From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Today’s post is a Q&A with University of Minnesota undergraduate Olivia Riley. Olivia’s thesis on Archive of Our Own and the Gift Culture of Fanfiction caught our attention. As she created a video for 2015’s International Fanworks Day, we ask her about looking at fanworks through an academic perspective.
How did you first get into fandom and fanworks?
I’ve been a lifelong fangirl. I grew up watching Star Trek (the original series, TNG, DS9, Voyager, and later Enterprise when that came on) with my parents, who introduced me to the shows that would be my first fandom. We always had shelves of Star Trek novels in our basement, and when I was in elementary school, I started writing stories about going on adventures with all the fictional characters I loved. So I was writing fanfic before I even realized what that was!
However, it was truly Doctor Who and Sherlock that brought me into modern, Internet fandom as we know it now. My love for those shows inspired me to find out if other people also adored them, and lo and behold! There existed huge, magical communities of fans who’d loved these characters since before I was born! I discovered blogs, and social media pages, and fan videos, and fanfiction and fell in love.
What made you think about writing your thesis on a fandom topic?
A summer ago, I discovered rather accidentally and then subsequently devoured the wonderful book Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, and that was my first real introduction to the academic study of fandom. I was totally captivated by the idea that other people had spent time investigating and working to understand fandom, and that maybe I could do that too! So, when I embarked on my research project, there was no question that it was going to be about something fannish.
Then came the more difficult matter of deciding what angle I wanted to come at the topic from – communications, cultural studies, gender studies; a quantitative analysis or fic or a qualitative analysis of community; did I want to focus on vids or art or fic, etc. I ended up choosing to focus on fic, through the lens of the gift culture, mainly because it was an aspect of fan culture that I’d been peripherally aware of for years, but hadn’t known there was a name for.
What was the most difficult part of it to do?
Staying on task! It’s pretty hard to focus on writing a scholarly analysis of the structure of AO3 when, for that purpose, you have a really intriguing Daredevil Cops & Robbers AU open. Also, it was sometimes hard to remember that my own personal fan experience was not everyone else’s fan experience, and I had to keep a very open mind and look out for ways of interacting with fans and fanworks that I hadn’t known about before.
To do that, I dove into the (rich and insightful) world of the scholarly study of fanworks and fandom, and determined that some of the most important aspects of fandom and fanfic in particular are gender, community, and the gift economy. I then argued that AO3’s form and function reflects and incorporates these key values of media fandom, from the site’s inception to the technical specificities of its realization. However, getting to the point where I had this nice, neat, thesis involved a lot of digging into literature and wandering around the Internet, and it was a bit of a struggle trying to figure out what exactly it was that I really wanted to talk about.
Did your perspective on fanworks change as you worked on your thesis?
It did. I realize now that what I really fell in love with wasn’t just the fanworks, but the love that their creators put into them. I’d often fan-girled in isolation, or only with a few people that I’d met in real life, but this project really opened my eyes to the expansive and amazing communities that blossom around every imaginable aspect of fandom. I saw how these incredible fans put their blood, sweat, and tears into their works and share them freely and with great love to their fellow fans, often in opposition to and despite the machinations of male, capitalist, power structures. (To my great pleasure, the more research I did, the more the feminist tilt of fan creation became apparent!) So, before I began my project I thought fanworks were really cool, but by the time I’d finished, I had a whole new level of respect for fanworks and their talented creators.
What do fanworks mean to you today?
To me, fanworks mean love, community, and freedom. They represent social ties and caring between friends and fellow fans, and they’re a tangible representation of these relationships. And they also mean freedom and revolution to me, because they represent a female tradition of creativity that has grown and thrived and created its own space separate from male-dominated capitalism. Fanworks are beautiful and magical and I could gush about them for hours…and in fact, did gush about them for months on end in the form of writing a ninety page paper!
What would you tell others about International Fanworks Day?
Participate! Don’t be scared to put yourself out there – the celebration of fans and their love is what this day’s all about. And participation doesn’t just mean going out and writing and posting your own fic – it can mean reblogging someone’s fanart on Tumblr, liking their fanvid on YouTube, or leaving comments on their fanfic on AO3. It’s pretty amazing that the Day exists, and being part of it can be a truly rewarding experience.