Fan-translation and developing literacies outside the classroom

In looking for ways to discuss as huge a project as Viki, a profit-based fan-translation site,  I kept returning to its forums based on volunteering. The encouragement from volunteers on popular channels that fans take these volunteer training programs piqued my interest. I applied to two segmenter training programs and was accepted to one. The other has a year-long wait list. I am still finishing my training, which could be completed in six weeks, making me potentially the slowest student they have ever had. In my tenure I have found parallels between this program and practices that I have learned and developed as a writing instructor. For instance, assignments are scaffolded--student-volunteers start with low-stakes assignments in familiar languages that increase in both linguistic and technical difficulty over time. There’s time built into the program for revision and reflection. At the final stage, student-volunteers are tested both on the information they acquire and the level of skill they achieve.


These training programs are designed entirely by volunteers in their leisure time with no interference from Viki. In some ways this connection between makes sense as translation attracts motivated volunteers with strong linguistic and technical skill. Translation communities also attract individuals who are as interested in practicing a language as they are following particular shows and celebrities. Many of Viki’s volunteers are young adults; it is likely they’ve turned to their classes as models for developing their own classrooms. In fact, the self-paced nature and obvious transfer of skills within these fan communities is almost enviable. In the context of developing literacies, these are known as “affinity spaces” (Gee, 2007), wherein individuals gather, share resources, and develop cultural artifacts in online spaces that privilege work and collaboration over place, age, sex, race, or class.


When this learning model is applied to a corporate situation, it seems as though the possibilities are endless.The commodification of a crowd-sourced projects like Viki has been an ongoing capital investment. In Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams argue that collaborative projects on a massive scale “allow thousands upon thousands of individuals and small producers to cocreate products, access markets, and delight customers in ways that only large corporations could manage in the past” (12). Viki creates a gift economy where collaborators contribute to these spaces because sustained involvement and quality work earn individuals authority and recognition within this community. Many gift economies work easily in and around corporate market economies. Translators gift their work to the community they have often benefited from as well. Participatory communities attract corporate entities. While usually only a small number of members produce content for any community, they also appeal a high number of spectator members, who are attractive for advertisers (Van Dijck and Nieborg 861). Viki has a similar structure. A small percentage of fans volunteer to produce content for the site. The millions of fans who watch view content bring advertisement and paid subscriptions to the site.

Ten years after these landmark texts on online collaborative spaces, we can see the the complexities that have developed in this model. Participatory cultures’ further entrenchment in corporate strategies, even when the end goal for sites like Viki include altruistic endeavors, alters the constitution of affinity spaces. In my research in these forums I am surprised by the issue of not enough. There are not enough teachers to train. There are not enough volunteers doing the invisible work of translation. At the same time, there are millions of fans who consume content. While not exclusive to Viki or other fan-translation sites, my question becomes what we should call participatory culture when only a fraction of members are involved in production? Likewise, as education models turn towards online spaces for examples, how do we manage these unbalanced participatory practices?



Barbrook, Richard. “The High-tech Gift Economy.” First Monday. 3.12 (2005). Web.

Gee, Jamies Paul. Good Video Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy. Vol. 27. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.

Tapscott, Don, and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. New York: Portfolio, 2006. Print.

Van Dijck, Jose, and David Nieborg. “Wikinomics and Its Discontents: A Critical Analysis of Web 2.0 Business Manifestos.” New Media & Society 11.5 (2009): 855–874. Print.


As a novice in the crowd-sourcing discussion, I find your focus on the collaborative training model that emerges particularly interesting. That individuals seem to be employing pedagogical best practices is especially notable, as you signal; it suggests individuals who are aware of effective training practices. While many of our students pass through our courses, encountering some of these practices, I think a smaller group is particularly aware of the specific strategies we use and why. It makes me wonder more about the folks engaging in these training and translation practices on Viki.

At the same time, I think it intersects with some questions I have in regards to the Smithsonian's recent efforts to enable volunteers to transcribe archival material or the UVA Book Traces project which encourages folks to archive traces of readers in old library books. This transcription/archiving/translation/training activities as leisure/pleasure is interesting to me; creating and preserving all forms of information that the individual decides is valuable is in a way transgressive, yet is being encouraged by large and established institutions. In other words, how many filters are already in place by the time that information has made it to the leisure knowledge maker?

This is such a great question and one I've been considering for some time. Practically, large-scale crowd sourced projects seem to need some kind of corporate entity (whether that be for-profit or non-profit) to create the structure. Even Wikipedia, which is often suggested as the best example of a non-profit, non-corporate entity with a small staff got much of its initial backing and server space from corporations.

For a site like Viki, and potentially the Smithsonian, the interface already being built does help get as many volunteers as possible creating the intellectual content. I can go in and segment 10 minutes of a show over my 30 min lunch break because I don't have to worry too much about upload formatting, aesthetic choices, and rendering video. So, the corporate entity improves access and quality.

At the same time, as this survey makes clear, these solutions don't come without their drawbacks. I'm in love with with the image of these filtered and layered interfaces that allow what was once scholarly work (translation and marginalia studies) to be taken on by academic enthusiasts. I wonder if this at once both opens more research time up to academics, but also robs them of something within academic work. I will have to think more on these questions. 

Great further thoughts on Viki and crowdsourced translation. The 'not enough' question you pose at the end of this piece is intriguing.... another example of the limitations and drawbacks of so-called 'participatory culture' that counters the uncritical, celebratory tone that so often attaches this concept. Love your commitment to segmenting training too!

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