Week 4 – Online creative communities

One of the things that’s been on my mind over the last three weeks, as we design a research project around everyday creativity in the UK, is the role of online creative communities. This is particularly interesting as the campaign we are evaluating, the BBC’s Get Creative campaign, has a digital presence, and is encouraging people to participate in various ways, such as entering competitions or submitting their artwork.

In order get a sense of some of the everyday creative practice that is going on in the UK, the internet seems like an obvious place to look. My interest in online creative communities was initially sparked some years ago by learning about slash fiction, a type of fan fiction, from a friend who writes it. This involves taking two fictional male characters from different shows, films, or books (often sci-fi), and writing a homoerotic story around them. My friend would use slash fiction as a way of improving her writing – the advantage of online writing communities, she argued, is that she would get immediate feedback on what she’d written. Other members of the community might request a piece of slash fiction featuring two particular characters, and she would have to write something convincing. A challenge, if someone requests for Han Solo to get it on with Ron Weasley.

While academics were slow to join the party, with Rebecca Black arguing in 2008 that there had been a lack of academic attention to fan fiction, it seems that is changing quickly, at least judging from the recent Fan Studies conference in the UK in June. A glance at the programme reveals treasures such as an ‘observant participant’ study of the Sugar Quill, a Harry Potter fan site, by Jo Metivier at the IoE; a study of the Game of Thrones fan community by Andrea Nevitt at Keele; a paper on the intersections between fandom and commercialisation from Rebecca Williams’ study of Disney fandom and theme parks; and the racial dynamics of fandom from Rukmini Pande. Of course, the ubiquitous One Directioners made an appearance, thanks to Daisy Asquith, and Shakespeare fan fiction is alive and strong, according to Valerie M Fazel’s study. Most fascinating for me was Melanie Williams’ abstract on adult women fans of CBeebies’ Mr Bloom. Of course, fan fiction is only one breed of online creative community, among many others.

In what ways do the face-to-face cultural and creative groups that are represented by Voluntary Arts (which I blogged about last week) intersect with these online creative communities? Do the lace-makers and line dancers write Star Wars fan fiction as well? Or do they upload their new steps and stitches to YouTube to share with others? Jean Burgess (2009), in her work on Flickr photo-sharing in Brisbane, found that many members of the community moved between online and offline. There were meet-ups and social events in which amateur (and sometimes professional) photographers would meet up socially as well as to take photos of the city, post them online, and share comments and technical tips. However, many people in this group, as with Will Brooker’s (2002) early study of online Star Wars fan communities, only interacted online without meeting face-to-face.

Such communities of practice are a great exemplar of the kind of ‘everyday creativity’ which the Get Creative campaign is seeking to encourage. However, these developments pose some interesting questions for the Get Creative research project. For a start, this kind of participatory culture challenges accepted ways of measuring cultural participation or engagement. The Taking Part Survey, which was initiated by New Labour in 2005, has taken a bit of a kicking recently from academics who are pointing out that it is only measuring a very limited idea of participation, so the kinds of activities that many people ‘take part’ in don’t get registered (eg Miles 2013). For example, when looking at the Arts Council’s ‘cold spots’ for cultural participation, we have no idea whether people in Slough or South Tyneside are in fact highly engaged in online creative practices*.

Secondly, I would hazard a guess that many of these online communities not only don’t have any funding from, or interaction with, publicly funded cultural organizations, but they don’t want it either. For the (feminist) online communities in which I’ve participated, the organisational structures, such as moderation for acceptable language and interaction, are very different to the traditional chair-treasurer-secretary arrangements which Voluntary Arts organisations apparently tend towards (personal communication, Robin Simpson 2015). It would be interesting to know whether some online communities, or participants within them, would in fact like to be more connected to the arts and cultural sector, and if so, how these links could be facilitated.

Finally, as a researcher interested in inequality, a major challenge in doing online research is the difficulty in getting data on the demographics of those participating in online communities. While some researchers in this area carry out interviews as well as doing online research, there are always going to be quite a few people online who don’t want to disclose their class, age, gender, or other identity details, and who would never in a million years dream of consenting to be interviewed. This makes it hard to find out whether online creative communities are indeed attracting a different demographic to face-to-face groups. In some ways they are likely to be more inclusive than face-to-face communities, as they remove barriers to participation such as transport problems for people in rural areas. However, in other ways there is an inbuilt barrier to participation in the very fact that they are taking place online; 17% of the UK population doesn’t have access to the internet. This is also, of course, an age divide, and indeed as Rebecca Black suggests, fan fiction is a practice primarily engaged in by adolescents – at least, it was ten years ago when Black carried out her fieldwork (Black 2008).

While we will be asking people about their online as well as offline creative activities, it seems that by only doing face-to-face research we will be missing a trick when it comes to exploring everyday creativity in the UK. Reading around this area has made me wonder whether we should carry out one strand of our research online. Our research design is still not finalised, so this is still a possibility. Thoughts and comments very welcome.

*The Taking Part Survey in 2014-15 asked specific questions about digital engagement in relation to playing video games or going on the internet, or using library websites, for example, but not about cultural and creative engagement online. See questionnaire at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/adult-questionnaire-taking-part-survey-2014-to-2015 [accessed 27th July 2015]

References

Black, Rebecca W. 2008. Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction. Peter Lang.

Brooker, Will. 2002. Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Burgess, Jean. 2009. ‘Remediating Vernacular Creativity: Photography and Cultural Citizenship in the Flickr Photosharing Network.’ In Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy, edited by Tim Edensor, Deborah Leslie, Steve Millington, and Norma Rantisi, 1st edition. London; New York: Routledge.

Miles, Andrew. 2013. ‘Culture,  Participation  and  Identity  in Contemporary  Manchester.’ In Culture  in  Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change Since 1850. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

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