A Beginner's Guide to Fandom: A Fangirl's Perspective

One of my personal heroes, Larry Lessig, gave a talk to TED in 2007. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit devoted to discussing and implementing ‘Ideas Worth Spreading.’ While not specifically addressing fanfiction, Lessig talks about some of the legal issues surrounding user-generated content on the internet, including remixes and fan-made videos. The video is 18 minutes long and worth every second. (Here’s a transcript, but I recommend watching, as he shows several videos.)

“In my view the most significant thing to recognize about what this Internet is doing, is its opportunity to revive the read-write culture that Sousa romanticized. Digital technology is the opportunity for the revival of these vocal chords that he spoke so passionately to Congress about. User-generated content, spreading in businesses in extraordinarily valuable ways like these, celebrating amateur culture. By which I don’t mean amateurish culture, I mean culture where people produce for the love of what they’re doing and not for the money. I mean the culture that your kids are producing all the time. For when you think of what Sousa romanticized in the young people together, singing the songs of the day, of the old songs, you should recognize what your kids are doing right now. Taking the songs of the day and the old songs and remixing them to make them something different.”

What he says here comprises the essence of fandom- taking something you see and remixing it purely out of love and not for profit. Fans create their own culture when they produce new and meaningful content to share freely with each other, and any person with internet access can join in.

Where this can get problematic is when extremists on both sides of the copyright law debate get involved. After all, fans are technically writing about characters someone else owns. But what constitutes ‘fair use’ in a world where digital copies are free, instantaneous and widely available? Lessig advocates two changes to the way we think about copyrights as they apply to user-generated content (i.e. fanfiction):

“First, that artists and creators embrace the idea; choose that their work be made available more freely. So, for example, they can say their work is available freely for non-commercial, this amateur-type of use, but not freely for any commercial use. And second, we need the businesses that are building out this read-write culture to embrace this opportunity expressly, to enable it, so that this ecology of free content, or freer content can grow on a neutral platform where they both exist simultaneously, so that more-free can compete with less-free, and the opportunity to develop the creativity in that competition can teach one the lessons of the other.”

This common-sense approach is one of the best proposals I’ve heard yet. Viewing user-generated content in fandom as a potential source of creativity rather than a threat to revenue benefits everyone. John Rogers, the creator of TNT’s “Leverage,” has an open-minded view regarding fanfiction (his response to this particular question is about halfway down the page):

“I think what TV/corporate media had wrong for a long time was how they understood the idea of a “water cooler show.” They saw it as making the audience talk about their show, on their terms. So any fan-created media is them losing control of their material. I see this more as the natural evolution of culture in a shared digital age. I will be blunt — other than the satisfaction of our own creative urges (and all that entails: the quest for perfection, artistry, craft, etc), our job in media is to give you stuff to talk about in your conversations, to integrate into your social circle in whatever way you see fit.”

Writers should embrace fandom’s creative possibilities and stop worrying about how to dictate the terms under which people like their material. Otherwise, their unrealized potential will be all that’s left to comfort them when the digital culture leaves them behind.

et cetera