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Fandom As A Contact Zone - Morgan Dawn Livejournal:The Here And Now
The Here And Now
Fandom As A Contact Zone
After blogging about how technology reshapes our communities and culture (allowing some aspects to thrive and others to falter), part of the conversation on tumblr migrated to the discussion of how fans build communities, how culture is created and how they communicate  their expectations of how to operate within those communities and cultures to one another. But before I repost my part in this discussion below, let me offer some context.

I  came into fandom just as fans began migrating from print onto the Usenet and mailing lists. A large portion of our time was discussing whether fans - especially slash fans -- should even be online, let alone visible.  We also had to quickly come up to speed on netiquette and translate  the preexisting "rules" into ones that worked for our fan community where the specter of copyright infringement loomed large. Then, when fandom exploded over the Internets,  spilling out of mailing lists to forums and blogs and websites, we again wrestled with issues, many of which were driven by the vagaries of the technology platforms we were using: When was it OK to respond to someone's blog post? When was it OK to post a story without warnings? When was it OK to leave feedback - and where? Was it OK to post a story in parts?  When were we expected to put text behind a cut? When was it OK to use someone's icon? How to credit icons? Was it permitted to create a rec list? A rec list in your own blog? A rec list on delic.ious? Could I use RSS to read someone's blog somewhere else besides LJ?  If someone friended me, did I have to friend them back? How to unfriend someone? When to lock a post and why? 

The list has been endless and quite often people  felt frustrated because what was so obvious to them was not obvious to everyone else.  Charged phrases like  "ethics" and "morals' and "universal rules"  have been used. We have often sounded like a community of mono-centric tunnel dwellers.

As fandom migrated to Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Wattpad, none of this has changed. The "rules" on these platforms are not intuitive, are fluid and of course vary across groups of fans. But we still suffer from tunnel vision.

So when the topic of universal Tumblr rules came up here, I gathered some thoughts I'd seen floating around and summarized them.


What I take away from this [post] is that Tumblr contains multitudes of communities that do not - and for practical reasons - cannot share the same norms. We ran into many of the same how come you don’t see the fandom world the same way I see it” discussions on LJ when we were trying to hash out the “rules”. On Tumblr though, the fluidity of the platform and the built in reblogging means that the communities intersect more easily.  Without the privacy tools of LJ or the gate-keepers of closed mailing lists, the only “tool” available to us is to expect other users to understand and follow our unwritten rules. Which of course is doomed to fail.

In addition, some of Tumblr users “rules” are based on a platform that itself keeps changing.  For example, I learned today that in the past untagged posts could not be found by Tumblr’s search engine. So untagged post = semi private. But Tumblr’s search engine has changed and they now pick up phrases in posts not just tags. If you are using add-ons like xkit that new search box may not show up. So the more long-time Tumblr users are confused when new faces show up on their untagged posts. And the new faces are confused at the resulting freak-out.

Then there is the scary nature of the Tumblr platform itself - anything that you post can, by the very nature of how the platform is designed, be reblogged, linked and/or responded to.  But   because there is no ability to lock or delete or edit a post once it has been reblogged, the entire discussion, other’s responses, even your follow-on responses to their responses are lost to you. Even worse, you cannot easily track the multiple discussion pathways.  You cannot chase the white rabbit because there are hundreds of white rabbits hopping all over the place and OMG is that a caterpillar? What does that have to do with anything I said?”

But this debate about everyone should know my Tumblr rules” reminds me of when we were hashing out how fandom (a formerly closed society) should use LJ.  We were originally so very strident “My Blog! My Rules!”seeing our blogs as privately owned spaces. But then triggers warnings discussions happened and that too shifted. We had a responsibility to warn - or to at least warn if we were not warning. To be a member in good standing meant you had to start treating your unlocked blogs posts as more of communally posts (locked blog posts were a different matter). I am not saying I agree with this cultural shift, but I can see echoes in today’s discussion. 

It is as if we keep wanting intimacy and connection but have the need to control the pace and scope and direction all at the same time we’re hurtling down a technological slope that was not built for our use. No wonder we’re flailing again and again. Fandom needs to reset its expectations and either build a platform that is more customizable for its needs or start investing in some good sledding gear. 

But it also occurred to me that perhaps even technology cannot overcome this profound cultural shift.  I came across this post today that argues that once technology created a truly global platform, our interactions were fundamentally changed*:

I think we’d be better served thinking of fandom as what Mary Pratt calls a “contact zone,” which she defines as:

 “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power”

I think this extends to virtual spaces like Tumblr or Twitter, where discrete ‘communities’ are increasingly unfeasible …. I think we’re not a community - we’re a LOT of people who have one thing in common, and probably a lot of other things not in common, and I think it’s easy for us to forget the latter part of that when we think about - and concern ourselves with - the idea of “fandom” as “community.” We will not always agree, and so the question becomes one of what we do next…..”

Her suggestion:: Create or find smaller sites off Tumblr for conversations that require a greater degree of mutual understanding and a shared/common language to really progress. ….. Don’t respond to trolls, because they have a different MO altogether. I ignore assholes on the street, so I ignore them here, and do my best to keep them out of my backyard. I think those are all good tactics for engaging online, and they’re ways to make sense of Tumblr in all its infinite diversity. 

Because I do think there’s value in being on Tumblr in all its infinite diversity. I’ve learned more about sexuality, gender, class, race - I mean, you name it - in my year and a half here than I have in years of living out in the world, because here I come into contact with people I might never speak to otherwise, and all because we have this one shared thing. I think the contact is critical - but that we have to understand that it’s the nature of contact with people and ideas outside our own experiences to be a bit fraught with conflict and, as Pratt says, grappling..”

TLDR version: We are multitudes. I’d better get used to it. In the meantime, cake anyone?

*And not just for fandom. Go anywhere online and you will see the conflict between these various contact zones.

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