Once Upon A Time...

Mall Rats

What fragmentation in fandom means to you...
by LJC

Once upon a time, online fandoms were much more centralised.

Before the age of Onelist, Egroups, Topica, and Yahoo Groups, mailing lists were few and far between, and fandoms tended to have one main discussion list and one or two main fiction lists. Fans went to one newsgroup to post their fiction, archived it at one major archive, and chatted on one IRC channel or message board.

It was the age of The Gossamer Project, alt.startrek.creative, and LISTSERVs. It was a simple world, a happy world, a world before bandwidth and advertising revenues ruled the Internet. When it was easy for fans to find what they wanted, because there were huge glowing neon signs pointing them towards Mecca at every bend and fork in the road. We were all pilgrims on the same road.

Then, majordomo software allowed mailing lists to be run off Unix machines, and a new generation of mailing lists was born. And from majordomo, Onelist and Topica sprang, and suddenly, listowners were no longer a rare breed. Anyone and everyone started lists—dozens if not hundreds of them, often with the exact same characters and topics, with only slight deviations in their names. For example, DoyleCordy and CordyDoyle have almost all the same members, and the same fiction was posted to each. All that differed was the listowner's name. Cross-posting became a way of life, as did deleting the dozens of copies of the same story that began to appear in our inboxes with increasing regularity as writers carpet-bombed the fandom, desperate to make sure that that one reader who was only on that one list got the special delivery package o'fic.

Once, all roads lead to Rome. Now, it's like Vegas. There's neon everywhere, but it's hard to pick out individual sign posts from among the sprawl.

Not only did lists fragment a fandom, but the giant web archives devoted to a series began to dwindle as individual web masters opened niche archives. And now, to switch central metaphors in a way that would get my hand slapped by my 12th grade English teacher, shoppers could skip the huge department store crush, and go straight to a boutique specialising in their favourite romantic pairing, or supporting cast member.

But something was lost along the way. All of this fragmentation comes at a price. The sprawl is hard to navigate. New folks looking for fiction don't particularly want to have to got to 30 different shops all over town. They actually would like to trek out to the Marshall Fields or the Dillards, park a mile from the entrance, and then spend all day doing from department to department all within the same building. And old folks grumble and mutter about the dime stores and Woolworth's of their youth as they walk past bright and shiny diesels, urban outfitters and the dozens of other ultra-expensive trendy little shops scattered around fandom. Why should someone who used to go use Lynx suddenly need the latest version of Internet Explorer and a huge monitor so that they can download something that they could read—and better yet, PRINT OFF, as an 80 character wide text file? Dammit, if it was good enough for them when they were in charge, those young whippersnappers ought to realise all their Flash and I-frame geedaws is nothing but trappings that prevent folks from getting to the meat and potatoes!

5 miles barefoot through the snow! Uphill, both ways!

The giants, of course, endure.

The Gossamer Project began in the spring of 1995, and survives today by mirroring to avoid bandwidth hell. It is still the #1 place the majority of fans read fan fiction for X-Files, and continues to grow due to longevity and brand awareness. Everyone knows about it, and everyone can find it. It's got one helluva big neon sign that shines awful bright.

Other Usenet newsgroups have come and gone, but alt.startrek.creative continues to be the main forum for the posting of fan fiction based on Gene Roddenberry's creation. The web archive associated with the newsgroup has had its ups and downs over the last decade, but Stephen Ratliff and his dedicated crew of archive maintainers have kept the archive (also, not coincidentally, mirror'd across three sites to avoid bandwidth problems) and the newsgroup running smoothly despite the Barbarian Hoards that have invaded the 'net each year as gated communities like prodigy and AOL gained their Internet gateways, and new university students come online every Fall.

However, TV and movie fandoms started online in the mid 1990s and later are more prone to the boutique mentality, and if they did not have a central general forum for all types of fan fiction to start with, there is no mall directory next to the food court for a new reader to use to see where they want to go before they start their journey. They are forced to ask directions from other shoppers along the way, but there are thousands of back roads, and there's no shining city ahead of them, no glow of neon on the horizon. Only more shops, tucked away in more distant corners in a vast city.

Buffy fandom and its growing-like-a-weed tag-along sibling, Angel fandom, suffer greatly from fragmentation. The current generation of online fans are almost all listowners and web masters, and as a result, the large archives founded in the first few years of the series have become ghost towns. Once the only place to post, six years after its creation, SlayerFanfic.com languishes in a perpetual state of "just another archive" and no longer the Giant Which Dominated All Others. Ask any relatively recent Buffy fan about the site, and you'll be met with a blank stare.

Into the storm of fragmentation, of course, Fanfiction.net was introduced to be a multi-fandom archive, and it has of course become a Giant of another kind in the three-plus years since its inception. However, despite the elegance of its back-end and the incredible resource it provides for fans who archive their fiction here, its sheer size can be a drawback for fans of a single fandom. It's like the outlet mall of the Internet. You could spend a week here, picking through the bins, and never actually find that one stunning sweater set that you came here looking for. And its popularity is both a blessing and a curse, as anyone with any concept of bandwidth and the relative cost thereof when dealing with a site that gets millions of hits, can tell you. It is to Xing Li's credit that the site continues, and thanks to the members of the support services programme.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Single fandom archives are making a comeback. Trying to combat the boutique mentality, new sites have sprung up. BFA: A Buffy and Angel Archive is an automated archive, using successful fannish automated archives such as due South Fan Fiction Archive and 852 Prospect, an adult and slash The Sentinel site as models. And new fandoms such as Farscape have so far avoided the hundreds of individual archives, as a handful well-run large archives popped up quickly and have remained in place.

Of course, as free web space begins to disappear, and it's no longer as easy (financially, in any case) to just throw a website up, the Internet fandom boom of the last five years should settle back down into a less breakneck speed. One can only hope the cream rises to the top. But in the meantime, the best we as readers and writers can do is support our favourite forums, both in terms of financial support if needed, but better yet, our patronage. Fan Fiction sites are an enormous resource, run out of sheer love at a tremendous cost in terms of time and usually money.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts