Welcome to Viki! Fansubbing and Media Change

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Viki is an online community of fansubbers (fan subtitlers) with a difference. Unlike most fan translation initiatives, Viki is a profit-based start-up that was bought out by Japanese e-Commerce giant Rakuten in 2013. It has (lots of) advertisements and in order to watch without ads, users need to buy a Viki Pass at a cost of US$3.99 per month. It has iPhone and Android apps (Viki On-The-Go) and reports that over 30 percent of its content is accessed through mobile devices.

So, is this fan translation or does it constitute corporate crowdsourcing? What’s the difference anyway? What separates Viki from multinationals like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that deploy user-generated translation to perform massive feats of language transfer in tiny turnaround times? Many distinguish fansubbing from crowdsourcing on the basis of not-for-profit versus profit-based dynamics, or bottom-up versus top-down. The example of Viki unsettles such neat divisions. It is commercial, harnessing the free labour of fans to aggressively mine new revenue streams, yet it remains a community nevertheless, one powered by fans and their love of TV series and the like. It solicits translation from the crowd yet offers multiple forums for community discussion and engagement, and encourages users to suggest new content, advocate for subtitles in their own language and self-organise subbing groups.

Significantly, Viki’s ‘monetization’ of fansubbing has not resulted in de-politicisation. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. Since its humble beginnings as a not-for-profit class project in 2007, Viki has consistently emphasised the broader geopolitical context around digital networking technologies, language diversity and access. In 2014, it launched two campaigns, Billion Words Marchadvocating for closed captioning on online content for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, and Endangered Languagesto help save endangered and emerging languages.

For these reasons and more, Viki is a fascinating site to watch. Its three core ingredients (fans, subtitles and streaming) are currently situated at the forefront of changes affecting the media industries as a whole, not just media translation! With the ascendancy of streaming and VOD (video-on-demand) services, media content is travelling in novel ways, creating new access demands and desires. This emerging mode of media engagement increasingly coalesces around language difference and translation, as Netflix and Hulu demonstrate through their development and promotion of in-platform, translation-on-demand tools like SAMI (Synchronised Accessible Media Interchange). Without translation, promises of global connectivity make little sense while VOD expansion efforts would ground to a halt; language transfer constitutes the critical yet often overlooked cog upon which media globalisation processes depend.

Offering free subtitles in over 200 languages for media content from around the world, Viki challenges the unidirectional ‘West-to-the-Rest’ nature of much translation traffic, discouraging reliance on English as a pivot language and supporting crisscrossing media flows that put far-flung language communities in contact, finding markets for Venezuelan telenovelas in the Philippines, for instance, and for Korean dramas translated into Arabic.

In joining the dots between fansubbing, language diversity and media access in the digital age, Viki offers a ‘big picture’ perspective on fan translation practices.


Thank you for your post. I've been looking at Viki for some time as well and have found the self conscious elements of the site to be some of the most interesting. Your post has me thinking about whether this is a fan site or a translation engine (made of people). Viki has tried in the past to automate parts of its translation processes and the results have never been up to par with the fan work.

I'm thinking specifically about transfer here as well. Oftentimes fan translation is seen as a hobby or sub-par work, however, Viki utilizes the technical and language skills that fans build working on channels to feed into these more globally conscious projects. Work on the Billions Word March might seem more professional. Giving volunteers the opportunity to transfer what they've learned on fan channels to these larger projects are skills I hope my students develop. I wonder how much professional ethos Viki pulls from the fact that it is a corporate venture doing these kinds of projects.

Lots to think about. Luckily there's more to come on Viki for this survey. 

Yes, there are a lot of interesting dimensions to the Viki project and the way it blends professional/commercial with amateur/community. Certain things can get compromised in this mix yet many exciting opportunities also arise. Viki fansubs are less experimental than some other types of fansubbing, yet the community is really open and diverse, as are the translation flows. And, I agree, there is great potential to incorporate Viki user-friendly interfaces in the classroom!

Viki is indeed very interesting but unfortunately not much info is given in the web regarding the technology behind it.

A crucial issue behind their business model is the issue of copyright.

Since money is now requested for the use of their subtitles, I wonder if the work of the subtitler is paid, and the rate.

Also workflows and distribution are interesting info that I can't read in their web.

Well, the work of the subtitlers on Viki is certainly not paid!

Its business model is specifically based around volunteer contributions. I guess issues of copyright are the pay off. All Viki fansubs are legal, so fans can keep doing what they love to do without contravening copyright laws. There have been grumblings in the Viki community about whether or not their business model exploitats of fan labour, and after it was sold to Rakuten in 2013, some fansubbers left at that point. 

According to Hovaghimiam, the idea of paying senior volunteers was mooted early on in the company, but was ultimately rejected by the fansubbers themselves. See article by Peter Kafka in All Things Digital

Thanks for the post. Viki's position is really interesting. I wonder how fans make sense of their involvement and contribution to the company's business. How do they define their ethical code and what is their shared understanding of their relationship to the company? Do you have any plan to look at this? As for fans' attitude, I wonder if there is any gender (drama fans tend to be female?) or cultural (East-West) dynamics? I am curious...

Yes, there is so much to look at. Its great to read Jamie's interview with a Viki segmenter and to get the inside perspective. Reading through chat forums, it seems there are quite a few divergent attitudes amongst the Viki community about the ethics of the venture. Fascinating reading.... Also, the cultural dynamics (East-West, Pan-Asian etc...) provide a really fruitful area for future work. I have touched upon these issues in my research ("Fansub Dreaming on Viki" and "Multilingual Publics"), but much more needs to be done. 

  I am reminded very much of the communities that are devoted to manga scanlation -- beyond the obvious comparison of fan translations  --  and the sheer organizational feats that go into the work that are really only possible because of the internet.  Their for profit status combined with the offsetting (or is that a cynical take?) of what some fan communities might see as co-opted labor with the "good works"  of their campaigns is especially interesting.   

Yes, lots of cross-over with scanlation, which is something that Minako O'Hagan (2008) has looked at in the past. The issue of exploitation is definitely one to probe further. It would be interesting to know the impact of Viki's socially conscious campaigns and how they have been received broadly in the community. How are they being talked about by other stakeholders?

I've never heard of Viki before this and that says much to how the fansubbing community is growing as friends that I have asked have heard all about it before. The fact that they're so well organized and put so much time and commitment to it certainly shows how dedicated people can be. Viki being a platform to continue to bring people together is definitely something I'd like to look into more.

As you stated in an earlier reply, there is to much to look at with this site, and I think your original post asks a poignant first question: what is it, exactly? "Viki unsettles neat divisions." I think it's important to examine how it expands or problematizes our definitions for similar phenomena before digging into its many other facets, as the question of defining it will influence our understanding of how it works in other regards. 

An interesting point. Do we need to define Viki in order to engage with it? One problem in doing so is that Viki keeps evolving and changing, as do digital platforms, networking translation technologies and eCommerce parameters. Viki actually started as a not-for-profit class project... It has already changed so much, and it continues to do so – which is part of its strength. It can certainly be considered a form of crowdsourcing but it is also clear that contributors still identify as fans and that fandom remains central to the project as a whole. Thanks for your feedback.

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