Fandoms, the Internet, and Harry Potter
An interview with Flourish Klink, co-founder of FictionAlley and CMS lecturer
Flourish M. Klink, a lecturer in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program, has built a life around fandoms. After running her own Harry Potter fansite and being on staff at Fanfiction.net, at age 13, Klink co-founded the Harry Potter fanfiction website FictionAlley with nine others. FictionAlley was “incorporated as an educational non-profit with the mission of helping people learn to write through fanfiction,” said Klink, and it was one of the first fanfiction forums on the Internet that made writing improvement a site-wide mission.
The Tech: Could you tell us a little bit [about] how you first got involved in fandom?
Flourish Klink: I was very into The X-Files when I was a kid. At the time, it was the late 90s … I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first fandom that primarily existed on the Internet. So I was a kid, I had Internet access, I spent a lot of time searching online for things I liked. I found X-Files fandom.
I realized pretty quickly that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, so it didn’t matter that I was 10. As long as I had good grammar, people would talk to me, which was great. So when Harry Potter came out, I got really obsessed with it. Since I had found there was a community for The X-Files, it seemed like there must be such a thing for Harry Potter also. There wasn’t, so I made a website for it and met with the one other person who had a website about it at the time.
TT: You’re currently a lecturer in CMS, and you wrote your Master’s thesis on fandoms. Could you tell me a little about how your experience in fandom has affected your career path?
FK: So I do lecture in CMS, but that’s not really my career. Most of my work is working for a [transmedia storytelling] company called The Alchemists, for which I’m the chief participation officer, which means I take care of questions about fans and fandoms.
It’s easy to internalize this idea of The Author or what’s valid or what’s good or what’s important, and I really got caught up in that. It took me until my senior year of college to realize I was very interested in the [religion degree] I was studying, but part of why I was studying it was because I couldn’t envision a world in which I could talk about fandom and anybody would take me seriously. I had known Henry [Jenkins, former Co-Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program] from when he was doing research for his book Convergence Culture. I was one of his informants. I called him up and said “Okay, I think I might want to go to grad school,” and he said “okay, why don’t you come to grad school at MIT?” I only applied here and nowhere else, and I came, and coming here was how I met people at the Alchemists.
For that company now, I do research on different fan cultures we’re working with and I also write what is essentially fanfiction. At least, it’s not fanfiction because it’s “canonical” but I write transmedia extensions. For instance, [for] a recent CW Television show, I ran the tumblr account of one of the characters, and responded to people, and kept it populated.
TT: You wrote a Master’s thesis on the topic of how people within fandom use humorous and dramatic images and videos to criticize the original work in an accessible way. What insights have you gained into the nature of fandom because of your research?
FK: Well, I think to some degree the word fan is, I’m not sure I would say the word is a misleading one. I have spent many years of my life involved in Harry Potter fandom, and it’s certainly affected my life more than any other story, but I actually have a lot of problems with the last three books. I strongly dislike the last Harry Potter book. I got so mad when I read it. I thought it was terrible, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m involved with thinking about it, and I think it’s a really interesting series despite being something that I sort of hate in the end.
I want to keep being involved in the community and talking about it and thinking about it in different ways, and using it as a tool to think about the world around me, a way to talk to people about important issues, whatever. When you say you’re a fan, that kind of engagement isn’t included, and people don’t think of it. And that’s really about what my thesis was about. I was using to some degree the idea of humor as a way in, the idea of humor and anti-fandom as a way of saying there’s also more complex ideas that you can have. I mean yes, anti-fandom is one thing because people are anti-fans and they behave in ways a lot like fans except they hate the thing, but there’s also this whole world of gradations of feelings about it. These things have been talked about plenty in the literature on fandom, but the terms of the discussion are not built to include them. … We don’t have a word for people who are still deeply emotionally invested, but maybe not always in a positive way. And that limits the way people can think about their audiences.
TT: What directions do you see fandom going in the future?
FK: I think there’s a lot of things that have changed since fandom moved off of LiveJournal and on to Tumblr. For about 10 years, fandom was really centered about LiveJournal. Moving to Tumblr has made a lot of changes in terms of how you get involved in fandoms, and how you can build communities or not. I think that fandom has become a lot more decentralized and there’s less of an emphasis on fanfiction now than there ever has been, and more of an emphasis on GIFs, on a lot more visual stuff. GIFs get a lot more traction because you’ve got a way to propagate images a lot more easily.
In the long-term, I’m a little concerned about that, and that’s mostly because I think there’s a lot of stuff that will be lost. Tumblr is not always the most reliable service in terms of storing your [stuff]. In certain ways, a GIF can never die because if you delete it, the people who re-blogged it still have it, but where does Tumblr make their money? I don’t know. I understood how LiveJournal made its money, but I don’t know how Tumblr does, and I don’t know if it’s going to shut down, or what’s going to happen.
We’ve already seen this happen with Delicious, which used to be a center of fanfiction recommendations and fanfiction links. Delicious shut down, it was bought, and it was gutted. And now, many, many years of fanfiction links and probably the best way to find fanfiction online, gone. I don’t know what’s next, and I think it’s a mistake to think [people will] turn away from this idea of casually propagating GIFs, or whatever they’ve got, because I think it’s too exciting, it’s too great. I don’t know if in 10 years, we’ll be able to look back on it and have the same kind of record of what’s happening right now, and I don’t know whether we’ll continue to see organizations forming in the same way they used to do. Something new may come up, something new may appear, but I don’t know what that is yet.
For the full interview, check The Tech’s website.