This newsletter has been so deep in the weeds about the apocalyptic future of AI lately that I can feel myself drifting into the void a bit. And it’s important to remember the internet is a big place and there’s a whole lot more happening than whatever Next Big Thing Silicon Valley is salivating over at the moment.
So, today, the always fantastic Allegra Rosenberg has come back to Garbage Day to give us an update on how the previous Next Big Thing in tech panned out: The push last year to turn fans and fandoms into monetized creators.
Did you know that there’s a crypto monkey named Jenkins that is trying to make an NFT novel co-written by Neil Strauss, the author of the pickup artist book The Game? I didn’t until I edited this piece and now I’m not quite sure what to do with that information. Take it away, Allegra!
Do Fans Actually Want To Monetize?
Does anyone remember those old “maps of Tumblr” — visions of the platform as a world, where countries like “Harry Potter” and “Glee” bordered the nations of “Nutella” and “Cats” ? Ah, simpler times.
They might be cringey, but these maps sort of have a point. Undeniably, the internet has a biogeography all its own — a landscape of human settlements distributed according to resources and infrastructure. Digital borders are determined by commercial choices and complicated by user resistance; migrations from platform to platform affect the emotional landscape of communities as they fracture and shift. Metaphors like continental drift, erosion, and fault lines can be useful in trying to visualize the evolution of online trends.
One example might be the fault line between the Web3/crypto community and the land of fandom. Within this contested space, which I’ve written about before, there’s a focal point of seismic sensitivity around the idea of “fan labor.”
Fans put so much time into fandom; so much work and effort into things like wikis, fanworks, and community building. Corporations have increasingly made use of this work; and the innovators behind Web3, obsessed by digital communities as they are, have seen a niche to fill, becoming fixated with getting fans compensated for the work they do.
As the argument goes, if you’re putting so much time and effort into your fan practices, why wouldn’t you want to invest in some kind of tokenized system that puts a number to that amount of labor, and subsequently a price? Why wouldn’t you want part-ownership of the thing that you treasure so much you’ve devoted all your free time to it??????
But it doesn’t quite work like that.
Netflix faced backlash for its Stranger Things NFT campaign. Instead of fans eagerly lining up to own a unique token that signified blockchain ownership of one of five character posters, they roundly called bullshit and left participation in the campaign mainly to non-fan NFT enthusiasts.
A show with such a passionate fanbase cannot be tempted by things like “exclusivity” or “ownership.” Concepts which are delicious morsels in the minds of marketers only serve to sow distrust among the very fans they mean to tempt.
If you’re a competent businessperson who’s gone your whole life without understanding, from a personal and emotional perspective, what it feels like to stan — or perhaps you felt it once, as a child or teen, but have since forgotten — I get that this might not make sense. There’s a certain kind of talking-down-to, an impersonal infantilization, that can occur in the fault lines between the producer/marketer class and the fan community. A good example is creator-industry VC influencer and Gen Z Web3 guru Li Jin writing in her Substack last year about how “fans are the new creators,” arguing that “in web3 creative projects, underlying ownership of tokens gives fans a built-in business model and incentivizes derivative creation.”
One of her main examples is the Bored Ape derivative series Jenkins The Valet. In this case, because nobody actually cares enough about the apes in a way that would generate an organic fandom and fan works to fill it with, it does make sense that you would need to incentivize it with the promise of monetary earnings in some promised future.
Since the publication of Li’s article, the Apes have lost much of their shine. As of last November, their value had tumbled nearly 100%. The Jenkins the Valet brand is chugging along, having pivoted to a podcast involving a complicated licensing system I’m not bothering to figure out.
For those curious, the Jenkins project, which appears to have started as some kind of novel, is described on its website as, “Written in collaboration with 10x NYT Bestseller Neil Strauss, Bored & Dangerous can be burned for the ability to mint an Azur Root (your pass for a journey to Azurbala) or staked for governance tokens in Hawthorn, formerly known as Media DAO.” Yeah, idk.
But I wonder how much fun its followers are actually having — turning those Azur Roots into passes for Aurbala or whatever. Or does it seem more like work? The thing is, if a property is actually good enough to spin up a fandom on its own, the paradox is that that fandom will then in turn be entirely resistant to the idea of joining up what it perceives as its own leisure with the financialization inherent in a token scheme. I think that the “communities of owners [...] forming around nascent creations” that Li identifies as being a central pillar of the Web3-centric future of fandom will always be separate from organic fan communities situated in a more traditional way from commercial properties.
In a 2014 article “Fan sites as gifts or exploited labor?” fan studies scholar Bertha Chin, looking at fan sites for shows like Sherlock and Battlestar Galactica, argued that “the [fan] labor is continual and intensive, but that does not necessarily mean that it is exploitative, or that these fans consider it so.”
There is a fundamental disconnect between what fans want and what The Powers That Be believe that they ought to want — a world where fans’ “preferred level of engagement is rewarded appropriately,” which is to say, financially.
Historically, fans have tended not to think of the (very real) work they do as labor; they conceive of it as leisure. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, it’s how they spend their time outside of work, or instead of it. Fandom is fun!!!!!!!!! Dammit!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And they are of course having fun while simultaneously understanding their position as commodified subject within a consumer relationship. They aren’t stupid.
But there simply is not going to be one argument you can make to “wake up, sheeple” fans into suddenly being convinced that the effort they put into their fan practices is something that they universally ought to be paid for. Compensated, sure. But the compensation that fans more frequently demand when they reach certain levels of commitment to a property isn’t value, it’s control. Control over storylines and ships, scheduling and access to talent. Of course, influence is something that tokenized projects promise too. But fan entitlement is, I would argue, something that needs to be countered, rather than encouraged.
Lines on the map are being redrawn all the time, as cultural forces form and reform the landscape. Broad creator funds on apps like TikTok promise a lot but deliver little; but apps like Fanhouse, which focuses on monetizing the direct relationship between fans and creators, have seen quiet success.
Instead of embracing tokenization, existing fan communities are constructing their own systems using existing payment tools like Patreon, Ko-fi, and Gumroad to construct commission and tip schemes to suit their own needs, spinning up new systems of social status which reflect their own priorities. An increasing number of fans are taking money in exchange for fan fiction commissions, for example — something that was verboten in the gift economy of a decade ago.
But no matter the specific strategy, the goal is to preserve and maintain the enjoyment which fan participation brings: emotions of overwhelming fun and immersion. This is done by enforcing boundaries around leisure — and these boundaries are frequently at odds with what capitalist logic dictates.
***Any typos in this email were inserted during editing by accident by me probably***
We do not talk enough about the commodification of leisure under capitalism in the internet era.
This was a great piece, so glad to have Allegra back!!!!!
as a Fandom Old from the days of livejournal when everyone had paragraphs long disclaimers that we didn't own anything at all bc we all knew about anne rice and others attempts to sue fan fiction writers into oblivion - the idea of payment for fic is so Wrong to my brain! whatever works for ppl i guess but aside from legalities, i hate that every personal passion has to be a hustle. how about jobs pay a living wage instead