For as long as there’s been an internet, fans have used it to connect with like-minded fans, first through fledgling services like Usenet and email lists, and more recently, on sites like Tumblr and the fan fiction hub Archive of Our Own. The internet may change, but Star Wars fans stay Star Wars fans. (Alas.) So how do they know when it’s time to vacate one platform and decamp for a new one? Earlier this month, Casey Fiesler, an information science professor at the University of Colorado–Boulder (and Slate contributor), posted her initial findings from a survey she conducted on the popularity of different fan platforms over time. Fiesler, who is working with graduate student Brianna Dym to synthesize the data for an academic paper, spoke to Slate about fandom migration patterns, whether anybody still uses LiveJournal, and where fans might be going next.
Slate: What prompted you to study the history of where fans have connected online?
Casey Fiesler: Right before I started my faculty position, I finished my dissertation and had a summer where I was still [in graduate school], and it was like, “Well, you have some grant money left, you should do a new thing that’s kind of related to what you were doing in your dissertation but can branch out a little bit.” That’s when I did a study of Archive of Our Own. I interviewed 28 people as part of that; about 10 of them were developers, maintainers, the people who started the archive, the people who work on it now, and then the rest were just users. One of the things that I was trying to get at in those interviews is how Archive of Our Own was different than other platforms that people had used over the years, how it compared to LiveJournal, how it compared to Tumblr. I ended up getting a lot of really interesting information from people about the differences in these platforms and also their experiences of these migrations.
I’d already written two papers based on those interviews. One was about the design of Archive of Our Own, and one was about how women learned to code by working on the archive. I’ve always found the migration stuff to be really interesting. When my student Brianna joined our program in the fall, I said, “Why don’t you go back through these interviews and pull out everything that’s related to platform migration? And then we’ll see what’s there, if there’s enough for a paper.” We decided that it was really interesting, but we didn’t have quite enough to be able to say as much as we wanted to say. The survey was based on things we learned from the [original] interviews.
Did the survey results turn out about how you expected them to?
Most of it followed about what I was expecting to see based on the interviews I’d done and based on my experiences of fandom. I was expecting the LiveJournal drop-off to be sooner [than 2012]. This past week, when everyone’s been talking about the Facebook scandal, it’s actually solidified an idea for me that I was thinking about as I was interpreting these results, and it’s that it wasn’t enough for LiveJournal to do some things that people described as deal-breakers—there were some design things, there were some policy things, basically everyone really soured on LiveJournal around the same time—but it wasn’t enough for that to happen; there also had to be a viable alternative. What you’ll notice from the chart is that between 2007 and 2009, things were happening with LiveJournal that made people not like it anymore. From the chart, you’ll see that it didn’t start to precipitously dip until a couple of years after that. You can see that Tumblr and Archive of Our Own, or AO3, are both climbing around the same time. I think that those had to get popular enough, enough people moving there so that those were a place for people to move to, because when there’s nowhere for you to go, they don’t go. You can think of AO3 and Tumblr as sort of the archive side and the social side of LiveJournal, so there wasn’t a single place that people could move to, so instead you see people going to both of those places.
I’ve seen a lot of, “Oh, everyone should just stop using Facebook.” It’s not actually a reasonable solution. There’s a whole lot of opportunity cost in leaving Facebook. It’s not just that there are other places where you could post pictures of your kids. It’s not that. It’s really highly integrated into work life and social life.
Archive of Our Own seems to be really important in fandom, but I don’t know if most people have heard of it.
I was in fandom when it was being built, and I’m on the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works, which is the nonprofit that supports the archive as one of its projects. It’s kind of crazy that it’s been so successful because it really was built in the early days by three or four women working on it together. And now it has something like over a million users.
You referred to the social and archival functions a fandom uses—what did you mean?
There’s always been two pieces of fandom that are important for online platforms: one as an archive, and one as a social space. A lot of the early ones were both: Someone posted their fan fiction to Usenet, but that’s also where they were having meta-discussions. Same with email lists, etc. FanFiction.net is another one that’s just archives, no social. LiveJournal kind of became both. One of the reasons that, as someone who studies human-computer interactions and interfaces, LiveJournal is fascinating because it was not built for any of the things fandom did with it. There were all these interesting workarounds and conventions for how people used it. It became an archive; particularly, there were all these communities where people to post fanfic and that’s all that was there. Then all the social interaction was happening on the personal journals.
Archive of Our Own is only an archive with no social interaction beyond comments. They don’t even have private messaging. It is a place for fanfiction and commenting on fanfiction, and to some extent other kinds of fan work, like you can embed art. Tumblr is a social space, and some people do use it as an archive, but the [design and function] of Tumblr do not make it a good archive. Content stays there, but it feels more ephemeral because you’re mostly in your feed. A lot of people tend to use both of these sites, or they use Tumblr and fanfiction.net, or Archive of Our Own and Twitter, or whatever. They tend to use more than one thing now. There are a lot of people I talked to, particularly the older fans, who are used to these places where everything is all together. Relatedly, lots of people use the word fragmented to describe fandom now. Fandom is fragmented. As we’ve moved across all these platforms, we lose people, it’s less tight-knit than it was, but I think this is also because fandom is so much bigger than what it was. When it was on Usenet, it was a small group of people; of course they were more tight-knit than they are now.
What were the specific things that drove people away from LiveJournal?
This actually mirrors something from FanFiction.net. If you look on the chart, at some point there’s a dip in FanFiction.net around 2003. That’s when they cracked down on adult content. They said you can’t have adult stories on FanFiction.net, so a bunch of people left all at once. There were a few things with LiveJournal. They were purchased by a Russian company sometime around 2008. [Ed. note: It was late 2007.] They kind of said, “Oh, this isn’t going to change anything.” Around that same time, they said, “Oh, we’re trying to crack down on content that might be illegal or obscene.” In 2007, they ended up deleting a whole bunch of journals—some of them were fan art journals, some were things like support groups for rape survivors; I’m not actually sure how they were making these decisions, but there was a huge swath of content that was deleted all at once. Maybe some of it came back, but basically the situation made people feel like their content wasn’t safe there. Even if they weren’t sure whether their content was considered objectionable, there were enough false positives in that set that people just didn’t feel like it was safe anymore.
That combined with some design changes. They made some changes that shouldn’t seem like a big deal but broke some things that fandom in particular were doing. One really specific one was they got rid of the ability to put a subject line on comments, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but there was a practice in fandom of doing anonymous fic-writing through prompts. Without the comments, there was no way to organize it; it made it really difficult to do that there. I think it also was a problem for certain kinds of role-playing people were doing. I think there was a general feeling that LiveJournal under new management was not particularly interested in having fandom there. They would be fine if everyone just left. LiveJournal is kind of a dead space for fandom in particular; I think they became much more focused on their Russian users. Terms of service for a platform, usually they’ll have it translated into different languages and then it will say something like, “Our English-language version is the binding, official version.” On LiveJournal, the official binding TOS is the Russian version.
But on the chart, LiveJournal is still higher than platforms like Twitter that we think of as really big.
The survey questions asked for date ranges. I suspect that a lot of people still have accounts but don’t use it nearly as much. That wasn’t really captured in the survey because it’s hard for me to know what people mean when they say “active.”
I will say I think a lot of people still use LiveJournal for role-playing. That’s a very specific kind of use.
It’s funny that fans left LiveJournal because of the ownership’s lack of interest in them, because that’s the impression I’ve gotten about Tumblr’s relationship to its fans under Yahoo.
CharI’m not a heavy Tumblr user myself. A lot of the people in the survey talked about Tumblr, both for good and for bad. I got this from my interviews, too. There’s also a generational difference. That’s actually one of the tensions. The people who are like, “Oh, I was on Usenet back in the day, and then I moved to all these places,” some of them feel like they’re seen as old, that the kids on Tumblr don’t quite get them, they don’t quite get the kids on Tumblr. It was usually the older fans who tended to be more negative toward Tumblr.
Actually, the biggest difference between Tumblr and a lot of the other, earlier platforms is that there aren’t individual communities in the way that there were on previous platforms. On Tumblr, everything is all together. You can kind of read and search by tag, but it’s not the same thing. Some people feel like there’s less of a sense of community now. Also, something that I’m just starting to get a handle on from going through the survey responses, that I at least hadn’t thought about before, there’s a sense that the overall general culture of Tumblr is very social justice–oriented and there’s more behavior-policing than on other kinds of sites. Some people describe this in a negative way, that this behavior-policing culture has invaded fandom, that the culture of fandom has changed in part because of its interaction with the broader culture of Tumblr.
Tumblr doesn’t have community moderation in the ways that other platforms have had. A LiveJournal community, each one had an owner and a moderator, so you could delete content or ban users. Tumblr is a bit of a free-for-all. A lot of people were telling me that they feel that current fandom platforms have a lot more toxicity. I hear the same thing about Twitter. Tumblr and Twitter are both similar because fandom is not isolated—the broader users on the platform are all kind of in there—and there’s not moderation tools, at least not in the traditional way. This also makes it difficult to form social norms. I think more open platforms have also led to fandom being less tight-knit than it used to be.
Did you notice anything about what fandoms were popular on which platforms?
A really big thing is just timing and the thing that’s popular at that time. But I think there’s also a little bit of some types of things tending to be more popular on certain types of platforms. There’s tons of anime on FanFiction.net, for example, and DeviantArt. Also, the question was only asking people, “What was your primary fandom?” because I didn’t want to get everyone saying 20 things. A thing that I loved tracking was the resurgence of Star Wars.
What did you learn that surprised you most?
When we did the original interviews almost three years ago, in all of them, no one talked about chatrooms, no one talked about voice chat, etc. In the survey, a lot of the answers that we got to the other platforms questions were talking about Discord, which is a voice-chat [app] that I think is mostly used for video games, but apparently has become a space for fandom, kind of a standing voice-chat chatroom, and also Slack. Slack has become a place for fan communities to gather. None of these things came up three years ago, which makes total sense, because if Slack was around three years ago, it wasn’t popular yet. It’s a reminder of how fast things can move and also how new technology is a big driver of where fandom is going. Someone who reblogged the survey post said, “What I want to know is where we’re going next,” and that’s a great question.