Geek Feminism interviews the OTW’s Francesca Coppa

A couple of weeks ago, we asked you to give us your questions for an interview with Dr. Francesca Coppa, one of the founders of the Organization for Transformative Works. Thanks to those of you who suggested questions, and here are her responses…

The OTW is mostly by/for women, and most of the participants in its projects seem to be women. Do you have any interest in reaching out to primarily-male parts of fandom? How might that work, if you did?

The OTW’s mission is to provide a nonprofit space, and organized advocacy, for the kinds of transformative fanworks (fanfic, fan art, vids, podfic) that are a) potential targets for commercial exploitation (as in the case of FanLib), B) being squeezed out as Web 2.0 “business models” expand (as in the case of vids on Imeem or erotic fan art on LJ), or c) subject to takedowns or other legal challenges. Many, if not most, of those fanworks were and are made by women, but gender isn’t a central criterion; we protect these sorts of fanworks when men make them, too!

That being said, there are some secondary ways in which gender seems to be influencing the populations we serve and the work we do. First, male fans are somewhat more likely than female fans to be making fanworks that have commercial implications or aspirations (e.g. some machinima, some fan films, some video game design, the commercial version of the Harry Potter Lexicon, etc). Second, not all fanworks are subject to the kinds of economic or legal challenges I’ve just described: for instance, nobody’s doing takedowns of forums or wikis or fan films; male-made movie “parodies” are more clearly understood to be fair use than female-made shipper vids; video game designers mostly approve of and even help out machinima makers, etc. Moreover, in terms of financial support, many male or mixed gender areas of fandom are more economically stable than female-dominated areas, either because more guys are willing to turn their fan-ac into a fan-run business rather than depending on external companies or services, or because they’re willing to support their sites with ads. Women making transformative works have tended, rightly or wrongly, to be wary of ads or other forms of commercial support, fearing that it would give ammunition to copyright holders who already don’t like them or their works.

So the OTW’s goal is really to focus on 1) noncommercial works that are 2) currently subject to marketplace or legal pressures. It may be socially significant that most of those works are made by women, but we want to advocate for them no matter who makes them!

Women’s work (childcare, housework, nursing, etc) is usually undervalued and under- or un-paid and if you suggest women should be compensated for it, there’s often a strong backlash. Meanwhile, female fan culture usually hates it when creators seek remuneration for their work (fic, vids, *cough*wikis*cough*, etc). Do you think there’s a connection/parallel there? Do you think we’re going to see changes in the future?

*grins and points you to answer above* We’re now having a more sophisticated conversation about this, partly because female fans are realizing that–as in so many areas of life–the undervaluing of our work and consequently our economic status makes us more vulnerable in the rapidly changing internet economy. Vidders get their work TOSed off YouTube; fan filmmakers get movie deals!

That being said, the question of profit is a complex one, legally, culturally, and aesthetically. Legally: the question of profit does figure somewhat into fair use determinations (though it is not the only factor, and for-profit works can certainly be fair use!) Culturally: female fan culture isn’t simply “anti-profit”; many people also actively value fandom’s “gift culture”. Aesthetically: things made for pleasure can be very different than things made for the marketplace.

I do think that one thing we’re seeing is the strengthening of the “Old Girl Network” of female fandom, where skills learned or demonstrated in fandom are recognized as valid in the marketplace, and female fans are helping other female fans capitalize on them. There’s always been some of this, particularly in creative areas–fan writers going pro, for instance–but now I think we’re seeing fans bringing their fannish expertise into video editing, graphic design and photoshop work, software coding, webdesign and webmastering, systems administration, etc.

I’ve been particularly proud of this in OTW: we’ve seen women use the skills they’ve learned or strengthened in OTW to get a better job, apply to school, or seek a promotion. For some, fandom’s moving from “dirty little secret” to “a set of marketable skills”–and perhaps even more interesting is that there’s much less of a sense that you have to choose one over the other. Increasingly, female fans have no problem being in both worlds: writing novels for profit and fan fiction for fun, or being a professional sysadmin and designing and maintaining fan sites at home.

My collection of vids recently went from a host of delicious links to mostly Imeem hosted vids, to a long list of downloaded vids on my own computer. Quality went way up, but the ease of sharing went right out the window. Where is the OTW at with regards to providing a vid hosting service or archive that gives us avid watchers a place to find new stuff and where I can easily say, hey look at this—whether the person I’m talking to is in the next room, or thousands of miles away?

Tell me about it! I was furious for a zillion reasons when Imeem decided we weren’t part of their new business plan, not least of which was that I knew that a vidding-centric issue of Cinema Journal was coming out this summer–with wrong urls! But vids are definitely part of the OTW’s mission, and we’ve been doing some of our best advocacy work around vidding and video remix. We definitely want a vidding archive of our own!

That being said, there are some things we have to do and some problems we have to solve before we get there.

First of all, there’s the resource issue, mainly in terms of personpower. OTW is all volunteer and so we only have who shows up on any given day, and right now, all technical hands are on deck to get the Archive of Our Own built and out of beta. We literally can’t spare the coders, sysadmins, and other technical and design personnel to work on a vid archive until we get the fanfic archive a bit further out the door.

Secondly, there are technological hurdles. I recently went to the Open Source Video conference in NYC, and I was sort of amused because most of the videomakers there were discussing the problem of how to attract people to their sites. Our problem’s kind of the reverse: how do we stop a really popular vid or a vid that goes viral from using up all OTW’s bandwith and taking down our servers with it? (This is one of the reasons that we’d prefer not to host a vid archive on the same servers as a fic archive.) Streaming video is still pretty expensive on the scale we’d want to do it: as with fan fiction, we would want to make the archive available to any fan vidder regardless of whether they’re an OTW member or not. For this reason, we’ve been looking closely at streaming video based in bittorrent technology, where the more popular a vid is the more accessible it is (and we think we’ll be able to give all hosted vids decent coverage & speed under this model, so you’ll never be stuck for pieces even of an obscure vid). We’ve seen some really great technology coming down the pike–the nice thing here is that, unlike with the fanfiction archive, we don’t have to build it all ourselves: lots of people are working on open source, nonprofit streaming alternatives. There are a lot of groups we’re networking with and whose software we can adopt and alter for our purpose.

That’s kind of the long answer. The shorter answer is that we hope to begin working on this sometime next year.

While I recognize that the AO3 is still in beta, and that limits it’s scope, it still seems like it is dominated by familiar names and fandoms to me (disclosure—one of those names is mine). Neither the AO3 nor Fanlore are gathering a broad base of users organically, and I think many fans consider AO3 to be a private club, while Fanlore is not actively welcoming to new contributors. Is it time for some marketing and promotion and a real effort to get more fans to participate in Fanlore?

The AO3’s more than just “in beta”, it’s been in Closed Beta,–so not quite a private club, but certainly a very small and specialized group of users. Mostly everyone with an account is an OTW staffer, coder, or tester. (1) (Leaving feedback on the design of the archive will get you an account, not because we like you, but because we hope if we give you more access you’ll leave more feedback! We’re crafty like that.) It’s also worth noting that fully half of the features that are going to make the AO3 really really cool are still being built: I’m talking about things like subscriptions, where you can subscribe to a favorite author, fandom, pairing, kink, etc. and have new stories show up automatically on your reading list, or challenges, in which we’re going to make it really easy to run fic exchanges and such right within the archive. When it’s done, the AO3 will have all the best features of a full-featured archive, a bookmarking and tagging service like Delicious, and a social network. If you’ve liked what you’ve seen as a closed beta member, seriously, wait. You’ve only seen half the plan so far!

So up until now, we haven’t sought out a broader userbase. Not only because we were working out bugs, but because a lot of features that are going to make the AO3 easier to use–bulk uploading! icons! multiple skins and fonts! better browse and search!–aren’t there yet or aren’t fully functional yet. While we’re happy that some people seem to be enjoying their beta Archive accounts, the main purpose of Closed Beta has been to have real users banging on the software and giving us feedback on the site’s functionalities.

Now that we’ve raised enough money for our own servers, and now that our awesome coders have produced (from scratch!) a stable if relatively bare-bones Archive, we’ll be moving to Open Beta toward the end of this year. We’ll be doing two things during this next phase of the project: one, rapidly expanding our userbase to see if the code scales as well as we hope it will; and two, rolling out some of the fancier features I just described. But Open Beta is still going to be beta, and those users who join us at this point will still need to be aware that there might be rocky times as this or that feature debuts or that code push happens.

Anyway, during the Open Beta phase of the project you will see the kind of outreach that you were asking about, not only because we’ll want to get as many users as possible to test the limits of our code, but because we’ll want people to use the archive in different ways. We’ll be expanding exponentially by means of an invite system which will involve not only giving extant users invites but a more general queue that anyone can join: we’ll be giving accounts off this queue in large batches.

Now, Fanlore is a different story altogether, because it’s a wiki. Wikis have a particular culture and frankly tend to attract a particular type: those willing to take a stand and say, “I think this is important!” You also have to be willing to be challenged and rewritten by other users, and that’s hard–I mean, in fandom, some people don’t even want to get their stories betaed, or prefer posting to LJ because its “their space” and they can’t be challenged. In point of fact, Fanlore is much much friendlier and more accepting and less confrontational than most wikis, which can be notoriously hostile places. We have a specific Plural Point of View philosophy and not just accept–but actively seek out–multiple viewpoints in all things.

That being said, it’s no surprise that many of the people who have been most active on Fanlore thus far are older, more established fans interested in documenting fannish history: I mean, just check out this collection of zine covers. Fandoms that have been around for a while (say, The Professionals) have much longer pages than currently active fandoms like American Idol or Final Fantasy or Death Note. And then there’s the Harry Potter problem, where a fandom’s so ginormous that people don’t even know where to start! Anyway, it’s hard, no question, to get people to overcome these challenges, and even harder in today’s decentralized fannish world to know how best to encourage them to so: you don’t want to seem to be spamming lists or communities with “Come to Fanlore! Tell us about your fandom!” The best way for things to spread is through real and genuine enthusiasm: individuals can take their commitment to Fanlore where the OTW can’t go. What we’ve tried to do is create a stable, useful, not-for-profit site where the documentation of fans and fanac is actively valued, and where fans wiki-work will be preserved and made available to all as a resource.

But hey, I’ll take a moment on this platform! Gamers! Anime fans! RPF and bandom fans! Roleplayers, fan artists, archivists, knitters, and filkers: come to Fanlore! If you’re the mod of a community, challenge site, mailing list or forum, come document it. If you have a favorite fan work, come tell us why it’s awesome. If your fandom is known for a particular challenge, activity, or controversy, let us know. Make a page about your favorite writer, vidder, fan artist, knitter, podficcer, or come tell us about yourself. (We offer user pages that are solely under the user’s control where you can tell us about yourself and your personal fannish history.)

(1) This has just started to change with projects like our GeoCities Rescue Project.

How do the technological pieces underlying fandom — off the top of my head, LJ and its clones, AO3 and its predecessors such as fanfiction.net, vid sites, et cetera — fit together? What are the necessary affordances (technological and policy-related) to make a given site fan-friendly?

Technologically, I think interoperability; you want your site to work and play well with others, because fans tend to spread their fan activities all over the net now. But also, I think the bar’s been raised in terms of networking: we want to be able to keep track of and communicate with particular people. (Right now, alas, most of the video streaming sites don’t do social networking very well: they assume you want to broadcast rather than communicate.)

The AO3 is the first archive to be designed as a library/repository AND a social networking site AND a tagging/bookmarking system–just as an example, we found that people wanted to be able to bookmark stories outside of the AO3 archive. So we’re putting that feature in to make AO3 more interoperable with other hosts. People want to be able to follow a network of friends or favorite authors. People want to be able to tag and organize what they’ve read. People want to embed art and video. People want to maintain a consistent identity and avatar across sites.

Policy-wise, I think its been crucial that we’re fans ourselves; we’re all pretty much FIAWOL types on the OTW board. Obviously its been important to us to be nonprofit, noncommercial, open-source. To make a long term commitment to the project. To stand up for the legitimacy of fanworks culturally and legally.

Can you point us to three or four vids that really got you excited about the potential of the medium?

Oh, this is a fun question! I’ve written articles about some of my favorite vids (including “Both Sides Now” by Kandy Fong; “Pressure” by Sterling Eidolan and The Odd Woman Out, and “A Fannish Taxonomy of Hotness” by the Clucking Belles. So let me talk about a few vids I haven’t written about yet!

Razzle Dazzle, by Killa. (Star Trek: TOS) An older vid, now, but for timing, oh my god, still the standard. And there’s a moment about three quarters through that always just delights me, when young!Kirk is in a fight and is flung from right to left across the screen, and when he lands on the left of the frame, he’s older, movie!Kirk. But it’s seamless; it’s a seamless transition between original canon and film canon. One guy is thrown and the other lands. It makes me want to start applauding madly every single time.

This is How It Works, by Lim. (Stargate Atlantis) I remember seeing this for the first time and going absolutely out of my mind with love for it. I just kept thinking: You can do that? You can write on the screen? You can tint the whole color palette like that? You can find that overlooked, infinitesimal moment when an actor looks straight into the camera? You can break my heart into pieces? Not to mention that this vid was made to complement one of the best fanfiction stories ever written, and it really did complement it. I’d put that story and this vid into the hands of anybody who ever questioned the maturity and complexity of fanworks as art forms.

Fic Trailers like Missed The Saturday Dance, by Zoetrope: a story trailer, part of a much more complicated multimedia work, but wow, she actually put an AU fanfic story on screen! (Cheapxdate also made an awesome fic trailer more recently for a story called “House of the Living” in which the cast of American Idol fight in a zombie apocalypse–what?!)

Scooby Road, by Luminosity. (BTVS) For sheer, blinding scope: the first, and as far as I know, the only, vid concept album. Lum vidded the entirety of Abbey Road to Buffy, and it’s so incredibly brilliant it leaves me speechless. The arguments she manages to make about Buffy are really smart, too: is there anyone more perfect than Spike to sing the plea in “Oh! Darling” (always already creepy; “Oh! Darling” is not a love song!): “Believe me when I tell you, I’ll never do you no harm”? Final shot of that section, of course: that shower curtain getting yanked off its hooks. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask a Buffy fan. :)

Thanks so much to Francesca for taking the time to respond! If you have suggestions for other people you’d like GF to interview, let us know!

10 thoughts on “Geek Feminism interviews the OTW’s Francesca Coppa

  1. Bene

    Got to process this whole thing but just briefly: As a film production geek, Killa’s vid blows my mind with the timing, indeed. Thanks for answering questions, Francesca…back later.

    1. Francesca Coppa

      I just wanted to say amen to your comment! I don’t think enough people realize that chicks CAN be production geeks and be brilliant film editors. Just like they don’t think women can code. *g*

      1. anatsuno

        What, really? Movie editors are /traditionally/ women! How can people not realize that omg. Or is that just a French thing? But, wait, wait, no! Sally Menke! Thelma Schoonmaker! O.O

      2. Bene

        @Francesca: Indeed, how soon we forget. I think people often have the ‘guys in back rooms’ idea stuck in their heads, or the general male domination of the industry overall. I’ll be over here with my long shots and wide angles…

        @anatsuno: While women were editors quite often, early on in the industry, there’s been a substantial falloff in the last thirty years. I would argue that this is because:
        – Second Wave feminism opened doors to other production/direction positions, and women who would have been editors sought those jobs.
        – there was a shift to computer/tech-based production methods, which consequentially had similar limiting factors as women face in other tech fields (as GF examines often).

        But that’s just me positing why.

        1. Francesca Coppa

          Oh, I know! There was a parallel between “editing” and “sewing” of all things, and in my classes I always like to remind people that it was MARCIA Lucas, NOT George, who won an Oscar for Star Wars (and that he never made a decent film without her, hand on heart.) ;)

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