I was having a conversation with a friend this morning about the issue of content on Fan History and the process of writing fandom history. It hasn’t been an issue I’ve discussed a lot recently because I’ve been busy working on other aspects of the project. On Fan History, we have a a fair amount of content but most of it is really stub like. Even those articles which are more fleshed out, like the CSI, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Police, X-Files and Supernatural, really only begin to give a cursory overview of a fandom’s history. They are one step above including the the very basics for a fandom’s history.
These basics tend to include information on when social networking communities were created, when fan fiction was first posted to some major archives, a directory of members of the fandom, when a show premiered, and when an article about the canon was created on Wikipedia. Sometimes, the basic information also includes some fandom size benchmarks based on the number of members on a LiveJournal community, the number of fans on FanPop, the number of stories on FanFiction.Net on a given date. It might also include some terms and definitions that are specific to a fandom. The article might give a brief overview of some the major fights in a fandom. It might touch upon mailing list creation dates, and give an idea of what was happening on some of the major fansites. The latter information tends to include when fansites were created and when they were updated. When building starter articles, we include this information because, to be frank, it is easy to get if you’re not very knowledgeable about a fandom. It also helps paint a partial picture of a fandom that others can help build on. If you put in information about bebo communities, orkut groups, InsaneJournal asylums, FanFiction.Net forums, LiveJoournal communities, FanPop sports, then others should know that there are communities there and it might be worth going through the article and fleshing that information out. If you get enough of this basic information, it really can begin to look like an actual history. Fan History‘s article about the Alias fandom is an example of that. The article basically has really basic information. It looks like it has the real beginning of content.
Only it doesn’t. That’s one of the greatest challenges for Fan History. Very few of our articles are totally outstanding and stupendous because while we have some of the basics, we don’t have much about the history that would be useful. Why don’t we? Why can’t we leverage the starter content we do have into articles that are more useful, that can really begin to give an idea about the history of a fandom? How can we create useful content and additional content?
In my conversation, we discussed the recruiting aspect and the publishing format. Is a wiki the right place to do write the history of fandom? The answer is both yes and no. A wiki is great in that it allows collaboration that is unparalleled. If you set the rules right, you can get multiple perspectives that allow you to tell the history of fandom in a way that might be really difficult to do otherwise. There aren’t necessarily barriers to contribution that some projects might have. There is a record of all the changes that have been made. As the history of the fandom changes and happens, you can easily update it. Parts of writing the history of fandom can be automated; you can quickly create a large pool of quantitative data which can then can be examined for a more qualitative approach to writing that history. With a wiki, as you go into more depth with unexpected historical diversions, you can move that information around while still developing a cohesive history of a community and not risk losing involvement in the whole of the project. People generally don’t need permission or need to get in touch with a wiki maintainer in order contribute to a wiki; they can find something they feel like editing and just delve on in. If they don’t see what they want, it generally is pretty easy to create it. These are all advantages to wikis and advantages for Fan History.
But Fan History fails in a couple of places. The first is the number of active contributors. We probably have five to twenty active contributors in any given month who edit more than two articles. That isn’t much. What this means is that a lot of the benefits for Fan History are just not being realized. Fan History just can’t realize those things until we get more contributors and contributors who will spend several days editing an article about their fandom, about members of the fandom, communities related to their fandom, articles related to services utilized by their fandom, etc. And then those contributors need to promote those articles and get other people involved in writing those articles, people from inside their own circle and outside of their circle of fandom.
That’s where Fan History fails and where the wiki model, in this particular case, fails. Given enough time and enough dedication, given people pushing the project, given some attention by news source or a blogger with the ability to bring in a mass audience, we’ll accomplish that. We’ll generate content we need and really having some amazing histories of fandom written.
That said, given all those issues, there is a good case that this type of content might best fit in a peer reviewed journal. Why? With a peer reviewed journal, you’ve generally got a fair amount of legitimacy based on the fact that, well, you’re a peer reviewed journal. People are motivated to contribute. If you contribute, you get to put that nifty line on your vita that you’ve been published in such and such a journal. If you’re writing for a peer reviewed journal, you don’t have to worry about people coming and disrupting your carefully written history by adding or taking away something you think is important. You have the leisure to make mistake in your history, as they can be corrected in the writing or editing process; others don’t need to even know you made those mistakes. With a single author writing the history of a single fandom, they have the time to really focus and a purpose for writing. The author can explain things, has to explain things as peer reviewed journals aren’t known for their bulleted lists. Spending six months writing a comprehensive history of fandom becomes much more feasible. With a peer reviewed journal, there are built in quality controls. The author can ask various people in the fandom for major fan fiction archives, influential fanworks, important communities. They can use google and follow links all over the Internet to get an idea as to the scope of a community. They have the ability to work in an explanation as to why orkut communities became popular in 2005 but by 2007 were largely abandoned. The author can paralell that development to the rise of bebo, LiveJournal, InsaneJournal, JournalFen, Quizilla, MySpace and FaceBook communities. That can be hard to do in a wiki article. Peer reviewed journals are also pure content. There isn’t a lot of material, waiting around to be added to in order to understand what is going on. There are just a lot of benefits to this format for telling the history of fandom.
Of course, a peer reviewed journal doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get a better history or more complete history. Peer reviewed journals can only publish so many articles. Fan History has information on over 2,500 different fandoms, fan communities in over one hundred countries and thirty different states in the US. It would take a few years to a few decades to publish that much information in a peer reviewed journal. By the time everything was complete, a lot the information would be out of date. If the person writing the article wasn’t diligent or was focused on presenting their fandom in a certain light, if they were only interested in or knowledgable about a certain segment of fandom, the history of a fandom could be radically out of whack with the history that other parts of that fandom know. Articles can’t be updated in a timely manner. Corrections are a hassle to do. Peer reviewed journals can also be inaccessible to the masses, both in terms of reading, and contributing their own articles. The language might also make histories inaccessible.
Despite these drawbacks to a peer reviewed journal, there are times I wish that Fan History was less of a wiki and more like a peer reviewed journal. This desire tends to feel selfish in ways that I don’t particularly like when I think about them. With out a wiki, I could spend a lot less time worrying about the finances of Fan History, less time working on getting people involved with the project, less time networking, less time learning about SEO, and less time working thinking about the limitations of wikis and MediaWiki. I could spend more time being involved in fandom, more time reading fan fiction. I could do a better job writing the histories of specific fandom as I could be concerned about one fandom at a time as opposed to 2,500 plus different fandoms. I could happily obsess over say the Doctor Who fandom, develop a comprehensive list of fanzines, find out the BNFs on all the various message boards, mailing list and social networking communities. I could learn more about conventions that mattered in the Doctor Who fandom, find out how national communities interacted in the Doctor Who fandom. I could write fifteen pages on that and then feel like I never need to write about that topic again. I did that with BandFic and I’d love to do it again.
If I did that, the history of fandom wouldn’t best be served. Such a project wouldn’t have much the potential scope that Fan History has. For all the drawbacks of the wiki format, it still best serves that history. It just comes back to how do you get content. The very basic information on start articles needs to be fleshed out, generating content which will help generate further content and further interest in the project. To do that, we’ve got to keep doing what we’ve always done: Continue to create content, improve existing content, and reach out to the fan community to ask them to be involved. As came up in my phone conversation, we need to better leverage our connections and the connections of those around us. We also need to keep having these conversations so that we can reflect on practices that work and those that don’t work. Given enough time, we’ll eventually succeed in generating the content we need and the format won’t be an issue any more.