Transformational vs. affirmational fandom.
from the archives of obsession_inc and Skud, 2009.
I have long contended that fandom is the overarching organizational structure of American life, e.g., we’re not leftists or rightists; we’re members of the leftist or rightist fandom. It’s not just consumerism—it’s also how we interact with the “source material” of day-to-day life.
More specifically: we live in a culture of transformational fandom.
All the world’s a fandom and all our “UGC” is fanac.
The below pieces of writing are some of the earliest commentaries on this distinction. First is obsession_inc’s June 1, 2009 Dreamwidth post, which is the genesis of the terms “transformational” vs. “affirmational.” The second post is from a year later, authored by Skud, fleshing out the concepts further.
Affirmational vs. Transformational fandom
Okay, here goes: this is my first attempt at a) posting on Dreamwidth, b) cross-posting to LJ, and c) posting on this issue at all.
oliviacirce has a really excellent post about RaceFail '09 and what this says to her about the fissures between sections of fandom. Awesome post all around, and a lively discussion is breaking out in the comments on how to even begin to define the different sectors (to my eternal delight, the first commenter proposed "Scary Ponies Oh No" and "Pretty Princess Monsters Blargh" as the two main sectors).
I'd like to propose my own definitions: affirmational fandom vs. transformational fandom.
I'd like to propose my own definitions: affirmational fandom vs. transformational fandom.
Before doing so (and at the risk of becoming too twee to stand myself), let me just say that I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.
These are just the majority of trends, as I've seen them. [Apply giant grain of salt.]
In "affirmational" fandom, the source material is re-stated, the author's purpose is divined to the community's satisfaction, rules are established on how the characters are and how the universe works, and cosplay &, etc. occurs. It all tends to coalesce toward a center concept; it's all about nailing down the details.
This is the very most awesome type of fandom for the source creator to hang out with, because the creator holds the magic trump card of Because I'm The Only One Who Really Knows, That's Why, and that is accepted as a legitimate thing.
Additionally, in this world where the internet's democratization of publishing is making the world a scary place for creators, this is a very non-threatening place for those creators: they're in charge, they're always the last word on their own works, and the terrifying idea of fanworks taking their works away from them and futzing with them is not one that comes up a lot. As a result, these are the fans that the creator will hang out with, and vice versa. These are the sanctioned fans.
It's also worth noting that these fans congregate online largely on creator sites, or what cofax7 refers to as One Voice Speaking From Authority sites, where the big names post, the fans comment. These are the fans that trend more strongly toward attending cons. Due to being the sanctioned fanbase, pseudonyms are not seen as necessary. And, I would argue, the majority of fans that trend strongly toward affirmational fannish activities are male.
"Transformational" fandom, on the other hand, is all about laying hands upon the source and twisting it to the fans' own purposes, whether that is to fix a disappointing issue (a distinct lack of sex-having between two characters, of course, is a favorite issue to fix) in the source material, or using the source material to illustrate a point, or just to have a whale of a good time. It tends to spin outward into nutty chaos at the least provocation.
While there are majority opinions vs. minority opinions, it's largely a democracy of taste; everyone has their own shot at declaring what the source material means, and at radically re-interpreting it.
While there are majority opinions vs. minority opinions, it's largely a democracy of taste; everyone has their own shot at declaring what the source material means, and at radically re-interpreting it. Due to the internet's democratization of publishing, and the resulting legal threats from the creators, transformational fans are not well-known to the creators, and vice versa; right along with the disagreement over how copyright works, there's a central disagreement there about Who Is In Charge that's very difficult to ignore.
(Note: this is with the exception of creators like Naomi Novik and Gail Simone, who are much more comfortable than normal with the more "disrespectful" discourse; of course, both of those examples came up from fandom, themselves, and Novik in particular knows from transformational fandom.)
These are, most definitely, the non-sanctioned fans.
These fans congregate largely on sites like LiveJournal (and now DreamWidth), the more social, overlapping, messy, democratic blogging sites where a discussion can roam easily from one person's journal to another's, and there's rarely that (again, tm cofax7) One Voice Speaking From Authority thing happening. There's a lower impulse to congregate at cons (except for ViVidCon and WisCon), although lord knows there are random gatherings aplenty. Due to being unsanctioned "wild west" fans, pseudonyms are the norm and understood as such. And, based on everything I've seen, the majority of fans that trend strongly toward transformational fannish activities are female.
Random unsupported conclusion time!
I keep seeing the same thing happening this year: over and over again, in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.
The subjects are different (although RaceFail'09 "wins" in that respect for being the biggest, the most vociferous, and regarding the most serious, real-life-impacting subject matter), but the pattern is incredibly similar: the creators have a run-in with fans from the transformational side of fandom; the creators do not feel properly respected; the creators attempt to, well, beat the recalcitrant fans into submission. Whether it's Will Shetterly outing coffeeandink's private identity, or Peter David getting scans_daily TOSed, there's a similar feel to it: punish the fans for stepping out of place, for not respecting the creator's Magic Trump Card, for treating the creator like just any other schlub on the internet.
I read The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead by James A. Dewar a few months ago and Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig last month.
I've paid a lot of attention to how the internet has impacted popular music, and how it is rapidly making the traditional record company middle-men obsolete. I've read up on how freaky things are getting in the print news industry, as the internet's ability to democratize publishing makes the "I own the only printing press, so the business model for newspapers works LIKE SO" model obsolete.
Most recently, I've spent some quality time looking into how things are starting to rapidly shift, already, as Amazon pushes for the Kindle to become the iPod of books. (This will undoubtedly get even crazier and even faster if-- or when-- Apple brings its rumored tablet computer onto the market.)
I've come to a conclusion.
It may not be hitting movie- and TV-creators yet, but the democratizing forces of the internet are starting to freak out authors (and editors, and publishers) of books and comic books. We are rocketing toward a point where you might need a regular publisher to put a book in print, but it'll be ridiculously easy for anyone to be published for eBook readers like Kindle.
(Note: Kindle is reportedly putting out a giant version, which as far as I can tell would be utterly perfect for comic books. If they don't move on this, DC and Marvel are even more insane than I already thought they were.)
I get the feeling that the battles between creators and transformational fans are starting to ramp up as a prelude to a larger battle: the moment when, on the internet, creators are in direct competition with their fic-writing fans. This is a giant ass-pull on my part, of course, so take with an equivalently sized grain of salt. That said, I'm going on the record as thinking that things in the next two years are going to get really nutty with authors.
“ the moment when, on the internet, creators are in direct competition with their fic-writing fans.”
Yes, I took your huge grain of salt, but it’s worth noting this is a common failure of fandom discourse.
A few hundred fans can ruin a creator’s day. A few dozen can ruin a fanfic author. One persistent jerk with a grudge can make life miserable for creators. I get it, they loon large. However, It takes hundreds of thousands of viewers/readers/merch-buyers to make the real money that attracts and compensates talent.
For every Harry Potter, where controversy endlessly roils close in the fandom and to the creatives (pro reviewers included), there is an Avatar where all the people who made it are left the hell alone to count their millions. Fic writers exist in their own ecosystem, that ecosystem is too scary and angry for normies, and in normie world, which pays for all this stuff, there is no large demand for a lower-quality version of the real thing but with more unusual sex partner combos (but not featuring the original actors). They will be busy eating each other alive, generally out of view, for a long time to come.
I have to give a side-eye to someone who saw Racefail '09 happen and decided "yup, the pseudonymous trolls hurling accusations of racism at innocent people and setting up enemies lists and show trials were the good guys." They were not.
There's an interesting theory here, particularly to the extent that it maps fandom disputes onto stereotypically male or female modes of thought and conflict resolution (and how that gets muddled once you start bringing unstable persons with confused gender identities into the mix) but a more clear-sighted understanding of the morality of the situation would have been appreciated. Especially back in 2009 when it would have been a bit easier to stop all this before it happened.