OTW Guest Post: Naomi Jacobs

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.

Naomi Jacobs is an interdisciplinary Research Fellow, whose work looks at how technology and society interact. In addition to her purely academic writing, she has also co-written two books in the Black Archive series, which takes critical looks at individual episodes of Doctor Who. The second of these (on Kerblam!) is due to be released in November 2019. Today, Naomi talks about her article in Transformative Works and Cultures on fan conventions.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

My first experience of fandom was in 1995, when I was about 14, and came about because I noticed a sign in a local gift shop. It was advertising a painting demonstration by Clarecraft, a company that made figurines of the characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. I’d had been reading these books avidly for a number of years, so of course went along.

The lovely lady I met that day was Isobel Pearson, who alongside her husband Bernard (known to Discworld fans as The Cunning Artificer) founded Clarecraft. She told me they were hosting a fan gathering in the summer at their headquarters in rural Suffolk, and encouraged me to come along. Attending that event was my introduction to Discworld fandom, and led to me attending (and eventually helping run) many conventions and events.

Around the same time, we got our first modem at home and I discovered the internet. I was also a big fan of The X-Files at the time, and found a forum where I made many friends, one of whom introduced me to the concept of fanfiction, and got me interested in the (at that time niche) fandom for Doctor Who. We’re still friends!

Since then, fandom has been fairly constant in my life, particularly Pratchett fandom, and Doctor Who. Being part of these fandoms has given me some of my longest friendships, taught me skills and given me experience that are incredibly useful in my life and job (such as copy editing, and event planning!) and allowed me to meet people from a huge range of countries, cultures, backgrounds and different walks of life.

I’ve been part of communities for these and other fandoms in a wide variety of online spaces, which has contributed to my current research interests. The MSN message boards where I first met other fans led me to usenet and IRC, which gradually evolved to Livejournal and Dreamwidth, and then on to Twitter, and Archive Of Our Own. (I lurk on the edges of Tumblr but never created my own).

What drew your interest to Supernatural conventions?

I started watching Supernatural quite late into its run, and caught up over a couple of years without having any knowledge of or connection to its fandom. When I was up to date, I followed a recommendation to a particular work of fanfiction which turned out to have its own minor fan following, who mainly communicated through Twitter.

Through being in that group, I got a view into the wider Supernatural fandom, and in particular its conventions, which many of my new friends had attended or planned to in future. I discovered that the convention culture appeared quite different to that of the conventions I was used to. My experiences were mostly traditional science fiction and fantasy literature conventions (like the Discworld conventions) that are more focussed on fanworks and community rather than celebrity fandom.

The academic project I was working on at that time involved exploring what happens in ‘digital public space.’ This is a broad term which includes online gathering places which act as public communal spaces, and also physical public spaces that have digital aspects or augmentations. I noticed that the online discussion around Supernatural conventions was particularly active, and there was a strong culture of gathering and sharing content from the events.

Being part of the digital space during a convention seemed to be almost as important as being at the event, particularly because there were so many conventions each year and many people attend several, but very few could go to them all. Around the time I started thinking about gathering some data to look into this further, there arose a controversy because of some changes in the way that rules around recording content at the events were enforced. This gave me a very interesting avenue to do research as events unfolded.

Given fan experiences with digital convention attendance, what do you see in its future?

I think that as the barriers between online and offline fandom become more fluid, and as technology improves, we might see new ways that conventions become digital spaces as well as physical ones. Conventions are about fans coming together to share experiences, to ‘convene’, and it is no longer the case that this has to involve a face to face meeting. I think that convention organisers need to embrace this and understand that fans often now do not leave their online fan spaces just because they are at a particular physical one, and that there’s benefit in including people who might not be able to attend physically for whatever reason.

Having said that, there is something very special about attending a convention in-person; being able to hug the person you have been friends with for years but never met before, taking up a conversation with someone you last saw a year before as if you’d never been apart, or just being in a room full of like-minded strangers. My work showed that allowing digital access is more likely to encourage people to want to buy a ticket than put them off, because being there digitally is enjoyable, but not the same experience.

One other important question that I think fans and conventions need to consider is how or if we archive this kind of digital content from events. This might be especially complicated if it involves material being posted online that has ambiguous ownership and copyright, or is ephemeral and does not seem to have the same weight and meaning when taken on its own, after the fact.

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

I was fairly active on LiveJournal around the time of the Strikethrough event, which was one of the things which (I now know) precipitated the formation of the OTW. However in my case I drifted away from that part of fandom for a while, being busy on convention organising committees and not participating in much of the transformative works side.

At some point in the next few years I must have become vaguely aware of the Archive of our Own, but didn’t really get back into reading fanfiction regularly until the aforementioned introduction to Supernatural, which was in 2015. Some of the friends I made through that interest were fan studies academics, who opened my eyes to the idea that I could combine my research and my fan interests, and directed me towards the journal Transformative Works and Cultures. Because I’m interested in online spaces, copyright and ownership, I read up on the development of the OTW and all the fantastic work that is done.

I see the OTW as critically important in defending the rights of fans, and protecting what is sometimes called the ‘gift economy’. This refers to the way that fans have always created and shared content simply for the love of it, with no expectation of getting anything in return except the enjoyment of the community, and the likelihood that others will similarly contribute their creations. In commercial online platforms, someone is usually trying to make money. This might cause conflict with people who want to use these platforms to build a community, if ways to make profit don’t match ways to help users. It’s quite common that the places that fans use to create, share and archive weren’t ever intended for that in the first place, and can
change without warning in ways that are unexpected and seem counter to fans’ best interests. The OTW, as a non-profit organisation and host of non-commercial platforms, is an advocate for the more abstract value that fans and fan works bring; though that’s not to say there can’t sometimes be commercial value in fan works too!

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Having just written the above response, I think I have to say that the OTW is incredibly inspiring! The fact that fans create amazing art and literature and transformative content and share it just out of love, is incredible.

Fundamentally, I think fandom is about communities, and I love the way that lasting relationships and families can be created that last for decades, and span people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life. I think wider society could learn a lot from the way that fans, for the most part, embrace and welcome others who have shared enthusiasms.

I also am very inspired by the good that fandom can create in the world in more practical ways. The Supernatural fandom has some particularly noteworthy examples of this, for example a huge contribution to the relief and rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey that was in part co-ordinated through the use of social media. Fans contributed hundreds of hours of time to sort requests for and offers of help. Through such activities many lives were saved — a real, positive impact going beyond the fan community that was made possible through fans coming together and communicating.

Catch up on earlier guest posts

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