Fan Fiction and the Consumer-as-Creator
When all media is fan fiction, consumption, distribution, and creation begin to merge. So how do we pay fans for their work?
Let’s start with this hypothesis about fan fiction:
Creation is distribution; consumption is production; and the content is the platform.
We can look for evidence at least as far back as Virgil. Ransacking Homer’s Troy for inspiration, The Aeneid translates entire passages from Homer into Latin, “updating” them to resonate in the new Roman Empire. But “updating” isn’t quite the word. As fan fiction, The Aeneid carries on an oral tradition in a textual age, embellishing and condensing but ultimately transmitting Homer’s popular source text in new form. Virgil’s work distributes Homer’s as bees distribute pollen, disseminating it to new consumers. Virgil’s content is Homer’s platform; Virgil’s creation is Homer’s distribution.
But we might be better off looking more recently, as fan fiction dominates media production. Twitch videos are fan fiction for video games; Tik-Tok videos are fan fiction for songs, movies, and other Tik-tok videos; and QAnon conspiracy theories are, if you like, fan fiction for politics. (GameStop and Dogecoin, we might add, are not only fan fiction for finance, but such good fan fiction that they make the joke real.) This mass-fan fictionification of media makes sense because:
Creators have more power than ever to aggregate and remix media through democratized technology (as Eugene Wei has pointed out, remixes requiring Adobe a decade ago can be done in the Tik-Tok app)
Creators have more power than ever to generate a viewer base through democratized platforms (Twitter, Substack, Twitch, etc.)
Maybe most importantly, network algorithms reward fan fiction with a positive feedback loop. Fan fiction is a sign that a piece of media is popular and going viral, and that helps both the original media and the fan fiction go viral in return. This is Virgil on steroids. The fan fiction doesn’t just help distribute the original piece of media by restaging it with its own content; it also triggers algorithms to distribute both and encourage more fan fiction in turn.
Note that #1 and #2 have been growing trends for a decade; #3 is new with the advent of algorithmic feeds based on what the platform thinks you’ll find interesting, rather than what your friends think you’ll find interesting. A platform like Tik-Tok or Twitter understands that popular videos and posts are often platforms themselves for other popular videos and posts.
Or in other words, fan fiction’s content is fiction’s platform; fan fiction’s creation is fiction’s distribution.
How did we get here? We might tell the story through Twitter—in the move from the favorite to retweet to subtweet. In the beginning was the “favorite,” a star in 2006 that was later rebranded as a heart-shaped “like.” Discussion of this new economy-of-likes over the following decade would often focus on the influencers: likes were not only a ballot for viewers to pick their celebrities directly, semi-free of studio intermediation, but a new way to engage with creators directly. (It’s not the number of followers that counts, a 2016 Forbes article tells us, but the level of engagement.)
Less-discussed, however, was the way that likes were giving power to the viewers as well as creators. With the retweet in 2009, Twitter users could now serve as a platform to share their favorite creators’ work: consumption was becoming a new form of distribution as well, continuing to disintermediate studios that traditionally released work. Content on social media had become a platform as well.
And then around 2014 came murmurings of the subtweet: a parody of a popular tweet that didn’t @ the creator but required context to get. Now the reader didn’t just distribute a creator’s work, but twisted it, reclaimed it, performing their own cover-as-criticism. The same phenomenon of democratized remixing was happening with memes, which had their breakout year in 2014. Memes and subtweets demonstrated that parody would be ideal content for viral platforms, not only because it transmits the works it purports to take down, and not only because social media is highly contextual. More importantly, parody represents a kind of hard fork of an underlying source code that’s easy to produce and spread. As a result, 2014 marked a major year in the move from viewers just distributing the content they consumed to aggregating and recreating the content they consumed. This would become the entire model for Tik-Tok a few years later. Content was the platform; creation was distribution; but now, consumption was also a form of production.
In other words, when we gave power to viewers as consumers, we also gave them power as distributors—and when we gave power to viewers as distributors, we also gave them power as creators. As Tik-Tok’s endless remixes testify, the difference between consuming, distributing, and creating is increasingly blurred.
That leaves one last step for fans: not only to use their favorite work to consume, distribute, and create, but to monetize as well.
Crypto hypercharges this shift not only by letting creators monetize directly from fans through platforms like Bitclout, Rally.io, and Inx, but by letting fans directly monetize too. One way is to let fans invest in their creators. Within the past month, for example, Ditto has been letting artists sell their music rights to fans. Similarly, when The Generalist proposed that its subscribers should be entitled to a share of revenue, it was essentially translating a VC model onto a consumer subscription model, acknowledging that fans that invest in a work deserve returns too. In many ways, the move was an extension of Brave’s model of advertisers paying viewers directly to watch their ads—that is, subsidizing consumers directly for the labor performed in consumption. But in another sense, it was something more, a way to incentivize fans to distribute the content. Or, if you like, an acknowledgement that fans are the primary platform of distribution and are the ones who should be paid as brand ambassadors.
Investment is not the only model for fan-monetization, however. Packy McCormick’s proposal to split revenue among the writers he quotes goes further: it acknowledges not only that fans distribute favorite work, but that fans recreate favorite work, that all work takes and recreates the work before it. Holler, though not technically a crypto-project, aims to let users to treat stickers as currencies of a sort that entitle parties to discounts on favorite goods: spread the word about a new Starbucks drink you like, for example, and you and your friends can get a deal on it. Even when it comes to advertising, users will be the distributors in an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth p2p network—and monetized for it.
In a way, we haven’t left the oral tradition (that original p2p network). If we think of parody in particular as a kind of parasitic form of art in which new content infects and mutates the host body of a classic work in order to propagate itself, then we can start to see that this model of consumption-as-distribution-as-creation has continued at least since Hegemon of Thasos (himself preserved only in quotes through the retelling of Aristotle). It’s not hard to tell the story of Western media in the 20th century as a story of parodic fan fiction that increasingly blurs the lines between consumption and production: Picasso, Joyce, and Charles Ives as parodists of the Western canon, Ulysses parodying the language of popular literature and Finnegans Wake parodying language itself, gradually turning to a commentary-less Warhol and Koons model that seems to recreate and transmit objects like soup cans and balloons that are themselves recreations and transmissions of each other.
What’s new? That Warhol-like disintermediation—between the viewer and the object, the recreation and the creation, the fan and the creator—has finally been democratized to the point that fans can finally be creators. In other words, fandom is almost certainly the future of distribution and quite possibly the future of creation. Now it deserves to be monetized as well.
This piece is effectively a continuation of last week’s piece on the “Unbundling of Youtube,” which argued in its conclusion that the aggregators of the 2010s were big tech companies while the aggregators of the 2020s will be individual fans (occasionally disintermediating those companies as well as we return to p2p paradigms). Even aggregation has been democratized, in other words. I wasn’t entirely happy with how I structured that argument, so I wrote a different version of it on Twitter here.
Finally, this piece is deeply indebted to Eugene Wei’s wonderful series on Tik-Tok, “Tik-Tok and the Sorting Hat,” “Seeing like an Algorithm,” and “American Idle,” all must-reads.