“NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” at #citymash

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch's #citymash session, 'Death & Burlesque'.

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch‘s #citymash session, ‘Death & Burlesque’.

On Saturday I had the good fortune to present a talk at #citymash: Libraries & Technology Unconference, entitled “NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” (click the link to download the accompanying handout).  The unconference, held at the City University London Centre for Information Science, was an opportunity for librarians, information professionals, LIS students, and all people with an interest in technology and libraries to pitch their own sessions, share ideas, network and discover. The idea was to learn lots and do it in as fun and engaging a way as possible; and whilst there were some moments of panic (last minute presentations, potential room swaps, and unresponsive computer pod monitors!), I was blown away by the enthusiasm, creativity and intelligence of everyone present.  I was particularly impressed by the willingness of the #citylis Masters students themselves in leading their own sessions and bringing forward some great ideas, both innovative and practical.  A taster of some of the things encountered during the day: a 3D printing maker cart, comics and creativity in libraries, open source software implementation and grounded theory.  So – very eclectic, very fun and very mentally and intellectually challenging.  A fantastic cauldron of stimulating things!

I was a little nervous about my presentation, to be brutally honest.  Fandom in libraries is not very techy and I was concerned that it might not be what participants were expecting from the day.  Nevertheless, the audience were very enthusiastic and had some interesting ideas to put forward that I had not thought of before.  My hope was that, in presenting some of the concepts that I have been exploring in my research (on the information behaviour of cult media fans), my audience would see some ideas and make some connections that I hadn’t recognised before.  The talk provided to be really successful in this area, and I was furiously scribbling notes throughout the hour, trying to get down the fantastic insights that people were able to feed back to me.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library, via Lyn Robinson.

The great thing about #citymash is that the conversation continued well after the event had ended (and even after the after-event drinks that stimulated further conversation afterwards).  The live tweeting of the event brought some great discussions together, and it was my pleasure to have a fascinating online discussion with Imperial College’s Andrew Preater, library innovator Owen Stephens, and LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding about the usefulness of fan tagging.  This helped me to further articulate some of my ideas about bringing the passion of fans into LIS.  Owen was kind enough to point out to me the Visitors & Residents approach put forward by JISC, which lays out a continuum of information user behaviours: from the visitor, who seeks information to satisfice, to the resident, who is a social information seeker who thrives in a community.  What interests me is: where does the fan fit into this?  Do they fit at all?  And how can the passion of fans be harnessed by information professionals and educators to improve the way we organise, share and create information?

I don’t know yet if there are any answers to this question, but I’m really happy to have had the chance to put those questions out there and get back some fantastic food-for-thought from an intelligent and inspiring group of people.

You can view a Storify of #citymash here.

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Fan info behaviour – Delphi findings update

In the interests of original research, I’ve removed the previous text of this post.

However, I would like to say that so far the findings have been really interesting, and that the Delphi panel’s responses seem to tending more to a consensus.  Fans may not be an homogeneous group, but it appears that there’s a lot they can agree on, especially where their information behaviour is concerned!

I’d like to thank my 31 participants for their amazingly in-depth responses, and for their patience in waiting for me to get Round 2 sent out.  They all went above and beyond the call of duty in sharing their lives as fans with me.

I hope to get Round 2 sent out some time next week, or the week after.  In the meantime, here’s a link to Mason & Robinson’s (2011) list of sources of inspiration for emerging artists and designers (pp. 167-176) – from my perspective, it’s interesting to compare the inspirations of artists to that of fans.  It brings to mind just how much fans also share with creators.

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Fan info behaviour – Delphi findings so far, part 1

Just over a week ago I closed the first round of my Delphi study on the information behaviour of fans – many thanks to the wonderful participants who responded and were so generous with their time and thoughts!

An update: I am currently going through the responses and putting them through a textual analysis.  I’ve broken down the responses into several themes and sub-themes, which should help me to formulate some general statements to give out to the participants for Round 2.

Of course all this needs refining, and I’m sure more details will come out of the woodwork after I’ve gone through the responses another half a dozen times.  In the meantime I’ll be keeping anyone who’s interested in the progress of the study informed via this blog, so watch this space! 🙂

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Fanfiction and self-publishing

*This blog post is in response to a lecture on publishing and the author, which was part of the #citylis Libraries and Publishing in the Information Age module (INM380).

If there was ever a poster child for self-publishing, fanfiction would probably be it.  One could talk for hours about how the internet has ‘democratised’ (self-) publishing and given everyone the potential to have a voice.  Not everyone has a voice, of course; but the digital divide is quite another issue and isn’t the object of this post.  What is the object is how the internet has given a certain sub-section (or subculture?) of the creative community – fans – a very loud voice.  Certainly, when one thinks back and remembers the days when self-publishing was relegated to those who could afford to have their work published by a so-called ‘vanity press’, and compares it to the situation nowadays – when online, indie publishers abound – it’s not so hard to believe that perhaps publishing has been democratised.

Lulu.com's logo.  Source: the-digital-reader.com

Lulu.com’s logo. Source: the-digital-reader.com

To recount a short, personal anecdote – when I was in secondary school, a girl in the class two years below mine got her book self-published.  It was a fantasy book, with a lovely cover, that she gave to the English teacher to read.  She must’ve been about 13 at the time; I’d just about finished my own first (terrible) novel that I knew would never get to see the light of day (thankfully, as it turns out).  I distinctly remember thinking how terribly unfair it was that she could have a book published just because her parents could afford it.  Nowadays, she probably would have joined the floods of authors and writers who use online self-publishing sites such as Lulu.

I hope you don’t think I’m taking pot shots at Lulu.  Lulu is a great tool for writers who want to get their work out there and who, more importantly, desire the legitimacy that a print book available on the market bestows.  But what Lulu can’t do is bestow fanfiction authors with the same privileges – at least not in theory. And what particularly interests me about self-publishing in the so-called Information Age is how it has affected the behaviour of fans, particularly fanficcers.

Some of the first people to migrate to the internet when it first went mainstream were fans (Jenkins, 2006).  The internet gave fans the opportunity to congregate in spaces in ways that were not possible in an analogue world.  It also gave them a place to share their creations – so-called fanworks – with a much larger audience than was previously achievable.  Years before blogging became the rage, FanFiction.net was providing a combined online self-publishing platform and repository for a small but growing number of fans.  It is now the biggest fanfiction website in the world.

As a repository and a digital distribution platform, FanFiction.net has been joined by other sites such as Archive of Our Own (AO3) and WattPad.  These sites allow amateur writers to share their fanfiction for free, even allowing the ability to add book covers in some cases.  This does not provide authors with the prestige of a physical object that the vanity presses may have provided; but the advantages are that you have complete control of your creation – from content organisation through in-built tagging and categorising systems; to the ability to access your readership directly via a comments system or private messaging; to the advantage of recruiting from your readership editors or, as they are known in fan circles, ‘beta-readers’.  And all this at the price of no more than simple registration.

Big Bang Press' logo.  Source: www.goodereader.com

Big Bang Press’ logo. Source: www.goodereader.com

Self-publishing of fanfiction has even moved onto social media platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter.  Indeed, it seems that fanfiction has never been more visible in its entire history.  One only needs to mention 50 Shades of Grey to give an example of fanfic that has subsequently been published and gone mainstream – though only after being completely stripped of all its references to the original work it was based on, The Twilight Saga.  And indie publishing houses, such as Big Bang Press, are actively and exclusively recruiting fanfic authors to write original works for them, knowing that some of the most popular of these authors already have a readership numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions (Eddin, 2014).

But this is nothing strictly new.

Fanfic writers have been making the jump to ‘profic’ (or professional fiction) for decades now (Pugh, 2004).  What has changed is the way in which fanfic writers have a greater control over their creative output, the readiness with which they can find an outlet for their work, and the easiness with which one might find and maintain a readership.  Making the jump to profic is no longer the only way for a serious fanfic writer to gain a wide and influential audience.  Part of the success of 50 Shades of Grey was down to the lobbying and active engagement of the fans of the original fanfic, Master of the Universe – for instance, via GoodReads reviews and a mother’s social group, Divalysscious Moms, holding the launch party that got author E. L. James noticed by the traditional publishing industry. (Peckosie & Hill, in press; Souccar, 2014).

But what about fanfic writers who are serious writers and want to make a living from their craft without giving up their original creative vision?

If a fanfic writer is lucky, they may get to work with the producers of a franchise writing licensed novels for a general market (e.g. for the Star Trek novels and Star Wars expanded universe, etc.).  But these are written under tight controls and the author is always answerable to the satisfaction of the company it writes for (Pugh, 2004).

So what about actually self-publishing fanfiction?

Self-publishing fanfiction in print form is a controversial concept because if you make money from it, you are liable to receive a cease-and-desist letter from a company for making profit from characters that they own the rights to.  Via Lulu, I sell print copies of my fanfiction – but these books are not available on the general marketplace and I get no money for sales made.  However, in preparation for a talk on this subject, I became curious to find out whether there was any fanfic being sold on the marketplace, despite the legal issues.  So I went onto Amazon, and typed in ‘Rogue and Gambit’ (my ‘fan ship‘ or OTP).  I was quickly able to find a book for sale, which, incidentally, appeared to have been self-published through Lulu.  I was curious.  So I bought the book.

The next morning, thanks to Amazon Prime, the book was in my hands.  In it were collected short stories, using a wide variety of characters from the Marvel and DC franchises.  No copyright disclaimer was given – copyright was, in fact, claimed by the author herself.  I was rather shocked by the blatant disregard for licensing laws; but it made me think.  If it’s so easy to fly under the radar like this, how many others are getting away with making money off the intellectual property of others?  Does this make even more of a case for the fact that our copyright laws are horribly outdated? (My personal opinion: YES).  Should these self-publishing houses and platforms have a duty of care to vet this stuff before it gets published?  And lastly, on a related tangent – in the middle of the 50 Shades of Grey furore over inaccurate depictions of BDSM – do publishing houses in general have laxer sensibilities towards fanfic that has been adapted into profic, than they do towards ‘regular’ fiction?  Is the bar to quality set higher or lower?  Or, indeed, does it even matter?

References

  • Eddin, R. (2014).  Publishers are warming to fan fiction, but can it go mainstream? WIRED [online]. Available at: http://www.wired.com/2014/02/fanfic-and-publishers/ [Accessed 12 February 2015].
  • Jenkins, H. (2006). Fans, bloggers and gamers: exploring participatory culture.  New York: New York University Press.
  • Peckosie, J., & Hill, H. (in press).  Beyond traditional publishing models: An examination of the relationships between authors, readers, and publishers.  Journal of Documentation 71 (3). (Accepted for publication 29 July 2014).
  • Pugh, S. (2004).  The democratic genre : fan fiction in a literary context.  Bridgend : Seren.
  • Souccar, M. K. (2013).  Divalysscious Moms: Killer maternal instincts.  Crain’s New York Business [online].  Available at: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130127/MEDIA_ENTERTAINMENT/301279982/divalysscious-moms-killer-maternal-instincts [Accessed 19 February 2015].
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The future of documents and immersive literacy

On Tuesday 21st October  I went to the Internet Librarian International ’14 conference, and in between talking to everyone’s favourite information scientist superheroine (Batgirl, in case you’re wondering), I was proud to have a front row seat during the keynote speech my PhD supervisor, Lyn Robinson, gave for the Content Innovation track.

As some of you who read this blog may know, I am interested in the myriad ways in which documents can be instantiated, and the changing face of what we call ‘documents’ today.  We are living in an era where the document, and what it is, is becoming increasingly blurred.  Not everyone defines documents in the same way, but the so-called Information Age has made that task of defining a decidedly slippery thing – more so than usual, perhaps.  With our e-books, iTunes playlists, Tumblr reclists, Wiki databases, Powerpoint slides, Twitter feeds and so on – we are inundated by documents on all sides, much of it merely the detritus of the mundane routine of our everyday lives.  You might think your Tweets are unimportant and throw-away – but they’re important enough for the Library of Congress to archive, and you can request your archive if you’re desperate to read back on the minutiae of your life in the Tweetosphere.

My point is, the fluid, dynamic, sometimes ephemeral digital document is here to stay, and in the last 2 decades or so it has completely radicalised the way we view documents themselves.  In many ways, the library and information profession is only just beginning to feel its way round actually dealing with the issues presented by digital documents.  Many of these issues are driven by the rapid progress of technology itself, which requires a constant race with Moore’s Law, and a never-ending battle with thorny problems such as migration and emulation.

But what happens when the digital becomes passée?  When it becomes to us what books are now, or codices and papyri to the ancients?  What happens when the next big revolution in documentation comes along?

Lyn Robinson’s talk might give us some pause for thought, because it implied that that ‘next big thing’ was already here – or at least, it is lurking round the next corner.  What is this next big thing?  It’s the immersive document, and whilst it doesn’t exist yet – not entirely – in her talk Lyn gave examples in her talk of technologies that are already being developed to allow us to smell, taste and touch through wearable digital devices which are, as yet, far from perfect, but which may in future change how we experience reality and fill our leisure time.

Now this is interesting to me because as humans we are perennially attracted to this idea of unreality.  According to Lyn’s presentation, there are three aspects of our lives that we as humans feel drawn to document: our dreams, our fantasies, our memories.  From our ancient myths and legends, to folklore, to the fiction we read and the movies we watch, our innate desire to be drawn into the unreal has always existed, tied unequivocally to our need for escapism, for wonderment, for ways in which to creatively make sense of our inner and outer worlds.  In a couple of previous posts, I talked about the immersive Punchdrunk production The Drowned Man (here and here; third part still forthcoming).  This show interested me because it seemed to me to be as close to an immersive ‘virtual world’ as we could get to in an analogue, non-digital format.  Its set was literally the stage for ‘another world’ where audience members strove to discover the stories of that world’s inhabitants – an impossible task since these characters lived lives whose strands could not be followed in their entirety, just as we are unable to experience the lives of those around us.  What interested me was the documentation of The Drowned Man (or lack of it), and that the fans of the show would congregate online to try and fill in the gaps by providing documentation of their own.  They tried to rebuild the lives of the characters by collaboratively piecing together their knowledge through what they had seen in the show.

But what if you could create an immersive record of a show?  What if you could relive the life of a character by putting on the proverbial 3D headset and experiencing all the sensations they experience, thinking all their thoughts and feeling all their emotions?  What if you could experience the lives of the real life people around you, not just the lives of a character in a play or a book?

This is nothing new, of course.  Popular and literary culture have been playing with this idea for at least a century.  More recent entertainment media have not only exploited the trope of immersive documentation, but have looked at it in ways that might become more relevant in the future, when and if such technology comes into being.  For example, the Dennis Potter TV play, Cold Lazarus (1996), analyses the ethical dilemmas associated with the recording and sharing of ones own memories.  Set in a dystopian Britain of the 2300’s, a media corporation seeks to televise the memories of a 20th century writer, Daniel Feeld, whose head was preserved at death.  The moral dilemma is made even more acute by the revival of the writer’s consciousness, and his awareness of the predicament he now finds himself in.  There is also an interesting play on the fact that the viewer can never be quite sure how true Feeld’s memories really are, as he was in life a temperamental, creative artiste.

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Still from Cold Lazarus (1996). Source: Deeper Into Movies

Then, in 2001, the first fully computer-generated movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was released.  Based on a popular series of videogames, the film kept true to its fantastical roots with its convoluted and unbelievable plot.  But what is interesting about the story is that much of it hinges upon the dreams of the main protagonist, Aki Ross, who appears to have been ‘infected’ by an alien species that is threatening the planet.  Thinking that her dreams might give her a clue to beating the aliens, Aki records her dreams every night, but when those recordings find their way into the wrong hands, Aki finds herself on the run.

Then there’s Remember Me, a 2013 videogame that is set in a future where people upload their memories to the cloud via an implant called the Sensen, which means that essentially your memories are no longer owned exclusively by you, but by the corporation that owns Sensen, Memorize.  The game’s protagonist, Nilin, is one of a small number of people called ‘Errorists’ who are able to hack into the net and remix other people’s memories – distort, add to, or erase them.  In order to complete the game, the story involves Nilin having to remix the memories of certain people in order to restore her own lost memories and bring down Memorize.  The game cleverly tackles issues of privacy, intellectual property (should memories be ‘copyrighted’ like ideas?) and whether we should have the right to erase the memories we don’t like and to augment the ones we do. (We do with our bodies – should our minds be treated any differently?)

Now this may all seem far-fetched, but what all these examples (and many more besides) highlight is a need for immersive literacy.  We are already facing the challenges of information and digital literacy in an age where digital information glut is the norm and so much of our everyday lives revolves around navigating the web and the cloud.  When and if immersive technologies develop, we will need to consider the ethical knots they present, and, on a practical level, we will need to consider how immersive experiences are to be documented, organised, classified, indexed, catalogued and disseminated.  What will the legal ramifications be?  How will the role of the library and information professional have to change in order to manage such ‘documents’?

The digital leap has already caught many of us in the LIS profession unawares.  Perhaps we ought to look a little further into this ‘far-fetched’ future, and think about what it might mean to deal with these potential new types of media – immersive media.

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A trip to the Infinite Library exhibition at the Colosseum, Rome

Every so often a happy coincidence will come the way of every lucky librarian.  Mine just happened to come last month, when, having booked a trip to Italy, I discovered that the Colosseum was hosting an exhibition on ancient libraries.  This double whammy of ‘relevant to my interests’ (ancient monuments + libraries) was enough to make me feel that somehow the clouds had temporarily parted on my life, and a mighty hand had pointed at me from the heavens, simultaneously declaring “Thou shalt have thy cake and eat it too.”

And so I managed to visit one of the new seven wonders of the world, and visit “The Infinite Library: Sites of Knowledge in the Ancient World” exhibition at the same time.

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“The Infinite Library”

What was fortuitous about the whole thing was that I only managed to catch the exhibition by the skin of my teeth, it having been opened in March and closed on 5th October (yesterday, as it happens).  Set in the magnificent and awe-inspiring Colosseum itself (on the 2nd floor), it was the perfect backdrop for an exhibition about ancient libraries, writing and knowledge.  Its title – “The Infinite Library” (an allusion to “The Library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges) – reminds us of the timelessness of the human quest to analyse, organise and disseminate knowledge.  We cannot say for sure when libraries truly began – but we can be certain that as soon as humanity began to analyse their surroundings, their world, and what they knew – they attempted to capture it and encapsulate it in some form (Rock paintings?  Cave art?).  By transporting us directly into the ancient world via a monumental and ruinous setting, the exhibition brought us that one step closer to a time that is far removed from our own, but that is, perhaps fundamentally as well as intellectually, closer than we might think.

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Rules of the library, ancient style.

For anyone interested in the history of the library, this exhibition (which was helpfully in both Italian and English) was a beautiful visual counterpart to the many books that have tackled this rich and vibrant subject (Libraries in the Ancient World, The Library at Night, Library: An Unquiet History and The Story of Libraries, to name but a few).  Its visual immediacy helped to put flesh on the bones of these texts, to bring the ancient and venerable into the periphery of our vision.  Through the exhibits the audience was able to see first hand what actually constituted a book or a document to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Books themselves were a late addition to the ancestral lineage of instantiated documents, and “The Infinite Library” was careful to remind us of this fact.  For the ancients, texts were inscriptions, funerary epitaphs, stele, ostracon and scrolls – actual reconstructions of Roman library shelves served to highlight the physical differences between what we might term a library today.  Roman book shelves were similar yet strangely unalike – more like niches than shelves, scrolls were stacked inside them horizontally and one could imagine that they weren’t as easily retrievable from their housings as sliding a book out might be.

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Fragments of a catalogue of Greek and Roman authors.

Holding the exhibition in Rome was fitting in more than one aspect – the Roman world was in itself the birthplace of what we might recognise as the public library (public libraries existed before in ancient Greece, though were restricted to scholars and the literati).  Some of these first public libraries were originally part of the bath houses, which may perhaps seem strange to us these days – is a book and bathwater ever a good mixture?  But for the Romans, the baths served as the ancient equivalent of the early modern coffee houses – a place where the populous could congregate, gossip, and conduct their business affairs.  In this respect, the library was perfectly situated to serve the community.

But it was the similarities to our own libraries of today that gave the visitor cause to smile.  Ancient librarians, it appears, had the same concerns our modern libraries do.  Amongst the exhibits were included some ancient rules of the library, no doubt exhorting users to silence or threatening reprimands for stealing from the collection; and the human drive to organise was represented, for example, in fragments of a catalogue listing Greek and Roman authors.  In this way the exhibition served to bridge the gap between the then and the now, to draw a line of continuity between the past and the present, and to highlight the ways in which the lives of librarians and information professionals has, in the most basic and fundamental ways, remained the same.

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A 16th century herbal depicting mandrakes.

What made the exhibition exceptional, however, was its focus not only on the library, but also on the cultural milieu that informed the growth of the library and literacy in the Roman period.  For example, it provided a valuable insight into the how the Romans read and wrote.  On display were writing implements – styluses, ink pots, tablets, and other writing paraphernalia that we would find strange to look at.  There were also helpful instructions on how to read a scroll, which also brought to mind just how cumbersome and time-consuming holding, rolling and unrolling one really is, and definitely spelled out to me just how much we should appreciate the invention of the book (or codex, as it was in antiquity)!  Last but not least, “The Infinite Library” featured several beautiful frescos reminiscent of the famous ‘couple from Pompeii’, which depicted their subjects as both writers and readers, one of which showed a very lovely young lady reading what appeared to be a love letter.  These gorgeous works of art give us a striking picture of how (wealthy) Romans wanted themselves to be seen – as literate and erudite.  The fact that so many of these portraits exist is testament to just how highly literacy was prized in the ancient world.

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A Roman writing tablet. Wax would be poured into the niches to serve as a writing surface, and would be replaced whenever it had been used up.

It is a shame that the exhibition is now closed, although English-speaking visitors might have found it difficult to access unless they, like myself, were heading to Rome on holiday.  Nevertheless, I’d recommend a similar exhibition to anyone who’s interested in librarianship, particular ancient libraries and the history of documents.  It would be lovely if the British Library could host a similar exhibition, as, in many ways, “The Infinite Library” was not just the story of books or art or culture, but the story of who we are.

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A PhD student at Loncon 3

This year was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, which took place at the ExCel Centre in London over five hectic and fun-filled days (#Loncon3).  I felt it my duty to go there, both as a fan and as a research student (field observations being a must, don’t you know?), and thanks to the most excellent Con or Bust initiative, I was able to get a free membership.  I managed to make two action-packed days (the Thursday and Saturday), which gave me much food for thought – that is, when I could actually sit down and get a moment to sit down and ponder.  What struck me most about my time at Loncon was the realisation that fans are not homogeneous – just like any microcosm of humanity, fans have different values, morals, points of view, creeds, colours, sexual orientations and political agendas.  And of course, fandoms.  There can be genuine moments where a fan is rambling on about something they are passionate about, whilst you’re there thinking “What on earth are they talking about?”, even if you consider yourself a fellow geek.  Or you might be the one sitting there, rabbiting on, whilst others are staring at you blankly.  Yeah, I got that a few times.  But it was fine, because it reminded me that too often in fan or media studies, there is a tendency to think of fans as one homogeneous whole that thinks the same.  This is not true, and, as I am finding out, it is therefore not true about the ways that fans (or fan communities) approach or engage in information behaviour.

I was at the con right from the start, as I was participating in a fan arts and crafts event in the afternoon (and was, for my sins, helping set up the Transformative Fanworks tent).  For an hour I sat at a table, demonstrating my limited artistic skills and showcasing my work.  Many fans sauntered past with minimal interest (Rogue & Gambit shippers are a fairly rare breed in the fan world, or so I’ve come to learn).  But I was surprised and pleased when two lovely girls from America came and chatted to me about my work and the Rogue & Gambit fandom, and showed an interest in following my Tumblr page.   There was an interesting conversation on copyrights and IP, wherein I explained that I don’t sell prints of my fanart on deviantART as I don’t own the rights to franchises I draw from.  They seemed surprised at this. “We buy that stuff all the time,” they said. “We can just get it from anywhere.  Does that mean we’re doing something illegal?”  Well, yeah, technically.  I tried to explain about the difference between selling fanart on the internet via a third party (they have to cover their proverbial backsides after all), and selling to friends or at a convention.  But young fans aren’t really interested in that stuff.  They want their fanworks, and they’ll get them whatever the means.  The internet has made ‘reapproriated’ works so readily available to fans that copyright is hardly an issue to youngsters who have grown up in an information free-for-all.  It does make one wonder whether notions of IP will slowly die out with the next generation.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

Me drawing in the Loncon 3 fan activity tent.

On Saturday afternoon, Megan Waples and I held what was intended to be a redesign contest for sexist superheroine costumes.  Unfortunately this wasn’t in the programme  as we’d cooked it up too late for it to be sent to print, and so we abandoned the idea of a contest and left the design silhouettes out throughout the day for anyone to do.  After a slow start we managed to get quite a lot of interest and ended up with a lovely pile of redesigns!  In fact, the project got such a lot of positive feedback from participants that we figured we could scan in the whole lot and start a Tumblr blog on it; and not only that, but to open the blog to submissions so that anyone can create a redesign, and raise awareness about the issue.  This idea also achieved some interest from fans and hopefully will be implemented once the pictures are all scanned in.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design  from Loncon3.

Starfire comics costume (left); and costume design from Loncon3, by Megan Waples (right).

Saturday evening brought with it the chance to attend the Researching Fans: Fan Studies and Fan History academic panel, which was enlightening.  The panel focused many on the problems of studying fans – apart from issues arising from generalisation of fans and their heterogeneity, there were also very interesting discussions around the continued suspicion of fan-related studies in the academy, and the pitfalls inherent in studying fans as an acafan (academic fan).  Many fan scholars are still coming up against complete ignorance of fandom from their peers, and there is an assumption that acafans should ‘dress up’ their research in academic language in order to make it more accessible to the scholarly community.  There was also the question of whether fan research – a finished dissertation, article or thesis, for example – could be considered a fanwork in its own right; whether this implies a lack of rigour and distance from the subject; and whether that in any way lessens its importance as a piece of scholarly literature.

I left the panel with my head swimming – too many thoughts, too many things to digest.  Fan studies is essentially multi-disciplinary.  It touches so many parts of our lives, and we can look at it from the perspective of cultural studies, media studies, games studies, sociology and psychology, to name but a few disciplines.  This is an area of study that can impact so many people’s everyday lives; and vice versa.  In my research I am hoping to look at fans from an LIS perspective, and this is yet another aspect of fan life that has been ignored and which, I think – or at least, hope – is and will come even more to the fore in future years.

After the panel I was able to finally meet some lovely Fan Studies Network people, and over a few drinks we got some discussion in about fan information behaviour and the dubious joys of Tumblr tagging.  In fact, Tumblr managed to wheedle its way into several conversations over the time that I was at the con.  The more I think about it, the more Tumblr is the new place for fandom, as more and more fans young and old adopt it as a flexible place for showcasing a myriad of fanworks such as fanfiction, fanart, animation, videos, news, quotes and essays.  It is this flexibility of use and content that makes Tumblr such a godsend to fans.  You can write a collaborative fanfic and track its progress with amazing ease; you can reblog and share content with just a simple click; you can write whole essays or express your opinions just through the tags alone (and I’ve seen tags that are longer than the actual posted content!).   Whole projects can be realised in very little time.  And this goes for the negative as well as the positive.  Flame wars and ruckuses can evolve just as quickly as a full-blown artistic endeavours.

It will take me some time to digest everything I’ve learned at Loncon, but what I will definitely be taking away are some interesting approaches to researching fandom, as well as some fascinating thoughts about how tagging and folksonomies facilitate fandom; and last but not least, I’ll remember it for some great new friendships.

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Woodrow Phoenix’s “She Lives” – a (fan) experience

On 23rd May 2014, during my second, unplanned visit to the Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library, I happened upon the very talented Mr Woodrow Phoenix getting ready to give a live presentation of his monster-sized work, She Lives.   I had no idea these ‘short’ talks were going on, so the whole thing was doubly serendipitous.  All the more so for the fact that what I was treated to was an amazingly tactile and visceral experience.

Being at the front helped.  It meant I was one of the few in the audience that had the distinct privilege of helping to turn the pages, to feel the handmade, embossed cover, to run my fingers over the smooth, shiny expanses of black ink and the knobbly ridges of corrector fluid.  All too often reading comics involves solely visual ingestion of the material – you pick up the comic, you open it, you look at it, read it – its pages are either smooth and glossy or matt and slightly rough – as a printed artefact it is uniformly homogeneous, a processed piece of finished product wherein the story of its production is, if you will, a closed book.  She Lives reminds us – like the illuminated manuscripts that preceded the printing press – that comic books have a double life: on the one hand, a life as a commodity; on the other, a life as a work of art.  It is all the more interesting that Phoenix does not plan to print the book – in an industry that is known (whether rightly or wrongly) to churn out the throw-away and the ephemeral, She Lives will remain a one-of-a-kind, a real work of art – an artefact that refuses to suffer from the losses of reproduction.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

Excerpt from one of the repeated sequences of She Lives. Courtesy of woodrowphoenix.co.uk.

What is also apparent with She Lives is the vast amount of real blood, sweat and tears that went into its making.  It’s physical size is staggering (it’s just under a square metre, it’s width double that when opened).  When you consider that it was hand-bound, embossed, and went through at least 3 previous iterations (as dummy books), the work involved in its creation is all the more impressive.  Stitching together such a large book was a feat in itself (involving much self-puncturing with the needle); and none of the repetitive sequences (totalling about 60 individual panels in a single round) are mechanically reproduced.  All are hand-drawn.  Ink spillages (of which a few were substantial) were painstakingly whited out.  The physical processes involved in bookbinding and embossing demanded much research.  So too did the environments and acts of a 1940’s circus and its performers, which make up the setting of She Lives.

Seeing the comic in its display case is impressive in itself.  But having the chance to read it is something else.  There is no narrative text, no captions or speech bubbles – yet still there is a sense that it is read.  Phoenix’s talk-through focuses mainly on the making-of the piece, which does not interrupt the flow of that reading, but instead augments it with a sense of wonder that such an endeavour was possible at all.  The sheer size of it demands a more leisurely pace in the reading of it, and this affords the chance to appreciate the artistic details of the comic.  Turning the large, heavy pages makes the reading a tactile experience, a communing with a piece of art that made me wonder what it must have felt like for the kings, princes and nobles of yesteryear to leaf through their priceless manuscripts.

This act of reading was carefully crafted by Phoenix himself.  As a document, She Lives plays with concepts of reading a book or comic when there are no words to read.  The physical size and weightiness were intentional experiments in resolving this question, as Phoenix explains:

Because silent comics can paradoxically be very difficult for readers to engage with (many people interpret a silent panel as having no important story content) a comics creator must make readers understand that the pictures do not just support the captions and speech balloons but contain and deliver as much or more information in their own right.

Back in 2002, Marvel tried a silent comic campaign with their ‘Nuff Said event.  My enduring impression of the event was how confusing some sequences were – how you sometimes really had to think what on earth was going on.  She Lives doesn’t suffer from that.  There is an elegant flow to the panels and action, no doubt thanks to the meticulous thought, effort and time that went into its making (time that the Marvel guys probably didn’t have the luxury of).  Size and weight prove to be brilliant strategies in pacing the reader, in guiding their journey through the book. “In order to hold the reader’s attention,” Phoenix says, “and to direct their gaze, my strategy was to present them with a large surface and heavy paper that would  have the effect of slowing the reader down and making them stay on the page longer, to look more closely at what the page contains.” It was clear, from the reactions of those at the page-turning event, that the strategy also increased readers’ sense of immersion and wonder.

On a more personal level, what struck me about She Lives is that it is a fan work.  I’m aware that the term has derogatory connotations attached to it; words such as derivative and even intertextual, which have been applied to concepts of fan work, imply a somehow subordinate role to the original material that a fan work may be based on (Derecho, 2006).  The point is that She Lives proves that such works can be both original and of high quality.  Set in the late 1940’s, it takes up the story of the Bride of Frankenstein, giving one of those continuations of a closed off plot that fans so enjoy playing with (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Derecho, 2006; Jenkins, 2013 [1992]).  Everything about the comic – from the lavish attention to detail, to the sense of motion in its panels, to its visceral physicality – pays testament to the love Phoenix has for his subject matter, to his desire to explore beyond the boundaries the 1935 movie presents.

Still from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that Phoenix himself does not see his piece as fan work, or even as a tribute.  “This story was inspired by the ending of Bride of Frankenstein, but I don’t think of it as a fan tribute,” he says in an email conversation with me. “It’s more like I’m using something that was discarded. The titular character only appears in the film for two minutes and she dies without speaking, having barely done anything… There’s nothing to her as a character apart from a fabulous visual design.” And, according to Phoenix, it was that visual design that prompted him to continue her story:

I would occasionally wonder about what could have happened with her had she lived. And then one day an image occurred to me of her sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette. I thought it might make a good short story: the bride of Frankenstein had survived the explosion but had no function, no purpose or place to be, and was living in a trailer or a motel somewhere in Glendale, California.

This thought led him to the backdrop of She Lives – to “the idea [of] a freak or outcast who hides amongst other freaks”.  The circus seemed to be a natural extension of that; and once the idea had started rolling, the Bride character was no longer strictly needed.  Nevertheless, Phoenix kept her as a sort of ‘anchor’ for the reader, not simply as a striking visual motif, but as an “extra resonance” to those who would recognise who she was.  To other viewers or fans of The Bride of Frankenstein, the story would be enriched, as the Bride brings with her a cultural and narrative baggage that adds a dimension to her character (and the story) that a non-viewer or non-fan might be bereft of.  Her presence is not necessary, but for those in the know it provides a powerful story in its own right.

Even though Phoenix doesn’t self-identify as a fan artist per se, She Lives encapsulates several of the aspects that drive fans to create – the closed or unfulfilled plot that is rich for further development; the attraction to a certain character; the persistence of an image, plot point, or character trait that demands further exploration (Derecho, 2006).

As a piece of art, She Lives is an immensely satisfying work, beautiful, tactile, absorbing.  As a comic, it is compelling, perfectly paced, painstakingly plotted, wonderful to look at.  As a fan work, it is one of the best examples, even if Woodrow Phoenix did not intend it to be so.  As a fan of the original film, one must certainly feel a thrill when such an iconic and beloved character reveals herself and demonstrates a continuing life beyond the four walls of the movie that once enmeshed her.

And that is what fan works are really all about – feeling a character, and bringing that character once more to life.

* Future She Lives page-turning events with artist Woodrow Phoenix take place on Tuesday 22nd July 2014 at 6pm, and Tuesday 12th August at 3pm, at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition.

References

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006). Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction. In: Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., ed. 2006. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson, North Carolina; London: McFarland.  Ch 1.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
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Serious leisure in the digital world, July 9, 2014

On the 9th July 2014 I gave a small presentation at a City Informatics forum for LIS PhD students, entitled Serious leisure in the digital world: exploring the information behaviours of fan communities (which is the working title for my thesis).  The presentation gave a summary of research done so far in my first year: i.e. how we define fans, what do previous studies have to say about fans, has any work been done on their information behaviour, and how we work towards a conceptual model of fan information behaviour.

For those who were interested in hearing about the research but unable to attend the presentation, I’ve packaged the slides in two different formats for your convenience – PPT and PDF – which can be downloaded below.  There is some amusing video in there which can only be watched with the PPT file – make sure you have an internet connection when you open. 🙂

Presentation July 2014 (PDF)

Presentation July 2014 (Powerpoint)

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank my supervisor, Lyn Robinson, for her support, encouragement and advice in bringing together this talk, and in helping to get my research to the (almost) one year mark! 🙂

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Read for Research Reading List

City University London Library has started Read for Research, a great new initiative where research students are able to order books pertinent to their research which will then be added to the library.  As a resource for others who are researching LIS-related fan studies and participatory cultures, or who are interested in doing so, I’ll be sharing my list of RFR books here, which will be updated as and when new books come in.  All these books are now available at the City University London Library at Northampton Square. 🙂

  • Bacon-Smith, C. (1992).  Enterprising women : television fandom and the creation of popular myth.  Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Barton, K. M., & Lampley, J. M., eds. (2014). Fan CULTure : essays on participatory fandom in the 21st century. Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc.
  • Black, R. W. (2008). Adolescents and online fan fiction.  New York ; Oxford : Peter Lang.
  • Delve, J., & Anderson, D., eds. (2014). Preserving complex digital objects. London: Facet.
  • Delwiche, A., & Henderson J. J. (2013). The participatory cultures handbook. New York ; Abingdon : Routledge.  NEW!
  • Devitt, A. J. (2008).  Writing Genres.  Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Duffett, M. (2013). Understanding fandom : an introduction to the study of media fan culture.  New York : Bloomsbury.
  • Duits, L., Zwaan, K., & Reijnders, S., eds. (2014).  The Ashgate research companion to fan cultures.  Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
  • El Morr, C., & Maret, P., eds. (2012).  Virtual community building and the information society : current and future directions. Hershey, Pa. : Information Science Reference.
  • Elkington, S., Jones, I. & Lawrence, L., eds. (2006).  Serious leisure : extensions and applications.  Eastbourne : Leisure Studies Association.
  • Fisher, K. E., Erdelez, S., & McKechnie, L. E. F., eds. (2005).  Theories of information behavior.  Medford, N.J. : Published for the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Information Today.
  • Harrington, C. L., & Bielby, D. D. (1995).  Soap fans : pursuing pleasure and making meaning in everyday life. Philadelphia, Pa. : Temple University Press.
  • Hellekson, K., & Busse, K., eds. (2014).  The fan fiction studies reader.  Iowa: University of Iowa Press.
  • Hills, M. (2002). Fan Cultures.  London : Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Jamison, A. E. (2013). Fic : why fanfiction is taking over the world.  Dallas : Smart Pop.
  • Jenkins, H. (2013), updated 20th anniversary ed. Textual poachers : television fans and participatory culture.  New York : Routledge.
  • Jones, W., & Teevan, J., eds. (2007). Personal information management.  Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press.
  • Murray, J. H., (1998).  Hamlet on the holodeck : the future of narrative in cyberspace.  Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
  • Pearce, C., & Artemesia, (2009). Communities of play: emergent cultures in multiplayer games and virtual worlds.  Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
  • Pugh, S. (2004).  The democratic genre : fan fiction in a literary context.  Bridgend : Seren.
  • Ryan, M. (2001). Narrative as virtual reality : immersion and interactivity in literature and electronic media.  Baltimore, Md.; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Stein, L. E., & Busse, K. (2012). Sherlock and transmedia fandom : essays on the BBC series.  Jefferson, N.C. ; London : McFarland.
  • Zubernis, L. & Larsen, K. (2012). Fandom at the crossroads : celebration, shame and fan/producer relationships. Newcastle upon Tyne : Cambridge Scholars Publishing. NEW!
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