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CNet Media Expert Talks to TFN

Posted By Jeff on May 18, 2005

We posted an article a few days ago from CNet that not only caught the attention of myself, but many members of the fan fiction community at TheForce.Net. I wrote a short rebuttal piece because I thought many of the conclusions of the media expert from MIT, Henry Jenkins, were wrong. I was put in contact with Mr. Jenkins and asked him about the article. Here is his response to many of the critcisms of the original article.

Several weeks ago, I remember saying to one of my students that I wondered what new material they were going to use to build up heat as the launch of the new Star Wars film approached. I had no idea that I was going to become kindling as Internet fans roasted me alive for some admittedly ill-considered remarks. Frankly, given how badly I came off in that particular interview, I might have joined the flame war myself. I appreciate the editors here giving me a chance to explain how the interview came about and to try to clarify what I meant. As for those of you who wrote to say that you disliked my beard, all I can say is that Chewbacca has always been my favorite Star Wars character. Maybe I just have a face only a Wookie could love. :-)

First, let me introduce myself. I have been a science fiction fan for three decades now. I have been writing about fandom for almost two decades and think that I have made some real contributions in helping to clarify some of the misconceptions which the mundane world has about fans. I am perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, which was one of the first few books to deal with fandom in academic terms. This book has been well-received in fandom -- I still get e-mail from readers who use quotes from the back in their signature lines. I also co-authored a somewhat less known book, Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. And I am now finishing a third book which deals in large part with fans somewhat more broadly defined, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect. (More of that later). In Star Wars fandom, I have one essay out on Star Wars fan cinema and I worked with a range of fan filmmakers to organize a screening of their work at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I also testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and the Federal Communications Commission to challenge the prevailing "moral panic" about youth consumers and media violence. I have been working behind the scenes to educate studio executives about why they should create a more open policy about fan creativity. And I have given hundreds of interviews with the media over the past decade on fan related issues. My reputation within fandom is very important to me and I care what fans think of my work. That's why I asked to have a chance to address you through this website.

That said, I shouldn't have been so stupid about this particular interview. Let me tell you what happened not to excuse my comments but at least contextualize them. It takes years to write books and get them printed and given how slow academic publishing is, most of the information on current developments is dated before the book gets onto the bookstore shelves.. I have been working on the Convergence Culture book for some time and the Star Wars chapter was the first I wrote. I knew I was going to need to update it this summer once the third film came out so it is also the last one I am revising. I told the reporter this when I called. My information right now is not up to date because I have been doing other work too and I was just about to re-engage with the community. So, I was reluctant to give an interview on this topic and said so right away when the reporter called.

I got the call on a day when I was really distracted from the end of the term craziness that effects universities and a bit frazzled, but I wanted to try to be helpful. I apparently misunderstood something fundamental about the conversation. I thought I was speaking to the reporter on background -- that is, giving him leads to follow up on a story and offering some contextual comments he could quote -- and I did not know until the end of the interview that he was planning to run it as a transcript. The interview got edited significantly before it was run and so some things got simplified, jumbled, and distorted in the process. So, when I read it, I was quite distressed, and when I started seeing the comments people were making about it, I was horrified.

Some people have asked why I inserted myself into this situation. I didn't. I came in reluctantly and feel a bit like a pawn here. Some people have referred to the interview as something I wrote. It is not. If I had written this, the result would have been very different. I had no control over what they were going to do with my words. If I had known they were going to run a transcript, I would have structured my ideas differently. So, I was stupid, but maybe less stupid than people think.

What follows is what I was trying to say and some clarifications on points that have cropped up in people's responses to the interview. I am happy to learn what people think about my ideas but it would be nice to have the discussion be about what I actually think and not what came out in that interview.

When I wrote Textual Poachers almost fifteen years ago, fandom was a very different place. The Internet was just emerging. Most fan fiction was published in zines and circulated underground within fandom with little public visibility. That book thus talks about fans as the most creative and engaged segment of the media audience. I celebrated our ability to take media content in our own hands and use it as a resource to tell our own stories. Yet, arguably, fans at that point were largely hidden from view and marginal to the overall production and circulation of media content.

Convergence Culture enters at another moment. The web has made fan culture highly visible. The media industries are reassessing their relations to their fans. Almost everyone at every level in the media system recognizes the value of participatory audiences. In the book, I talk about how the idea of fan participation has reshaped the thinking of advertisers and network executives, filmmakers and game designers, lawyers, educators, even politicians and church leaders. Everyone agrees that participation is valuable but there are still heated battles over what kinds of participation are desirable and acceptable. I spend time in the book looking at a range of media properties -- from Star Wars and Harry Potter to Survivor and American Idol -- and trying to understand how the media industry thinks about its fans and vice-versa.

The Star Wars chapter in the book opens with a celebration of fan filmmakers who I discuss in terms of the shift from an individually authored story into a larger mythology. I see Star Wars fans as doing the same kind of elaboration of the Star Wars saga that folk cultures have always done with the tales of great heroes. This is totally consistent with George Lucas's analogy between Star Wars and Joseph Campbell's notion of the Mono-Myth. Campbell's myth emerged through multiple authors over an extended period of time without a centralized author controlling what happened to the story. To me, it takes away nothing from Lucas's authorship to imagine the same process unfolding across the 21st century with his characters and I think this is precisely what fan filmmakers and fan fiction writers are doing.

In the chapter, I go on to use Lucasfilm's responses to fan creativity to illustrate some of the contradictions and uncertainties in the ways media companies are responding to their consumers. On some levels, there is no doubt that Lucas personally likes at least some form of fan creativity, especially those forms which most closely parallel his own experiences growing up as a Super-8 filmmaker. On other levels, the company -- and perhaps Lucas itself -- has wanted to exert some degree of control over what fans produced and circulated, fearing damage to his intellectual property. And the franchise has struggled with these issues from the 1970s to the present, desiring some zone of tolerance within which fans can operate while asserting some control over what happens to his story. In that history, there have been some periods when the company was highly tolerant and others when it was pretty aggressive about trying to close off all or some forms of fan fiction. At the same time, the different divisions of the same company have developed different approaches to dealing with fans -- so that the games division has thought of fans in ways consistent with how other game companies think about fans (and is probably on the more permissive end of the spectrum) while the film division has tended to think like a motion picture company and been a bit less comfortable with fan participation. I make this point not to say Lucasfilm is bad to fans -- in many ways, it seems more forward thinking and responsive to the fan community than most motion picture companies -- but to illustrate the ways the media industry is trying to find its way in response to fan creativity. (We seem to have slid into a more liberal policy in the past few years than I realized and I want to check out some of these changes more closely. At the time I wrote the chapter, Lucasfilm was trying to create a proprietary space on the web where fan writers could post their work only if they signed away their copyright over their materials to Lucasfilm. On that front, I WAS "just plain wrong" and I am grateful for fans who have shared more up to date information.)

Specifically, in the interview, I was trying to look at the rules of the Atomfilm contest to illustrate some of the ways Lucasfilm was trying to accommodate and yet contain fan creativity. The rules allow for fan parody and documentary but prohibit "fan fiction" like extensions of the dramatic storyline. The legality of fan appropriations is a murky category because there have been so little actual court cases in this area. Studios assert much broader claims on protecting their intellectual property than would be likely to be upheld if they went to court. But let's face it, if Lucas's lawyers threatened to sue you, you would most likely take down your site rather than spend your last dime contesting this in court. The law clearly has a broad protection for anyone who parodies a commercial work -- so the parody provision just acknowledges something Lucas couldn't stop if he tried. The same goes for documentary. Fan fiction is a grey area and I have talked to a number of major legal authorities who believe fan fiction would still meet the legal definition of "parody" (which refers to works that make critical commentary on the original whether or not they are funny) and would otherwise fall into fair use. More and more studio folks are telling me the same thing. But the rules of the Atomfilms contest tend to preclude some forms of fan production and what I was trying to suggest in the interview was that those rules -- in effect through probably not in intent -- have a gender bias.

Many people have written to tell me that almost every fan film they know has been directed by men -- and that was certainly my impression when I looked at the films presented in this contest and listed through some of the fan cinema archives out there. This is in of itself curious since the majority, though certainly not all, fan fiction is still written by women. We know many women are Star Wars fans and many of them use video cameras to make home movies and distribute them via the web. So why are there so few female fan filmmakers?

In fact, there is a separate and largely invisible tradition of Star Wars fan cinema which is primarily produced by women and which goes back more than a decade. Usually called "song vids," these short films are produced by women who edit together clips from the films and overlay them with music to create music videos. These often function as a form of fan fiction to draw out aspects of the emotional life of the characters or otherwise get inside their heads. They sometimes draw out underdeveloped subtexts of the original films or even offer interpretations of the story or suggest plotlines that go beyond those works. The emotional tone of these works could not be more different from the tone of many of the fan parodies of Star Wars featured in the official contests. That many fans don't know about these works suggests how thoroughly they have been pushed underground by the problems of copyright. It seems to me that the AtomFilm contests rules -- which prohibit any direct use of the source material other than authorized sound files and which prohibit "fan fiction" like extensions of the original property -- make it impossible for these works to get the visibility that they deserve. If the rules were structured differently, then I believe there would be equally visible genres of predominantly female-made fan films.

The next point I made is where I really got myself into trouble. I meant to draw an analogy to fan fiction, which historically was almost entirely written by women, but which has been opened to more male participation as it has gone online. Historically, when men wrote fan fiction, they overwhelmingly wrote parody (in the humor sense of the word). Again, this seems to have changed somewhat with the emergence of online fandom. And most of the work which took us inside the emotions of the characters was written by women -- though women have of course written a good deal of parody too. I think this historic pattern of production helps to explain why fewer women make fan parody films -- I don't think it is purely a matter of technology since the digital editing, say, in song vids is highly sophisticated at this point. Now, in the chapter, I outline a range of complex reasons why so many fan films are parodies -- beyond gender and beyond the contest restrictions, so of course this is a more complex area than the interview suggested.

I have heard a lot since the interview about a growing number of male writers doing fanfic that explores the emotional life of the characters. If this is the case, I am delighted and this is a development I want to know more about as I do the final revisions on the chapter. Yet, if this is the case, it is a relatively new development. Anyone who has been involved in fandom for more than a few years has probably observed what an amazingly and wonderfully dynamic community this is. It is one of the things I love about fandom but it is also one of the things that makes it hard to write about -- especially in print form. Fandom is a moving target. Nobody knows all parts of it. And as new people enter, they do not necessarily know the full history of what has come before.

Some people raised questions about my views on intellectual property and implied that I was applying a double standard. Two points: First, I give away the vast majority of my intellectual property for free. Anyone who goes to my site at http://web.mit.edu/21fms/www/faculty/henry3/ will see how much material I put out there. In fact, anyone who wants to read the original version of my Star Wars chapter can find it at http://web.mit.edu/21fms/www/faculty/henry3/starwars.html and anyone interested in what I did at the Walker Arts Center can find it at http://gallery9.walkerart.org/midtext.html?id=209.
Now, this is fairly painless since I want my ideas to get circulated and since I never make much money off of what I write in any case.

Second, despite what was assumed or asserted, I am not opposed to copyright altogether. I simply see the Constitutional provision on copyright as setting up a balance between protecting the rights of artists to protect what they create and the rights of the public to build upon culturally significant ideas. One side of that leads to copyright, the other to fair use. Like many legal authorities, I think that the relations between Copyright and Fair Use has become unbalanced over the 20th century and that studios often assert much broader rights to police the use of their materials than would be supported by the law. (see above). I believe that the over-extension of copyright will stifle innovation and stagnate the culture. Anyone wanting to know more of my views on copyright should check out http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/00/03/viewpoint0300.asp

In the case of Star Wars, Lucas has produced powerful characters who function as secular heros in our culture (as Lucas himself has claimed) and the public has some rights to build on those characters and their stories. I do not see fan creations and appropriations as damaging his rights at all. Fans have helped to keep the franchise alive during fallow periods -- when no or little new content was coming out -- and this has increased the value of what he has produced. Fan creations have continued to generate enthusiasm as new Lucas works have appeared. All fan production adds value and sustains interest in the Lucasfilm franchise.

As Lucas stops generating new material, it becomes all the more important for fans to have the freedom to expand on his stories in all directions. The fact that fans see the characters in a range of different ways in no way debases what he has created. Even bad stories keep the myth alive for the next generation of consumers. And indeed, this idea of fans as "loyals" whose participation enhances the value of media properties is more and more being embraced within the media industry, as is illustrated throughout Convergence Culture. Even if we argue that Lucasfilm is well in its rights to strictly enforce all violations of its copyright, they have a strong economic incentive to do just the opposite -- and I would argue they have a cultural mandate to do so as well.

Some people have written to say that there are major disputes now between the players and creators of Star War Gallaxies. I would love to know more about this. At the time I wrote the chapter, the game had just launched and there was wide spread praise for the way that Raph Koster had engaged with Star Wars fans throughout the development process. Many of the gamers I spoke with then had noted that if Lucas himself had been as open about the concepts behind the Star Wars films as Koster had been about the Star Wars games, we might all have been spared the monstrosity which is Jar Jar Binks! So, it saddens me to think that this has gone sour.


I would like to thank Mr. Jenkins for taking the time to talk with me.






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