In their 2009 piece Empire@Play: Virtual Games and Global Capitalism, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that “digital piracy is a classic example of the criminalized social struggles that have always accompanied enclosures of common resources.”
This idea of enclosing what used to be common caught my attention. There may or may not actually be a historical relationship between enclosure and poaching (and the Wikipedia article seems to not mention it), but they seem related conceptually. Lands and resources that used to be communal become single-owner, and when people continue to respond to them as if they are communal this is theft or poaching.
My brain said “poaching!”—of course—because of fans. I will be the first to admit that the relationship is not immediately apparent, but that’s just the way my thought process works these days. Bear with me, and I’ll force some sense out of this.
Over the twentieth century, storytelling got enclosed into mass culture (this may have started earlier, but I think I’m within reason to say it became ascendant then). Fans, then, as Henry Jenkins explained in his now-famous metaphor, were Textual Poachers taking storytelling back, making it communal again in a new folk culture in conversation with mass culture.
Those people weren’t exactly criminalized—though they did break intellectual property laws with varying degrees of frequency—but they were definitely considered to doing something non-normative. “Normal” people interacted with culture in a way that respected the fact that it was “owned” by media companies; fans were taking something that didn’t belong to them.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s and beyond, and we get a different structure. Fans aren’t taking things that don’t belong to them, but are instead being given more and more by the people who own stuff. They are being invited to engage.
Many scholars have identified this as doing away with the enclosure of the mass media era altogether. Culture is now once again circulating in a communal way as media companies and fans enter into a symbiotic relationship rather than an antagonistic one.
But I think there’s still more mileage to get out of the enclosure metaphor, and that it can explain this era also—albeit differently. My contention is that fan culture has, over the last few years, been subject to an ongoing process to build out the enclosure to contain it
Fan culture, like the broader folk culture before it, has traditionally been shared. It was never, of course, some utopian space anymore than there were nothing but happy peasants in ye olden times; there was conflict and inequality. But like a common piece of land, everybody had a stake in maintaining it. It was, in some sense, public.
Contemporary media organization practices around fandom, on the other hand, are a form of privatization. The invitation to fans to participate at official sites or enter official contests or have official relationships with the media companies is a production of enclosures.
Fans may or may not agree to be enclosed. They may or may not find that enclosure cramps their style. But privatized, enclosed fandom is different in at a fundamental level no matter how much it is or is not experientially different.
And what’s more is that—even if the enclosed fans themselves find that they can continue their previous practices or even find their fan experience improved—enclosure structurally produces criminalized, thieving populations.
Sometimes that’s literal, like the piracy example that started this thought process. But more often, more insidiously, and therefore to my mind more importantly, the issue is one of not doing what “normal” people do. Some people always get excluded when new norms get created, and when the new norm is more expansive but still doesn’t contain them, they become not just outside the norm but deviant and wrong.
That construction of “right” and “wrong” fans, of “seat at the table” fans from “howling at the gates” fans, is a structural outcome of enclosure, privatization, and normalization. And we’ve got to pay attention to its existence as well as who ends up in what category, as “normal” and as “deviant.”