OTW Guest Post: Leah Steuer

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.

Leah Steuer is a PhD candidate in Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work engages the body as primary site of media reception, and her dissertation explores somatic-affective approaches to TV audience studies. Today, Leah talks about her article in Transformative Works and Cultures.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I became involved in online fan communities around age 12, in the early 2000s. At the time I was especially passionate about Whose Line Is It Anyway and made many friends on Fanfiction.net, Yahoo Groups, and various fan forums for the show. It was certainly a weird first foray into producing and consuming fanworks — we were a very small fandom and, at that time, writing Real Person Fiction made your work very vulnerable to deletion on the major fanworks hubs. Throughout my early teens (rather than producing fanworks of my own) I was usually more interested in getting to know the major players in my fandoms and creating social spaces on platforms like GeoCities and Angelfire for communal squee-ing, analyzing, and fantasizing.

Your article in TWC was about soap opera fan correspondence pre-Internet. You encouraged more research establishing “a coherent, enduring continuum” between then and now. What did you find in that respect that you expected and what surprised you?

I think I started the project with the assumption that the rise of the Internet did draw a decisive line between “analog” and digital fan practices, and this was something I’d seen echoed in the very structure of the syllabi for fan studies courses I’d taken, as well as popular rhetoric around the way Tumblr (and other platforms) had wrought sweeping changes to fan cultures, economies, and communication. My view of fandom as I was coming up echoed this idea of “improvement” or “evolution”: thanks to online gathering-places, fans could collapse the distance between us, react instantly to episodes and events, and easily deluge showrunners with tweets and comments.

So when I found that we had this fantastic volume of soap fan letters in The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research collections, I saw an opportunity to let the primary documents of pre-Internet fandom speak, and to complicate this idea of assigning technological milestones to fan culture and assuming we’ve progressed beyond pen-and-paper fandom. I came to the Santa Barbara and Bright Promise letters invested in rejecting historical fandom as “dated”; indeed, I was curious about whether the cadences of fannish emotion would really be so different between a 1980s postcard and a 2010s messageboard post.

One unexpected thing that emerged over the course of the research, and was a real pleasure to experience, was that the materiality of paper gave so much information about the way these soap fans folded TV programming into their lives; something I explored in the article was the idea that typewriter font, handwriting, stamps, paper choice, collaging, etc. is a form of metadata in the same vein of watermarking GIFs or assigning tags to fanworks. We also often think of letters as representing a one-to-one relationship — in this case, between the fan and showrunners (and occasionally actors). What was cool was seeing all the photos of fan gatherings, accounts of communal viewing, and mentions of fan club membership: all these things painted a bigger picture of what a virtual fandom network could look like in an analog world.

Given that the Yahoo Groups content wipe has now occurred, what thoughts do you have about all the correspondence and interaction that has been lost there? There were certainly many soap fans using the site for a decade or more.

Whenever an online fan hub undergoes a big, sweeping change, it’s another reminder that we need consistent archival practices in audience communities (and to be kind of clever and adroit about where we maintain those archives). The Yahoo Groups wipe, among other similar events, are devastating in a fan-historical sense because we’ve now lost the ability to reflect on how those communities organized themselves at a critical and dynamic time for fandom. It also deals a blow to digital communication scholarship generally: as we know, active media audiences are often early adopters of new technologies and platforms, and there’s endless potential to studying the way fans adapted Yahoo Groups, Xanga, Tumblr, etc. to their needs. Those sites, among many others, are examples of spaces that were kind of razed by any combination of policy changes, shifts in ownership, profit concerns, and legal issues. The Wayback Machine has helped with some of the reconstruction of fandom from 5, 10, 25 years back. But much of the day-to-day correspondence and traces of prosaic life online are irrevocably lost, which of course saddens me both professionally and personally.

However, the impermanence of fandom is the thing that makes it the most bitter and the most sweet. Although there are interventions we can make as community historians, it’s impossible to preserve all the ephemera of everyday life even if our platforms remained unchanged. Even if all the content on Yahoo Groups had been left alone, the users themselves would also do the work of chipping away at history — people delete ancient embarrassments, forget to renew a forum subscription, “orphan” their fanworks on Archive of Our Own, and so on. I assume most of the soap fans whose letters I read did not make copies before they sent them; as personal, thoughtful, and emotional as this correspondence was, it was also very transient in their lives. To me it’s important to keep in mind that archival practice in any fandom — analog or digital — can’t take the form of a truly lossless compression.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I became familiar with the OTW in college, when I re-entered fandom and started exploring Archive Of Our Own and Fanlore. I didn’t have a sense of the larger scope of the organization until I entered grad school and connected with fan studies scholarship in earnest; I became a lot more aware then of the really complex legal battles around fan activity, concerns with censorship and record-keeping, and other long-term goals and projects that the OTW was involved with.

I see the OTW as a vital resource for audience studies in general; it’s a centralized place where fans can interrogate, celebrate, and problematize their histories. It’s also, of course, the reason that Transformative Works and Cultures exists — this forum has helped open up academia even further to fan studies, and I’ve been so strongly impacted by the stunning breadth of work I’ve read in this journal over the years.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Wow, there are so many things I could list! I’m probably most inspired by the people who take risks to speak out against what’s not-so-rosy within fandom: fans and fan scholars who ask complex questions about toxicity, misogyny, racism, ableism, etc. within fandom and caution us about the long-term impact of staying in celebration mode. I’m inspired by people who find themselves caught between the joy of really being attached to something and the pain of feeling marginalized by it, and who are brave enough to start conversations about that.

I’m also just incredibly dazzled by the way fandom creators have elevated visual art over the years; I think young Tumblr artists had a major part to play in the cultural legacy of GIFs. And I’m inspired by the way the affective ties of fandom tend to endure; I love hearing stories about fans who have reconnected with each other even after their usernames, chats, and works have been scrubbed from the internet. Fandom is special in the sense that being invested in one thing means being invested in so many other things: creative and reading skills, friendship, digital literacy, leadership, and so much more.

Catch up on earlier guest posts

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