Wednesday 27 May 2015

Things that keep me awake at night: ethical considerations when researching fan communities online

Milena Popova is a PhD researcher at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE Bristol. She is researching approaches to sexual consent in fanfiction and online fan communities. She tweets as @elmyra and blogs about her research at

My PhD research focuses on depictions of sexual consent in online fanfiction: amateur-produced fiction based on existing media, such as TV shows, movies or books. I am using a range of methods to study the fanfiction community and its cultural output. Here some thoughts on the ethical questions I have come up against while designing and conducting my research.

A brief introduction to the fanfiction community:

Modern fanfiction originated in paper zines, but these days the vast majority of the community (or communities, really) live and communicate online, in spaces that are on the cusp of the private-public boundary. Fanfiction, and the communities that produce it, are a Google search away - if you know about them.

The fanfiction community consists predominantly of women and non-binary people, a majority of whom identify as members of a sexual, gender or romantic minority (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, asexual, aromantic, etc.). Statistically, a significant proportion of community members are survivors of sexual or gender-based violence. (In the UK, 45% of women have experienced rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse or stalking. It is reasonable to assume that this is reflected in the make-up of the fanfiction community.) These demographics are reflected in the kinds of stories the community produces: stories which focus on (often queer) sexual and romantic relationships, sexually explicit stories, stories which explore issues of sexual consent extensively and in profoundly nuanced ways - which is the focus of my research.

In many ways, the fanfiction community is vulnerable, though not necessarily in a way you would find as a tickbox on an ethics form. The social stigma attached to marginalised sexualities (including women’s and queer sexualities) means that there are potentially significant social and economic consequences associated with being identified as a reader or writer of erotic fanfiction. Additionally, fanfiction is generally based on copyrighted material (or sometimes real people such as actors, musicians and other celebrities), and there are also legal risks involved in producing and circulating it. Members of the community therefore have developed a range of approaches and tactics to managing their online identities and involvement in fanfiction separately from other online activities. They participate predominantly pseudonymously or anonymously in activities around fanfiction and are often, rightly, wary of outside scrutiny, whether it be by journalists or academics. Having said that, this is also a community with a very strong identity, strong traditions of mutual support, and very much in the habit of theorising itself.

Social Media and the Digital Data Set:

Some of what I study is the fanfiction itself, which is published on authors’ personal blogs and websites, on social media platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr, and in fanfiction archives such as (FFN) and the Archive of Our Own (AO3). But I also study fan interactions and fan practices in these semi-public social media spaces. My data set therefore includes podcasts, comments left on fanfiction stories, conversations between community members posted on social media sites, and “meta” (commentary and analysis) which community members produce on topics ranging from the quality of writing in a TV series to in-depth examinations of social and political issues as represented in media and fanfiction. Because I have been a member of the community for nearly two decades, in many cases I also get privileged access to material which isn’t posted publicly, for instance locked LiveJournal posts or AO3 stories.

Things that keep me awake at night:

Below are three case studies of things gone wrong in fandom or online research, and the questions they raise for me.

Theory of Fic Gate: This was an incident in early 2015 where a class of undergraduate students were asked to leave comments on fanfiction as part of their assessment. They had little to no knowledge of the community, their standards, the rules of engagement. They were in fact specifically encouraged to leave a “critical” comment on the stories, something around which there are a lot of social rules within the fanfiction community. These comments caused a lot of upset to individuals whose writing was on the course reading list, as well as a lot of outrage within the fanfiction community who felt disrespected, and some ill will towards researchers and academia. The community organised quickly around one of the writers whose work was on the course reading list and engaged in more or less constructive debate with the course leaders and some of the students.

The incident raises some key questions for online and fandom researchers in general and for my research in particular. Who am I doing this research for? Who am I accountable to? As someone who is both a member of the fanfiction community and an outsider, how do I negotiate these two positions in a way that is respectful to the community, ethical, and still allows me to conduct my research with both quality and integrity?

At least part of the answer for me personally is that I feel accountable to the fanfiction community. I have a responsibility to them to treat them fairly and with respect. It is absolutely vital for me to be deeply familiar with the community and culture, their views and practices, their understanding of themselves and the world, before I engage them directly. This knowledge helps me engage the community respectfully, ask the right ethical questions, and make decisions about what material I expose to wider academic and public scrutiny. I am also working on ways to give the fanfiction community ways to feed back to me and have some control over the research, through my research blog, through interactions with interviewees, and through attending fandom conventions and speaking about my research.

Dalek half balls: “From Dalek half balls to Daft Punk helmets: Mimetic fandom and the crafting of replicas” is a published academic paper by a highly respected fan studies scholar and it makes some interesting points. It also cites and argues directly against theory written by a member of the fanfiction community, published on their LiveJournal. The paper addresses this LiveJournal post as if the two are on a level playing field with each other, ignoring power differentials. As with any other research, it is important to remember that there are power differentials between researchers and the people we study. Just because we can both stick up a blog on the internet and comment on each other’s posts doesn’t make us equal.

On the other hand, I am also increasingly coming to realise that on the subject I am studying - sexual consent - the fanfiction community produces distinct, extensive and nuanced knowledges not available in other communities or even in feminist academia. These knowledges are not in a format that academia would necessarily recognise, and there is considerable potential value in finding ways to disseminate them beyond their current context (though there are also risks involved in this). This raises huge questions about the role of the researcher in this space, and about the researcher’s relationship with the material and the community producing it. A lot of this material is theoretically rich and robust despite its unconventional (for academia) format. It feels wrong to simply treat it as “data”, to take it and put my own stamp on it. On the other hand, I believe it would also be wrong to treat this material and its authors as equal to theory and analysis published in a peer-reviewed journal and engage with it on that level, as that would hold it up to impossible standards.

Key questions for me to consider here: How do my choices of research subject and methodology reproduce or challenge power relations? How can I tweak those choices towards challenging and away from reproducing?

The Facebook Happiness Experiment: In June 2014, it was revealed that Facebook had manipulated users’ newsfeeds with the intention of manipulating their mood. While in my research I am not directly manipulating anyone or anything, I am in many cases conducting something that walks the fine line between covert and participant observation.

This raises some interesting questions. How much of the internet/social media platforms can be legitimately regarded as a public space? What are people’s expectations of privacy, how are they constructed and how are they managed? One common practice in the fanfiction community is privacy through obscurity: those in the know can find us, but most of the world has no idea. With increasing exposure of fanfiction in mainstream media, this expectation is becoming unrealistic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that community behaviour and practices are always changing in line with these developments.

What is my responsibility as a researcher in terms of meeting those privacy expectations, and what are the practicalities around that? A significant issue for me will be quoting fan conversations and “meta” verbatim when a simple Google search can lead others back to the original source.

These are some of the questions that keep me awake at night. Perhaps the biggest insight for me here is that the vast majority of them are not asked on an ethics application form. While going through the ethics approval process has been a useful starting point for me, I have had to put in a lot of thought outside of and beyond the framework of that single form. There certainly aren’t any universal right answers for these questions, and some days I am not even convinced there is a single right answer for my particular research. There are simply different choices I can make, with as much consultation with the community as possible, while being aware of the power imbalances and responsibilities inherent in my position.


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