- Making Use Of:The Gift, Commerce, and Fans
When I reengaged with fandom after a hiatus between 1988 and 2000, I found the landscape had changed. Face-to-face fandom, with its mentors, in-person get-togethers, and hilarious gatherings at cons, had given way to pseudonyms and Yahoo! groups. Blog-based platforms were on the rise—if you could get an invitation to LiveJournal, that is, and could put up with the limits on the numbers of posts you could make daily. Now, in 2014, I note the chasm between that faraway initial experience and what I see now. The ground has shifted yet again: Yahoo! groups and LiveJournal are still there, of course, but they feel silent and old now, disused and perhaps a bit out of touch. They have fallen under the onslaught of the mighty Tumblr.
The fannish Internet currently buzzes with things gathered, things written just now, things in parts, things cut and recut and rearranged and thrown up and given a hashtag—a bow to pretty it up, a fillip of decoration. Yet it is old wine in new bottles. The impetus that drives fannish activity remains independent of the platform of expression: fan activity remains a search for community, a way to unabashedly love something, a desire to engage critically but also viscerally, and a mode of personal expression unlike any other, as it permits engagement through manipulation of mass culture. The Internet’s two biggest gifts to fandom are, first, its flattening of geography, and second (and related), its usefulness in building community. Fans will find one another. It used to be hard, as my fourteen-year-old self found in Doctor Who (BBC, 1963–1989, 1996, 2005– ) fandom in the early 1980s. Now it’s not. That is a gift indeed.
The gift remains embedded in the narrative that I am creating of fans as they shift their attention to new modes of expression via new platforms. If I told a story of fans, it would be the story of making use of. Usenet? Yahoo! groups? LiveJournal communities? Tumblr hashtags? [End Page 125] All are ways to repurpose a platform to build community and thus to create fandom. Embedded within this (mostly female) community are complex patterns of authority, reciprocity, and exchange that can usefully be described as an expression of a gift culture. Marcel Mauss’s short ethnographic work The Gift provides us with the insight that gifts are not really freely given; rather, they rely on a complex interplay of reciprocity among stakeholders, in terms of the larger group rather than the individual.1 Rachael Sabotini was the first to apply Mauss’s notions of gift culture to fan culture in terms of building status within a fan community.2 As I noted in my 2009 contribution to the “In Focus” on fandom and feminism, “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.”3 I stand by this assertion despite scholarship that has questioned the gift versus the commercial—a useful stance in that “the labor framework provides a powerful way to value what fans are doing, in contrast to the dismissals that have long attended fandom.”4 The attempt to permit fans to shift the traditional gift culture aside in favor of a commercial model is a way to legitimize fan activity by placing it into the dominant paradigm.
If what a fan does is so valuable, why should she not profit from it? Certainly I would never argue that she should not profit. Instead, I would argue that ways to profit tend to not be legitimized by the fannish group, which remains a gift culture.5 This gift culture is a remnant of the fanzine era, when a desire to fly under the radar of copyright owners led to “no infringement intended, no profit made” statements in head-notes of fan creations and set the tenor of engagement with producers: “We’re just playing, no harm meant...