understand yet.”

I am not familiar enough with the landscape of professional writing to assess Scalzi’s point in that context, but there does seem to be a creative consolidation going on (alongside a small-scale proliferation enabled by technology), wherein ever more aspects of creative production are coming under the umbrella of corporate ownership and authorship rather than an individual creative person and a corporate production and distribution apparatus. And that bears thought, for fandom and beyond.

On May 22, Amazon announced “Kindle Worlds,” a New Publishing Model for Authors Inspired to Write Fan Fiction, and my corner of the fan-studies internet exploded. Reading (and having) those conversations and looking at the big picture, I come to two conclusions: economically, it’s a bad deal; culturally, it’s incompatible with my generation’s understanding of what fandom is and how fan fiction works. Since I got to a full-length blog on just point one, that’s what I’ll tackle this week.

But first, an acknowledgement that, as Francesca Coppa noted in an email exchange in which I participated, “sadly, it’s the best offer yet,” since some in the industry “want to monetize vidding and other fanwork on YouTube and take the all of the profits entirely.” By comparison to this, then, Kindle Worlds looks pretty good, an example to say “look, you really have to cut in the fans if you’ve going to do something like this” (Coppa). I think it’s important to both recognize that this is an improvement and articulate what we like about it (which many are doing) and also articulate what about it is still troublesome (which I’m doing) in order to not let that turn into taking whatever we can get.

Coppa’s point above, that some in the industry feel entitled to the entirety of the income from remix uses of its intellectual property, shows why the analytic lens of labor is so vital. On one hand, that is, it shows why we still need the labor theory of value, because the frequent assumption on the part of industry is that all the value comes from the “raw” material of the media that’s used in remix, rather than something being added by the labor the fan puts into it.

The labor theory of value lets us see the work of value extraction in Amazon’s initiative; they see a thing that could have its value extracted but isn’t being

meskextracted currently, and so they’re extending extraction to it. Hence Melanie E.S. Kohnen’s point:

(Embrace is always enclosure! The industry’s arms are made of fences!)

We also need a labor framework because what Amazon is offering is, the consensus contends, work for hire (as argued by Livia PennKaren Hellekson, and John Scalzi). And it’s work for hire on pretty bad terms.

In the Kindle Worlds framework, writers have no control and have to take what they can get. As Nele Noppe pointed out at the Fanhackers Tumblr,

while fic writers will get some money, they have zero control over how much they might want to charge or how much of a cut they deserve, and no options to negotiate. Amazon can organize its business the way it pleases, of course. But this “you will take what we offer you or nothing” approach may offer a big clue to how Amazon believes the rights of all parties should be balanced out when fic writers and copyright holders try to share income from fanworks.

Penn further points out that, by paying based on net rather than gross profit, fan writers are left open to being billed into oblivion: of a thousand-dollar gross, “a hundred dollars to pay their slush pile department, another a hundred dollars goes to their copyediting department, two hundred dollars to their market research department, another two hundred to their advertising department, and three hundred ninety to the legal department.”

It might seem ridiculous or paranoid to suggest this, but this is well documented in the music industry (TechdirtCourtney Love at Salon), and Penn gives the example that “the actor who played Darth Vader has NEVER been paid residuals for ‘Return of the Jedi,’ because those come out of… you guessed it, the net profits, and the *fifteenth highest grossing film ever* has NOT made a net profit yet.”

The Amazon Worlds contract, at least as described in the press release, is set up in a way that exploits fan writers’ relative weakness compared to massive companies and the likelihood of their ignorance of these kinds of business practices.

Moreover, Amazon’s offer is a bad deal because publishing this way removes the writer’s control over further use. They (either Amazon or the licensor, it’s unclear) can republish the story itself in anthologies or translations (Noppe, Scalzi, Penn).

The release of all copyright in the contract also seems to suggest that They (whoever They are) can take the ideas in it for other uses; in Penn’s sharp summation, “they are *not* going to pay you more if they take one of your original characters and make them the star of a spin-off web series that then earns them a million billion dollars” (see also Noppe, Scalzi).

(However, this may not be the case; established author Barbra Annino, tapped to write one of the pilot novels, stated that under her contract “if I should create a character within this world, I am free to use that character elsewhere in my own work” and that she understood this to be how the other contracts would work as well.)

The arrangement also quite likely constrains further creativity from its writers, either though prohibiting offering the story for free elsewhere (Noppe) or opening up authors to being sued for copying themselves through writing something too similar later on (Penn).

These are, as both Hellekson and Scalzi (themselves professionals) and legal scholar Rebecca Tushnet point out, worse terms than writers usually get—indeed, as Hellekson puts it, they’re “terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject.”

This is particularly interesting given that (as Coppa reminded me) other literary second-comers didn’t have to give up this much control OR money: Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone didn’t need to license Gone With The Wind; Lo’s Diary reworked Lolita with a 50-50 royalty split with Nabokov’s estate. The difference between “real” writer and fan writer is nontrivial, then, and related again to both not seeing fan work as work that adds value and exploiting (presumed) fan weakness/ignorance.

Both Hellekson and Scalzi gesture toward the benefits of unionization to protect from just such abuses, Hellekson pointing to the Freelancers’ Union and Scalzi to the Writer’s Guild of America as the union for “official media tie-in writers and script writers.”

And then there are a set of non-labor legal issues. One thing that several fan scholars found quite objectionable was the seeming implication that fan fiction required licensing rather than being fair use (Suzanne Scott, Kohnen, Noppe; this is a trouble with licensing generally, see the Brennan Center for Justice’s Will Fair Use Survive?: Free Expression in the Age of Copyright Control [pdf]).

For writing fan fiction, licenses are almost certainly not required, but for selling it they may be, since one of the four factors in Fair Use includes whether the use is commercial. However, commercial uses have sometimes been judged fair (Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone prevailed over Margaret Mitchell’s estate, 2LiveCrew was able to sample Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman) and noncommercial ones sometimes unfair.

The real issue is that precedent is unclear because cases like fan fiction, where the relationship to the remixed text is not antagonistic, haven’t really been argued before courts. Fans tend not to have the financial wherewithal for such fights; as Henry Jenkins put it in Convergence Culture, “someone who stands to lose their home or their kid’s college fund by going head-to-head with studio attorneys is apt to fold” (p. 131). There’s also the factor of having to fight with the owners of something they love, an affectively and ethically gray area for many fans.

This uncertainty both in the law itself and on the part of fans in knowing the lay of the land (weakness and ignorance again!) works in industry’s favor. They, as Coppa pointed out, know the law quite well and know when things are likely fair use, but they also know they’re likely to get away with insisting on their ownership of fan products.

These questions of labor and compensation and ownership fairness, then, mean that deciding whether publishing with Kindle Worlds is worth doing is complicated and requires having a lot of information and background knowledge that many people don’t.  As Scalzi put it, “the thing that can be said for it is that it’s a better deal than you would otherwise get for writing fan fiction, i.e., no deal at all and possibly having to deal with a cranky rightsholder angry that you kids are playing in their yard. Is that enough for you?”

Or Penn:

work for hire is bullshit– well, *unless* you don’t actually deeply care about the stories or characters or other creative work, and just want a paycheck because you have kids to feed. If it’s just a job, then not owning your creative work is fine. (But if that’s the case, you want to make sure you are being compensated fairly, and as I said in point one, “you get nothing but a percentage of the *potential* net from the ebook sales and NOTHING ELSE” is NOT a case of you being compensated fairly.)

Certainly, I think we should take seriously the fact that part of the ease of exploiting this creative labor is that fandom and certain fan practices are still stigmatized. VentureBeat, in its news coverage of the announcement, couldn’t resist referring to fanfiction as “a passionate hobby that earns you ridicule from friends and co-workers.” Fast Company calls fanfic a “parallel universe.” (Obligatory shameless self-promo for my article on fandom and stigma.)

In the end, as I suggested in my SCMS presentation earlier this year, fans’ capacity to consent to such arrangements is uncertain because of vastly unequal power, limited choice, and lack of knowledge. Meaningful consent isn’t impossible, but it does require treading very carefully, and I worry that excitement and the seductions of marketing-speak may render such care difficult to come by.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, “The End of Fandom as we know it?”

Because the tech-support people I need to talk to in order to straighten out a data analysis snafu are in Germany, creating temporal challenges, I’ve been catching up on reading. As a result, I had just read Carol Rose’s 1998 piece The Several Futures of Property: Of Cyberspace and Folk Tales, Emission Trades and Ecosystems when an email came in from with a petition against Nestlé’s attempt to patent the medicinal use of the fennel flower.

A few days before that, the monthly UC Berkeley newsletter had a story about scientists who were launching a drug company based on producing an antimalarial chemical synthetically in yeast instead of in its plants of origin. I was already familiar with the malaria example because my friend Josh Kellogg, who’s an ethnopharmacologist, was working on malaria treatments from natural sources as his PhD project until the money dried up in favor of synthetics—which, he pointed out to me, ultimately derive from knowledge of plant sources anyway (as in the Berkeley research case).

Perfect storm weeks like this get me thinking and make me want to work through connections, so that’s what I want to do here. I’ve written before about privatizing fandom and enclosing the commons, but Rose’s piece gave me a new angle on the commons that I think is useful for the work I’m doing on fandom in my dissertation—that of capitalist disrespect and appropriation of indigenous intellectual property.

Now, this is mine-filled territory, because it risks evoking the logic of pure, uncorrupted-by-civilization (and thus implicitly uncivilized) indigeneity I critiqued in The Trouble with Tribals.  So, to be clear, the idea of indigenous intellectual property is being used here to think with, to structurally or metaphorically denote a group with a different set of values than the dominant ones of capital and a different set of beliefs about ownership and individual creativity, which are devalued by the dominant both because of these different values and for other reasons (racism in the literal-indigeneity case and sexism/devaluation of emotion in the fan case).

The connection of intellectual property concerns to indigenous people is not novel—Rose herself notes that in the forms of property she discusses “both factors—unconventional communal claims and unrecognized social status—overlap and conspire against property recognition. Historically, this was perhaps most noticeable in European encounters with Native Americans” (p. 141). What I want to do here is work through what this looks like for fandom alongside this Nestlé case to see what this renders visible.

First, what we see in the Nestlé patent of longstanding knowledge and industry efforts to monetize fandom is that things known or produced by certain groups don’t count as owned by them.

On one hand, this is because the claims to property often don’t take recognizable shapes in these cases—as Rose puts it, they “do not look like property at all to us” (p. 140). Rose’s piece traces out a theory of a property format called “limited common property,” which is “property on the outside, commons on the inside” (p. 144). That is, it’s not a pure commons, because not everybody is eligible to exploit it, but those who are on the inside can make use of it as completely as is allowed within the norms of the community.

This, to me, looks a lot like fandom: everybody in the community has shared access to everybody else’s stories, vids, meta, etc., but—in part due to stigma—there’s a protective attitude in relation to outsiders. It’s also like the fennel flower case: “everybody knows” the value of the plant, but that doesn’t make it a free-for-all for capital.

Related to this, which Rose raises but doesn’t really delve into, is “questions of alienability” (p. 140); limited common property isn’t very alienable because, unlike standard property, no one person owns it, such that nobody can really sell it off, and particularly not for individual gain.

This, I think, is part of why “pulling to publish”—the practice of converting fan fiction into novels like 50 Shades of Gray by renaming the characters (and then deleting the original)—is often frowned upon in fan communities. Yes, a person wrote it, but they generally did so in a community. And indefinable but vital contributions arise from interaction with those community members, such that then denying them access is denying recognition for their labor in favor of the single creative figure of the author.

This isn’t necessarily nefarious (although it can be). Mostly I’d attribute it to the fact that “the author principle is easy”: “it is easier to identify a single author (or definite set of authors) than an amorphous group, like a ‘village’; it is easier to identify a sharply unusual intellectual product than one that builds incrementally on the ideas of others, like a folktale; it is easier to mark out a product of sudden innovation than a gradual modification of nature, like a village’s long-cultivated plant product” (Rose p. 152).

This is also what makes Nestlé’s grab make sense (from an intellectual property standpoint, though clearly not a moral one). The SumofUs email noted that “in a paper published last year, Nestlé scientists claimed to ‘discover’ what much of the world has known for millennia: that nigella sativa extract could be used for ‘nutritional interventions in humans with food allergy’.”

This claim to discovery works because the knowledge is common across “much of the world” and no one really owns it, so Nestlé sees an opening to claim ownership. The problem with this is alienability. “Nestlé is attempting to create a nigella sativa monopoly and gain the ability to sue anyone using it without Nestlé’s permission” (SumofUs); nobody owns it, but it’s because everybody owns it.

As Rose notes, “the extension of the author or inventor principle privileges the contributions of the industrialized West over those of non-Western cultures, among other matters by rejecting intellectual property status of folklore or for carefully cultivated plant products from third-world agrarian groups” (p. 151).

In this case, it’s even more absurd than usual, since Nestlé wasn’t even the first to translate this communal knowledge into the language of science—“researchers in developing nations such as Egypt and Pakistan had already published studies on the same curative powers Nestlé is claiming as its own” (SumofUs). But then, it may well be that those scientists don’t “count” in the same way as a multinational corporation.

This idea of limited common property is useful because it explains how people can seemingly share things freely and at the same time have a right not to have that appropriated by capital. But because these are nonstandard kinds of claims about property, based in nonstandard, more communal and less individualistic value systems, made by less-valued people, running over that right to not be appropriated is startlingly easy.

ETA: Some people are being told that they’re “forbidden” to view the Prezi. Not sure what’s going on with that, since it is working for me (even in a different browser than is logged in). But, hopefully this link will work. If not, let me know in the comments or on twitter @melstanfill and I’ll try something else!

In lieu of a blog post this week, I’m posting the prezi of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago, IL, entitled “Between Commodity and Consent: Implications of the Vanishing Distinction between Play and Work in Fandom.” Partially, this is because several people  have requested it, but partially I was at a conference for 5 days and had no time to write a blog! So, here it is:

A couple of caveats:

First, as was noted by an aggressive audience member in the Q&A, the Marx is oversimplified. That was intentional, because I was trying to explain why we don’t talk about labor in fandom, and why fandom doesn’t seem like labor–because the everyday idea about labor is grounded in a set of ideas that don’t seem to apply.

Second, there’s a lot of slippage between fans and viewers in the piece that I didn’t really intend, and I know it’s a problem.

And third, the presentation was intended as a base for me to talk from, so the actual presentation was significantly different. Hopefully the prezi gives you a basic idea anyway.

The critique that the current generation is politically apathetic is well-worn. Indeed, it has been recycled for several generations at this point and maybe is always cast at each generation by the last.

It’s certainly true that civic involvement in the form in which we’ve traditionally known it is down—people aren’t voting or going to political organization meetings or canvassing nearly as much as they did in yesteryear. But there’s also a huge wave of consumer activism through means like voting with dollars and petitions pressuring companies to go green or treat their workers better or stop supporting human rights violations by world governments.

(Which, incidentally—though this kind of action has obviously increased dramatically with the Internet, it’s not terribly different from We are the World  or Do they know it’s Christmas?  “buy a single for unfortunate people” activism in the 1980s.)

Taking these newer forms of action seriously as activism is partially the topic of the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on Transformative Works and Fan Activism, edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova of the University of Southern California. Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova, in a piece from that issue titled Fandom meets activism: Rethinking civic and political participation,  argue that they want “social movement scholars to explore the fertile but understudied terrain of fan and fanlike forms of civic and political participation” (1.2).

In the related essay Learning Through Practice: Participatory Culture Civics,  (tied to the special issue because both are rooted in the Civic Paths project housed at the University of Southern California), Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Sangita Shresthova frame the issue as that young people “are conducting politics through a new language and through a different set of practices than more traditional organizations. (p. 48)

This comment gestures toward the point I want to make in this post: It’s not just that young people are doing things that are new and different, as the Civic Paths-involved folks argue, but a bigger change: as power has shifted from the state to transnational capital, activism has actually responded to that, which means that everything we think we know about activism is about to be wrong.

Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova describe “the ‘slacktivism’ critique, which claims that social action online is easy to do, and thus banal” (46), and this is an argument that has some merit, as I’ve discussed before.  But I think that a substantial portion of why people with traditional definitions of politics are so offended is that these actions and investments are directed less and less at electoral or legislative goals and more pointed at or directed through the materials of corporations.

 However, the complaint about not doing politics right is unwarranted; as I’ve argued drawing on Saskia Sassen,  the nation overall is a less relevant political category than it formerly was. Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that the fannish activists they interviewed “rarely linked their concerns to governmental solutions and often expressed feelings of alienation from ‘politics as usual’” (32-3). The idea of governmental solutions or regular politics directed at the nation, that is, has become less relevant to the contemporary distribution of power.

The other traditional kind of politics is local, but that has declined as well. Indeed, though  Ashley Hinck, in her Theorizing a public engagement keystone: Seeing fandom’s integral connection to civic engagement through the case of the Harry Potter Alliance, contends that “fandom scholars cannot talk about fandom’s public engagement as being anchored to the local in Dewey’s sense” (4.5) what she misses is that neither is anyone else’s public only spatially local. As Sassen notes in the pieces discussed in the above-linked blog post, the world is not completely dis-located or globalized, but localities are articulated to each other in very different ways than ever before.

How people make sense of the world, then, is not oriented the same frames of reference it used to be. As Henry Jenkins put it in his piece, “Cultural acupuncture”: Fan activism and the Harry Potter Alliance,  “the forums for expressing political concerns, and the policies and infrastructures shaping our capacities to do so, are controlled by private interests. Our political struggles often take place through languages and contexts heavily shaped by commercial culture” (1.6).

This suggests that we should take seriously the “significance of content worlds and storytelling (including transmedia storytelling) in the development of collective identity and the formation and mobilization of publics” (Brough and Shresthova 7.2). That is: who people are and what they care about are filtered through these largely commercial products—not nation, not locality.

Political concerns are inextricable from corporateness, I argue, because power is increasingly residing with capital and decreasingly with the state—not that the state can’t regulate industry if it has a mind to, but it hasn’t had much of a mind to lately. This means that some of Alex Jones’s arguments hold some water—“Bankers pull the strings on world governments to solidify their power”? Kind of. Transnational capital is a weight in governmental processes, to be sure.

“Companies are harming you and ducking responsibility”? Absolutely. It’s common knowledge now Big Tobacco knew about the dangers of their product long before the public caught on but hid the information. In the contemporary era there’s Big Corn (their “a calorie is a calorie” argument isn’t true when it’s fructose), Big Oil (fracking, tar sands), Big Coal (mountaintop removal), Big Gun . . . you name it, they do things that hurt people directly or indirectly and don’t pay for it. (And it may not be true yet that “President Barack Obama is using drones against Americans,” but it’s certainly possible for him or a later president to decide to do so given post-9/11 anti-terrorism cover for free rein).

Ultimately Jones is wrong to see these as governmental conspiracies to strip the God-given rights of free ‘Muricans, of course, but these results of decades of letting capital impact laws still matter. Thus, when Kligler-Vilenchik and Shresthova note that “scholars often worry that young people’s withdrawal from civic and political engagement is so significant that it endangers the healthy functioning of democracies” (p. 6), there’s actually a case to be made that the healthy functioning in of democracies has been imperiled long since as elections and representatives have been bought and paid for, and youth withdrawal from that system is a response to its fundamental brokenness.

This is why traditional definitions of what is political or activist are perhaps becoming wrong. We might want to question the system that is slowly eroding the power of the state, since no one else really can stand up to transnational capital, but given the state’s current weakness turning away from it is potentially a sane response to an insane system. Jenkins takes a stab at redefining what might count as political or activist, “describing as ‘civic’ those practices that are designed to improve the quality of life and strengthen social ties within a community, whether defined in geographically local or dispersed terms” (1.8), and that seems to be a reasonable baseline.

Getting people with a traditional definition of the political to take this seriously is an uphill battle, of course. Brough and Shresthova describe “false dichotomies of commercial versus political (or activist), and participation versus resistance” (7.2). Even when Harry Potter fans “engage in very traditional expressions of citizenship: petitioning, donating money, sending letters to government representatives, and so on,” these actions “are still met with skepticism by scholars of civic engagement because they are done in the name of Harry Potter, instead of solely in the name of duty to one’s country or ideological commitment to a political party” (Hinck 1.2).

Similarly, as Kligler-Vilenchik and coauthors Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama contend in Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members’ narratives,  “at least some of the critique around Kony 2012, we argue, can be read as a policing of the boundaries of social action, and what it should look and feel like. Many of these critiques claimed that social advocacy should be left to experts—to politicians, to ‘serious’ NGOs, to erudites” (7.5).

And indeed even these advocates of redefinition get caught up in old definitions at times, with Brough and Shresthova carefully distinguishing work for “the representation of racial or sexual minorities, or the promotion of social themes in program content”  from “real-world issues” (2.2-2.3), as if the former set of things are trivial and not important in the real world. Jenkins argues that the group he examines “is targeting young people who are engaged culturally, who may already be producing and sharing fan culture, and it helps them to extend their engagement into politics” (6.2) as if cultural engagement is not political.

Similarly, Jenkins and Shresthova, in their introduction to the special issue, Up, up, and away! The power and potential of fan activism encourage moving “beyond abstract notions of cultural resistance to focus on specific sways that fan culture has affected debates around law and public policy” (1.9) narrowing what counts as important to law and policy.

(It may of course be strategic for this particular group of scholars to go with law and policy as what counts, given Civic Paths’ funding by traditional organizations that may not recognize alternative actions as valid. Given that they are already looking at fans, they perhaps could not then also say that what is political is more expansive. This is an unfortunate reality of specific-research grants, whether philanthropic or corporate.)

However, I am not saying that anything and everything is always political. (I mean, yes, it is always political in that it is always power-laden, but not in the meaning of political as aware and taking action). There are certainly limits, where the slacktivism critique is not unwarranted.

Brough and Shrestova warn that “we may risk diluting our notion of the political to a point that makes it difficult to debate the merits of different strategies and tactics of civic participation, and difficult to focus on their material (not just cultural) outcomes. Framing all acts of engagement with popular entertainment as political acts can have a depoliticizing effect and limit analytical and tactical advancements” (3.11), and I certainly don’t want to participate in that.

 I do think, however, that the changing power landscape of the contemporary world requires changing responses, that it has actually generated new kinds of responses, and that these responses should be taken seriously, because looking to the state for protection against multinational capital is not likely to be a viable strategy in the foreseeable future—and certainly not without working on the world as it is, corporate-dominated and all.