I have been interested in the creation of online communities going on twenty years now. In fact, one of my grad student essays looked at the creation of queer communities in newsgroups—that was before the world wide web—both as an imagined community and for practical purposes (my research took place in the middle of the 1993 March on Washington, and carpooling and couchsurfing briefly dominated the groups).
After bulletin board, mailing lists, and a brief foray into blogs, I ended up on LiveJournal.Living in a place with no academic community—and little personal one—online friends and acquaintances have become my emotional and intellectual support system. It is as such that I can't separate out the personal from the scholarly or, in my specific instance, the fannish from the academic.
I entered media fandom as an active participant ten years ago after getting a LiveJournal invite at an academic conference, and for the past decade I have merged fandom and academia, writing about fandom, editing within fandom, and (I hope) giving back to fandom. I have met most of my academic friends through fandom and have helped create an academic infrastructure following fannish models. [If I weren't already approaching thrice the word limit, I'd talk here about helping arrange the 2007 Gender and Fan Studies Debate,the 2011 Acafan Debate, and cofounding and coediting for the past 5 years of the peer-reviewed Open Access fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures,as well as about using fannish infrastructure and interfaces to engage in peer review for several book collection, most recently, Louisa Stein and my coedited essay collection on Transmedia Sherlock, which we peer edited on MediaCommons.]
For me personally this means that I ask my fannish friends to comment on my essays (and they certainly are critical readers indeed) and that, in turn, I share all my resources, much of it from behind paywalls. I use fannish networks to bring together academics and academic networks to bring together fans. And for me, as an independent researcher, both are intimately tied together—whether I post a critical reading of a TV show on my journal or Antenna, whether I collect secondary sources for my friendslist or a colleague, whether I beta a fanfic or an academic essay—because I do both for free and for the love of it.
Which brings me to the central sticking point. I wholeheartedly embrace the fannish gift economy and its practice of paying it forward, but any attempt to map this onto academic practices ignores the question of labor. Fans write and program and edit for the love of it, but such a model is clearly not fully sustainable in an academic environment. Academia may be a passion and a calling, but it also is a job, and academic labor needs to be rewarded on some level. And yet, as others have noted, a lot of community building is not and cannot be measured accurately for T&P.
I want to suggest that the very aspects that can make virtual communities so powerful may also be the ones that prevent us from easily translating our online academic contributions into economic rewards. If we look back at the fannish model, it suggests that a system of reciprocity and help and support might indeed require a model of paying it forward. There are clear tensions within fandom about making fannish labor commercially viable, and these conversations are even more fraught in the places where academia and fandom overlap, where fannish love and academic success often push in the same direction but sometimes demand different actions and responses.
Then again, it might be useful to think of online community as similar to offline ones, the twitter convo or the brief comment on someone's blog not as an academic contribution per se but more akin to chatting about The Hour in the bar at the convention hotel and debating fair use defenses for You Tube takedowns with a colleague in another department. If we regard online textual engagements as ephemeral encounters, then maybe the rewards are not in getting a CV line but rather in finding like-minded souls and eventual friends—and just maybe someone to carpool and couchsurf with.