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The Fannish Potlatch:
Creation of Status Within the Fan Community

by Rachael Sabotini

Within North-west coast Indian cultures, potlatches were social occasions held by a host to establish or uphold his positionin society. A fandom-oriented email list, chat room, or convention is the fannish equivalent of that and acts in a similar manner, the main difference being that at the fannish potlatch, all participants vie for status, rather than the emphasis being placed on the host. The way that status is established and maintained in both worlds is through the creation of the feast and the distribution of gifts. The maintenance of the fannish order of precedence is not usually done on a conscious level, but is a function of the way people interact.

The Feast
The Emphasis on Quantity Feast dishes were often huge, reflecting the emphasis on quantity as the sign of a generous host. Some feast dishes were as large as small canoes, capable of serving five people at once.

Quantity is still a part of the fannish potlatch, in both the 'feast' and the gift-giving activities. The feast in the fannish world seems to be discussion of the episodes, non-fiction articles, and development of zines; creation of web sites, reviews, critiques, recommendations, and other onlist posts are all dishes served for the list members enjoyment, and high-quality posts of this nature can create a fairly high-status in and of themselves. High quality feast dishes nourish the fandom, and the reader, the list recipients feel emotionally enriched for it.


No matter how high the quality of these feast dishes, they do not generate as high a status as the giving of more traditional gifts: art, songvids, and fan fiction. No matter how wonderful someone may be at creating feast dishes, they cannot reach the status levels reserved for the prolific fanfic writer, vidder, and artist. To do that, they must write, or draw, even if they have no intention of developing the craft that goes along with their chosen gift-art.

The form must be followed: high-status fans must give the traditional gifts.

The Gifts
Gifts in the fannish community have a double message: they are the centerpiece of the fandom, the main focus of most discussion outside of the show itself, and the rite of passage for acceptance into the community at large. The gifts -- art, songvids, and fan fiction -- all require some level of artistry to master and are thus highly prized. Although creating feast dishes requires that same level of skill, because they are not included as an 'art' in the community's mind, the respect that is given to gift-givers is usually denied them. So even though a nourishing conversation can be occurring onlist, if none of the gifts are presented, many fans will considered themselves starved.

The Reward for High-Status Fans At potlatches, guests were seated on the basis of status and were served with great formality by their hosts. High ranking individuals were served first and given the choicest food in greater quantities than other guests. Such honored guests also used the host's most elaborate feast dishes, which were heirlooms depicting family or clan crests.

In fandom, the high-status fan is also catered to. Conversation onlist sometimes centers around eliciting a story sequel from the high-status fan; discussions live or die by the position a high-status gift giver takes. There are the matriarchs of the list, and it is considered improper to disagree with them out of fear that that the gift giving will end. (And if the gift giving ends, community ends, since the focus of the community is the gift giving itself.)

In general, fans are competitive and insecure, and by having a high-status, a fan is groomed and cared for by the community, and their ego is stroked. It is considered a very desirable slot.

At the same time, it also has a darker side, dealing with the expectations and demands placed on the high-status fan to keep producing and keep supplying the fandom with a specific type of gift. The high-status fan valued for their angst production who ventures into humor is not going to receive the same accolades as the high-status fan whose trademark is humor. The high-status fan becomes a commodity to be bartered and begged, as well as cherished and protected.

Status by Association In media fandom, being associated with an actor, whether though their fan club, or through an encounter at a con, will elevate the status of a fan. So, too, are fans elevated by their association with other high-status fans. Particularly in chat rooms, fans mention quite casually who they are betaing for and what in-progress pieces they've seen. They may even 'unofficially' share the work of the high-status fan, thereby increasing their own status. T-Shirts and sig lines are also used to show affiliations, increasing the status of the members, even if they themselves do not produce gifts.

The Gift-Status Equation

     status of Gift to the recipient
X  number of recipients who talk about it
X  frequency of gifts given to community
status of a fan within their fannish community

(Note that amount of feedback a story receives is not part of the equation, just the number of people who talk about it, whom you may never see or hear about.)

The evaluation of the equation tends to take place on secret lists and in chat rooms, rather than on the main list itself. In private, fans feel free to talk with one another about what they liked -- and didn't like -- and a value is placed on the gift. Many people talking about a gift make it seem more valuable; therefore, it *is* more valuable, no matter what the objective quality. Produce enough high-value gifts often enough, and a fan becomes a high-status fan, even if the objective quality of the work is poor.

The Effect of the Gift-Status Equation on the Production of Fanfic
What this means, though, is that writers who are of high-status have a hard time finding betas and editors who will give them critical feedback because of the inequality that exists between the status of the writer and the status of the beta. Low status writers tend to have low status betas, because that is the affinity group that they have to draw from. As their status increases, other opportunities open up, and their access to higher status fans increases. The end result, though, is a large quantity of fiction (because an author who produces a lot is considered generous) with only a minimal level of betaing being performed.

The Effect of the Gift-Status Equation on the Discussion of Fanfic
Criticism is the usual tool used to discuss quality issues in fiction. Most of these evaluative posts try to isolate the whole quality issue without being influenced by the other two concerns (worth of gift to the recipient and frequency of gift-giving), and may, in fact, deny that the end result is the 'status' of a fan within fandom (we are all equals, after all...except we aren't).

But because the production of fanfic creates status, as well a way fans indicate membership in a community, criticism of a work is often thought to imply criticism of an author, their status, and/or membership in the community. One of the first questions asked a reviewer is 'What have you written'? On the surface, this might seem a challenge to the reviewer's writing credentials; it is in fact a question about the reviewer's status and their relationship to the community, as well. 'What have you written' implies 1) 'What fannish communities are you a member of'? and 2) 'Do you have high enough status that I should listen to you'? Those are, I think, the real issues that often get ignored, because the critics themselves have been unaware of the dual nature of fanfic and have tended to tread it as an extension of normal literary pursuits.

(Note: The development of the recommendation page is actually an outgrowth of this. A rec page is usually created by high-status fans of either a feast dish or gift-giving background, and emphasizes the positive aspects of a work, rather than drawing attention to its negative aspects. Thus, the community is re-assured that it is valued, and the quality work is acknowledged. But discussion of how and why the work is valued over another is still forbidden.)

The end result of this is that critics are constantly challenged on their 'right' to criticize work, and critique is relegated to the lowest rungs of the gift-status ladder. (While at the same time critique is highly valued by the authors who are interested in pursuing the craft of writing.) The discussion degenerates and falters; quality is not improved. The fandom sees a continued reduction in the nutritional value of its feast.

The Effect of the Gift-Status Equation on Fandom
Writers in fandom tend to be on the insecure side (not all writers are insecure, yes, I know, but enough are that it impacts the pattern) and the reinforcement by the community makes it easier to deal with the discipline of constant production.

Yet that reinforcement is often draining on the fandom itself, particularly when high-status fans clash. The affinity groups that support the individual high-status fans are drawn into the conflagration, and the status quo is disturbed; until the high-status fans can come to some sort of accord, the fandom is in an uproar and energy is spent choosing which side to support.

Meanwhile, the individual high-status fans continue to write and post, and their status goes up, while the fandom that supports them finds itself emotionally drained because of its ongoing, continued emotional support.

Thus, the drained fans in a contentious fandom start looking around at other fandoms, ones where there is a lot of energy to nourish them, and soon find themselves on other lists, where the potlatch starts again.

Status is an awkward concept In some way, I feel bad about putting this essay together, because it points out the inequalities that exist in fandom. I'd like a utopian society where everyone was valued for doing their best, whether it was a feast dish or a gift. Unfortunately, I feel torn about that as well -- some gifts, no matter how well wrapped, will still be white elephants that I have to hide in my closet somewhere. It's a high-wire act we all perform, but ignoring it won't make it go away. Perhaps by acknowledging it we can examine the problems that status causes us and begin to solve them ourselves.

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