Do I Want to be Remembered for This? Digitization and 1990s Anime Fandom
Part of the impetus for embarking on this project was the conservation of convention history. Many of the constituent components of early fandom have disappeared or were never recorded in the first place. As pop culture is seen as disposable–ask anyone who has longed for an original Action Comics #1–there was even less incentive to preserve the ordinary, functional elements of conventions. While awareness of the importance of pop culture artifacts has grown, partly spurred on by a new general appreciation for their perceived monetary value, this has not translated into into preservation of related convention ephemera. The records of conventions are seen as a means to an end, a finding aid to the treasures of the convention itself. However, digitizing records that were never meant for wide distribution brings up ethical considerations, as personal identities and interests are opened to the scrutiny of a mass audience, something never envisioned in the 1990s.
The reason for this collection–aside from preservation–is to historicize the story of American conventions, to delineate a logical progression from the small fan run gatherings of the early 1970s and 1980s to the corporate mega-conventions of today, and along the way understand how and why fandom moved from a niche position to a juggernaut in American culture..
In the traditional aspects of the historical profession, there is a distance in historical work. The work is also distant in another respect: the sources and final product are locked away in books that are meant for specialist audiences, hidden in far away archives, or secured behind a price wall. Taking a quick look online, the average price for a book by a university historian is 60$ while access to JSTOR for a single article can be 20$. At the very least, time and effort was required to delve into libraries or obtain access to digital archives. The work was not easily accessible to the general public.
The advent of the internet has changed the way historians are able to present their work but also the ways in which readers can engage with that work. For this convention project the internet means the use of digital tools to create the archive while also configuring the site for the public. On one hand, this allows work to emerge out of the cloisters of the university. On the other, it brings up new ethical questions surrounding the price of preservation.
Tara Robertson in a blog post entitled “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” considers the ethics of digitization through the example of On Our Backs, a lesbian adult magazine. While the digitizing group obtained permission from the copyright holders, Robertson questions if the people depicted within the magazine would consent to digitization and dissemination into the internet. In a response, Anne Hathcock notes that, “We have to be careful that in our quest for openness, we’re not, wittingly or unwittingly, taking away someone else’s agency in controlling their work.”
Although part of the premise for my 2018-2019 CHI project is to the notion that the mass culture of anime conventions have entered into the mainstream, anime fandom still remains a niche interest. Mainstream is not always acceptance in professional or public spheres. As in Japan, fandom is not always considered a suitable past time or interest by employers. Within fandom itself there are subsets of genres and interests that veer into sharply specialized territory. As with Tara Robertson’s of On Our Backs, fandom covers realms including adult material. The convention guides that I am seeking to digitize are intended to give a snapshot of how the early anime convention community functioned, along with the issues and questions that were of interest in the 1990s. However, these guides were never intended for wider dispersal outside the weekend of a convention, although they were freely given out to any attendee. Like the early internet, conventions offered people the opportunity to explore new worlds, new identities and new ideas that they may not wish to be associated with today. The “right to be forgotten” in the European Union states that people should be able to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.” This runs against the basic precepts of digital preservation.
Is the case of American convention ephemera comparable to the dilemma posed by the digitization of On Our Backs? The American Anime Conventions project dips back into the positively prehistoric pre and proto-internet era of 1990 to 2000, where the idea of the modern online world was akin to science fiction. Convention guides typically listed names next to panels and events. While consent is being sought from the conventions themselves, it is not possible to track down all participants. Critically, looking to Anne Hathcock’s article, the guides and related materials did not encompass the activities carried out at conventions itself but do list identities. Some participants used online handles and nicknames, especially in the wild days of the 1990s and early 2000s. On the other hand, convention staff members and prominent guests were usually listed with full names. Like the early internet, conventions were spaces to explore new worlds, identities and sexualities in a mediated encounter with the Japanese Other–albeit a highly filtered, constructed version. Within the space delineated as and influenced by the perceived differences inherent in Japanese culture through the surreal lens of anime–to adapt a modern catchphase, what happens a a convention stays at the convention. It is arguable that modern convention attendees and guests are aware of their identities will be discoverable online by a mass audience. For material created in the 1990s, this is not the case.
Efforts have been made to put control of digitized material into the hands of the groups that created them. Mukurto is one project that aims to “empower communities to manage, share, narrate, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways.”
Where does this put the American Anime Convention project? Certainly no closer to an answer to the ethical questions involved. The greater question is how these issues will guide the implementation of the project. For the most part, this project will fall on the side of caution. While it is difficult for a historian in training to purposely decide some material cannot be archived, the realities of the modern internet and the resulting ethical concerns must be addressed and understood in going forward in the digital humanities. It is a brand new world, after all.
–Data point of one: The Gutenberg block update for WordPress is not great, to put it mildly.
–Thanks to Brandon Locke for his introduction to the idea of ethics and rights in digitization.
April Hathcock – Creative Commons Requires Consent
Michelle Moravec – What would you do? Historians’ ethics and digitized archives
Mukurtu – http://mukurtu.org/
Tara Robertson – Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should