The Decade Fandom Went Corporate

The Decade Fandom Went Corporate
Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)
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In the last twenty years, fandom and mass culture have basically merged. Fans and fandom spent the 2000s fighting for legitimacy and proving their combined worth. And corporations? Well, they spent the 2010s learning how to co-opt fandom to silence critics, manipulate press, and make even more money.

For decades and decades, fandom wasn’t something you talked about. Not really. Fanfic, fanart, and cosplay—those were things shared at conventions and in zines and, later, in usenet groups. Even the outwardly facing form of fandom—the manboy fan with his collectibles and endless trivia debates—was usually presented as something to be ashamed of.

By the early 2000s, the age of the geek was clearly ascendant. Those were the years in which fandom got mainstream acceptance. Even if the discussions about Twilight were marked by the classic derision given to things beloved by young women, in 2008 it also a) proved the power of fan conventions, b) gave a lot of people their first understanding of “shipping” and “shipping wars,” and c) was talked about in a way that showed mainstream writers had some understanding of fandom culture.

Today, almost everyone knows what fanfic, shipping, and canon are. But with the spotlight has come money, corporations, and control. If the early 2000s were about gaining acceptance, then the 2010s have been about getting paid.

Fandom isn’t monolithic. Specifically, fandom has often been characterized as being split between “curatorial” (also called “curative”) and “transformative” fandom. The former is characterized by activities like memorizing trivia and/or buying collectibles. By its very nature, it’s consumptive. And while that stereotype of the fanboy with his mint-conditions and action figures still in the box was derided, being this kind of fan didn’t get you in trouble with corporations.

Transformative fandom’s road was much rockier. The split between curatorial and transformative fandom—with one more accepted than the other—has been historically viewed as gendered. Transformative fandom is where fans don’t just consume the media, they make it their own. This is where you get cosplay, fan films, and so on. Transformative fandom got you in trouble. Being threatened with legal action for writing fanfic was a very real danger.

I’d argue that transformative fandom calls to marginalized groups in general because it is the realm of people who see something compelling in a piece of media and then reinterpret it in a new way, to make it easier to identify with. Hollywood—and comics, and book writers, and so on—has been so white, so straight, and so male for so long. Transformative fandom lets people participate in mainstream culture and still get to see themselves in it.

Transformative fandom has been looked down on, derided often for the people who participate in it. Some refer to it using words like “girly” or “gay” or just “weird,” and between the ridicule and the legal threats from studios and authors, transformative fandom has been dismissed and endangered for a very long time.

In the last few decades, that’s changed just enough that younger fans don’t know just how scary it was for those who came before them. All over tumblr, there are posts of older fans explaining the history of fan communities getting decimated because the corporate owner of whatever platform they were using didn’t like something they were doing.

Comic books, science fiction, and fantasy aren’t just part of pop culture now. They dominate it. And that means fans of all kinds don’t live under the shame they used to. Wearing the clothes, buying the toys, going to the theme park for Star Wars or Marvel movies isn’t seen as aberrant for adults anymore. The studios make and market these things for adults as much as kids. Save a few very shitty examples (*cough* Big Bang Theory *cough*), the obsessive fanboy isn’t the punching bag it used to be. And thanks to some other sea changes, transformative fandom is also in a safer place than ever before.

There is one theme that sticks out in the last ten years of fandom, and it is “ownership.” We talk about media as “IP”—intellectual property. Even though fans have no personal financial stake in these “IP,” they have taken to demanding things from creators because they feel they are owed it. The most successful fan project of all time is called An Archive of Our Own.

And once you own something, you can sell it.

Fanwork by fans, for fans

One major force in making fanfic safe to write, share, and consume is Archive of Our Own (AO3) and the group that created and runs it, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW). AO3 launched in late 2009, and, for the first time ever, it won a Hugo Award this year.

AO3 is a nonprofit—this is vital and unique. We’ve had fanfic operations that were for-profit before, and they either ended up with restrictions to make them more palatable or were downright predatory. AO3 has no advertisers to make happy, no corporate masters concerned with whether a gay character can sell tickets, and no interest in either censorship or deleting works it doesn’t like. In addition to running the archive, OTW does legal work that makes creating fanworks much safer than it used to be. Its very existence and fan advocacy is the reason so many new fans don’t know about how bad the fear was for their predecessors. This is great. AO3 is for fans and by fans. We do own this, and it’s wonderful.

You see fans making things for each other throughout the history of fandom, with AO3 as a huge community endeavor. But fan-to-fan exchanges are also changing. Transformative fandom has a long history of gifting fanworks. Exchanging art for fanfic, for example. Any number of “kinkmemes,” where people put out ideas and other people write them. Since 2003, there’s been Yuletide, where writers exchange fanfic set in fandoms that aren’t terribly popular. And there have also been fanwork drives for charity.

In the same way people these days use things like GoFundMe to raise money for basic necessities, fanwork creators have started taking commissions for their work. This is another expression of the hellscape of 2019, where people can’t afford rent, food, or healthcare and are mobilizing their skills and their communities to survive. This is depressing but understandable. There is also the rise of sites Redbubble (founded 2006) and Etsy (founded in 2006), where fans can sell their work to other fans. Where selling any of this thing in any sort of public forum used to be terrifying, it’s now fairly normal.

There are legal concerns, of course. It’s just that, these days, between the work of groups like OTW and the Electronic Frontier Foundations (which, full disclosure, I work at), there’s more understanding and legal precedent showing that fanworks are transformative and not copyright infringement. Creators and companies also have figured out that this kind of fan creation is the result of a love for their show, movie, etc. and that going after fans—in the way Anne Rice was famous for—can only serve to alienate your base.

This kind of stuff is small-scale. It’s niche and is a way for fans to get things to other fans that gives them what official merchandise won’t. Or, is behind on making (see: Baby Yoda). It builds on the classic notion of transformative fandom: we will give you what canon will not, we see you, you are not alone.

So it’s safer now, and companies recognize how important this kind of stuff is to their fans. But then the question for the megacorporation is, as it always is: how can we get a piece of this?

The rise of corporate fandom

Fandom is big business these days. And while making money off of curatorial fandom and suppressing transformational fandom was the norm for big companies for years, that’s also changed. And by giving some transformational fandom its blessing—and taking some of the profits—corporations have also been able to exert a more subtle form of control over fandom than the legal threats of years ago.

Merchandising had been a pretty simple game for a long time: the poster, the shirt of the poster, action figures that faithfully replicate the movie, and so on. But now companies give licenses to more experimental artists and companies. You see this with Mondo, the TV and movie t-shirt and art brand which may have launched in 2004, but grew big enough to have its own convention in 2014. Mondo spent a year getting Lucasfilm to give it a license for Star Wars, one of the biggest merchandising properties there is, releasing exclusives in 2010.

While projects like this are a limited run, it’s still a larger scale than much of the fan-to-fan interactions detailed above. And the press they get—which fanworks without licenses don’t often receive unless they go viral—gives them more influence in the world of fandom.

Her Universe—home of mass-produced geek high-fashion—started in 2010 and is a big presence at fan mecca: San Diego Comic-Con. Her Universe was started by Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, specifically because she couldn’t find enough merchandise for women fans. That’s a classic transformative fandom motivation. Her Universe was bought by Hot Topic in 2016.

None of these things are bad, per se. More variety, more easily available merchandise is a boon to fans. What it also means is that brands are adopting fanworks into their marketing and profit plans. And that means that some fanworks have the approval of the creators and some don’t. And the work given approval is unlikely to be the kind that challenges gender, race, or sexuality in the same way that transformative fandom usually does.

In essence, in the last decade or so, corporations have co-opted the most palatable transformative fandom and monetized it.

BossLogic—the internet name of Kode Abdo—became famous online for his photo manipulations, taking the practice of “fan-casting” (that is, fans talking about who should play their favorite characters in live-action adaptations) to another level. His fan art was so popular and shared so much it got the attention of Russo brothers and Disney, eventually getting him work making official posters for the company.

Social media, in general, has been a place where fan artists can get recognition from the writers, directors, or actors that inspired their work. Michael Sheen’s been a one-man retweeting machine in a way that’s wonderfully positive. On the other hand, having your work go viral can also go wrong for fan artists. There is also the slightly gross habit of major releases having “contests” for fans to design posters, rather than hiring them as artists the way they do for the rest of their marketing material. They get a lot of free posters to share and trade on the desire of fans to be a part of the thing they love for it. It can mean anything from an influx of orders the small-creators can’t meet, to abuse. While interactions like Sheen’s are positive, retweets from brand accounts are a little different, in that companies pick and choose only the fanart that fits their existing marketing.

This is happening outside of fanworks and in other parts of the fan community. San Diego Comic-Con moved from being just a big deal for fans and into a big deal, period, in 2008. The year before, a movie from a brand new studio showed its first footage at SDCC. It was the first Iron Man.

Iron Man did incredibly well in 2008, signaling both the start of the geek takeover of pop culture—making a star out of a character not as well known to the general public as Batman—and of SDCC as an important marketing stage for Hollywood’s biggest names. SDCC’s profile jumped again in 2008, with the absolute mania at the first Twilight panel. That was when the lines and fervor that we now associate as par for the course for Hall H at SDCC started.

And so these kinds of fan conventions, which used to be fan-run and spent years small and growing into annual traditions, have themselves become the targets of for-profit businesses. While SDCC is still run by a non-profit that does nothing but handle SDCC, conventions like NYCC, C2E2, Star Wars Celebration, and many more are run by ReedPop, a subsidiary of event organizer Reed Exhibitions. And they just keep buying up conventions, pulling more and more shows under one big corporate roof.

Corporations have identified the monetizable parts of both curatorial and transformational fandom and made them all consumptive fandom. Fans are encouraged to want what’s been approved by the creator and to back up that approval by buying more and more.

What does my money buy me?

So fandom can be bought and sold. Everyone owns a piece. And with that has come entitlement.

On the side of fans, the need for creators to bless one fan theory over another, of claiming victory if a story ends up playing out the way they want, has led to some appalling behavior. While ugly fan wars have always been a thing, it’s the public, large-scale harassment of actors, writers, and other fans that’s new.

It’s Kelly Marie Tran being bullied off Instagram, fan harassment of a Steven Universe artist, and threatening people over spoilers. It’s the repeated, bad-faith arguments about why AO3—birthed in the wake of a history mass deletions and bannings of fan communities and works, which defends that community in every conceivable way—doesn’t ban certain content. It’s the endless mewling cries for the “Snyder cut” of Justice League—the strongest argument outside of the U.S. military issuing a warning about Joker that some sections of online fandom are indistinguishable from truther subreddits there is.

And, of course, it’s Zack Snyder encouraging the Snyder cut fans, letting the adulation lead him to give one group of fans approval and therefore a way to “win” over other fans. It’s one of the official Endgame hashtags—with a fun exclusive emoji!—being “#DontSpoilTheEndgame.” It’s Endgame’s directors of the movie posting a letter pleading for the same thing in a way that explicitly named specific fandom activities and then basically claimed that being a real fan involved not talking about it. It’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s “KeepTheSecrets” hashtag, and, again portraying some fans as traitors—the one reading “#DontBeWormtail.” It’s the whole Spider-Man debacle getting a hashtag that framed it not as two giant companies fighting over IP rights but as a fight of “real fans” against Sony. When maybe the real question for fans should be: why is Disney entitled to own so much of our culture wholesale? Maybe Sony and Disney and whomever should get to make Spider-Man movies and then we’d pay for the best one and not just the only one.

As companies and creators have incorporated fandom more and more into their official marketing, they’ve exerted more and more influence and control over it. As we end 2019 and go into 2020, we do so after a decade of fandom going corporate. Of fans seeking approval and creators giving it, of movies using fan tweets in commercials when the reviews are bad, of fans lording that over other fans, and of debates about being a “good” fan centering on unqualified support for a piece of media.

It’s good to not have to be afraid to be a fan. It’s nice to not be ashamed of fanfiction. It’s truly beautiful that AO3 won a Hugo in 2019. It’s a shame that fandom has been co-opted by brands. It’s a shame that wider acceptance of transformative fandom has let companies pick and choose, giving only a little to the marginalized groups who thrive there. It’s a shame that the best parts of transformative fandom are being co-opted by the worst people in fandom. It’s a shame that the worst impulses of fandom seem to have the loudest voice.

The line doesn’t seem to be between curatorial and transformative fandom anymore. The last ten years have merged both into exercises in consumptive fandom. The new world of fandom is the difference between whether your fandom is for other fans or for the creators and corporations. In other words, instead of the dividing line being what you consume, it’s now about who you are paying. Are you supporting fellow fans or the megacorporation?

Fandom that wants to create communities, that wants to promote the interests of fans, protect their work, help them experience media in the best way possible for them is on one side. The fandom of nonprofits like AO3 and the sadly dying tumblr communities. The fandom that isn’t about winning but is about enjoying creativity.

Versus the fandom that wants to dictate to you, that has been approved by marketing, that is immune from criticism because real fans just spend the money first and debate it later. Or never debate at all, just unthinkingly consuming. The fandom that is valid because Zack Snyder said so. The fandom of huge mega-corporations endlessly humping the same IP over and over.

We’re lucky that the last ten years hasn’t seen fan-to-fan fandom crushed under the heel of corporate fandom. May it live long and prosper.

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