A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture
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A Fannish Field of Value:
Online Fan Gift Culture

To the uninitiated outsider, media fandom as it's currently practiced online in blog spaces such as LiveJournal makes little sense: strange jargon with unclear acronyms and lots of punctuation sits next to YouTube or Imeem video embeddings. Perhaps a post announces part 18 of a long piece of fan fiction. In the comments someone has left the writer a gift: a manipulated image of her two favorite characters cleverly sized so she can upload it into the blog software interface and immediately start putting it up next to her name as an avatar to represent her. Someone else writes a short fic in response and hotlinks to it: "Come over here and look!" she invites. A third person uses the story as a pretext to write a detailed episode review to illustrate the show's shortcomings.

To engage is to click, read, comment, write, make up a song and sing it; to hotlink, to create a video, to be invited to move on, to come over here or go over there—to become part of a larger metatext, the off-putting jargon and the unspoken rules meaning that only this group of that people can negotiate the terrain. Within this circle of [End Page 113] community—and in media fandom, women overwhelmingly make up this community1—learning how to engage is part of the initiation, the us versus them, the fan versus the nonfan. The metatext thus created has something to say, sometimes critical things, about the media source, but for those of us who engage in it, it has even more to say about ourselves.

This exchange in the fan community is made up of three elements related to the gift: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.2 The tension and negotiation between the three result in fan creation of social relationships that are constructed voluntarily on the basis of a shared interest—perhaps a media source like a TV show or, perhaps, fandom itself. Fan communities as they are currently comprised, require exchanges of gifts: you do not pay to read fan fiction or watch a fan-made music vid. They are offered for free (although circulation may be restricted and you have to know where to obtain them), yet within a web of context that specifies an appropriate mode of "payment." At the heart of this anticommercial requirement of fan works is fans' fear that they will be sued by producers of content for copyright violation. The general understanding is that if no money is exchanged, the copyright owners have no reason to sue because they retain exclusive rights to make money from their property.3 The notion of the gift is thus central to fan economy as it currently stands, although, as Abigail De Kosnik argues in her essay in this issue, it may be time for the community to consider creating an alternative model that will permit women to profit.

Fans insist on a gift economy, not a commercial one, but it goes beyond self-protective attempts to fly under the radar of large corporations, their lawyers, and their cease-and-desist letters. Online media fandom is a gift culture in the symbolic realm in which fan gift exchange is performed in complex, even exclusionary symbolic ways that create a stable nexus of giving, receiving, and reciprocity that results in a community occupied with theorizing its own genderedness.

To Give, to Receive, to Reciprocate.

The gifts that fans exchange, which Rachael Sabotini describes as "the centerpiece of fandom,"4 require skill and effort to make. They may be artworks, as in vids (described in more detail in the contributions to this [End Page 114] issue by Francesca Coppa and Alexis Lothian), podcasts, fan fiction, or manipulated images. But they may also be narrative analysis, known as meta, of the primary source or of a fan artwork. They may be fan fiction archives, bulletin board forums, screen-capture galleries, fandom-specific wikis, or other aggregates of information. But the items exchanged have no value outside their fannish context. In fact, it is likely that they do not literally exist; fandom's...