Fandom’s two cultures (and third wheel)

An expansion and refinement of On Communities.

John Ohno

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Fandom can be broken down into two subgroups: one based on costly signalling (generally, the production of creative transformative works, but sometimes legally risky maneuvers like tape-trading or technical ones like translation) and one based on consumption (sometimes, but not always, involving participating in a critical discourse, of varying degrees of rigor).

These two groups are biased in very different directions because of the way the gatekeeping mechanisms manifest: one joins and participates in the costly signalling segment of fandom by defeating legal, technical, and cultural mechanisms of centralized media control manifesting in the form of market segmentation, artificial scarcity, and the fixation of elements into ‘canon’ based around authorial intent, and while this produces a widespread anti-IP sentiment, were these blockages fully removed, there would be no way for this group to meaningfully demonstrate their affiliation; the consumption-based segment, on the other hand, can only show its affiliation through legitimate and ‘approved’ channels, and is limited to officially-available media and tie-in merchandise, but benefits directly from network effects. While the consumption segment is broader in some ways (no skill or daring is required, nor any connections) it is narrower in others (one’s cultural capital here is tied entirely to one’s bank account, and wealth is not a good proxy for anything other than perhaps power, so not only is there no need to form a complex web of meaningful relationships within a fandom of this type, doing so is a negative since it limits the ‘fan’s ability to cut all ties with one fandom and gain social capital in another through buying and selling).

Completely opening up licenses — flooding the market with new shows, licensing every anime in every region for simulcasting — paradoxically gives in to the apparent demands of the first group and demolishes them: if your cultural capital came from fansubbing TV rips, you are no longer useful to your cohort when Crunchyroll streams the new episode within a half an hour of broadcast (even if the official sub has none of the translation notes or…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net