By Pam Cook
The last decade has witnessed dramatic changes in the media culture landscape that have transformed the ways in which knowledge and ideas are accessed, consumed, reproduced and circulated. Like many academics, I increasingly find traditional methods of research and learning, not to mention established pedagogic hierarchies, inadequate to the task of engaging with the upsurge of interactivity generated by new technologies. Debates about these cultural shifts have been going on for some time, as scholars grapple with the transformation of power relations between producers and consumers. Some are positive, seeing the current conjuncture as an opportunity to rethink critical intervention and approaches, while others are more suspicious of the consumerist ideologies and structures in which new technologies are embedded. 1 These positions may appear polarised, but they share a concern with reformulating the role of cultural practitioners in a rapidly changing media environment.
One of the most significant changes has been the breaking down of what Peter Walsh has called ‘the expert paradigm’ — the system that maintains the authority of privileged groups that exist to impart specialist information to the rest of the world. 2 With the proliferation of online databases, official and unofficial, that redefine and expose the inside/outside culture of knowledge hegemonies, the boundary separating experts from the layperson has become blurred. Academia is deeply implicated in this process: the role of academics as arbiters of suitable research resources and methods has come under pressure from community-sourced information websites. Wikipedia is a case in point: the online encyclopedia gathers its content from unidentified ‘Wikipedia contributors’ whose credentials cannot be verified in the usual manner, and who monitor one another via strict editorial protocols. To use Wikipedia properly, readers are encouraged to become editors, to be aware of the etiquette and join the debates about the veracity, value and objectivity of different contributions. It may not always work that way, but in principle this participatory model differs from one in which consumers absorb and regurgitate bodies of accepted knowledge. It contributes to the climate of popular discussion and dissent fostered by social media and destabilises the authority of traditional centres of influence. In theory academia is dedicated to values of rigorous intellectual enquiry, critical engagement and information sharing, but it does not always work that way either. Although some would claim that Wikipedia erodes academic standards, it is arguable that it has the potential to expose the commodification of education and challenge academic elitism. It also helps to further understanding of, and redefine, intellectual property rights via Creative Commons. 3
The formation of inclusive, non-hierarchical virtual communities is one of the ways in which digital technologies are perceived to enable more democratic forms of cultural interaction. Fans have occupied a central place in discussions of evolving networks of communication that exchange opinions, information and artefacts between like-minded individuals, often without respecting the conventions that govern more legitimate enterprises. No longer perceived as passive and exploited, fans are re-imagined as active audiences, as ‘poachers’ who plunder popular culture and are capable of resisting official discourses and power structures. 4 The distinction between fan and cultural activist has broken down as academics increasingly acknowledge and seek to understand their own affective investment in popular media. 5 At the same time, fandom has become more mainstream as fan discourse redistributes officially sanctioned media output to wider, more diverse audiences. Writing about fan websites dedicated to stars, Paul McDonald identifies reverence as the key to the relationship between the site authors and the objects of their affections. He argues that although such activity takes place outside institutional contexts, fan sites appear to emulate rather than oppose the commerce of stardom. 6 To position fans, as much academic scholarship has, as either conformist or counter-cultural runs the risk of neglecting the diversity of fan activity and their complex relationship to their chosen object. As well as being members of communities, fans are individuals whose fandom is informed by their backgrounds. While the content and tone of fan sites are generally celebratory, this does not preclude intelligent and informed engagement with the discourses and artefacts that are gathered and circulated. The authors of fan websites are collectors, or ‘aggregators’, who organise their findings into categories for distribution to other fans. They create resources designed to provide knowledge about a star, director or film, constructing personal memory banks. It is the role of fans as archivists, and the research value of their collections, that concerns me here. In the context of the paradigm shift towards lay knowledge, I want to explore how these unsanctioned archives can be reconciled with the official archive, if at all.
The relationship between official archives and the public has traditionally been ambivalent. Archivists are naturally protective of their physical collections and take measures to control access where necessary. Some material is irreplaceable and when replacement is possible, it can be expensive. In addition, archives are often dependent on donations of material that requires special treatment and storage facilities and takes time to process. Many are also confined to specialist subject areas and do not store publications that fall outside that area. Before digitisation, a researcher who consulted the public archive could expect to wait some time before accessing the desired resources, to visit more than one physical storage site and sometimes pay a fee. This process has its own pleasures, including contact with historical objects and a sense of endeavour, even adventure. Digitisation has transformed this experience by delivering archive collections instantly via computers and other devices to wide audiences, often without charge. At the same time, the emergence of collaborative, not-for-profit initiatives such as the Internet Archive, a digital library of Internet sites, documents and cultural artefacts donated by a variety of official and unofficial sources, has encouraged an environment of sharing and free access for educational purposes. 7 Many of those who upload items to the Internet Archive are fans.
It can be argued that the principle of free access to copyrighted material for non-profit purposes is counter-cultural, in that it bypasses the commercial imperatives of the media industries. This argument is controversial when it comes to the unauthorised distribution on the Internet of work on which creators depend for their livelihood, and procedures have been developed to address such issues, among them Creative Commons licenses, the ‘fair use’ legal defence and disclaimers that state where ownership resides or that no infringement of copyright is intended. 8 These do not prevent copyright violations, which remain a contested area, but they contribute to an ethos of responsible sharing and re-use of media for education and research. Where official archives are often constrained by copyright, selection criteria, professional protocols and commercial restrictions, personal collections published online offer free access to content that would otherwise be difficult to obtain.It is self-evident that personally authored fan sites are no match for the professional skills and expertise offered by official archives. Their collections and cataloguing methods are not regulated nor subject to review by qualified archivists, and though they may be extensive, they are rarely complete. However, official collections are also partial and, in the context of financial cutbacks, their ability to make new acquisitions, update existing ones, and manage records and access has come under pressure.
Over the last five years or so, my research methods have changed: whereas I used to make use of a limited number of core specialist institutions, increasingly I consult a variety of official and unofficial resources, many of which are online. The time I spend in physical libraries and archives has diminished, though their materials and services remain authoritative. Rather than being primary, they are part of a de-centred network of expert and lay locations in which I find the information I need. This has increased the time I devote to assessing the value and verifiability of sources through checking references, which enables me to access a broader field of relevant cross-disciplinary scholarship than was previously possible.Personal fan websites would not normally be considered a reliable research resource, partly because fans engage with popular culture and other fans rather than academic scholars, and partly because fan discourse is considered to be an object of critical study rather than as offering a body of knowledge and expertise. As noted, there is also an element of resistance to the perceived ‘reverence’ with which fans approach their subject. In my case, I find myself using fan websites more and more as repositories of images and documents pertaining to my research that are not available in official archives. While official moving image collections are indispensable sources of historical documentation and media relating to classic cinema, when it comes to the contemporary period, coverage can be patchy and selection is informed by national priorities. Fan websites also emerge from national contexts, but the widespread availability of popular images and publications in digital form allows them, language barriers permitting, to redistribute media from outside their provenance. Each website is focused on a specific topic or personality, making it a kind of ‘special collection’ of materials on that subject.
Four case studies
John Fiske and others have written extensively about the productivity of fans. Fiske makes the point that fandom can be seen as a form of cultural labour that fills the gaps left by legitimate culture. 9 I want to look in more detail at four fan websites to explore the kinds of work and expertise involved, the relationship of the authors to their subject and to other fans, the reasons they undertake the task of creating a fan site and the cultural value of their output. I have used three of the websites for research purposes myself, the fourth was recommended by a colleague. I contacted the authors, who all happen to be women, with a series of questions about their sites; in the case of the one who did not reply in time, my observations are based on my experience of using the site. 10 I chose these particular sites because they are examples of sophisticated fan production and engagement with popular media that follow certain ethical principles; they are all motivated by what McDonald calls the ‘labour of love’ (that is, they are not made for commercial profit, though they may enable the acquisition of other kinds of capital). 11
Two of the websites are devoted to Australian film-maker Baz Luhrmann (Baz the Great! [BG] and Australia – A Baz Luhrmann Film [AUS], both authored by Australian fans), and two are focused on stars (Nicole’s Magic [NM]and Tout sur Deneuve [CD], dedicated to Nicole Kidman and Catherine Deneuve respectively). The authors do not have connections to official sources, nor official recognition from their subject (the latter can be a source of disappointment). They gather their information from the Internet and other fans, and contribute a significant amount of material from their personal collections of print media, photographs and memorabilia. This can be a costly and labour-intensive activity, both in terms of acquiring originals or photocopies and time spent in scanning and publishing, or verifying sources and contacting creators where necessary. Authors of fan websites are not professional designers, and the effort and creativity involved in designing the site, in organising material and providing navigational tools is substantial. In the case of those sites hosted by a web server, the owner usually pays an annual fee for the assigned space and service, or is required to accept advertisements on the site. 12 The level of commitment is very high, and the investment in producing an authoritative resource considerable.
In the absence of official approval, the response of the fan community is essential, both as support for the enterprise and as a form of quality control. Some of the sites have forums and guest books through which other fans communicate opinions, questions, information and media. Fielding such response, and other kinds of enquiries generated by the site, represents an important part of the owner’s work. One site (BG) is more individual and depends solely on the author for editorial content. While all of them are dedicated to promoting their subject, and some of the language they use reflects that desire, they feature different kinds and levels of discourse. The welcome page usually carries a mission statement extolling the virtues of their subject, sometimes elaborated on in a separate ‘About’ page. Other pages home in on specific areas such as biography, filmography, press response, media, featured works, photo galleries, links to other resources, news, archive of entries and contact information. All carry a disclaimer stating that the site is unofficial and not for profit, and that copyright infringement is not intended and will be corrected.The disclaimers vary in their legal content, from a simple statement (BG and CD) to more detailed explications (AUS). NM, which is hosted by the Fan Sites Network, refers the visitor to a separate page that lays out the terms of its compliance with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998). 13
Although the content of these sites is not moderated by a third party, they are governed by terms and conditions that can be rigorous and, as noted, in some cases by editorial input from other fans. The site design remains within the author’s remit, but some hosts make stipulations as to quality and/or provide design facilities. Fiske observes that many fan sites emulate the high production values of commercial sites, albeit on reduced resources. 14 The design of AUS and NM approaches professional standards, but even when the design appears more basic and ‘hand-made’, construction, navigation tools and content are crafted with care in order to provide a reliable, accessible and respected information service. While these fan sites operate outside institutional borders, like many unofficial online resources they are regulated by external protocols and internal etiquette fashioned by fan communities. All the sites name their authors and offer email contact. McDonald claims that sites that mask their origins have more authority because their content appears objective rather than personally motivated. 15 However, anonymous production on the web is often viewed with suspicion because provenance cannot be verified.
Even though online identities may be fictitious, the establishment of an authorial voice for the site enhances its distinctive qualities and establishes a kind of brand for it. Crucially, it also differentiates it from official sites, which are not individually authored, though provenance is asserted through copyright. In a way, revealing their authorship enables fan site owners to reclaim the star, director or film from official institutions, which can scarcely be seen as objective themselves, by transporting their products into a personal space for commentary, analysis and elaboration. Since the aim of the project is to honour their chosen subject, adverse criticism is carefully excluded, and fan contributions to interactive forums generally, though not always, express their admiration. Exploitative content, such as risqué or invasive material, is avoided. The subjective nature of the sites is balanced by such ethical concerns, and by a commitment to honesty and respect for their subject, which distinguishes them from celebrity gossip publications.
Personal authorship may also signal a desire for connection with the site’s subject. Fan sites are passion projects that are usually unrecognised by the objects of their affections or their agencies. Although stars and film-makers acknowledge their fans en masse, fans themselves are perceived as anonymous figures rather than as individuals. An authored fan site allows the owner to identify themselves and their appreciation to the person(s) concerned in the hope of gaining their approval. Unfortunately, this is rarely forthcoming and the response to the efforts made by fan sites to promote their subject’s life and work ranges from indifference to hostility. 16 Fan site owners do not undertake their projects for such approval, but their desire for recognition from the individuals to whom they dedicate their lives influences site content. It encourages the exclusion of negative data, but it also induces owners to produce high-quality material. AUS, for example, made an editorial decision to confine what she referred to as ‘fan-girl gushing’ to the forum and to maintain a balanced perspective on the main site. CD focuses on Deneuve’s career, including only verifiable documents and images and published interviews with Deneuve herself. The actress’s private life is off-limits.
Although the respectful tone is consistent, the style and nature of site content varies according to author. All the sites aim to provide a centralised, easy-to-access, regularly updated source of news and information about their subject, but some contain more personal commentary. BG’s sidebar features pages about key Luhrmann works that present narrative descriptions written by the site owner based on other sources. Although not all material is referenced here, and some of it appears to be taken from press releases, the pages contain links to more detailed information and to reviews by the author. When press reports and photographs are posted, the sources are given. BG is clearly compiled and authored by an individual fan; it does not include a forum (though it does invite email contact) and it presents a personal view of its subject through detailed documentation and interpretation of material. It provides a wealth of current and past information at the same time as leading visitors to original online sources, or providing transcripts. Its authority lies in the dedication and attention to detail with which the owner approaches her task.
When I was researching my book about Baz Luhrmann in 2005, BG was an invaluable source of biographical information and links to Australian media coverage. UK archives are strong on domestic and US print media; the Australian Film Institute research library in Melbourne has a comprehensive collection of Australian and US press response; at the time, none of these collections was digitised. The situation was complicated by two issues: horizontal integration in the contemporary communications industries, which means that coverage is spread across different media outlets, and the fact that Luhrmann’s work crosses over between film, theatre, publishing, music, art, fashion, television, commercials and music videos. Although the official archives carry material from some non-film areas, they privilege film-related items. BG’s compendium of online and other resources is gathered from diverse locations and media, organised into accessible categories that include an extensive news archive.
AUS, to which BG’s author contributed, provides a similar treasure trove of items relating to Luhrmann’s historical epic Australia (2008). Luhrmann’s films generate a maelstrom of media attention from the early stages of pre-production to reception, and one of the research challenges I faced was the retrieval of the vast amount of public and personal material scattered across multiple sites, from YouTube and online press outlets to television, podcasts, radio and glossy lifestyle monthlies. AUS was set up in 2006 and documented in minute detail the film’s progress via world-wide, English-language media response and commentary, magazines, audio files, photographs, fan videos and production notes, through to completion and post-release events. It encouraged interaction through a forum and guest book, where a range of opinions, positive and negative, appeared. Fans contributed information, media and, when the amount of traffic threatened to close the site, financial support. AUS remains online as an archival resource, at the owner’s expense.
Despite being individually authored and maintained, AUS was partly created by the fan community. Its professional design and the editorial style and tone often caused it to be mistaken for an official website. The intention was to promote the film, but the site’s endeavours in this regard produced an archive of the promotional material generated by the film that was (and continues to be) of cultural value to researchers and others outside the fan community for which it was primarily intended. While editorial policy tended to avoid the controversy and negative critical response that surrounded Australia, the collation of diverse items in a single location delivered free access to material beyond the remit of official archives. Although fan productivity was not directly critical or counter-cultural (indeed, it echoed institutional promotional language), it created an unsanctioned discursive arena that challenged the control of official agencies over how images and texts relating to media commodities are circulated and consumed.
NM is rich in information about the star, from biographical and filmography details to song lyrics, charity work, character quotes and news archives dating back to 2003. The content is multimedia, featuring screen captures, HQ images, video and audio files and collections of wallpapers, screensavers, gifs, icons and art by fans. It also has an interactive section where fans contribute their thoughts and experiences, and a forum. A page devoted to the actress’s sartorial style traces her journey in images from Australian tomboy to glamorous superstar, while another features accolades won by NM from the fan website community. Visitors are encouraged to complete a survey and suggest ways of improving the site. NM is complex in design and entails substantial editorial management by the owner. The photo gallery alone is a collection of more than 3,000 albums containing thousands of scans from the 1980s to the present, displayed in HQ. Images are filed under provenance and catalogued according to size, date added and viewer ratings, with the name of the person contributing the scan listed.
When I was working on my book about Nicole Kidman, for which I was unable to carry out research in Australia, the photo gallery and library of magazine, online and press articles, interviews and transcripts gave me access to rare and otherwise unobtainable items collected by fans. Some of this material led me to other sources, official and unofficial, where I was able to retrieve valuable information. Scans and transcripts from magazine articles appearing on another Kidman fan site, Nicole Kidman United, were also a vital resource. The vast amount of material gathered and organised by NM is also a feature of CD, which aims to document Catherine Deneuve’s career in as much detail as possible (it has around 700 pages). Designed by the site owner, it is hosted by Free.fr, a free website hosting service available only in France, and carries minimal advertising.
The author maintains a discreet distance, including only published interviews with Deneuve and some of the directors and actors with whom she has worked. The pages devoted to her personal life rely on what the actress and those close to her have publicly said. The professional skill with which CD’s collection of documents, photographs, audio recordings and media clips is compiled and presented gives it the appearance of a complete archival record (though it is not), and it resembles an official archive site. Indeed, it has received public recognition in the press and from the Cinémathèque Française. 17 It publishes links to resources about Deneuve and other actresses, and to cinema databases such as IMDb. It is intended as a reference site for fans and it encourages interaction; it includes a guest book, fan art, screen savers and wallpapers. It reaches a broad international audience, with fifty per cent of site traffic coming from outside France.
All these sites are ‘labours of love’ on behalf of their subject and the fan community. They use the search and retrieve mechanisms of new technologies to gather and store items from official and unofficial sources, producing multimedia memory banks that exist alongside legitimate operations. They cannot guarantee the survival of all the material they publish: links can be taken down, websites disappear and media clips and images are sometimes removed. They are also vulnerable to closure by their hosts, which puts their digital collections at risk. 18 But their editorial content, scans and transcripts are cultural resources that supplement and exceed those offered by traditional, sanctioned sources. They represent the best of fan activity on the web, and they have some features in common with official archives: for example, the drive to collect and preserve historical material related to their subject and to make it freely available to others. Reverence and the desire to promote are not exclusive to personal fan sites; although it is rarely acknowledged, they are evident in academic scholarship and moving image culture generally, and influence teaching and learning methodologies as well as journalistic discourses.
At its best, academia is motivated by the sharing philosophy that inspires fans and other independent digital producers. Such convergences have already had an impact on the way scholars perceive fans; they could also play a part in reconfiguring moving image education to take on board non-hegemonic participatory models in which traditional boundaries between expert and lay knowledge are re-evaluated. This would involve a reassessment of pedagogic methods and research training to incorporate a non-defensive approach that consciously acknowledges competing, sometimes incompatible, procedures, discourses and standards of value. Tom O’Regan characterises this kind of cultural practice as pluralist rather than relativist, quoting Isaiah Berlin to the effect that no single method can produce a correct answer — rather, multiple methods exist that produce several correct answers, none of which coalesce into a coherent, systematic whole. 19 In the context of the erosion of traditional expert elites and their presumed access to the ‘truth’ referred to by Walsh, such radical pluralism appears particularly relevant. 20
With thanks to Vanessa (BG), Kate (AUS) and Isabelle (CD).
For the appendix with interviews with fan site owners click here.
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Wikipedia Contributors. “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed June 26, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act.
Wiltse, Ed. “Fans, Geeks and Nerds, and the Politics of Online Communities.” Proceedings of the Media Ecology Association Fifth Annual Convention 5 (2004), edited by Arthur W. Hunt III. Accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.media-ecology.org/publications/MEA_proceedings/v5/index.html.