I live in worlds outside of this

Last Friday was my birthday (hooray, another year older!) and as I move more into the world of journalism with the aim of hopefully doing a postgraduate course in it next academic year, I asked for a couple of books on the subject. One of those was We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People by Dan Gillmor. First printed in 2004, with the paperback edition that I now own printed in 2006, it’s a little out of date for the fast-moving world of information technology, but is still held in extremely high regard, and I think it’ll be a worthwhile read. It was also written with a rather different audience to myself in mind: one for whom the idea of receiving real-time journalistic updates from inside a press conference or significant world event would be a revelation; who would find the idea that ordinary people might have a voice and views of importance equal to that of designated newsmakers to be controversial; and to whom the Internet must seem like a chaotic, volatile upstart muscling in on the orderly, established world of media.

I grew up on the Internet, and its language and ways are second nature to me. The journalism I’m most familiar with is not heavily-regulated and polished ‘Big Media’ but ever-fluctuating, ever-evolving online journalism, which is not a lecture but a conversation, and one in which the people play a part as important as that of the newsmakers. Online, news breaks first via the people, and newsmakers have to listen to them to find out what’s going on, instead of the other way around.

In a way, I’m reading the book as much to find out about the previous generation’s view on online journalism and to see how it changed things for them as I am to find out about online journalism itself. A few pages in to the introduction, however, I noticed a striking parallel to another area of writing in which I have a passionate interest.

Tomorrow’s news reporting and producing will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just for the few who can afford to buy multimillion-dollar printing presses, launch satellites, or win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airways.”

–Dan Gillmor, ‘We the Media’, p. xxiv

That last phrase – “the few who can afford to … win the government’s permission to squat on the public’s airways” put me in mind of fanworks, and how the only works that people tend to accept as ‘legitimate’ and eligible to make a profit are those that have the backing of massive corporations or big-name publishers. From Hollywood rom-coms based on Jane Austen or Shakespeare to the BBC’s modern-day AU of Sherlock Holmes, the only difference between these and other fanworks is the amount of clout the creators have.

That’s when realisation suddenly struck me: the suspicion that the publishing industry and other popular media outlets have towards fanworks is just like the suspicion that Big Media corporations have – or used to have, at any rate – towards citizen journalism. When you think about it, fanworks and citizen journalism have several things in common. Both turn the tables on the established processes of news or art creation, turning those who were traditionally thought of as consumers into creators. Both have been aided substantially by the global reach and universal accessibility of the Internet, which provides citizen journalists and citizen artists with a platform for self-expression that can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people, levelling the playing field for the first time between them and the big, established institutions. In fact, with just a few substitutions, we can make Dan Gillmor’s quote up there apply to fanworks instead:

The lines will blur between creator and audience, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone’s voice, not just for the few who can afford to shell out thousands in copyright licensing fees, produce big-budget film adaptations, or win an author’s permission to use their characters in something new and transformative.”

Obviously the situations of citizen journalism and fanworks are not completely comparable. In its struggle for mainstream acceptance and legitimacy, fanworks grapples with issues of ownership and profit, whereas citizen journalism is more about channels of information and distribution. The thorny issue of intellectual property has fanworks in a stranglehold, as people debate questions of fair use and remix culture. If citizen journalism had an equivalent obstacle, it would probably be the reliability of sources or lack of quality checking which cast doubt onto its viability as a source of information. Fanworks suffers from the latter problem as well. But facts are easy enough to verify; determining who has ownership over a creative idea, if anyone, is much more difficult. Copyright law, which in the past was designed to reward and encourage creativity, is now enabling big corporations to monopolise concepts and thus severely limit creativity. For more on the shortcomings of modern-day copyright law, I recommend CGP Grey’s excellent video ‘Copyright: Forever Less One Day’.

So does the existence of copyright law mean that fanworks will never reach the same heights of popularity and acceptance as citizen journalism? Not necessarily. All indications point towards a rapidly growing mainstream acknowledgement and acceptance of fanworks, as publishers increasingly and openly talent-scout new authors amongst fanfiction writers. The existence of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds publishing platform, for all that it provides a terrible deal for authors, is also a sign of changing times, and even provided an unexpected opportunity for fired Vampire Diaries author L.J. Smith to continue writing in the world she created, albeit as a “fan” of her own work.

Once again, the lines between consumer and creator are blurring, just as they are in journalism. Traditional models of publishing and syndication are being overturned as self-publishing becomes common and viable for artists who have built up a following online, and crowdfunding is providing all sorts of opportunities for fans to realise their projects and even get paid for them. Just two days ago, a web series adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes fanfiction completed its campaign on Kickstarter with a total of 601 backers, exceeding its original funding goal by $7,386. With numbers like those, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t an audience out there that wants to see fanworks succeed alongside more mainstream works, and is willing to pay good money to ensure that success.

And just as with citizen journalism, there are now books being published which examine the phenomenon of fanworks and how it is challenging our established assumptions about what is and isn’t legitimate art. Sheenagh Pugh’s The Democratic Genre, Anne Jamison’s fic, Aaron Schwabach’s Fan Fiction and Copyright, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s collection of essays on Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: all of these are books published within the last nine years which examine the way in which this citizen artistry is impacting how we consume and respond to popular media, and where it might take us in the future.

It’s possible that in a few years’ time the “revelations” of books like these (and articles like this one) will seem outdated and be taken absolutely for granted in a world overwhelmingly driven by independent, “citizen” media. Until then, my money is on both fanworks and citizen journalism defining the futures of art and reporting as we know them.


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