Written by Irina Mugford
Traditionally forms of media such as theatre, cinema and musical performances imposed a clearly defined distance between the audiences and the performers. The expectation was that the performer conveyed a message with the meaning they intended, and the audience was expected to decode the initial meaning. This is no longer the case as the distance between creators and the audiences, established in the past by both physicality and the mystical otherness inscribed to the performers, no longer exists.
Our new “participatory" culture is defined by lowered barriers for creative self-expression and engagement; we all believe that our contributions matter and want to share them with other members of the audience. We are also empowered to engage with the original creators, voice our opinions and even reject the suggested texts and their meanings.
With the advent of Internet, the participatory culture really took off on a bigger scale, allowing normal people to reach a wider audience in a way which was impossible a decade earlier - what might have once been a disconnected niche geek audience now has an immediate global community. We watch a film or a TV show and we take to social media to express what we would have done differently, because it’s no longer impossible to believe that it might be us telling stories, it might be us creating art next time. We write fanfiction (I know I used to), we create fan art (check out the amazing Artwork Section of this website), we fantasise, we discuss and we participate.
Unsurprisingly, the media industries have initially been reluctant to accept the fans into the elite circle of creators that they strived to form. Of course, the authors were reticent to the idea of their prescribed meanings being deformed, changed by their audiences. And yet, it was inevitable that as modern technology made us closer than ever to the creators, this phenomenon would only grow in power. And the industry has had to adapt.
This is where the mythical “showrunner” and “creator” was born and where the “author” died. Let’s discuss television, for example, which delivers texts inherently full of gaps, contradictions and inadequacies - the principal characteristics of what Fiske calls a “producerly” text. These producerly texts allow the viewers to construct their own media by “misreading” the texts, adding to them and appropriating them in ways that more “writerly” and complete texts would ever do.
What does this mean for the now “deceased” authors? In the past decade or so, they’ve been forced to accept that the initial meaning they add to a text is not necessarily the one that we - their audience - will see, read and, most importantly, accept. What’s more, it’s not only the decoding phase, but also the “textual productivity” of fans that has affected the relationship between authors and audiences. We often not only infer our own meanings and renegotiate the text; we also create and circulate works based on the original source. We have no direct access to means of production, but we do have easy access to worldwide communities of fans like ourselves.
And since fans are what drives merchandise sales and keeps most texts alive for years, we are paramount to the industry despite the so-called “textual poaching” we now perform. The fans, thanks to their enthusiasm and involvement, are in fact a free promotional tool for the text. Our engagement and high levels of textual knowledge also allow us to assert our “moral rights” over the text and characters. But the industry needs us and is forced to do everything to make us feel accepted. The “authors” or “creators" are forced to follow.
This is even more prominent with fantasy and sci-fi. These genres lend themselves to the imagination of the fans even more readily than others, spurring us to think of alternative storylines and get immersed in the universe thanks to its numerous options for rereading, and, arguably, rewriting the texts. Both the worlds and the characters in these genres are not set in stone, open to variations and interpretations, allowing the fans to read deeper into the text, even where the authors themselves did not venture.
Some would argue that ultimately it’s still the author who makes the final decisions and has all the power. That is ultimately true, but when it comes to popular media texts authors are under pressure to provide return on the executives’ investments by delivering exactly what the fans (the ultimate money-making machine for the industry) want. How this works with creative integrity in the long run remains to be seen, but there is no denying it would take a lot of courage (and risk) for an author, for example, to kill a fan favourite character in the middle of a TV show run with no intention of bringing them back.
This new dynamic between authors and consumers is still new and evolving. But in my opinion, it's getting deeper every day, with more and more authors forced to accept the simple truth: their audience is not silent and passive anymore. If anything, it is more engaged and active than ever, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. No longer are the authors allowed to have the final say, no longer is their word the word of god about their works. They now have to invite their audience to the party before they crash it, as Felschow put it way back in 2010.
Because we’re all creators now and we will crash the party, whether they - the industry, the authors and the gatekeepers - want it or not.