Gifts, Fandom, and Participatory Entertainment

The announcement of Shared Story Worlds sparked a wonderful online exchange between Simon Pulman and Robert Pratten, immediately surfacing some of the thorniest issues surrounding participatory entertainment. It started on Transmythology, Pulman’s personal blog, which then prompted Pratten to post his own response.

The questions and issues raised are exactly the kinds I want to explore on this site:

  • What’s the definition of an amateur? A professional?
  • What is the criteria for quality content (or the definition of quality, for that matter)?
  • Facing a lack of clear, obvious terms when discussing Shared Story Worlds, how do you construct a meaningful and useful vocabulary?
  • What is the role of curation in a shared world, and how important is it?

Pulman highlighted the value of a shared story world in providing amateurs a built and stable space in which they could hone their skills in a community, and Pratten offered up a few diagrams to explain his point about audience motivation and encouraging contribution/collaboration.

In the diagram below, Pratten divides audiences into fans and collaborators.

Pratten makes the “distinction between a “fan” and a “collaborator” as the ability to be a canonical contribution to the storyworld.” Collaborators are those whose works have been deemed canonical.

Pratten then goes on to translate the works of fans and collaborators with the following diagram:

Pratten writes:

This is not to say that fan contributions are not to be encouraged but they should be regarded more as a gift – it’s an act of affection. It’s why one woman and her child drove 7 hours to Austin to give Rovio CEO Peter Vesterbacka two homemade Angry Birds ceramics – it’s not a canonical contribution, it a gift. And this is how most user-generated content might be viewed (as a gift to the community): motivating this behavior is quite different from motivating collaboration.

I’m going to quibble a bit about the artificial distinction between fans and collaborators, as I don’t see these groups being mutually exclusive. If one of eight of a fan’s works/gifts is accepted as official content in a shared world, does the fan permanently become a collaborator? I think a better approach is to define the audience’s role as being more fluid and dynamic, with an audience member potentially serving in any one of a spectrum of roles at any given point. One day, they may be a fan, as Pratten describes them, while the next they may be a collaborator or even a contractor.

But what really struck me was Pratten’s choice of the word, “gift.”

Many media scholars have long divided fandom and commercial activities by placing fandom in a gift culture framework and commercial properties in a commodity culture framework. Suzanne Scott explored this division in an article she wrote for the Transformative Works and Culture publication.

As Scott notes, there are clear benefits to placing fandom well within a gift economy, and some academics hold that gift and commodity cultures actually simultaneously exist in symbiosis and at odds with each other.

While the fan community has long been able to self-organize around various topics and properties, often around charitable causes where the concept of gift-giving achieves an altruistic level (e.g., The Austin Browncoats and the 501st Legion), what Scott warns against is the appropriation of gift economy philosophies by a commercial property in a commodity culture. The collision of commodity economy functionality with gift culture philosophy is usually volatile (see: Fanlib’s spectacular demise).

The context of Pratten’s word choice underscores the source of most fan-produced work: passion or love [for an entertainment property] that fuels a desire to share something [fan-based content], with no explicit expectation of compensation, monetary or otherwise. Recognition is often a driving motivator, but most fans understand they will not legally have a right to profit from their works.

Yet, even fan-produced works viewed as gifts aren’t so clear cut. Failing to give credit when using another fan’s remixed work, for example, can be a crime in fan communities. The notion that all fan-produced works are pure gifts doesn’t fully encompass the complexities of social practices prevalent in fandom.

And the complexities increase dramatically as soon as the nature of that work is changed from a gift to something else, something with strings attached. Shared story worlds that occupy the commercial quadrant sit squarely in the space where commodity economies and gift cultures intersect.

So, how do you avoid these kinds of issues in a shared story world that has a commercial foundation?

One way is by establishing an explicit, tangible parity between what is expected from audiences and what is offered in return. The ability for audiences to play with official content in a controlled space where audiences forfeit all rights to their works is not what I would call parity. Entertainment properties that do not provide an established path to canonicity but encourage audience contribution also fall short in terms of parity (“submit your stuff, and if we like it, hey, we may or may not publish it and we may or may not pay you – but we own your work, regardless” hardly seems equitable).

Pratten’s observations about motivation are valuable and worth remembering as you construct your world and court your community. Is there parity between the reward of participation and the cost of contribution (i.e., have you properly aligned the motivations for collaboration with the types of audiences you are targeting)? And, yes, there is a real cost to fans for contributing.

Anyone who has studied economics understands the opportunity costs involved in resource allocation: where time is a fixed, finite resource, fans much choose how they spend that resource by weighing the opportunity costs involved. If they spend two hours drawing a piece of fan art for your commercial property, will they get the same/more/less satisfaction from watching a movie? Having dinner with their friends? Sleeping?

The delicate dance of inviting fans to participate in a commercial property involves recognizing the tension between the driving factors of fandom – where the motivator is to share – and commercial entertainment – where the motivator is to maximize revenue through control. Step lightly. Step politely.


3 thoughts on “Gifts, Fandom, and Participatory Entertainment

  1. Great piece. It’s a tricky, fascinating tension. I agree that the model of “submit it, it’s ours, we’ll do what we want” is manifestly unfair – but for an IP owner the possibility of a break in chain of title is unacceptable.

    I’ve seen several panels over the last week talk about how important fan community is – but fans hate the sensation that they are being used by corporations for marketing (see, e.g., So it absolutely has to be something that is transparent and fair.

    My feeling is that the eventual solution will be some kind of compromise where fans submit, and if the fan story or element is used, there is a contractual credit and small fee involved – after which, the IP owner owns the element for perpetuity. Yet some might feel that doesn’t go far enough in terms of fairness, and perhaps that corporations can’t be trusted to honor these agreements when they have to, in essence, self-regulate. Would love to hear more thoughts.


    1. Had not seen the Battlefield 3 Facebook campaign. Wow. Just…wow.

      I agree that large entertainment/media companies are going to hew much closer to traditional approaches to IP, and given the millions they invest in properties, their desire to do so is understandable. That said, there are ways to maintain chain of title and still allow for meaningful fan participation – many models, in fact, as I hope to demonstrate by listing different shared story worlds here!


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