SF fan wikis: source, reference, world

[0.0] SFRA 2008 was in Lawrence, Kansas, this year, and I was head of the academic programming. Sadly, I was kept so busy that I only managed to attend paper sessions and roundtables that I was on, but I enjoyed meeting all the people I’d corresponded with. My paper, entitled “SF Fan Wikis: Source, Reference, World,” was really the only fan-oriented paper at SFRA, although one of SFRA’s recent goals is to respond better to the needs of scholars in nonprint media. Meanwhile, here is a short recap of the high points of my talk.

1. Wikis and fans

[1.1] “SF Fan Wikis” discussed fans as one subset of the communities comprising Web 2.0—that is, an interactive web focused on participation and communities, as Tapcott and Williams note in their definition of the old Web versus Web 2.0 in Wikinomics (2008 rev. ed.). It’s important to realize that the reason fan studies is becoming such a hot topic is that interactivity on the Web is now far more mainstream, and is thus attracting more attention, particularly in terms of copyright violation. Much of the scholarly work done on fans is applicable to other groups who are now congregating online, and even if the sense of the word fan doesn’t quite fit my understanding of what they do, it’s clear that they’re engaging in ways that I’d describe as fannish.

[1.2] Much has been written on fans who publish fanfic in zines or on the Internet, and about fans who blog, particularly in the LiveJournal blogsphere. However, less work has been done on fans who engage with their source material via wikis. Wiki collaborative software permits group authorship, usually of a site that organizes factual information. Wikis are useful because they shield users from code but result in a nice product, and it’s easy to cross-reference and hotlink. In addition, wiki software tracks changes, so it’s possible to negotiate edits. Wikipedia is the most famous example of a repository of factual information, and it resonantes beyond its genre: encyclopedias, with its attendant rules about documentation, disinterested author stance, and lack of bias. So ubiquitous is Wikipedia that the look of a wiki immediately implies factual information, which makes parody sites, such as the Fandom Wank Wiki, all the more amusing by the mere juxtaposition of form and content.

[1.3] The essence of the wiki is facts by consensus. This is discussed in Wikinomics (and the authors explain why this actually works), but it was more famously emphasized by Stephen Colbert, whose notions of truthiness (“knowledge ‘from the gut’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual explanation, or facts”) and Wikiality (“together we can create a reality that we all agree on—the reality we just agreed on”) emphasize the slippery nature of truth and the danger of agreeing on something when perhaps it has no basis in fact.

2. How fans use wikis

[2.1] I had hoped to find examples of fans using wikis to create fiction. I envisioned a fabulous shared world, with many authors contributing to a sprawling story that was meant to be read not vertically but horizontally, with hyperlinks taking you from one place to another in a meandering version of a choose your own adventure story, but without explicit cues to jump to a new page. However, I only found a single example of this: P/Virt. Even more disappointingly, the wiki was set up by a hopeful soul in December 2007 and then not populated. One of the people who attended my talk suggested that this might be because there isn’t sole authorship, so people aren’t credited for their work but subsumed into a collective, and thus they are less likely to contribute. To this I’ll add the fact that there aren’t too many hyperlinked stories anyway, so hyperlinking and horizontalness in storytelling may just not appeal.

[2.2] Far more common are fan wikis used to organize factual information. Good examples are the Battlestar Wiki, which gathers together information from both versions of the show; the Stargate Wiki, for which I volunteered under my fan name; and Memory Alpha, the best-known fan wiki in Star Trek fandom. (For those wondering whether an alpha implies a beta, yes: there is also a Memory Beta for licensed Star Trek products, such as games, novels, and comics.)

[2.3] Although the flattening of authority is a mark of wikis, with all contributors treated more or less equally in that all have posting and updating privileges unless they get themselves banned or unless the page is locked, status can still be conferred on posters by contributing excellent articles and usefully updating existing ones, with this information all tracked through the wiki software. Fans whose pages are rarely reverted are reliable posters. Fan wikis will never officially have true authority; only a producer associated with the program will have that. (Some TV shows are now setting up wikis for fans to contribute to; one particularly interesting one, because of the confusing lack of parallelism between truth and fiction, is dedicated to The Tudors.) However, for fan wikis, authority is generated by faithfulness to canon, thus permitting the main criterion for judging the content. A wiki contributor’s depth of canonical knowledge through close readings of the source text will be rewarded.

3. How do wikis fit into fan culture?

[3.1] I have identified three important ways that wikis fit into fan culture. First, of course, is the sheer usefulness of providing canonical information in an easy-to-navigate way. Fanfic writers will use wikis to fact check details of their story, from spellings to the color of someone’s eyes. Second is the privileged place accorded by the community to those who collect factual information about a source text: it’s useful information, and the community will reward it, primarily by visiting the wiki and increasing the hit count, but secondarily by linking to the wiki from their home page or crediting it in a story’s header. And third, providing this information better permits meta (thinking about thinking) to be generated by the community, so it provides a factual base for interpretation, although fan wiki entries themselves rarely engage in interpretation.

[3.2] Wikis have at their core the idea of fact. However, of all the fan wikis I looked at, Memory Alpha is the most interesting because it took this idea of fact and took it one step further, into the realm, I submit, of the creative:

[3.3] Memory Alpha’s primary point of view is that of a character inside the fictional Star Trek universe—an archivist at Memory Alpha, the Federation library planet.

Star Trek universe articles should be written as if the described person, object, or event actually existed or occurred, exactly like in a normal encyclopedia, but with an omniscient writer. Think of Memory Alpha as an encyclopedia that exists in the Star Trek universe. [source]

[3.4] Contributors are thus invited into a future world, one looking back on the events of the Star Trek universe as though they really happened, taking on the point of view of a disinterested observer examining long-dead people and events and reporting on them. By taking this stance, Memory Alpha becomes a far-flung fictive text meant to be read not as a story but as a collection of facts that, taken together, create a world. Maybe instead of seeking fiction in wiki through creation of something wholly new, like in the P/Virt universe, we ought to seek fiction in all wikis through the creation of a set of bits of information presented factually, and as we sort through them, the mental construction of the world by contributors and by readers becomes the creative act.

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One thought on “SF fan wikis: source, reference, world

  1. Cool! I, too, am disappointed in the current lack of wikifiction, but I think your comment about that is a good argument why it’s so rare. I’m also very interested in hyperfiction and all it could do, but have seen very little of it.

    PS: WordPress is the devil. Had to rewrite this. Why can’t it just keep us logged in like normal blogs? Grrr.

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