Elizabeth Minkel On Fanfiction, Culture, And Platforms

Elizabeth Minkel is a writer, editor, and technologist with a focus on fan culture

Uri Bram: For any of our readers whose lives have tragically not yet been touched by fanfiction, can you give us a very brief introduction?

Elizabeth Minkel: Haha, sure! So at its most basic definition, fanfiction is when you take established worlds, characters, etc. and write original work with and around them.

It falls under a broader category often called "fanworks"—fanart is when folks draw established characters, fanvids involve cutting together clips from film and TV, etc.—but fanfiction is specifically about written fictional work.

How fanfiction is and isn't like other communal writing

Uri Bram: Fantastic. So as a total outsider, something that fascinates me about this is how different it is from the modern trend for single-authored works of fiction, but how instead it seems to fit into this longer history of collaborative work.

I will probably embarrass myself here with my amateurish knowledge but I'm thinking of things like 1001 Arabian Nights, and the way I imagine that oral traditions worked in Ancient Greece, with people building on each others' stories and all kinds of interesting interlocking works.

Elizabeth Minkel: Not embarrassing at all—I think this stuff is integral to thinking about fanfiction. So first off, yes, absolutely, these practices fall within that lineage. But I think we have to be careful drawing 1:1 comparisons with a lot of this stuff, because context matters.

To explain some of my thinking on this, I think my backstory as a journalist writing about fanfiction helps to frame my arguments. I've been in fandom since the late 90s, nearly all of it in the transformative side—the umbrella term we use for people oriented around fanworks. I started writing about fandom as a journalist in the early 2010s, as the subject was mainstreaming, thanks in large part to the breakout success of 50 Shades of Grey, which began as Twilight fanfiction.

In those days, most media coverage about fanfiction was pretty derogatory. It painted fanfiction as something embarrassing at best and theft at worst—even though, at least in the U.S. context, most fic practices are protected  under the fair use doctrine in our copyright laws—and even when media coverage was more permissive, it was often still fairly patronizing about the writing itself, framing it as, for example, "practice for real writing."

So when I started writing about it in mainstream outlets, I was determined to let people know fanfiction was good, actually—and the way I did that was by drawing on the extremely long history of humans retelling other peoples' stories, whether it's the ancient traditions you're referencing, or like, Shakespeare's history plays, or the long list of postmodern works that remix stories.

I asked what the difference was—I wanted people to know that if they respected that stuff, they should respect fanfiction, too.

But as the years went on and I wrote more and more about this subject, it really struck me that actually, there are differences, and those differences matter a lot. These stories we're remixing aren't in the commons, the way stories several thousand years ago would have been. They're owned by individuals or corporations, something that's fundamentally reshaped the way we think about character and story today.

And as I learned more about the history of modern fanfiction, the actual practices I had long engaged in, and the communities that form around them, I started to feel like the "it's all the same" line was devaluing the actual stuff we were doing.

So to go back to the original question, you can probably get why it sets off a bunch of, "Yes, but—" signals in my brain. One of the most interesting things about modern fanfiction is it's happening within (and, to some degree, against) these structures of copyright and ownership.

That's not to diminish the parallels between collaborative storytelling in past eras and cultures and what we do today, but the overall context in which that was happening, and today's collaboration happens, is integral to understanding this, in my opinion.

But despite all that, I should emphasize: fanfiction is certainly a communal practice! Regardless of who owns the characters we’re playing with, the actual playing—the way we share story ideas, prompt each other into writing specific things, exchange works as gifts, co-write the prose, and comment on works-in-progress in real time as the author is posting—are things that usually happen within communities of fans, and those communities are integral to the way these works are created and shared.

Uri Bram: That’s fascinating. I suppose what I’m realising, from your answer, is that I just did that thing where you get so used to one thing as The Default – in this case, single-author literature – that you lump together Everything Else, when (unsurprisingly) everything else contains a world of differences as well.

Why do you think we became so obsessed with single-author work in the first place? Will we at any point see mainstream literature written by lots of people collaboratively?

Elizabeth Minkel: I think because fanfiction looks like novels (well, the longer fics do anyway), people often put them side by side with novelists and make this "writing within an engaged community" vs "lone novelist toiling away in a garret" comparison.

In my opinion, the lone novelist in the garret is not actually that realistic, either—most writers, regardless of genre, are working within communities, share their work with other writers, speak to other works directly within their writing, etc.

Obviously that's not the same as, "I publish the next chapter of my WIP and my friend, who is also publishing a novel about these characters from the X-Men, leaves me a comment and then I go rework the next chapter"—fic is inherently shaped by  that immediacy and communal participation, and the fact that the ratio of writers to readers is far higher than in the publishing world.

I think when we talk about novelists, we tend to play up the solo element—it's our romantic vision of what a "writer" is. But huge portions of art that gets written in the world is in fact written communally. TV writers' rooms, all the notes that lead to those 9,000 film script rewrites, comics writers and games writers and all the folks that write tie-in novels within these franchises, who are often doing a similar thing to when a friend prompts me to write X story, but with more rigid boundaries (and with payment from the rights holder).

Even when most fans know TV is written by a roomful of people, they still tend to lean towards individuals when they think of writing. I have a lot of thoughts about how fans—and audiences in general—have a really hard time processing the fact that people are writing in groups, iteratively. Even with massive franchise films made by thousands of people, they latch onto individual figures, even when 100 people may have had a hand in the script.

I will say that the difference between all that stuff and fanfiction is, as it often is, the money question. Those folks are all collaborating for their jobs; fanfiction is mostly about collaborating for fun. And obviously it's a bit apples and oranges and bananas, talking about fic communities and TV writers’ rooms and people writing a game.

But often in the fic world people talk about one day becoming a novelist, and it always strikes me as funny that they don't think about all these other paths where folks are doing work that's much more similar: making established characters feel fresh and new, or picking up the ball at the end of a season and figuring out where things will go next.

How platforms and technologies have shaped fanfiction

Uri Bram: Absolutely. Since you mentioned TV, and since you’re a technologist as well as a writer, and since I’m generally bad at smooth segues: could you tell us a little about the platforms and technologies that have shaped the world of fanfiction?

Elizabeth Minkel: Absolutely—I love talking about platforms. So before the web, when fic was shared, it was often through zine publishing, physical mailing lists, etc. But the real growth of the practice, as you can imagine, came with the web.

In the early days, fic was published on fan-run archives and distributed through lists and forums. As the web grew and increasingly commercialized, people also started to host works on more general-use platforms. When I came online, I was reading fic on fan-hosted archives, but within a year or two, a huge portion of what I encountered was on Yahoo! Groups.

The 90s and early 2000s were also a time when rights holders—the people who legally own these characters and worlds—were seeing far more fan activity than they’d ever seen before. They got nervous, and unsurprisingly, they got litigious: cease and desist letters were sent, fan sites were shut down. Generally, it was the technology companies hosting these works that would pull the plug: when rights holders cracked down on, say, Yahoo-hosted mailing lists, fans’ spaces would get deleted with no warning, driving people en masse to new platforms.

Despite the crackdowns and migrations, as more and more people came online, fans created more spaces—some purpose-built, some refashioned from platforms meant for other uses—and those platforms changed the way fans wrote and shared their work. In the early-to-mid 2000s, many fans lived their whole fan lives on LiveJournal, publishing novel-length stories alongside diary entries and community conversations. In the past decade, we've seen a split between the publishing side and the community side, with work being hosted in archives (the most well-known is arguably the fan-run, nonprofit Archive of Our Own) while other fannish activity—fans talking to each other—lives on social media platforms.

Fic obviously had a rich analog history, but the vast majority of the millions of folks engaged with this work right now have only known it on the web. And I think that's why, as an art form, it feels so much looser than published fiction. Since it's written and distributed for free, there's strong community encouragement to put whatever you can on the page without worrying about any of the rules that bind other kinds of writing. Since there are no physical publishing constraints (or commercial expectations), a work can be 100 words long, or 20,000, or 500,000. There will likley be an audience for all of them.

That same lack of constraints affects the work structurally as well. Obviously there are trends and forms that people are drawn to—it would be surprising if such heavily networked texts didn’t share those kinds of elements—but generally, they don’t look much like mainstream published fiction. Millions of fics have no real plot to speak of—something that would not fly in the majority of genres of published work—but fulfill other purposes, like a meditative character study, or a snapshot of a moment. Fans love writing scenes from the original work from other perspectives, or filling in the gaps between scenes.

Uri Bram: Something I'm always really interested in is the way that specific design choices of platforms shape the content that gets produced on them. I'm wondering if you could speak a little to that – how do the tech and design choices of the fanfiction platforms affect the way fanfiction is written and engaged with?

Elizabeth Minkel: Oh boy can I speak to that! So I should preface it by saying I'm talking mostly about the Anglophone fic world here, and have been throughout this conversation—there are parallel histories in other parts of the world (particularly East Asia) and I am certainly not the person to discuss them with any expertise.

So obviously the history of traditional publishing is also one where technology/material/distribution shaped what kind of art was created, but I think it's more acute with fanfiction. That’s partly about the nonmonetized element, and it’s partly about the rapid technological and platform shifts that have underpinned the growth of the practice and these bodies of work. .

It's really interesting to me, as a technologist in addition to a writer, to look at the kind of stuff I was reading and writing, as a teen and into adulthood, and how much it was shaped by the platforms folks were publishing on—not just what people wrote, but the way people read and shared that work.

When I came into online fandom in the late 90s, fic writers were publishing on very late-90s websites, and obviously there was a huge barrier to entry for a lot of folks (I was lucky enough to have a decent internet connection, after all).

In the very early days I remember a lot of fragmented archives for really niche parts of the fandom I was in; a few years later, I joined the Harry Potter fandom, which was massive and still growing, and that was a bit more centralized but still regimented: one of the most popular sites had what were essentially verticals, one for romance, one for humor, etc. and you'd submit into those verticals. This kind of big-bucket categorization seems absolutely wild to me now, but I didn't think anything of it at the time.

The largest fanfiction archive, FanFiction.net was launching around that time, and the architecture of the site absolutely determined how people thought about their work. But maybe more importantly, what they started disallowing also determined the kinds of things people wrote; after pressure from rights holders, they banned certain types of content incrementally. That certainly shaped the kinds of work that was written, and also who continued to publish and read on the site versus who decamped for more permissive spaces.

The LiveJournal era is really interesting to me from a platform perspective—that was when peoples' entire fan selves were collapsed under a single platform. As a result, we saw a ton of collaborative work on LJ—prompting culture, where people suggested what they'd like to see and someone (or maybe multiple someones) would write their take in the comments. Whole stories built in comments, one person adding where another left off.

And all that was great and produced interesting, fun work, but LiveJournal wasn't designed or optimized for this kind of use, so there were some things that suffered. One was searchability—the platform made that extremely difficult, which led to a lot of another fandom practice, reccing, where people create curated lists of works. So it was pretty labor-intensive, and those were additional barriers to entry: if you didn't know where to look, it was hard to find stuff.

The AO3 was built in response to a lot of this stuff, and it’s notable because the platform itself was created by fans—rather than something built for another purpose being used by fans, who try to make it work as best they can).

The AO3 made design and UX choices that absolutely have shaped what's been written in the past decade. There's a robust tagging system—folksonomic, so user-created but then tidied up by an army of volunteer "tag wranglers"—which makes searching so easy that my teen fic-reading self would have been astounded.

But that's also contributed to a huge rise in writing around tropes—and don't get me wrong, I love tropes, but sometimes I feel it flattens the horizons of writing when people are thinking about what tag category a story will fall into.

What social media can (and can't) learn from fan fiction

Uri Bram: Phenomenal. So, as I mentioned at the start of this interview, many of us have tragically had no interaction whatsoever with the world of fanfiction, but a lot of us spend unconscionable amounts of time on Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms. And it strikes me from your comments that, for example, FanFiction.net predates the big blue sites. So I’m wondering if you think there are interesting lessons from the fanfiction world for the broader web?

Elizabeth Minkel: OK so this is where I cheat a little and rec one of my favorite things on this topic: Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski's talk Fan is A Tool-Using Animal. I think that anyone involved in UX, web design, etc. should give it a read. Tl;dr, he talks about the bookmarking platform del.icio.us, which, for a period of time, was very popular with fans for cataloguing their favorite fanworks. And then del.icio.us changed their tagging functionality in a way that totally destroyed fanfiction fans' ability to use the site.

Fans were mad, and they had to leave del.icio.us, because they simply couldn’t use it for their purposes anymore. Cegłowski saw an opportunity here—not just to gently encourage these displaced fans to start cataloguing at Pinboard, but to potentially understand their specific user needs. He asked fans what those needs were, and in response, they created a massive collaborative doc where they talked through precisely what they would want to see and how it should be implemented.

I love this talk, and if you haven’t read it, again, I strongly recommend it. But one thing that always strikes me rereading it—and about seeing fans in action over the decades on this stuff—is the internal motivation to find tools that suit their needs. We have extremely specific things we want to do, motivated by, like, loving a TV show or whatever, and wanting to create things because of that love.

Obviously there are some broad-strokes “listen to users” themes here. But that fan motivation is one of the reasons I think that sometimes, fans are interesting to study but actually not that great at offering lessons for the broader web.

Someone coming to your social media platform or opening your app likely doesn't have a very specific list of feature requests to solve very specific problems. You can see it in the amount of labor fans do for free—I've written hundreds of thousands of words of fanfiction about the X-Men, right? Just because I like thinking about Magneto. But I feel like the stuff that we do in these spaces often doesn't translate out when we don't have that driving force beneath it.

I think overall, though, the modern web privileges scale above all other things, and that just doesn't work when it comes to fans. Tech folks want—need, actually, from a business perspective—to build platforms that will capture as many users as possible. That leads to a lot of lowest-common-denominator stuff—it's why fans, with unique interests and needs, often find themselves on these big sites just trying to make something work for them.

Part of me wants to say: I wish the web was less centralized, had more space for the long tail, didn't privilege getting as many users into one space as possible without a lot of regard for what happens when they're in there. But that also feels like an insurmountable ask, with the way things are trending, and I, like a lot of other fans, am left trying to use these imperfect tools on massive corporate sites because there's nothing else we can do in the meantime.

Uri Bram: Amazing. Well, I’m sure everyone reading this will want to read more of your work, fanfictional or otherwise: could you please tell us where to find you online?

Elizabeth Minkel:  Yes! I’m the co-host of a biweekly podcast, Fansplaining, where my co-host, Flourish Klink, and I dig into a lot of different fan behaviors, alongside interviews with fan studies academics and folks from the entertainment, media, and technology industries.

I also co-curate a weekly newsletter called “The Rec Center” with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, where we feature our favorite writing about fandom alongside fanfiction recs from us and our readers.

And for more of my writing, you can find a full list of my work at my website. As for my fanfiction, well, you’ll have to figure out my pseud. :-))

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