Viewing Fandom as an Underground Economy of Ideas

The Ottawa Comiccon is coming up next weekend. In all likelihood, I will be attending and helping  out at the ChiZine Publications table (#2418 – come by and say!). With it, I have been thinking about fandom.

A few months back,  I was contacted by a student writing a paper on fandom who had seen my #SixSeaonsAndAMovie post. She asked if she could ask me some questions and when I said “yes”, she replied:

The particular report I’m writing is in response to the Henry Jenkins definition of “fan culture”:

‘[A] culture that is produced by fans and other amateurs for circulation through an underground economy and that draws much of its content from the commercial culture’.

My initial response is that this definition seems to neglect underlying social and political issues between the producer and fans of any given text, so I’m looking for fans who wouldn’t mind sharing their own thoughts on how class and social experiences may influence one’s viewing or appropriation of the text. What I really appreciate about your blog is that you discuss feelings towards the show and yourself almost as (so to speak) an ‘underground economy’ – as though the only thing a fan of Community should be concerned with is recognising and sharing a sense of self-reflection.

Really I think what I’m trying to ask is – as a fan of Community, and on that particular blog post, do you exchange knowledge about the text almost as an ‘underground economy’ or ‘commercial culture’, or do you share your personal appropriation of the text. If you do indeed share rather than exchange, could you explain some of the possible social, political or personal reasons as to why you enjoy sharing your fandom?

This gave me quite a bit to think about. I did some quick research on Dr. Jenkins, found there was too much for me to do a quick search, and so turned to the question at hand. My reply is below:

I’ll start with the statement about “fan culture” being “‘[A] culture that is produced by fans and other amateurs for circulation through an underground economy and that draws much of its content from the commercial culture’.” I think a lot of this is right, but will zero on on ” underground economy”. The term “economy” can be defined narrowly or broadly, but in general it is a system of exchange relying on limited resources and exchanges that hopefully benefit both parties, where the items of exchange can be further exchanged.

One can certainly see this economy at work at just about any fan convention. Vendors will be selling T-shirts, artwork, blankets or any number of items that use unlicensed likeness of others’ creative work. (Right now, I am drinking a cocktail from a tumbler with the Decepticon logo etched into it. I doubt it is licensed by Hasbro.)

But as you say, I think this narrow definition excludes a significant part of what I would consider “fan culture”. Cosplay, fanfic, animated GIFs, fan films—there are a number of expressions of fandom that do not expect or work on monetary reward. Rather, a fan has such appreciation of a franchise that the only way they know how to deal with it is to immerse themselves in it. There is no exchange or profit here other than in meeting others with the same enjoyment and passion as you.

There is also, as you have pointed out, the interaction between creator and fan that the Internet has made much more intimate and immediate. Kevin Smith stands as one example of a creator who understands and interacts with his fans, both in person and online. It’s a great way to recognize that without fans, there is no celebrity/culture creator. One might say there is an economic interest in connecting with fans, but I doubt the most plugged-in creators do it to increase their profit. Rather, they enjoy that others enjoy their work.

Dan Harmon's call to action to fans to tweet #sixseasonsandamovie

The closing show of the season three finale of Community. For me, it was a call to action that I and many others took, resulting in #sixseasonsandamovie trending worldwide.

Which leads to my post, which was simply an expression of my feelings at the time. The decision to put #sixseasonsandamovie as the closing shot of what could have been the last episode resonated with me. I interpreted it to be a call to action by Dan Harmon to the show’s fans to tweet the hashtag as a show of, well, community. It inspired me to share my feelings on the subject for two reasons. First, when I am uncertain about something, I write. Most of my blog posts are methods for me to figure out my opinion on a subject or express something that I feel implicitly. Second, I’d hoped that my expression of how I felt might resonate with someone else, helping them sort out their feelings, just as others’ posts have helped me.

I wrote the post with no expectation of return, profit or any other economic aspect. It was purely to share. And I am thrilled that it has had such a positive impact on so many people. If there is exchange, it is indeed for mutual benefit in that I may bring about an appreciation another may not have had while she helps me realize an element I had not before considered. Yet I would not classify that as economic since the resource being exchanged is not limited nor can it be exchanged for something else—enthusiasm.

Which leads me to the social, political and personal reasons why I share. To borrow a phrase: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I find in fandom there is a considerable amount of discussion, dissection and examination to a level never considered by the creator. Could a Klingon and human produce viable offspring? How could something as small as an X-Wing fighter have an FTL drive? Does the Doctor have to always be male? I think these intellectual exercises truly defines fandom more than T-shirt with a character’s face on them for sale at a local comic book convention, and certainly more than “celebrity worship” where the focus is on the creator and not the creation.

So why share? So I can learn more from someone else, and learn more by explaining my premise in greater detail. In other words, make me think. And if my efforts can provoke thought and/or entertain someone else, that is a wonderful accomplishment.

It is also an acknowledgement of the larger (ahem) community out there. For generations, religion played a role in establishing communities. In the 20th century, groups like the Lions Club, Knights of Columbus or even bowling leagues filled this role. In the 21st century, we are seeing communities based on interests, able to connect through the Internet. Like many communities, there will also be more people who take than give, but the ease of the Web allows one to give—an image, a movie, a blog post—in the hopes that others will find it and appreciate it.

So for me, the post was to express my feelings, my sadness, my appreciation and my encouragement for other fans to be heard.

I hope this answers your question.

With Comiccon next weekend, I look forward to immersing myself in this great, deep and enthusiastic fandom culture.


2 Responses to “Viewing Fandom as an Underground Economy of Ideas”

  1. 1 Lesley Donaldson-Reid May 3, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Reblogged this on Lesley Donaldson, born-again writer and commented:
    I am going to live vicariously through everyone going to the Ottawa Comiccon. I think I have to win the lottery, buy out Blissdom Canada and schedule during a less packed month of the year. Is there such a time?

    • 2 Matt Moore May 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      Unfortunately, Leslie, I don’t think there is such a time of the year. 😦

      I will try to tweet and post pics to Instagram, batteries and cell access permitting. (Last year, I could barely get 1 bar there were so many people trying to access the cell network. And WiFi access is damn expensive.)

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