Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.
E. Charlotte Stevens is a Lecturer in Media and Communications at Birmingham City University, and is the author of Fanvids: Television, Women, and Home Media Re-Use. She has also published on videogame fan histories and screen vampires, and is currently working on Chinese tomb-raiding television dramas.
Nick Webber is Director of the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University, UK and co-convenor of the Historical Games Network. His research focuses on (video)games, cultural history and identity, and explores the impact of online games and virtual worlds on public history and our relationship with the past. Today, Charlotte and Nick talk about their article in Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC).
How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?
Charlotte: Late in 1998, a school friend dragged me into X-Files fandom: videotape compilations of the best episodes, hand-drawn diagrams of the mytharc, instructions on how to access alt.tv.x-files.creative, Gossamer, the whole nine yards. A handful of years later in 2004, another friend let me copy a hard drive of downloaded vids, and there was no escape.
Nick: I had a background sense of fandom for decades –- probably since the mid-90s? -– and some forms of fanwork, but it wasn’t until about 6 years ago that I started thinking about it in earnest -– at least in terms of academia, as a defined space. In terms of gaming more generally, I have always had a sense of community-produced materials and resources around tactical role-playing games in particular and these have often had a part in my play.
Why have fan historians generally been overlooked?
This can be answered with another question: overlooked by whom? One answer is that they haven’t, not by their in-fandom audience. When I (Charlotte) dig into my archival work and bring excerpts of 1980s fanzines to a contemporary fan convention, it is clear that having access to bits of fandom history is valued by the attendees — but that’s me using my academic resources and access, rather than being ‘just’ a fan who does history work. The point here is that categorisation is difficult because the boundaries are in constant negotiation as positionality shifts depending on context and audience.
Another answer is that the popular historians who write books about war that your dad likes getting for Christmas don’t see fandom as important enough (or marketable enough) for their audience, and that ‘proper’ academic historians don’t see the popular historians as holding sufficient legitimacy. This is all tied up with power, and who is ‘allowed to be’ a historian (who is given the authority to write about the past). For fan historians, this power is in occupying a position they claim for themselves in their community.
There is also a traditional sense in historical work that it has to be serious (whatever that means) and concerned with factuality. Even though academic historiography has moved away from these ideas, things like counterfactual histories — which is how a lot of video games engage with history, for example — have been criticised in the past by prominent historians, including E.H. Carr and E.P. Thompson. When fan histories are not concerned with the past of the ‘real’ world, historians find it easy to dismiss them out of hand.
With our article, we thought the community role played by fan-historians was important enough to warrant special attention, rather than having it fade into the background noise of fandom in general. Highlighting and naming ‘the fan-historian’ as a role/identity/labour practice credits their knowledge, skills, and expertise.
What aspects of creating historical records is particularly helpful when it’s done by fans?
Claiming a fan identity connotes more than just an affective affinity with a media product, but also a positionality that claims developed knowledge and cultural/social capital in Bourdieu’s sense. Being a fan is more than liking something, at least in the performance of the identity, it’s about knowing things about it, about fellow fans and their responses, what will play well to different audiences: all cultural/social skills and knowledges that are built up over time.
Public historians can be understood as historians that emerge from and speak to a ‘public’, rather than only working within an academic institution and speaking to fellow academics. As a historian emerging from a fan-public, the fan-historian speaks back to the fan community in a way which is accessible and comprehensible to them. The historical records they create are shaped with a fannish sensibility, for fans. They draw on community knowledge and expertise to suggest what is valuable or significant.
The community dimensions of this also make the process more effective — if not necessarily more helpful as such. The range of interests within fandom argues for a diversity of voices in what is kept and valued, avoiding automatic tendencies to only archive the mainstream, the popular, and so on. As an academic coming to fan-historical work as a resource and as an object of study, it is then possible to look at an archived collection of fanzines and make claims for what was valuable to certain fans at particular times. This is helpful as a starting point for interpretation, as archives are never neutral.
Is there evidence that fans are more self-reflective than other online groups?
We’re not aware that this has been studied directly, so there probably isn’t evidence per se. However, we do think there are a number of indicators and activities which suggest that fans might lean in this direction. The fact that the community has created a space for intellectual commentary on itself (i.e. through TWC) is a positive sign of an openness to critical self-reflection.
Additionally, the normalisation of beta-reading fic or getting a beta for vids, what on the academic side we’d call peer review, is a self-reflective process of working through and incorporating feedback. If we bring this back to history, we are talking about history as a critical reflective process, which is arguably what distinguishes history from memory.
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
Charlotte: I was getting my toes wet in fandom studies before TWC’s first issue, and of course I’m familiar with AO3 for personal use, having spent my fair share of time on LiveJournal beforehand.
Nick: From Charlotte.
Charlotte: In the American context, the OTW’s legal advocacy is very important in protecting fans who work with existing IP from facing copyright challenges; since a lot of international fans work with American IP, this provides a precedent that can translate out.
Nick: For me the OTW provides an institutional context, space and resources for fan communities and their work (via AO3). That space is valuable, although the institutional approach prompts a certain inertia and a tendency towards neutrality on contentious issues.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
Charlotte: It is hard to know how to answer this question! I’ve been in fandom for long enough it’s hard to imagine life without it. Under my fannish identity, I have been a conrunner for 9 years now, and the small but mighty community around that annual convention — including two successful virtual cons and one hybrid event in June of this year — has been fantastic.
Nick: I’ve been struck on a number of occasions by the care, attention and energy which goes into particular pieces of fan work, and particularly some of those which are the product of community-wide activities. My focus here is on video games: I loved the memory books made for the 15th anniversary of Final Fantasy XI, for example, and also the work that is produced by the journalists of EVE Online, in that blurry space between fandom and play.