The academic is personal/the personal is academic

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.


This post touches on a struggle that, as a game scholar, I find myself frequently engaged with: how much of my fandom is allowed in my scholarship? I've been a fan of games since the mid-80s; I've been a games scholar since about 2005. While these two personae certainly benefit from one another, they also can hinder one another if I manage either one improperly in certain contexts.

However, I have learned that many games scholars go through similar struggles. The growing number of outlets online for "serious" discussions of game scholarship and the relative "newness" of the field means that it will be the community that decides how much or how little fandom may be folded into scholarship.



I think the intersection between fannish and academic pursuits is an important though fraught one. Henry Jenkins' blog series last summer on the issue ( certainly addressed some of the issues, but it's a question, I think everyone has to decide for themselves. I just ran an abstract proposal by a friend and her first response was concern for fannish fallout. I may have the privilege as an independent scholar to not worry all that much about academic reprisals, but to me the more endangered part of the equation is indeed fandom.

Then again, anthropologists have engaged with observer/participation quite a bit, and there are ways to have that extensive knowledge further academic pursuits. In fact, as I try to argue in my piece above, I actually think that form even more than content is central--I learned collaborating and consensus approaches from fandom where academia had given me nothing but individual authorship and aggressive arguments.

As someone unaffiliated, I really struggle with the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to engage with media studies concerns. It's nice to see the links, but I don't find (for example) live tweeting of conference panels interesting as it happens unless I happen to be in the panel itself. (Yes. I live tweet.) It only becomes interesting when the tweets are aggregated at the end, all in one place, and you can see an entire organized, mapped conversation. I prefer fuller thoughts to the quick blips of "hey, check this out."

I see social media as letting people engage quickly on a personal level, which creates a sense of community that can then be tapped to do larger, more thinky things. I love the independent scholar part of my life, but it the longer I am employed full-time in another industry, the more it recedes. Social media ought to be keeping me in the loop, but instead I feel like it's another layer of hassle I have to dig through to find something interesting. I stepped back from reviewing books, tweeting, and blogging in favor of attempting to get more stuff published. (That hasn't worked out. I really hate to write.)

I don't think social media (including blogs) ought to be considered for things like promotion and tenure. They will draw attention to you and they will help get your name out there, but these sorts of posts are not considered, proofed, edited, peer-reviewed writing. It's service, not publication. It's thinking through. And, Kristina, as you point out, maybe you make a friend in a world where most of our like-minded compatriots do not live locally. All these connections are valuable, but in a more private, personal context.

Well, as we're both working on our project together (you in the cold North, me in the warm South :), we certainly are an example, I'd argue of it being both, personal and professional.

But, yes, I actually agree with you on the extraneous work that social networks create. I've all but stopped following twitter and am keeping my blog roll low, because I don't want it to be work, and it feels like it.  It reminds me of back in the day when we'd go on vacation and had no TV and only a random newspaper heading in a foreign language here and there. And coming back, it didn't really feel like we'd missed all that much. I come back to twitter and it looks exactly like when I left it. I may miss something here or there, but if it's important enough, it'll reach me. And for the rest...I can tolerate not knowing it. (My kids are appalled at all the things I don't know these days, but I can safely go on not knowing the latest meme or Youtube hit...)  

So if it isn't for content, it has to be for community, right?

Several previous posts on MC have mentioned the difficulties of beginning an online academic community. Your point about reward for academic labor is illuminating in these discussions, and one that I hadn't considered before. Fan communities emerge out of a love for the topic, but academic communities are intertwined with work. I wonder, are more successful online academic communities tied to love as well as work? if academics were paid to create and participate in online communities, would those communities be more robust? how would a "post for pay" structure impact community dynamics, or our conception of community?

No answers, only questions. I'll have to do some looking to see what I can find...  

 are more successful online academic communities tied to love as well as work?

Sarah, I think this might hit the nail on the head. I mean, we all to some degree love what we do, and it is only with love (and a very strong superego :) that we ever make it through grad school, let alone the more self-driven aspect of professorial life.

As I said before, I may be naive, and I certainly am looking at things somewhat from the outside, but I'm not sure that introducing more of a capitalist market economy into academia is the solution. We're already getting that from the administration, and it is not a direction I think is ultimately profiting either scholarship or the students.

I'm now thinking of the large-scale ideological move from a patron-driven support of the arts to a copyright-driven one, from a general support of creativity to a piece count of marketable works--and I'm wondering if this is what's happening in academia as well. As we're measured in a world of faster&more, I wouldn't say that scholarship gets lost, but maybe we do lose a bit of the creative freethinking that was supposed to be safeguarded by tenure in the first place. When we ask for every blog post, every conference twittering to be accounted for, I worry that we might just be feeding exactly into a version of higher education where every minute/word/idea should be accounted for ...


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