Case Study: the Organizational Framework of Fanfiction in the Destiel Fandom

In reference to Lewis Hyde’s anthropological study The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1989), fan studies scholars refer to fan communities (“fandoms”) as being part of a “gift economy”, which subsists on the creation of works being shared or “gifted” to another entity (Scott 2009; Jones 2016). Here, the currency is cultural—fan labour creates a cultural object perceived to have value and gifts it to a receiving party, who then validates the work through interacting with the it (liking, commenting, sharing, etc.) (Jones 2016). Fans gift a myriad of cultural production to one another: gifs, fanart, fan videos, photo edits, icons, meta[1], memes, and last but certainly not least: fanfiction.

 

Otherwise known as “fanfic” or “fic”, fanfiction has been viewed as “lazy”, “entitled”, and “disgusting” by authors such as Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and George R.R. Martin over the past decade (Gabaldon 2010; Bochenski 2013). Furthermore, fanfic writers and readers have often been portrayed as sex-crazed, obsessive, and chaotic (Grady 2016). These stereotypes do not reflect the sophisticated way online fic readers and writers have organized their own literary communities; the structural and organizational framework to support the creation, dissemination, and celebration of fanfic is a complex system composed of: platforms, archives, genre/markers, tastemakers, as well as social and educational support networks. This paper will study the organizational framework of Destiel (“DeanCas”) fanfiction in the Supernatural (SPN) fandom[2].

The Organizational Framework of Fanfiction within Fan Communities

Fig. 1 “The Framework of Fanfiction within Fan Communities”

 

Rather than a hierarchical structure, fanfic’s framework within fan communities is more aptly described as a mind map or Venn diagram divided into three main areas: archiving, social support and sharing, and education, with overlapping sections holding the bulk of the organizational structure (see Figure 1). This is seen most obviously with digital platforms. Digital platforms allow fans to gather and share information and cultural capital, providing an infrastructure for the fannish gift economy. Currently, Supernatural fanfiction is published almost exclusively on: Archive of Our Own (AO3)[3], Tumblr, Fanfiction.net (FF.net), and Wattpad[4]. FF.net and Wattpad function as archiving and social support networks[5], as both platforms allow users to search fic archived in each website’s database through the use of rudimentary tagging systems[6]. Commenting is additionally enabled on both platforms, providing an essential infrastructure for the fannish gift economy—commenting creates a “feedback loop” that encourages writers to continue creating (maevecurrywrites 2015). Furthermore, in my own experience, commenting has led to the formation of friendships, which have in turn aided in my own navigation of fanfiction’s complicated organizational framework. This includes where to find fic, who writes what, and the proper etiquette when commenting on a work, as is displayed in the image below (Fig. 2):

 

How to Comment on Fanfiction

Fig. 2 (thebloggerbloggerfun)

 

AO3 serves as an archive, social network, and educational tool. In addition to having a complex tagging system (a user can search by romantic pairing and include or exclude tags), the platform allows users to create and post single works as well as searchable collections and series (Archive of Our Own). Collections are used to group works of fanfic, usually depending on a theme or subject—the best example of this is The Destiel Fan Survey Favs Collection, a list of 826 Destiel fics put together by AO3 user unforth (known as unforth-ninawaters on Tumblr). This list comprises the results of 582 fan surveys in June 2018 and February 2017, and to have a fic listed is considered prestigious despite the fact that the survey is “all in good fun” [7] (unforth-ninawaters 2018).

 

Archive of Our Own’s ability to add tags beyond fandom and romantic pairing has aided in the establishment of fanfic-specific subgenres that then spread across fandoms. The Alpha/Beta/Omega subgenre (A/B/O)[8], which began as a request on a Supernatural LiveJournal thread has since become established on AO3 within its own tag, allowing for easier searchability and classification (“Alpha/Beta/Omega” 2018). Furthermore, AO3 user norabombay published a “primer” on this subgenre in 2015. This publication has since received 6,579 kudos (“likes”), been bookmarked 2,194 times, has had 304,430 hits, and was in fact essential to my own understanding of the subgenre, making AO3 a place of learning as well as an archive and social network (norabombay 2015).

 

Fanlore is another educational fandom tool. Part of the Organization of Transformative Works, it is “a wiki about fanworks and fan communities” whose content includes: “fandoms, fan activities, communities, fanworks and tropes, genres, glossaries, people, perspectives, and chronology” (“Main Page” 2018). These categories indicate that Fanlore can be used as a resource to increase understanding and learning of fan history as well as the current structural and organizational framework of fandom and fanfiction. FANDOM Wiki and Supernatural Wiki, similar wiki platforms, are also used to the same end—both websites crowdsource and aggregate community knowledge in order to educate their audience, whether it be to supply episode transcripts to fans (“4.01 Lazarus Rising (transcript)” 2013), or impart information regarding fanzines and fic challenges: submission deadlines, FAQs, schedule, etc. (“Profound: A Destiel Fanzine” 2018; DCBB Wiki 2018). These pages provide invaluable information to fans looking to read, write, and learn about fanfiction or fanfic-related projects, and can be shared quickly and easily through linked content on other platforms.

 

Besides AO3, Tumblr is the most important platform to the Supernatural fandom[9]. Made up of creators, consumers, and creator/consumers, Tumblr exists as a “microblogging and social networking website” (“Tumblr” 2018). The platform allows for the easy posting of video, music, gifs, images and text, making it a perfect home for fan communities, and the ease with which fans can tag and share content with other users supports and maintains the fannish gift economy. Within the creator/consumer binary, specific kinds of blogs make up the larger Destiel fanfic community. For example, recommendation (rec) blogs’ sole purpose is to personally recommend fic their followers. Influencers or “celebrities” are well-known within the community and are viewed as tastemakers; if an unknown author’s work is shared or reblogged by one of them, their exposure increases dramatically. They are usually known for some kind of content creation. For example: whelvenwings, thebloggerbloggerfun, riseofthefallenone, destieldrabblesdaily, almaasi, unforth, and cuddlebabies are all known for their fanfiction—riseofthefallenone for her world-building abilities and destieldrabblesdaily for her short-form fic, or “drabble”. cuddlebabies is known for their prose.

 

A stamp of approval from a celebrity blog is generally an indication of quality. The publishing of fanfiction involves no obligatory quality control, so the fic community has developed their own indicators and checks. The first is by being promoted by another writer known for their prose—if cuddlebabies were to promote a work by someone I’ve never heard of, I’d read it solely based on the fact that the work was reblogged by a talented writer whose fic I enjoy. Other measures for quality control include “alpha” and “beta” readers, whose editing roles can be likened to that of a structural, and stylistic and copy editor, respectively. Requiring a beta reader in order to participate in fanfic challenges is yet another way a baseline of quality is ensured within the community.

 

Fanfiction challenges, put most simply, are a kind of fan-specific NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Open to any and all writers, each challenge has its own set of criteria for created works. For the DeanCas Big Bang (DCBB)[10], the rules are as follows: works must not be recycled but created specifically for the challenge; they must be minimum 20,000 words; and they must feature the characters of Dean and Castiel in a romantic relationship (DCBB Wiki 2018). Depending on the challenge, some kind of thematic element may also be required. Writers are given a certain amount of time (usually a number of weeks or months) to complete their pieces, which then get posted to Archive of Our Own[11] and added into the challenge collection. Promotional posts for each work are posted on the DCBB Tumblr blog[12], which is a fantastic way for new writers to gain exposure. Challenges additionally ensure the health of the fannish gift economy by creating instances where cultural capital is guaranteed to be shared. Writing prompts/requests is yet another instance of this. Prompts can be formally shared between community members, or by posting to Tumblr for the entire fandom. An example of a prompt is as follows: “AU[13] where Cas is a mechanic and Dean isn’t” (castiel-knight-of-hell 2017). If writers decide to fill this prompt, it is common courtesy to tag and credit the prompter for the original idea, creating exposure opportunities for them.

 

Fandom “elders” should not be overlooked when articulating fanfiction’s framework. I’ve defined an elder as a fan who has been in a fandom long enough to understand its platforms, codes of conduct, and social structure (i.e. who most of the celebrities are, which writer specializes in what kind of fic, proper codes of conduct, a good knowledge of the source material). In the Destiel fandom, one example of a user in this role is mittensmorgul. A meta writer who constantly gets asked to interpret the show for her insight, the kinds of messages she receives imply that she is known for her intelligent opinions about Supernatural, as well as her expertise on the inner-workings of the fandom. This is demonstrated in a recently posted message, where a budding Supernatural fan asked about how to best begin creating and posting works: “For someone who feels like spn is their whole life and someone who also loves to write and is good at it but slightly afraid to start writing in a new fandom (spn), what advice would you give?” (mittensmorgul 2018). mittensmorgul goes on to give her own writing advice, as well as list all upcoming challenges and touch on where to post fic depending on the wordcount (mittensmorgul 2018). This interaction between elder and newcomer refers to what Lave and Wenger define as “legitimate peripheral participation”, where the newcomer engages with the elder with the aim of learning and eventually fully participating” in the community in question (1999).

 

The structural framework of fanfiction communities—and that of the DeanCas Supernatural fandom specifically—is not straightforward and or simple. A fully-fledged, functioning community, the reality of the fanfic’s structural and organizational framework is a far cry from the stereotypes applied to it; fanfic writers are not lazy, and neither are they sex-crazed and chaotic (Bochenski 2013; Grady 2016). Online fic reading communities maintain a self-policed gift economy with their own language (AU, A/B/O, etc.), codes of behaviour, and infrastructure. Experienced fanfic authors have known the same pressure to meet deadlines, experience rigorous editing, are adept in marketing/self-promotion, and some have followers in the tens of thousands. This is not something to ridicule, but something to celebrate—and perhaps something publishers should keep in mind when seeing fanwriting on a CV or proposal.

 

 

NOTES

 

[1] “Meta” is short for “metafiction”. In the fandom context, this refers to some kind of analysis of the source text. For example, one can read meta about a particular scene in Netflix’s TV series G.L.O.W. (justaperson-noo 2018).

 

[2] All material in this essay draws on my own experience in the DeanCas Supernatural fandom, of which I have been a member for six years, and my general experience in fandom, which totals eleven years.

 

[3] Archive of Our Own was originally created as a response to Amazon’s attempt to monetize fanfiction using a website called FanLib. AO3 launched in 2008, and is part of the Organization of Transformative Works (OTW), a non-profit organization “run by fans for fans” (“FAQ” 2018). The OTW provides legal aid for fans, archives fan history, and runs an opensource academic journal entitled Transformative Works and Cultures (“FAQ” 2018). Its board of directors is voted on by members (“FAQ” 2018). Any fan can be a member, provided they donate a minimum of $10 USD (“Donate” 2018). Membership lasts one year (“FAQ” 2018).

 

[4] Since the advent of Archive of Our Own, LiveJournal is no longer used as a platform for online fanfiction and so has not been listed (Schwedel 2018).

 

[5] It should be noted that distribution across these platforms differs by fandom and has to do with member and fandom age (destinationtoast 2014).

 

[6] Wattpad allows for the search of multiple tags, as well as the ability to sort search results by length or date updated, as well as filter out incomplete results, where FF.net allows users to filter by category, media type, traditional literary genre, completion status, rating, and word count (“Search: destiel” on Wattpad; “Search: destiel” on Fanfiction.net).

 

[7] It can be argued that The Destiel Fan Survey Favs Collection is the first formal articulation of canonical Destiel fanfiction. While other lists of personally recommended fic exist, and will be touched upon later in this essay, this particular collection aggregates public opinion to list the most popular fics in the DeanCas fandom.

 

[8] The Alpha/Beta/Omega subgenre can be identified by the fact that characters have defined biological roles that play into a hierarchy taken from the study of animal behaviour (“Alpha/Beta/Omega” 2018). Though this subgenre has been criticized for reinforcing misogynistic and homophobic stereotypes, it has also been used for scathing social commentary (“Alpha/Beta/Omega” 2018).

 

[9] While AO3 and Tumblr continue to be invaluable spaces to the Supernatural fandom, Discord—a platform with channel-based chatrooms housed on specific servers—has been gaining traction. Used for networking and socializing, the DeanCas fan server Profound Net includes 379 fans and 52 channels (#Profoundnet 2018). In this context, “channels” refer to chat rooms on different subjects: personal, NSFW (not safe for work), fic recs, etc. (#Profoundnet 2018). The community is self-policing, with other members asking certain conversations move to their respective channel to keep things ordered. A single user (moderator) owns a Discord server, with the ability to add or take away access of different members. On the Profound Net server, this manifests as different ‘levels’ of access. Though the structure of Profound Net’s Discord community resembles the structure of LiveJournal, the exclusivity that is inherent to the platform may be problematic.

 

[10] A Big Bang involves both artists and writers. Writers are given a certain amount of time to write a portion of their fic, at which point their summaries are anonymized and made available for artists to claim. Artists must create two pieces of fanart for the fic they claim, and works are posted with both the text and art (DCBB Wiki 2018).

 

[11] It is universally understood that any fic over 5,000 words should be posted on AO3 (mittensmorgul 2018).

 

[12] The DCBB is run (moderated) by Jojo and Muse (DCBB Wiki 2018). Challenges may be run by a single person or a group of people (“About” 2018).

 

[13] AU stands for “Alternate Universe”, a term that denotes a departure from the canonical setting of the source material (“Alternate Universe” 2018).

 

 

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