Fandom and Media Work

Last week was the annual AOIR conference, this time in Vancouver. I could not make it, but several friends and colleagues were cool enough to point out to me that MIT's Henry Jenkins - whose work is a big source of inspiration for me, as for many others - referred to Media Work at his conference keynote (see picture, courtesy of one of our IU graduate students in attendance).

Henry discussed participatory culture, its historical antecedents in fandom (from an audience perspective), and its recent appropriation by media industries. Several blogs online feature summaries of his talk - I particularly like the Twitter-style index at Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence blog, and the more detailed and balanced review by Axel Bruns on his Snurblog.

In a critical response to Jenkins' keynote, Rochelle Mazar's excellent Diary of a Subversive Librarian featured the following observation:
Fandom is not a money economy, but it is an ecomony nevertheless. It’s a complex gift economy, where creative production, feedback, and critical reflection are the products and name recognition, attention and feedback are the currency.
This is a profound insight, and immediately resonated with something about the workstyles of professionals across the media industries: they more often than not see their work as somehow located outside of a "money economy", and tend to establish their professional identity also based on "gift" criteria such as peer review, reputation, and attention (of competitor-colleagues first, and audiences later).

Media workers and fans thus share a fundamental property of their self-identity. But in terms of their social identity, they differ: fans tends to shy away from the money issue, whereas professionals expect to be paid for their work (even though many go through a "work for free" phase, especially at the start of their portfolio careers).

However: once media professionals have experienced their fair share of lay-offs, terminated contracts, and cancelled projects, once they have reached another phase in their lives (with perhaps more attention for family life, care of elderly parents, grounding in some kind of community), the "fandom" aspect of media work perhaps diminishes, and shifts more towards a rather traditional value theory of labor.

I wonder whether that is the moment when the "fun" gets taken out of media work. Whether this is the moment companies lose their most senior, experienced workers - because they fail to invest in them in a way that enables these professionals to stay fans?

To me, this comment reveals a crucial element of what it means to have "talent" in the media industries: that is, to be a fan (and to work in an environment that enables and encourages you to stay one).