The Tech: Could you tell us a little bit [about] how you first got involved in fandom?
Flourish Klink: I was very into The X-Files when I was a kid. At the time, it was the late 90s … I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first fandom that primarily existed on the Internet. So I was a kid, I had Internet access, I spent a lot of time searching online for things I liked. I found X-Files fandom.
I realized pretty quickly that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, so it didn’t matter that I was 10. As long as I had good grammar, people would talk to me, which was great. So when Harry Potter came out, I got really obsessed with it. Since I had found there was a community for The X-Files, it seemed like there must be such a thing for Harry Potter also. There wasn’t, so I made a website for it and met with the one other person who had a website about it at the time.
TT: And you founded FictionAlley?
TT: At that time, according to your website, you were about 13 years old. So, were there any challenges you faced getting this website up and running?
FK: FictionAlley was not the first Harry Potter thing I’d been involved with. I had run my own site for a little while, I had been on-staff at Fanfiction.net, I had done some other stuff. FictionAlley was co-founded by10 people who were all sort-of involved with it.
The major problem was that we incorporated as a non-profit and because I was underage, I wasn’t able to sign contracts. I wasn’t ever on the board of that non-profit. My mother refused [to be my proxy on the board] She was like, “I’m not going to be on the board of a non-profit for my child. That’s ridiculous, I’m not going to be her puppet vote. That was the major problem.
You have to remember that this was at a time when blogs only sort-of existed. I mean, they did exist, but it was still in very early days. Blogger had just launched. … Now there’s pretty good frameworks, there’s pretty good content management systems for fanfiction archives. The people who are now behind The Archive Of Our Own [a fanwork repository site], one of them was responsible for creating a kind of plug-and-play [fanfiction archive] It has a database and everything and that’s great.
But our time, there was nothing like that, and so people who weren’t hand-coding [fanfiction sites] had really kludge-togethered systems, and that’s actually a large part why FictionAlley is now in such a sad state. Basically, we had kludged together three or four different [systems]. We had a message board and it was serving for our comments section because there were no comments … It’s now more-or-less impossible to migrate. It could be done with enough effort and time but it was really a technical trauma. We had some really great developers, but none of them had enough time to do an entire grounds up, not just a site but a new kind of thing that no-one had ever done before.
TT: Could you go into why you incorporated?
FK: Absolutely. A lot of fan groups have done this now. We were one of the first people to do it. We incorporated as an educational non-profit with the mission of helping people learn to write through fanfiction. There were many, many people for whom English is a second language who were involved ... There’s lots of individuals in fandom who have a very strong focus on improving their writing, but at FictionAlley, it was really site-wide, part of our mission. We [incorporated] because we were paying for servers, and we needed to be able to collect donations for the servers and keep track of everything. It made sense legally, because at a certain point, we had 300,000 people registered on our forums, which now does not seem like a huge number, but at that time, we were a monster, you know, it was just giant. So we needed to do that for that reason.
TT: So now, quite a few fan-sites are non-for-profit organizations?
FK: It depends on how big they are. For instance, the Leaky Cauldron [a Harry Potter content aggregation site] is a for-profit ... but the Archive Of Our Own is part of the Organization for Transformative Works, which is a non-profit, has a different goal. … They do activism in support of the fair use rights, and so on.
I was also involved with another non-profit, [Harry Potter Educational Fanon], which ran Harry Potter conferences. They were a melding between an academic conference and a fan con. I would say the quality of papers we’d get was what you’d expect from a grad student conference, but with some really high points. Henry [Jenkins, media scholar and former Co-Director of the MIT CMS program] used to come to our conferences and present. So it was really cool because unlike most other fan cons, it was a place where [fans] could really get a sense of what academics were really saying about fandom in general and Harry Potter in specific. But it also had all of these fun aspects. If you wanted to, as an academic, you would come present your paper dressed up as Professor McGonagall, and many people do, or did. We’re done running them now.
TT: Can you give us an idea of the kinds of Harry Potter fandom subcultures you saw and interacted with?
FK: Harry Potter fandom has been together for a long, long time, so you have to keep in mind that in 1999-2000, it was very, very different. At that time, lots of people would argue about whether it was okay to write slash fanfiction about Harry Potter. Now of course, everybody’s like, “What, you write Harry Potter fanfiction as not slash?” But at the time, there were some people who had real, serious objections to the idea because it’s a children’s book. Let’s not go into the arguments about that.
There’s been all kinds of different groups. I’d say that today, there’s the Quiddich people, and there’s people who are into Wizard Rock, and there’s a huge contingent of people who are mostly into StarKid. … StarKid is a theater group from the University of Michigan. … They did the Harry Potter Musical which went viral on Youtube, and they’ve done a bunch of other musicals and since gone on to be quite famous. I mean legitimate famous, not just fandom famous. Darren Chris [from Glee] was a Starkid. So they’ve got their own fandom, which started off as connected to Harry Potter, but now exists differently.
There’s people with the Harry Potter Alliance. … Harry Potter Alliance people tend to be more, they’re into activism, into causes. … There’s a lot of people who were once involved with FictionAlley now are involved with the Organization for Transformative Works [a non-profit organization that preserves fan-works and supports activism for fair-use] … . They also run the Archive Of Our Own, which is currently the fanfiction archive of choice for lots of people.
When you go back longer, there were really bad ship wars in Harry Potter … . There were people who were “Pumpkin Pie,” people who were very into Harry and Hermione, versus “One Big Happy Weazley Family” who were people who were very into Hermione and Ron, versus the slashers who weren’t really involved in that particular debate. So there’s just been lots of different cliques.
TT: From your website, it seems like you’ve primarily done written works, as opposed to art and music
FK: Mostly I write. I made a ... text adventure, set in Harry Potter land, and I’ve done a visual novel.
TT: How would you say that being in fandom improves the writing ability and the artistic ability of the fans?
FK: I think that’s kind of a simplistic question, because there’s many different ways in which people engage in fandom. There’s some people who engage in fandom as “I just really like this thing and I’m just going to write stuff because I like it.” And there’s some people who view fandom as “I need to practice my writing, I’m going to practice in this universe where people will read it.
I don’t know if you’re a writer, but trying to get people to read a short story you’ve written is like pulling teeth. You cannot get anybody to read it. But if you write a piece of fanfiction, people are very interested, at least comparatively. Even getting 4 or 5 comments back on it is way more than you would ever get just writing a story that doesn’t have any context.
There are people who are primarily looking at fandom in that way, but there’s also people like me. … I’m not writing with the idea that I’m going to do this now, and some day I’ll be a “real author”. For me, the things that I’m interested in saying are things that are about pop-cultural objects. I’m interested in making statements that I can’t make without involving Harry Potter, or without involving Twin Peaks, or without involving whatever story I’m relating it to. For me, writing fanfiction makes me a better fanfiction writer. It makes me better at making comments about, making literary arguments through fiction.
TT: Online, people make comments saying that fanfiction is not “real” writing. Do you have any comments about that?
FK: Just that it’s silly. I guess it depends on what you mean by “real author” or “real” writer. If you’re of the position that you’re not a real author until you get paid for your work, well, that’s kind of silly because there are plenty of people who get paid for being fans essentially. Not just people who run their own fan sites.
If the question is “do you get paid for it”, then first of all, that means people aren’t real writers if you don’t get paid for it. You’re not a real writer because you probably don’t get paid for writing for The Tech, which I think is obviously wrong, obviously you are a writer. But more than that, there are people everywhere who get paid to write stories about characters who are not their own.
If you work in Hollywood, you are always writing about characters that are not your own. Anyone who’s ever been a staff writer on a television show is essentially writing canonical fanfiction. But not really, because it’s not fanfiction in any sense except that they didn’t come up with those characters, it’s not new, they have to use what’s there.
If the idea’s “well that’s hack writing, we’re talking about literature, you’re a hack if you’re working on a TV show,”... take Ulysses, right, widely considered to be the greatest novel in the english language by many people. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but lots of people think it. What’s its title? Well, “Ulysses.” Is there a character in it named Ulysses? No. Why is it called Ulysses? Because it’s an alternate universe retelling of the story of Odysseus. I mean, I wouldn’t call it fanfiction, but if you say fanfiction [like 50 Shades of Gray] is not real writing, well, it may or may not be good, but what 50 Shades of Gray did was exactly what Ulysses did, except more interested in making things erotic and selling lots of copies than in literary concerns. Different goals, different points of the story.
So I guess, when people say “real writing”, I don’t know what they mean. Or, I do know what they mean, but it’s about prestige and it’s about this idealized “great author expressing myself” which if you actually are an author is really hard to believe, It’s a really naïve view of writing.
TT: You’re currently a lecturer in CMS, and you wrote a thesis on fandoms. Could you tell me a little about how your experience in fandom has affected your career path?
FK: So I do lecture in CMS, but that’s not really my career. Most of my work is working for a [transmedia storytelling] company called The Alchemists, for which I’m the chief participation officer, which means I take care of questions about fans and fandoms.
It’s easy to internalize this idea of The Author or what’s valid or what’s good or what’s important, and I really got caught up in that. It took me until my senior year of college to realize I was very interested in the [religion degree] I was studying, but part of why I was studying it was because I couldn’t envision a world in which I could talk about fandom and anybody would take me seriously. I had known Henry [Jenkins, former Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program] from when he was doing research for his book Convergence Culture. I was one of his informants. I called him up and said “Okay, I think I might want to go to grad school,” and he said “okay, why don’t you come to grad school at MIT?” I only applied here and nowhere else, and I came, and coming here was how I met people at the Alchemists.
For that company now, I do research on different fan cultures we’re working with and I also write what is essentially fanfiction. At least, it’s not fanfiction because it’s “canonical” but I write transmedia extensions. For instance, [for] a recent CW Television show, I ran the tumblr account of one of the characters, and responded to people, and kept it populated.
TT: Could you explain the Alchemist?
FK: The Alchemist transmedia storytelling company is the company that I work for. We have offices in Brazil and the United States. We do transmedia storytelling which means we create stories that go across multiple platforms. We have some that we own the IP for, that we’ve developed from the ground up. We also sometimes collaborate with TV networks on taking a story they have that maybe was just envisioned originally as a television show and adding a transmedia component to it. ...
Here’s an example: On the [scifi] television show Smallville, ... one character, Chloe, was a fan favorite. The actual point of the story was not about Chloe, ... but they were running this trans-media thing where they had a website which was supposedly the website of the highschool newspaper. They decided [to] write a story for Chloe where Chloe has a camera, because she’s working for the high-school newspaper, and she’s going to run around doing little documentary clips about other stuff that’s going on. That gave fans a chance to learn more about Chloe, but also to see things like what happens when the cameras on the main TV show shut off. Well, something blew up, so now Chloe’s going to interview the person whose house just blew up in this episode. … So you can see parts of the story that couldn’t be told on TV but could be told very well on web video. ...
TT: You wrote a Master’s thesis on the topic of how people within fandom use humorous and dramatic images and videos to criticize the original work in an accessible way. What insights have you gained into the nature of fandom because of your research?
FK: Well, I think to some degree the word fan is, I’m not sure I would say the word is a misleading one. I have spend many years of my life involved in Harry Potter fandom, and it’s certainly affected my life more than any other story, but I actually have a lot of problems with the last three books. I strongly dislike the last Harry Potter book. I got so mad when I read it. I thought it was terrible, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m involved with thinking about it, and I think it’s a really interesting series despite being something that I sort of hate in the end.
I want to keep being involved in the community and talking about it and thinking about it in different ways, and using it as a tool to think about the world around me, a way to talk to people about important issues, whatever. When you say you’re a fan, that kind of engagement isn’t included, and people don’t think of it. And that’s really about what my thesis was about. I was using to some degree the idea of humor as a way in, the idea of humor and anti-fandom as a way of saying there’s also more complex ideas that you can have. I mean yes, anti-fandom is one thing because people are anti-fans and they behave in ways a lot like fans except they hate the thing, but there’s also this whole world of gradations of feelings about it. These things have been talked about plenty in the literature on fandom, but the terms of the discussion are not built to include them. … We don’t have a word for people who are still deeply emotionally invested, but maybe not always in a positive way. And that limits the way people can think about their audiences.
TT: Do you have any general idea of how the industry views fans?
FK: I think that would be a hard thing to generalize.
TT: Or specific examples, then?
FK: There’s too many different people in the industry to make a statement about that. If you’re talking about the macro level, corporations need to make money and their interest in fans on a corporation level is inextricably tied to that. They want to do whatever is going to make them the most money, and that should be no surprise to anybody.
When you get down to it, there’s so many different people in a company. So you do have people who work on social media who are very aware and involved and invested in exactly what’s happening in fandom, on whatever subject. But then you have writers. Some of them are involved and invested, [but] a lot of them feel like “oh, why don’t you just leave me alone and let me do my work.” The things that make someone a good writer are not necessarily the things that make someone a good person to interact with other humans. Not all writers are interested in extroverted conversation with other people about their work.
And then you’ve got people who are working in advertising who have a different context in which they’re interested in. The people who worry about the ratings, [who think] “It’s sure great you got 20000 likes on your facebook page, but in Nielsons, we’re still down, so I don’t care.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s impossible to make a generalized statement. The one thing I can say is that since the 2000’s, people have been less litigious. In the early 2000’s, a lot of companies had legal departments that were pursuing a very aggressive strategy of trying to make sure no-one misused their copywrited characters. People have learned that that’s not a very good idea for a variety of reasons, which I think is a really positive development. But that’s the only industry-wide thing I can say.
TT: What directions do you see fandom going in the future?
FK: I think there’s a lot of things that have changed since fandom moved off of LiveJournal and on to Tumblr. For about 10 years, fandom was really centered about LiveJournal. Moving to Tumblr has made a lot of changes in terms of how you get involved in fandoms, and how you can build communities or not. I think that fandom has become a lot more decentralized and there’s less of an emphasis on fanfiction now than there ever has been, and more of an emphasis on GIFs, on a lot more visual stuff. GIFs get a lot more traction because you’ve got a way to propagate images a lot more easily.
In the long-term, I’m a little concerned about that, and that’s mostly because I think there’s a lot of stuff that will be lost. Tumblr is not always the most reliable service in terms of storing your [stuff]. In certain ways, a GIF can never die because if you delete it, the people who re-blogged it still have it, but where does Tumblr make their money? I don’t know. I understood how LiveJournal made its money, but I don’t know how Tumblr does, and I don’t know if it’s going to shut down, or what’s going to happen.
We’ve already seen this happen with Delicious, which used to be a center of fanfiction recommendations and fanfiction links. Delicious shut down, it was bought, and it was gutted. And now, many, many years of fanfiction links and probably the best way to find fanfiction online, gone. I don’t know what’s next, and I think it’s a mistake to think [people will] turn away from this idea of casually propagating GIFs, or whatever they’ve got, because I think it’s too exciting, it’s too great. I don’t know if in 10 years, we’ll be able to look back on it and have the same kind of record of what’s happening right now, and I don’t know whether we’ll continue to see organizations forming in the same way they used to do. Something new may come up, something new may appear, but I don’t know what that is yet.