Web Exclusive Essay

Interrogating “Free” Fan Labor

Abigail De Kosnik
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Over the past two decades, large swaths of the U.S. population have been engaged in copyright wars. On one side, copyright holders struggle to defend their property against what they perceive to be unlawful appropriation by millions of would-be consumers via digital technologies. On the other, millions of Internet users fear or fight expensive lawsuits, filed by entities far wealthier and more powerful than they, that seek to punish them for sharing media online. In this combative climate, fans who produce their own versions of mass-media texts—fan films and videos, fan fiction, fan art and icons, music remixes and mash-ups, and game mods, for example—take comfort and refuge in one rule of thumb: as long as they do not sell their works, they will be safe from legal persecution. Conventional wisdom holds that companies and individuals that own the copyrights to mass-media texts will not sue fan producers, as long as the fans do not make money from their works (for instance, Scalzi 2007 and Taylor 2007).

“Free” fan labor (fan works distributed for no payment) means “free” fan labor (fans may revise, rework, remake, and otherwise remix mass-culture texts without dreading legal action or other interference from copyright holders). Many, perhaps even most, fans who engage in this type of production look upon this deal very favorably. After all, movie studios, game makers, and record labels do not have to turn a blind eye to fan works; U.S. law is (as of this writing) undecided on the matter of whether appropriative art constitutes fair use or copyright infringement, so companies could sue or otherwise harass fan appropriators if they chose. But, even if both sides of the copyright wars consider the issue of fan labor settled, one aspect of the issue has not been sufficiently explored: can, or should, fan labor be paid labor?

The Internet economy depends on free labor, as numerous cultural theorists and business writers have noted. Tiziana Terranova writes,

Simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the activity of building Web sites, modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs. Far from being an “unreal,” empty space, the Internet is animated by cultural and technical labor through and through, a continuous production of value. (2003)

To Terranova’s examples of free labor that animates and produces value for the Internet, we can add various forms of audiovisual and textual production, such as opinions, commentary, reviews, discussions, videos, songs, images, and all genres of fan production, that people publish every day on the web. The foundational premise of the concept of “Web 2.0” is a dramatic rise in “user-generated content.” Terranova argues that “the Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor intensive. It is not enough to produce a good Web site, you need to update it continuously to maintain interest in it and fight off obsolescence.” And currently, the majority of the Internet’s updaters—those who create new content for websites, continually renewing interest in them and keeping them “fresh,” thus sustaining or even increasing their value over time—are unpaid.

Mark Andrejevic offers a specific example of a website whose popularity derives from the material supplied by both wage-earning and volunteer contributors in Television Without Pity (TWoP):

Television Without Pity fans focus their attention on the lengthy recaps written by paid freelancers and on the ongoing discussions of fellow fans/critics in the forums. The show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor—some paid, some free—of recappers and forum contributors. About one third of the respondents [to Andrejevic’s survey] indicated that they watched more TV because of TWoP and a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps. (2005)

The number of unpaid fans/critics who post their commentary on TWoP forums is far greater than the number of paid recappers, and Andrejevic proposes that the phenomenon of hundreds or thousands of fans donating their time and creativity to make TWoP entertaining (for others as well as for themselves) follows the overall logic of digital-era marketing, which is customization:

Work that used to be the province of producers is being redefined as that of the active consumer. [. . .] The promoters of mass customization encourage us to take on the “duties” of consumer interaction in order, presumably, to help them craft a product that addresses our specific needs and concerns, and for which, not incidentally, we might be willing to pay more, essentially buying back the added value we contributed. Similarly, many TWoPers suggest that the effort that they put into the shows they watch increases their own viewing pleasure. (2005)

Here, Andrejevic is not suggesting that TWoP’s contributors literally pay to view the website that their commentary enhances. People who post snarky and ironic commentary on TWoP voluntarily build a better television-viewing experience for themselves and other viewers who share their savvy sensibilities, thus reinforcing and deepening their participation in television’s commercial enterprise—becoming better consumers (of whatever television advertisers promote to them) in the process of becoming skilled producers.

And Andrejevic claims there is yet another way in which active consumption, or production by consumers, benefits the larger market economy: consumers who “freely” (with no constraints and for no pay) express their opinions, their likes and dislikes, about various mass products on various websites, provide marketers and manufacturers with key information on their customer base. “The information provided by viewers doesn’t just add value to the product, it also doubles as audience research,” Andrejevic writes (2005).

Fan productions exemplify the unpaid value creation that Terranova and Andrejevic argue is endemic to the digital economy. Fan productions help to sustain awareness of, and interest in, mass-media texts over time by continually supplying fresh commentary, videos, news, stories, and art, thereby fighting off the texts’ obsolescence. Fans’ ongoing discussions and expansions of the “universe” of a particular media production serve to advertise the production in these interim, or hiatus, periods. If fans of the original 1960s Star Trek had not continuously, publicly performed their investment in the Trek universe during the 1970s—by organizing Trek conventions, publishing Trek fan zines, making and trading Trek uniforms and memorabilia, and so on—it seems doubtful that Paramount would have thought to revive Trek at the end of that decade. Trek fan productions were crucial to maintaining interest in a media text that was, for all intents and purposes, dead since the television series’s cancellation in 1969, and when the marketplace favored reinvestment in sci-fi franchises (following the blockbuster box-office performance of 1977’s Star Wars), the fact that Trek was so alive and well-known to so many, surely informed Paramount’s decision to restart the universe with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 (a franchise which Paramount has expanded nearly continuously, with new Star Trek television shows and feature films, from 1979 to the present).

Fan productions also succeed at customizing mass media. As Andrejevic points out, personalization is one of the key promises of postindustrial capitalism, since—theoretically—the niche marketing, narrowcasting, and two-way communication facilitated by the web all promise to give consumers exactly what each of them wants. Fan fiction singles out aspects of texts made for millions and elaborates on them in ways that only a certain segment of consumers will appreciate. For instance, many fan fiction stories concentrate on dramatic moments from filmic and television texts that fans feel got too little screen time (especially romantic moments) or expand on the story of a particular character who fans feel has been unjustly marginalized in the source text. This type of customization and personalization makes mass-media productions more engaging to them and others in their taste culture or demographic and increases those fans’ commitment to the mass-media texts that were initially found at least somewhat lacking, frustrating, or unsatisfactory (and therefore ripe for fans’ tailoring or supplementing). Fans therefore become more enmeshed in the logic of the marketplace the more they customize mass-media texts, for in dedicating their own effort and energy to mass media, they increase the likelihood that they will stay invested in and involved with certain TV programs, certain film franchises, or certain bands, over a longer period of time than they might have had they not invested their labor.

Fan productions make mass-media work for consumers who have been taught to desire and expect individualized products. Because of TWoP, some people watch what they consider to be bad television programs that they would not have viewed if no snarky commentary accompanied them. Because of fan fiction, some people watch crime dramas for the fleeting romantic scenes, knowing that those scenes will be extensively elaborated on by fan authors. The customization work that fans perform on media productions also serves to educate the culture industries about consumer preferences, thereby serving as a free source of potentially valuable audience research for media companies, as Andrejevic argues is the case with TWoP.

All of these functions create value for media producers, distributors, and marketers. And let us not forget that fans are also consumers and that some of the value they create for media corporations is in the form of their own spending on media products. Yet, to return to the beginning of this essay, fans are happy to labor for free.

Both Terranova and Andrejevic insist that not all freely circulated cultural production constitutes exploitation. Certainly, many fans attest to the benefits of participating in communities in which money does not factor. Fans take pleasure in writing reviews or creating art, in sharing their work and receiving feedback, in exchanging their works in a gift economy, and/or in aiming for success in a reputation economy. Andrejevic discusses numerous fans who, in their responses to his survey, regarded their contributions to TWoP as “active participation, self-improvement and actualization, even creativity. Thus respondents repeatedly reiterated their assertion that TWoP allowed them to develop and hone their critical skills—the very skills that were ostensibly threatened and eroded by the ‘plug-in drug’” (2005). Many fans feel that their productivity is no chore and therefore not equivalent to “labor.” Discussions of wages, of payment, and of employment are unnecessary, according to this line of thought.

However, it is important to bear in mind that fandom is already monetized. The Internet is not free space. Sites and bandwidth must be purchased, and even not-for-profit fan websites tend to ask participants for donations to assist with the costs of traffic. Many services that host fan works, such as LiveJournal, FanFiction.net, and YouTube, are for-profit enterprises whose revenues are driven by fan activity; fans must produce for these sites, and must consume what other fans have produced, in order for these sites to be successful businesses. Almost all fans pay for the privilege of participating in fan communities, at the least by purchasing access to the initial object of fandom and usually in many more ways (purchasing products related to the object of interest, paying for a LiveJournal subscription that allows special features, buying software to assist with fan production). And, occasionally, the culture industries pay fans for their work, as when video game companies buy game mods or when Hollywood studios hire fan film directors or special effects designers for industry jobs. Money already permeates fan productions.

What is disturbing about the “free” model of fan labor, in which fans “get” to increase the worth of mass-media products without receiving pay, in exchange for the relief they feel at the prospect of never being sued for creating value, is that it settles for too little, too soon, in the ongoing negotiations between the culture industries, capitalist markets, and individual consumers/laborers. While conceptualizing of fan labor as necessarily or essentially “free,” in both its potential exchange value and its potential positioning vis-à-vis disciplinary forces, might satisfy lingering desires to think of subcultures as separate from commodity capitalism, as authentic, as resistant to dominant culture’s norms, such a conceptualization does not mesh with the overwhelming evidence that the categories of consumption, production, creation, appropriation, use, and value are currently highly unstable. Terranova claims,

The digital economy is an important area of experimentation with value and free cultural/affective labor. It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, and so on. These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is, they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect. (2003)

As experimentations with value and free cultural/affective labor continue, fans and media producers, distributors, and marketers alike must begin to foreground the question of whether “free” is best for either side. Can, or should, fan labor be paid labor? If creative fans and innovative industry leaders push themselves to think beyond the terms of the copyright clashes of the recent past, they will likely get to the point of asking, “How can, or should, fan labor be paid?”

Cultural production in the postmodern, postindustrial, digital era has given rise to a preponderance of versions of every text, of franchises and “reboots” and origin stories and alternative universes, of paratexts in the form of commentaries, opinions, introductions, summaries, ratings, critiques, and supplementary information. Mass media will want to satisfy the hunger for multiplicity and variation and, in the tradition of capitalism, to continually create new needs as well. It will require the labor of consumers, of users, of fans, to both articulate and fulfill one another’s many-faceted yearnings for culture and to deploy the changing tools of production to outline new methods for making, using, buying, and selling art and entertainment. The copyright wars will soon transmute into a different form of engagement between the groups formerly known as copyright holders and fans, but exactly what form is difficult to say at this juncture. Either pioneers on both sides will forge new agreements regarding licensing and fair use and will draft guidelines for compensation for the distributed work now required to build and sustain the cultural industries, or a new war will begin. That will be the war instigated by fans-consumers-users who realize that they are the primary producers of value in the cultural sector of the digital economy.

References

Andrejevic, Mark. 2005. “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Free Fan Labor.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association in New York, NY, May 30. Available at http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/1/3/8/4/pages13840/p13840-1.php.

Scalzi, John. 2007. “My Policy on Fanfic and Other Adaptations of My Work.” Whatever (blog), May 25. http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/005139.html.

Taylor, Crystal. 2007. “no studio, no network, no problem: Star Trek Fans and Hollywood Work Together.” Fireside Chats from Hollywood (blog), TV Guide Community, Aug. 18. Partially republished at http://gollysunshine.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/after-40-years-original-star-trek-gets-red-carpet-premiere-it-deserves/.

Terranova, Tiziana. 2003. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Electronic Book Review, June 20. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/voluntary.

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