Fandom as Democracy

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be dated but the general advice is very good. It is used with permission. — Cygnet


 

Subtitled: This Is Why Many People Prefer Monarchy

There are some things you need to know, young fanthing, and the very first one is this: there is no secret cabal of Big Name Fans conspiring to harsh your squee and take away your cookies. No, not the people who hang out on that members-only LJ community. Nope, not Fandom Wank, either. The folks who go to the chatroom every third Tuesday? Also no. No one in fandom is sitting out trying to figure out ways to make you personally (and all those not in The Group) have a bad day. So the next time you start feeling specifically ignored and put upon, remind yourself that, no, it’s not personal.

You see, fandom is a democracy. The Internet as a whole? Also a democracy. Oh, I know the exceptions. Whoever controls the portals has ultimate control over the discussion, and you need to have a minimum amount of free time and disposable income to opt in, which in turns sets up economic class boundaries from the get-go. However, I submit that those realities of online interaction (and the are realities, even when many of us have the choice of not having to see them) are a matter of outside circumstances governing access to the inner playground.

In here, it’s different.

In here, we all have a voice.

Think about that for a minute. Every single person reading this essay has a voice and an opinion of her/his own, and thanks to the nature of the ‘Net, the availability of free blogging software, and your presence here, every single one of you has the same opportunity to share that voice. If I want to use my voice to talk about exactly how much Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher are bonking off-camera, that’s my choice, that’s my voice, that’s my contribution. If I want to use my voice to berate the jerks over on the rightwing blogosphere for posting the home address of mentally challenged kids in retribution for the kids’ having said they need health insurance, that’s my choice, too. If I want to talk about drabbles, or what Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet means to me, or the social activities of my kid’s goldfish, or what color the lint is in my bellybutton today (pink!), then I’ve used my voice for that.

You get one voice. When you use it, or even when you choose not to use it and instead sit back and read, you’re casting your vote. You click on pages, and you say these pages are good and worthy of being read. You bypass other sites and vote with your virtual feet: not worthy of your time and energy. You send emails, or you don’t. You comment on entries, or you don’t. Every post, reply, comment, story, website, art piece, fanvid, everything you do is a vote. For. Against. Worthy. Not.

And you get voted on. No one’s going to vote you off the island; even if you are TOS’d from any and all free sites, there will always someone out there willing to take your money and give you a soapbox. (Then we’re back to the outside influencing the inside, but I’m hardly one to claim it won’t.) The worth of your voice and your words and your creations will be voted on, in hit counts and comment feeds and emails you receive and recs and lists. It happens. It is happening now. People are choosing (or not) to give you cookies.

At its best, fandom and the Internet at large are meritocracies. If you write it / draw it / vid it / meta it / whatever well, they will come. You will be voted upon as favorable, people will point to you as a reputable source for good things, everyone is happy. Thus are BNFs intended to be born: the cream of the crop, the Names that are Known because they are the Best. That’s the ideal. And we all know about ideals. So yes. Sometimes the best-known fanfic writer in your fandom isn’t actually very good. Sometimes the vidder everyone fawns over is a little too enamored of fancy transitions. And so on. Sometimes the story you slaved over for months gets ignored for a dashed-off drabble. Sometimes the meta you carefully analyzed for structure and consistency – the essay that looked into the deeper meanings of the musical arrangements chosen for each character and referenced Pablo Neruda – is ignored over someone’s misquoted Simpsons joke.

It happens.

This is, sadly, another part of living in a quasi-meritocracy: sometimes the cookies go to people you don’t want them to, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles.The real and true and very secret history of the cookies is that they are given to the people who show up. Democracy as it is practiced on the Internet falls along a very basic line. The rules and decisions are made by the people who turn out to do the work.
This part is hard. See, on the one hand, we’re all already working. You spent fifteen hours on that vid. You spent two months writing that ‘fic. As for commenting, you make sure to leave detailed feedback on every story you read, or at least, every story you manage to read through to the end. Why do you not have more cookies? Well, actually, you will. The more you create and post and comment and get your name out there, the more people will recognize you and know who you are. The more people who know who you are, the more people will come to see what you’ve done and give you votes. The cookies will come.

And what about those other people getting all those cookies? Why did they get to make the rules and why is everyone voting for them, even when, hey, you’re just as good? What’s up with that?

The answer generally turns out to be “a lot of extra effort.” Can you name the people who run the ficathons in your fandom? Can you name the people who run the big multifandom ficathons that you participate in? Do you know who organized the convention and who worked the con staff? Who maintains the archive? Who writes the fandom newsletter? Who moderates the communities and the lists? Who owns the website where the forums are? Who does the work to make your fandom experience more enjoyable?

Overlaps pretty strongly with the BNF list, doesn’t it?

BNFs exist because people vote for them and give them cookies. If they had no people to give them cookies and attention, they would not, by definition, be Big Name Fans. They’d be everyone else. And in many ways, they are. BNFs get exactly the same number of votes to use as everyone else, and the same number of cookies to hand out. And the people what hang out with the BNFs also get their very own allotment of cookies and votes to hand out, and no, they don’t always go where the BNF directs. People have their own brains and their own opinions, and one person’s “mindless sheep, following passively along where she/he is led” is more likely “someone who rather likes things this way, thanks.”

Democracies are weird, man, and while it’s easy to characterize the folks who don’t agree with you as having been led astray, they’re probably just be-bopping along to their own beat. If that beat happens to coincide with the dance their friends are doing, that just makes the choreography easier.

And it all can seem very unfair. Nobody wants to join you in squeeing about how much Captain Picard is bonking Captain Kirk off-camera. The ficathon you wanted to join doesn’t have a category for the stories you want to read. The brilliant vid you made mixing the theme song from DragonTales to clips from “Pete’s Dragon” is just gathering dust from lack of downloads and comments. No one is replying to that post you made about the goldfish. You have been outvoted on what’s cool.

So what are your options? Well, there are three. You can claim you’re being ignored. You can ignore everyone else and go do what makes you happy regardless of what other people think. (Dr. Merlin rather likes this option.) Or you can do something about it.

You can campaign. Don’t like what the current crop of ficathons are writing about? Start your own and promote it in the appropriate places. Want more people in your ‘ship? Write stories and meta and make manips and show how hot those two are together; someone will eventually agree with you. Want an archive not underwritten by corporate interests? Start your own! (Next week’s column will address the formation of corporate and fan-run archives, so stay tuned.) Think the Wikipedia article written about your favorite fandom or website was typed in by chimps? Edit the page (and bring your sources).

Show up. Speak up. Let your voice be heard. Even if no one else joins you. Even if everyone does and you’re looking around suddenly, blinking in the bright lights, and asking why they’re calling you “Madame President.”

I’ll bring the cookie dough.

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