Monday, July 15, 2024

Monetizing Fannish Feels, Part One

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There’s a tendency among femslash fans to talk about fandom, and femslash in particular, as if it’s finally “arrived,” where before it was disparaged or ignored. Femslash in particular wasn’t really acknowledged by other segments of fandom or creators until the last couple of years, and hearing “our ships” name-dropped feels like a win.

We’ve consistently shown we’re a force to be reckoned with in polls and Twitter trends. When we mobilize, it feels like we can do anything. We think of it as a position of power, acceptance, acknowledgement; and to be fair, it’s a heck of a lot nicer than the way a lot of “fandom olds” would have been treated if they were ever as open about their fan-dom as we are now. You don’t have to dig too far to find stories about certain creators harassing fans of their works. Nowadays, though, you’re more likely to get doxxed by another fan.

This is a position of power for femslash as a whole, right? Or at least, more than we had before.

Most changes for the better can be traced back to the realization by media corporations and networks that fandom can be monetized, and is not a threat to their intellectual property or bottom line. Because of this, and because of outreach by platforms like Tumblr to these corporations, where a large concentration of current fandom and fan content lives, these corporations (not individual creators—the networks themselves) have tried to find ways to monetize fandom. Most if not all of these strategies have solicited fans’ attention—their clicks, their time, their emotional investment.

What are some of the strategies they’ve used to try to monetize online fandom? From a high level:

  1. Contests (e.g., polls) meant to create a sense of competition
  2. Cultivating a sense of relationship with different parts of fandom in order to “drive emotional engagement”. This happens in one of two ways:
  • By making certain aspects of the show more “accessible” on social media platforms (e.g., actors, writers, and creators associated with a given show) to try to draw fans in. 
  • By going into fandom spaces to interact with fans directly. Many creators have done a decent job interacting with fans of their work, affirming their existence to some degree or other—but we’ve seen how this can go wrong when people associated with networks and shows enter fan spaces with the intent to keep fans engaged no matter what.

This level of interaction is different than it was before around, say, 2010. And while that’s not necessarily for the worse—I’m okay with being less likely to get sued—it does present slightly different problems than the ones we faced when we were openly treated as a bunch of delusional teenagers, isolated social failures, creative hacks, or outright intellectual pirates.

In the end, intellectual property owners, media corporations, networks, platform owners like Tumblr—entities like these going into fandom spaces and trying to figure out how to extract value (money) from fandom is the same phenomenon no matter what—drives both affirming fans’ rights to create fanworks and suing fans for creating those same fanworks. The owners of these properties are still trying to make money. The difference is the strategy. While it may seem stable (especially to fans who weren’t around for earlier lawsuits), all it would take for a reversal of fortune for fandom is networks deciding that, in fact, their current strategies aren’t giving them what they want.

And, finally, all of these interactions have, in a relatively short amount of time, changed fandom culture in ways that can’t be ascribed to simply “the advent of social media.” To a degree, it’s inevitable; you don’t interact with something without changing it. But the recognition of fandom’s existence and giving lip service to fans’ ability to interpret a work in varying ways has enabled the corporations that own those properties to exert a powerful draw on fans of their properties back towards themselves. They’ve realized that there’s money to be made in fandom, and they want to be the ones who get that money.

The problem for fandom is that what’s profitable for these corporations—from encouraging competition for attention to less-than-honest interactions with fans—is not necessarily also good for fandom. In fact, in some cases, it’s downright toxic, for fans themselves and for anyone who interacts directly with fans.

Some of these issues are far from unique to fandom: There have been far more serious articles on the way that social media platforms’ recommendation algorithms have pushed untrue, extreme, or disturbing content, and if you use a platform like Tumblr, this may not be news to you. But it seems relevant to reiterate this in the context of fandom. Algorithms on many social media platforms make contentious, sensational content “rise to the top” regardless of its truthfulness, critical or creative value, or its actual relevance to the communities it’s shown to. 

Online creators (some of whom also have the opportunity to make money through these platforms based on ads) also tailor their content towards what they perceive “the algorithm wants,” giving them the chance to make more money, which seems like it could—and has—caused things to escalate to greater extremes.

Even without the opportunity to make money, though, fan creators always (to some degree) tailor their creations and their formats to what their impression of the community’s “temperature” is, consciously or not, which is also informed by what they’re shown or recommended on their dash.

In the context of fandom, this might mean that you’ll stumble across content from segments of the fandom that you don’t want to see, sometimes pretty frequently—especially on Tumblr. This might give you the impression that what you’re looking at is a popularly held opinion, or considered standard and acceptable behavior for that ship fandom. Or, Tumblr’s recommendation engine could repeatedly show you something that is upsetting to you. This, in turn, could give the appearance of fragility or precariousness when there otherwise wouldn’t be, and the kind of defensive furor this incites generates a lot of clicks—and is deeply toxic and exhausting over time. These emotions also bleed over into interactions on other platforms, like Twitter.

Again, this isn’t an issue limited to fandom. But, given that Tumblr specifically has marketed itself and its position as a hub for fandom to media corporations, and has offered its insight into how to “drive emotional engagement,” it seems worth returning to. There are suggestions from time to time that recommendation engines are “broken,” but if the ongoing discussions around platforms like YouTube and Facebook are indicative of larger trends, the engine itself may be working exactly as it’s meant to—to generate an emotional reaction, investment, clicks, response posts, and otherwise time spent on the site.

In other words, fanwank, “The Discourse,” and toxicity are the gift that keeps on giving—unless you’re a fan, or someone who interacts with fans. 

Within fandom itself, especially femslash, there are other effects. The sense of precariousness described above? Is great for generating urgency around polls. It also leads to a defensive, embattled mentality that makes creativity and exploration of ideas difficult—if not impossible—to maintain. Especially in fandoms that have a strong presence of fans who are also members of marginalized groups, like femslash communities.

The perceived potential for recognition from creators, or the sense that maybe, just maybe, they could sway a storyline a particular way, combined with the very real challenges faced by certain groups of fans, leads to a scramble to “prettify” their fandom so that creators will be more likely to do storylines that fans want them to. The idea that they could have an impact on a storyline (no matter how unlikely that is) is used to galvanize people for things like Twitter trends, polls, and so on—treating them almost like a kind of political action. 

This is, again, framed as a net positive for fandom; there’s a sentiment of, “they want our dollar” (or our attention, as the case may be), and if we choose to withhold it, that’s bad for them.

But in the process of undertaking these actions, fans often forget that polls aren’t, in fact, political actions. They’re not even necessarily meant to accurately capture fan opinions or demographics. They’re a marketing strategy, meant to stir up excitement in advance of an event. In those instances, the only numbers that really matter are the total number of clicks and the success of the event, not who wins.

Finally, this focus on influencing creators replaces the creative and transformative focus of fandom—one that was carefully not shared with creators, for many reasons—with a paradigm that centers platforms and media corporations, redirecting all of our attention and energy towards them.

Which ultimately serves their interests, and not the health of fandom communities or the marginalized groups that participate in them.

Image Courtesy of Oath, Inc.

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