Fandom as a Business?

During the kerfuffle a couple months ago involving FanHistory.com, I found myself growing skeptical of the site, not so much because of the kerfuffle itself (which involved its owner Laura Hale’s refusal to remove a fan’s real name from the site) but because of what else came out concerning Ms. Hale’s intended use of the site and the information she was gathering. Yet, I wasn’t ready to pass final judgment. The outcry against FanHistory.com and Ms. Hale in particular was deafening … and indeed, that was part of the reason for my reluctance. I am suspicious of mobs, and there was a definite mob mentality in those weeks. So while I ceased my activity on the site (in part because I started school and now have little time for fannish activities outside of the SWG), I did so while waiting to see how things would play out. I halfway hoped to push back against the mob on this one. I liked the idea of FanHistory.com, just not its owner’s purported obsession with making money off of fandom. And–as the purpose of this blog will attest–I like advocating for things in which I believe that go against popular opinion. FanHistory.com, I was rooting for you, I really was.

Then, last week, Michelle sent me a link to a post on the FanHistory.com blog called Fandom as a Business. FanHistory.com and I are kaputs. It seems that the fundamental aim of the site is not why I got involved. The fundamental aim of the site is something with which I strongly disagree. And this time, all of this is in the site owner’s own words, removing the need to get swept up in any bloodthirsty, vindictive mobs in order to make my final decision about my involvement with this site.

Aside from the fandom-for-money debate, which I don’t feel legally qualified to wade into right now (although I know that, personally, I want no part of it for various reasons), I take issue with several statements that Ms. Hale makes in her post Fandom as a Business.

  • “[A] lot of fans who are in fandom for pure enjoyment, they have a general goal of not making waves, of finding ways to participate that don’t create additional strife for themselves, where they can express their love of canon, of finding a ways to enjoy the source more, of connecting with like minded [sic] people.”
  • “If you’re a fan, you might shut your mouth and avoid controversy at all costs. If you don’t, your enjoyment of fandom might decrease.”
  • “If you’re a fan, the rules might be that you might be constrained by personal relationships. You don’t want to offend your friends, alienate people who could help you be happy in fandom. These rules on a micro level mean you can’t say and do certain things.”

Throughout the post, there is a tidy dichotomy: You either are in fandom for fun and, therefore, have the luxury of going with the flow, or you’re in fandom for profit and don’t have that luxury. As the owner of a moderate-sized group and website–not-for-profit group and website, I must add–I take umbrage at this. Ms. Hale’s depiction of not-for-profit fandom as a bunch of happy-go-lucky lemmings is not the reality of fandom for me, nor is it the reality for many other people in fandom either.

Over the course of the just-over-three years of the SWG’s existence, I have had to make many decisions based on criteria well beyond “a general goal of not making waves.” People have left the SWG because of decisions that I’ve had to make. People don’t like or agree with everything that I do. People don’t like me because of decisions to do with the SWG. I’ve had to reprimand friends and defend people whose behavior or ideals I usually do not approve of. I’ve even lost friends over SWG-related incidents. Do I say all of this to elicit pity and pats on the back or praise for my efforts? Not at all. I say all of this because, in light of it, I find the idea of not-for-profit fandom as all roses and sunshine downright laughable, with the implication that by swimming against the popular currents, for-profit fandom has earned a right to make money on what they do. The rest of us in our happy fannish Utopia, of course, are too busy singing harmony on the “Tra-la-la-lalley” song from The Hobbit to understand that.

And, as I said, I know that I am not alone in my experiences. Quite the opposite. The SWG is not what one would call a controversial entity; that I have had such intensely negative experiences as part of my founding and governing it speaks less about my struggles than it does about what other group/site owners experience who have found themselves more often amid controversy. For example, as part of the MEFA and ALEC writing competitions, both Marta and Alassante open the workings of these events to public scrutiny and critique. I’m sure that they don’t do this for “pure enjoyment.” Nor do I suppose that either enjoys having her hard work belittled by fans who are vocal against fandom awards altogether. And both admins, I know, have at times made decisions that go against what a friend, an influential person, or even the majority of the group were asking for because it was the decision that needed to be made. How is this compatible with not offending friends? With “avoid[ing] controversy at all costs”?

I’m sure that in the heyday of controversy over HASA’s review system, the owner, admins, and most visible authors on that site didn’t always enjoy a comfortable fandom experience. When I first became involved with fandom, I heard HASA trounced by more people than had neutral or positive things to say about the site. And, no, at the end of the day, those who spent their time and energy building a fannish home for those who wanted it didn’t get to curl up around a healthy profit or dismiss their choices as “business decisions.” Despite the headache and heartache, fandom was still “only a hobby.”

I could keep going with examples from nearly every group where I know the admin(s) relatively well. Many of the people reading this blog are or have been leaders in fandom in some way. And I have no doubt that most of them know exactly what I am talking about.

In the end, Ms. Hale is correct: She cannot hope to run her site based on the contradictory and fickle impulses of “fandom.” But pretending like she is alone in that reality as a for-profit site–with the implication that making such a sacrifice entitles her to her spoils–is deeply unfair to fans who have faced similar controversy and pressure and censure in the process of creating fannish spaces and fanworks for the love of it and who don’t even register such terms as “bottom line” and “product” and “profit” as part of what they do.

Furthermore, I have to wonder exactly how secure Ms. Hale is in making decisions based on business models (versus being motivated by a push for comfortable popularity, like the rest of us) when she makes posts like this in the first place.

“The ten percent unfavorable are not part of our potential audience,” she writes about FanHistory.com’s latest decision to add LJ users to the site using a bot. Then at whom is the extensive defense she writes aimed? Surely, that hypothetical 90% don’t need to be persuaded to accept her business goals before participating; in fact, I don’t see how it is advantageous to make them think too hard about fandom-for-profit at all. If I am competing in a beauty pageant and a judge says, “Dawn, you have a lovely face!” my first response will not be to point out what has been identified again and again as my biggest flaw by saying, “Did you notice the purple wart beside my nose? People tend not to like that, but I think that purple warts can be pretty too, don’t you?”

Or, to put it slightly differently, consider another business that I do not frequent: WalMart. I do not shop at WalMart because I do not support many of their policies and am uncomfortable giving my money to the company as a result. Now, WalMart surely recognizes the presence of conscientious objectors like me and counts us as a loss unlikely to be recovered, just as Ms. Hale does her obstinate naysayers: Unless WalMart changes some of its core business practices–those which allow it to profit in the first place–then they will not have my patronage; unless Ms. Hale abandons her business model, then she will not have the support of many in fandom. Neither is an option, given their goals.

But WalMart does not try to woo me. They do not argue against my points. They do not try to convince me. They ignore me entirely. It’s best to pretend I don’t exist. By engaging me in a debate about their labor practices, fair pay for women, and the importance of small businesses remaining viable in a community, then they will invite people who otherwise would not have questioned these things to pause and say, “Hey, wait a minute …” This may well lose them more current customers than it will earn them new customers.

I think that fandom provides some interesting case studies to this point. Fanfiction.net is a for-profit site. Their blinking, garish ads generate grumbles, but few protest the idea of Fanfiction.net using banner ads to make a profit on the site and, therefore, the fanworks hosted on the site. Even I have stories hosted there. I don’t think of it as “a for-profit site” but as “a site with lots of readers, some of whom are thoughtful reviewers.”

Then consider the now-defunct FanLib.com. FanLib.com did not hide their hopes of making money on their enterprise. They were more forthright about it than Fanfiction.net, but–I think–more importantly, they took issue with any fan or group that challenged their “right” to make money off of fanworks. I know plenty of people who signed up for FanLib accounts when the site first debuted. They weren’t naive to FanLib’s purposes, but these were secondary to the possibility of finding a broader audience for their work or discovering a vibrant new fan community. It wasn’t until FanLib admins starting picking fights with fans and invading forums that questioned their policies that many of the people who were willing to give the site a try–for-profit or not–decided that they wanted no part of it.

For me–and, I suspect, for a lot of other people as well–FanLib’s primary association was not as an archive or a community but as the strongest symbol of the fandom-for-profit movement. Supporting the site came to mean supporting the philosophy on which it was built. And, because I was and am opposed to fandom for profit, then I had trouble seeing past that to enjoy what else the site had to offer.

I’m afraid that FanHistory.com has become similarly tainted for me. I got involved with the site because I agree strongly with its professed aim as a project “dedicated to documenting the history of fandom” and, like any good fandom member, I recognize that if I want to see a goal reached then I must do my part in achieving it. When I think of FanHistory.com now, I no longer think of that. I think of the debate about whether making money off of fanworks is acceptable, and by Ms. Hale’s continual defense of her right to do so, I think of my choice to participate on FanHistory.com as an assertion that I agree with her. She likes business models, so my choice to discontinue participating on her site because of her “product”–not because of any personal grievances that I have with her (because my sole communication with her was pleasant enough)–shouldn’t upset her, right? Nor should my decision to give my time and efforts to what I see as a superior “product”: FanLore.org. That was simple.

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2 Responses to “Fandom as a Business?”

  1. marta says:

    I found all of this really interesting. You’re absolutely right about the MEFAs, btw… I’ve not lost friends but there are definitely people who, if I talk about the MEFAs they end up gritting their teeth. It *is* a strain. But the MEFAs are serious business, as much as I like for them to also be fun.

    One of my biggest gripes about fanfic has been the idea that it didn’t have to be as good or polished as original fiction (even ofic not intending to be published.) I’m not saying all writing needs to be great because we all have different abilities and differing time for editing; but there seems to be this thought with a lot of people that *because* fanfic can’t be published that we don’t have to take the craft as seriously.

    That’s a side-note, but I share it to say: I hear you on this one.

  2. Dawn says:

    Thanks, Marta. The more I think about this, the more I come to the realization that Laura Hale’s attitude in itself isn’t what bothers me so much as the general attitude in our culture that Laura Hale’s post seems to fit so well. What we “do for love” is never as important as what we “do for money.” If it’s done for love, then it’s understood that we can push it to the side when we don’t feel like doing it, have more liberty in taking it less seriously, can simply walk away when it gets too hard or inconvenient to continue.

    I loathe this idea. I don’t get paid to run the SWG, no … but I take my responsibilities in that group as seriously (or more seriously!) than I do my paid job. My paid job is just that: a way to make money so that I can do what I love. I don’t want to be a law enforcement research analyst for the rest of my life, and I don’t feel that what I do makes that much of a positive difference in the world. I do what I must because I must, but I pour much more of myself into what matters to me, and for those things I do not get paid.

    I believe in the goals of the SWG, in providing a place for people to celebrate and share their creativity and learn and talk about not only literature but how it reflects on “real life” as well. These things all matter to me; I don’t see myself as having the luxury to wave my obligations to the group aside or take them less seriously just because I don’t make money on my group. And, yes, that sometimes means making the same hard decisions as a businessperson has to make in order to keep the group going and reaching its goals.

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