“Just Communication”: Exploring the History of Fandom and the Internet
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
–R. Batty, Blade Runner
This year for my CHI project I am interested in tracing the development of American anime fandom, with a particular emphasis on the dual role of the internet as a means of communication and as a medium for the transmission of anime shows among fans. This examination of American fandom intersects with my primary research interest in U.S. – Japan relations and the role of popular culture and technology in the construction of that relationship. Part of what drives my interest in the digital aspect of fandom is the question of how to deal with fan-created content as a historian in training, especially as much has already disappeared permanently from the internet.
Early fandoms of all varieties helped drive the rise of the internet through the early adoption of Usenet and chat programs such as IRC and ICQ. However, as scholars who study the early web can attest, tracing the history of the internet is sailing into a sea of dead links and 404 errors. Site owners move on to other interests, forum posts remain forever locked, or site renewal fees are forgotten. Not all of the difficulty in researching the early web is unintentional. The demise of Geocities, at one point among the most visited sites on the internet, was a deliberate action taken by parent company Yahoo! for financial reasons. While understandable from a business standpoint, no thought was given to the idea of preservation. The erasure of Geocities from the internet meant many of the 38 million user generated web sites were lost–including a certain young fan’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer site which took special pains to list every book mentioned on the show.
“Yahoo! succeeded in destroying the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time, certainly on purpose, in known memory. Millions of files, user accounts, all gone.”
–From The Internet Archive page on Geocities
Independent groups such as the Archive Team saved some of Geocities, as preservation efforts are largely the work of private individuals and groups. Adding to problem of preservation was the assumption held by major media groups that popular culture had a short shelf. The loss of the Geocities sites is akin to the erasure of old Doctor Who episodes by the BBC or the destruction of nearly all of the nearly forgotten DuMont Network’s programs, supposedly dumped into New York harbor in the 1970s. Add to this equation the perception that fan generated content is of even less consequence and it is no surprise that the directors of Yahoo! thought little of erasing such a huge swatch of online history in one fell swoop.
“Too much information running through my brain, too much information driving me insane
I’ve seen the whole world six times over, Sea of Japan to the Cliffs of Dover.”
–“Too Much Information” by the Police
Today an altogether different problem exists: too much information. From 2010 to 2017, the Library of Congress sought to archive all tweets send out through Twitter. This experiment did not last and the Library announced it would only archive “select” tweets starting in 2018. Forums have given way to social media, which deals in the currency of the immediate. Anyone who has tried to track down an old post on Facebook can attest to the fact social media wants your attention focused on the moment and not on the past, yet it has become a defacto space for fandoms to communicate. Other modes of internet communication, such as the chat functions in online games, are simply not meant to be archived unless a user records their sessions. Even then, the information lies on someones hard drive, inaccessible unless they care to share it. Gaming sites such as Twitch.tv archive content–but only for a limited time. For a future historian curious about GamerGate, World of Warcraft, or the rise of esports, vital records may yet still disappear into the internet ether.
Where does this put the intrepid historian intent on examining the online history of a particular fandom? Andrea Horbinski’s recent article “Talking by Letter: The Hidden History of Female Media Fans on the 1990s Internet” outlines the process of using oral interviews to discover the role of women in the very early construction of online fandom. Going further back, members of particular fandoms sought to communicate through the post by way of fan created magazines. Some of these fanzines are archived at Michigan State University, whose library holdings include a dazzling array of popular culture material. This material may provide insight into how the internet was viewed in the early 1990s, the process through which print gave way to online communication and how the two coexisted for a time.
“Just wild beat communication, don’t surrender anything,
because when you have someone who understands you, you can fight on.”
–“Just Communication” by Two-Mix
Early online fandom allowed for self expression and the evolution into a participatory culture, as described by Henry Jenkins. How this exploration of self expression and creation of communities revolving around a Japanese cultural product connected to an understanding–or lack thereof–of Japan is a key point to investigate in my project. How the internet served to disseminate not just anime but anime fandom itself across the United States is another major element. While recovery of many original logs and forum posts may be all but impossible, examining what remains looks to be a fascinating challenge that demands a flexible, interdisciplinary and tech-savvy approach.
“Just Communication” was the first opening theme for the 1995 anime series Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, The song was composed by Makano Kohji and performed by the two person band Two-Mix.
References and additional reading
Horbinski, Andrea. “Talking by Letter: The Hidden History of Female Media Fans on the 1990s Internet.” Internet Histories, (2018): DOI: 10.1080/24701475.2018.1500794.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Archiving the Internet: How Historians Can Help #SaveTheWeb
The Archive Team Geocities Snapshot (Part 1 of 8)
Historians battle publishers for the right to resurrect dead MMOs
Saving Japan’s Games
Whatever Happened to Captain Video and the DuMont Programming Library?