A Mighty Fine Shindig

The production and circulation of fan culture is entering a moment when the lines between content owners, content producers, and content audiences are being re-drawn, if not erased. Fans, entertainers, and copyright holders are renegotiating the terms of participation. Because of the numerous methods for distributing, making, and producing content, these networked actors are no longer bound by traditional means of sharing and delivering content. The traditional roles of producer/audience are no longer as clear when fans and artists are co-producing material to share, spread, and celebrate. We are now seeing fans as central actors in the production of music videos (Palmer, 2009) and funding of movies (Thomas, 2013). In many cases, this co-operative work is welcome, while in other cases, the results have met with resistance in the form of cease-and-desist letters and the threats of lawsuits (Gibson, 2007).

In negotiating this participation, fans navigate various digital and physical spaces to become contributors. Many scholars have examined this kind of labor, including Henry Jenkins’s (1992) groundbreaking work on fan fiction, Matt Hills’s (2002) examination of fandom’s anti-commercial ideology, and Abigail De Kosnik’s (2013) work on the free labor of fandom. The activities fans partake in and the objects they invoke shift the context in which they are participating. They create fan fiction in the form of text-based stories posted to fan forums. They curate image-based tumblr blogs. They make t-shirts dedicated to their fandoms, selling them on sites such as Tee Fury and RIPT Apparel. They create videos, build quizzes, and write songs. In short, fan-based writer, maker, and crafter activities have grown in many directions, especially as the tools to produce content have become cheaper and the circulation of these kinds of texts becomes easier. And while these materials are in abundance online and many are protected by Fair Use, the copyright holders do not always appreciate such participation from fans.

The short-lived science-fiction television show Firefly (Whedon, Davies, & Minear, 2002) and the movie Serenity (Whedon, Buchanan, & Mendel, 2005a) has a fandom that has produced more original content than the show itself. From podcasts (The Signal, n.d.) to edited collections whose authors include a mix of fans and fan scholars (Espenson, 2004; Esponson, 2007; Wilcox & Cochran, 2010), these participants are as prolific as they are passionate about this source material. They have even established an organization to encourage fans to celebrate the show while supporting the charity Equality Now. In 2013, the volunteer-run Can’t Stop the Serenity (n.d.) raised $110,783.53 while “gathering in Browncoat fellowship to keep the signal strong for Firefly, Serenity, and of course, Joss Whedon and his ever growing body of work.” And fan scholars and scholar fans are both active in the Whedon Studies Association as evidenced by their participation in their conference, Slayage, and the recently published Reading Joss Whedon (Wilcox et al., 2014).

Firefly fans are passionate about certain props from the show. In particular, the Jayne hat has gained currency as a symbol of their fandom. Named after the character who wore it, fans across the world wear it proudly as a symbol of their fandom. In 2013, that hat was claimed by the copyright holders, licensed to a third party, and sold by a “nerd company” (Chaney, 2013) that later regretted it. Before the “official” version was produced, the hat crafters were primarily fans selling their knitted caps or sharing patterns online with other fans. The making of the official hat led to Firefly’s copyright holder, 21st Century Fox, to send cease and desist letters to crafters selling their homemade hats on Etsy (Hall, 2013). These activities rapidly pulled together the Firefly fandom, inspiring fans and allies to take to social media to vent frustrations and come up with solutions to work around these restrictions.

In analyzing these activities, I trace how individual members contributed to the case study, illustrating how they participate as a hybrid of Michel de Certeau's (1984) concepts of strategy and tactic. I examine how companies respond to criticism online, how participants negotiate their participation as consumers of content and crafters of products, and how entertainers take sides in the wake of these activities. As Ann M. Blakeslee (2010) has noted, “digital audiences are complex, requiring processes of analysis and accommodation that embrace and take full account of this complexity” (p. 223). By making these moves more visible through this type of analysis, I explain why this kind of social web participation is a significant site of study for digital rhetoric, one that can help expand how we teach social media writing practices to our students. These are students who may very well already be participating in similar fandoms and spaces and entering careers where they will be responsible for responding to these issues and setting policies for producers, consumers, crafters, and participants.