Wednesday, April 28, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 1: "a methodical encyclopedia of the imaginary planet"

The book was written in English and contained 1001 pages. On the yellow leather back I read these curious words which were repeated on the title page: A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr. There was no indication of date or place. On the first page and on a leaf of silk paper that covered one of the color plates there was stamped a blue oval with this inscription: Orbis Tertius. Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. All of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.
        —Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940)

Maybe it's because the job has been running me ragged these last few weeks. It could be that I've rolled into one of the troughs in my cycle of peaks and slumps. Possibly I'm experiencing some residual burnout from the protracted effort of composing—and thrice revising—a 700-page novel (which I would very much like you to read). But whatever the cause, focusing on writing lately has been like trying to flex a sprained muscle. I can only seem to exert myself in hour-long bursts, after which I come into a refractory period where all I can do is (re-)read X-Men comics.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe the comics are part of the problem. The instantaneous, tickling gratification of supernormal spectacle and soap operatics strikes a more aggressive claim for my time than the unaided inclination to stare at a blank page or empty text field and await the appearance of coherent sentences. So I downloaded a site-blocking app to bar myself from poring over the digitized pages of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for the third or fourth time. Problem solved.

Then somehow or other I ended up at the Marvel Database (a facet of Fandom, née Wikia) and spent forty-five minutes reading about X-Men comics until I realized what was happening and added marvel.fandom.com to the list of blocked sites.

Not long after that, I was skimming the details on the new Magic: The Gathering expansion—and before I knew it, I was browsing the MTG Wiki. There went another half hour. Unfortunately, the way Fandom's wikis are indexed prevents a blanket block under fandom.com. A total self-ban would necessitate blocking every domain individually.

In and of itself, the lure of these wikis as a way of passively occupying the hours between sleep, work, and personal/familial/social obligations probably doesn't require any more explanation than the appeal of the media products their pages summarize. Behavior analysis could describe the attraction in terms of stimulus classes or relational frames; cognitive psychology might talk about mental connections, and so on. We gaze at the fan-sourced wiki about the thing because we like gazing at the thing. And of course, the attention-retaining interactivity of hypertext can't be discounted—nor can the well-established connection between screen-delivered "content" and dopamine pathway activity.

At any rate, the Fandom network attracted about 750 million visitors last month. Clearly I'm not the only one who gets a buzz from reading about the esoterica of proprietary fictional entities.

This isn't the first time we've idly pondered Fandom here, but I'm not finished chewing on it quite yet.¹ Its existence is unprecedented and utterly fascinating. The incomparable Borges dreamed up something resembling it in his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which the discovery of an encyclopedia containing the history, philosophy, and science of a fictitious planet precipitates the encroachment of that world's reality upon our own. Even if truth isn't really stranger than fiction in this case, it certainly isn't any less interesting.

Putting aside for the moment any considerations about its medium (hypertext document), Fandom represents a hylomorphism of ancient enterprise and modern zeitgeist. Its matter is the stuff of pop-culture cult; its form is that of the encyclopedia.

From a fifteenth-century French manuscript of the encyclopedic Speculum Maius,
composed by the Dominican friar Vincent de Beauvais in the thirteenth century.

Encyclopedia—from the Greek enkuklios paideia, "all-round education." The prototypical written encyclopedia, Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia (77 CE)—a thoroughgoing summary of the scientific, geographical, and cultural knowledge of his era—established not only the rough template for its successors, but determined its subject matter: an encyclopedia was to compile practical worldly knowledge which a learned person ought to know. Pliny's book, however, wasn't intended for a general audience: about thirty percent of the population of Rome was literate in Pliny's century (literacy rates were lower elsewhere in the empire). During its author's lifetime, Naturalis Historia's readers would have been other members of the Roman elite. 

Composed before the Western schools subjected the academic disciplines to strict differentiation and demarcation, Naturalis Historia contains, in addition to volumes on astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, minerology, etc., sections dedicated to geography, medicine, agriculture, anthropology, and the fine arts—subjects few of us today would regard as topics of "natural history." For our purposes here, it's worth noting that Pliny assigned no entries to theological topics, mythology, or folklore in the anthropological chapters; and the sections treating painting and sculpture make mention of renowned artists and their works, but assume the audience needs no explanation of those works' subject matter. Colotes and Phidias carved a statue of the Olympian Jupiter. Piston made statues of Mars and Mercury. Apollodorus of Athens rendered in pencil a scene of Ajax being struck by lightning. Who's Jupiter? Who's Ajax and when was he struck by lightning? If you had to ask, you probably weren't reading Naturalis Historia to begin with. Pliny cites Homer as a source, but the word "Iliad" occurs once, and only incidentally in an entry about eyesight and small text.

The encyclopedic manuscripts composed in the West during the medieval period were inaccessible and unreadable unless one had access to a library and could read Latin; this was an epoch during which "general audience literature" was an oxymoron. But by the eighteenth century, print technology, the shift from Latin to vernacular literature, and increasing literacy rates had not only made popular books possible, but viable commercial enterprises.

The Cyclopaedia, or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed. 1728) of Ephraim Chambers, written for a lay audience, sought to alphabetically organize and explicate the ideas of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of the scientific revolution for the literate burgher; it was well-received enough to see five additional printings.

Like Pliny, Chambers didn't believe the fictional content of poetry and theater lay within the scope of his project. In the Cyclopaedia's fourth edition, the entry under the headword "Homer" reads:

HOMER, or Gomor,

a Jewish measure, containing the tent[sic] part of the epha. See Measure, and Epha.

There are no entries for Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Virgil. The entry for "Hercules" reads:

HERCULES, ΕΝ ΓΟΝΑΣΙΝ, in astronomy, one of the constellations of the northern hemisphere. See Constellation. The stars in the constellation hercules, in Ptolemy's catalogue, are 29; in Tycho's, 28; in the Britannic catalogue, 95. The longitudes, latitudes, magnitudes, &c. whereof are as follows.
Chambers was a practical-minded man, and his Cyclopaedia epitomizes the intellectual climate of the eighteenth century against which the Romantics reacted. Articles about the authors of literary works, or any particular episodes or characters depicted in their work, don't fit into his design. This was also the century in which the novel gained momentum as a popular amusement—but as we can see, its prominence didn't qualify it for inclusion in the scheme of Chambers' general knowledge index, though he did compose articles for "Poetry," "Drama," "Epic Poem," "Farce," etc.

On the subject of design: did you notice the phrase "See Constellation" in the excerpt? Embedded intratextual cross references like these would have surprised Pliny and the medieval encyclopedists, who intended for their books to be read linearly, from the first page to the last, the same way they themselves read others' written works. With the advent of print culture was germinated the conception of the book as a convenient reference.

First intended as a mere translation of Chambers' work, the greatly expanded Encyclopédie (1751–66) of  Diderot espoused secularism, cast doubt upon ecclesiastical authority, and counted several philosophes among its contributors—making it the first encyclopedia to proclaim itself as a collaborative effort. Diderot and his co-editor d'Alembert followed Chambers in the inclusion of general articles about literary and theatrical tradition, but neglected to allot separate articles to Dante, Hercules, or Achilles.

The Encyclopédie classified human knowledge under three categories: history,
philosophy, and poetry. Guess which is represented by the tiny one of the left.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, reading mass-printed novels was becoming an increasingly popular pastime; Diderot evidently felt his encyclopedia should at least acknowledge the trend. Eighteenth-century rationality prevails in the Encyclopédie's article on the novel, which is ultimately concerned about the medium's impact on moral hygiene:
Novels written in this good taste are perhaps the last kind of instruction remaining to be offered to a nation so corrupt that any other is useless. I would then wish that the composition of these books be reserved to honest but sensible persons, whose heart would portray itself in their writings, to authors not above human frailties, who would not from the outset show heavenly virtue beyond the reach of men, but would make us embrace it by depicting it at first less austere, and then from the lap of passions, to which one can succumb and repent, were able to lead them imperceptibly to the love of the good and the beneficent. That is what M. J.-J. Rousseau has done in his New Heloise.

It therefore appears to me, as others have said before, that the novel and comedy could be as useful as they generally are harmful. They offer such grand examples of constancy, virtue, tenderness, and selflessness, such attractive and perfect characters, that when a young person subsequently looks about at everything present, finding nothing but subjects unworthy or well beneath those he/she has just been admiring, I am surprised along with La Bruyère that such a person can be susceptible of the slightest temptation for them.

Besides, people like novels without realizing it, because of the passions they depict, and the emotion they arouse. Consequently, that emotion and those passions can be productively employed. It would be all the more successful in that novels are works more sought after, better sold, and more avidly enjoyed that any work of morality, or others that require serious application of the mind. In a word, everyone is capable of reading novels, almost everyone does, whereas one can find but a handful of men who are entirely devoted to the abstract sciences of Plato, Aristotle, or Euclid.
When the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica came off the Edinburgh presses in 1771, who could have guessed what destiny had in store for it? Fifteen editions, a mound of supplements, salesmen knocking on doors across the Anglophonic nations...and reduction to a partially-paywalled website when the popularity of a free-to-use digital alternative crushed its business model.

But let's peer into the Britannica's eleventh edition of 1911 and see the extent to which art and fictions have made an incursion onto its pages in the wake of the century in which novels and magazine serials reached the apex of their popularity. Dante merits a considerable entry, but there is no "Divine Comedy" article. Homer gets an even larger article, but there is no separate heading for the Iliad. (Probably something like "Iliad: See Homer" was printed in the physical copy.) No article on the Mona Lisa; a tremendous one for Leonardo. And so on.

But what about mass-market novels and their authors? Arthur Conan Doyle gets a paragraph; his creation, Sherlock Holmes, gets nothing. James Fenimore Cooper, then more entrenched in the canon than Doyle, has a longer entry, but there is no heading for "Bumpo, Natty," the central figure of his five-novel Leatherstocking Tales series. The Britannica editors are interested in the biographical details, achievements, and real-world impact of their subjects. Holmes and Bumpo are significant only to the extent that they're relevant to their creators' lives and careers on terra firma.

Without an easy-to-access .pdf of any editions from the mid-to-late twentieth century (and since my local library discarded its old copies), it's hard to say at what point entries for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings appeared in the Britannica's pages.² But you can see from the links that the online version has articles for both—very condensed, conveying only the essentials. Longer entries are provided for George Lucas and JRR Tolkien. Frodo Baggins get a single paragraph; a search for "Luke Skywalker" brings up a relatively substantial article for Darth Vader.³ I suppose something like admiration is owed to the Britannica's editors for their continued devotion to the Propædia, and their insistence on dealing with real lives and real facts in the real world, even if it means nobody interested in reading about Star Wars or Lord of the Rings will spend more than two seconds on their website.

And there you have it.

No encyclopedia was ever published without the imprints of its compilers' ideology upon its pages. Naturalis Historia is rife with Roman chauvinism; the Speculum Maius was foremost a Christian text; the Systeme Figure of the Encyclopédie and the Propædia of the Britannica are philosophical statements as much as principles of organization. Wikipedia is unique in that the guiding ethos of its founders—complete confidence in the wisdom of the crowd—resulted in an encyclopedia whose editorial principles and structure were devised ad hoc.

For all of Wikipedia's problems, few will deny that it has become an indispensable resource in the two decades since its founding. But during its early years, it was very much a work in progress. Articles did not adhere to any standard format. The authorial voice varied wildly from article to article. Content was typically scant and poorly arranged. (For instance, the November 2005 version of the article on operant conditioning reads like an undergrad's homework assignment.)

Jimmy Wales invited the crowd to fill the digital pages of his neoteric encyclopedia; the crowd answered by writing what it knew. Thus, by popular will, were the fictional entities of mass media products qualified for inclusion in a general knowledge encyclopedia.

On August 18 2005, Wikipedia's "Plato" article contained about 2,200 words (not counting text under the References, External Links, and See Also headings). On August 7 2005, the "Pliny the Elder" article contained about 2,900 words. On August 25 2005, the "Battle of Salamis" article contained about 1,500 words. On August 18 2005, the "neutron star" article contained about 1,500 words.

On August 19 2005, the article "Homer Simpson" contained about 3,000 words. On August 10 2005, the "Mario" article contained about 3,800 words. On August 27 2005, the "Goku" article contained about 3,900 words. On August 20 2005, the "X-Men" article contained about 7,000 words.

Perusing the revision history of the Homer Simpson article through the mid-aughts is like reading a transcript of a bloodless trench war. One one side are the enthusiasts who want to pile on the in-universe trivia and clarify the "Jerkass Homer Controversy;" on the other are the custodians attempting to clear the article of "fancruft." They begin to get aggressive in 2006—the same year Wikipedia tweaked its "anyone can edit" policy.⁴ Commenting on the purgation of "non-notable" articles that took off in that year, Nick Carr opines that the most interesting thing about Wikipedia isn't anything like the emergent order one may have observed as thousands of disorganized, low-quality articles crystallized into editorially consistent reference texts, but "the way it has evolved, as it has pursued its goal of matching the quality of Encyclopedia Britannica, toward a more traditional editorial, and even corporate, structure."⁵

Scenes from the trenches

By 2010, the Homer Simpson article looked more or less the way it does today. Homer is reviewed as a pop-cultural icon created by Matt Groening for an animated television series on the Fox network, about whom critics said such-and-such, and whose lasting influence on other popular media is such-and-such. As of today, Wikipedia's Homer Simpson article runs about 6,000 words. On Fandom's Simpsons Wiki—which has no compunctions about francruft and "Trivia" subheadings—the Homer Simpson article is over 18,000 words long.

Ousting the Britannica from its rarefied perch, Wikipedia styled itself as its successor not only in terms of its stature and cultural reach, but in its unparalleled utility as a curated information source. Emphasis should be placed on "curated"—every print encyclopedia had to make a determination with regard to the subjects it ought to treat. The encyclopedias of yesteryear typically worked from a conceptual map showing the ramifications of human knowledge from general fields to specialized disciplines, and then went about the task of foliating the branches with articles selected on some basis of value: what is important for a learned person to know about? Wikipedia, liberated from the physical constraints of print media, and offering articles submitted and edited by students, scholars, and dilettantes who neither ask for nor expect remuneration, has made notability its primary criterion. And who in the twenty-first century will say Homer Simpson, Batman, and Spongebob Squarepants aren't notable?

But notability is not the sole criterion. The crackdown on "fancruft" indicates that Wikipedia has not abandoned the idea that an encyclopedia's contents ought to be relevant and purposeful (though it operates under expanded definitions of relevance and purposiveness).

The early contributors who watched in consternation as the deletionists purged their in-universe dossiers and articles on obscure cartoon characters could take comfort in knowing that Jimmy Wales, in his wisdom, had already provided for them. Candid statements about Wikia's founding as a for-profit, anything-goes companion to Wikipedia are hard to come by, but I strongly suspect it was partially established in the anticipation of needing a place where the the superfans could be offloaded, relieving the more aspirational Wikipedians of the continuous task of deaccessioning the ephemera inserted among the codices of their treasured latter-day Library of Alexandria. 

Spockanalia, the original Star Trek fanzine

Religion is immemorial. The earliest extant visual art is over sixty thousand years old. The first written fiction (that we know of) was composed in the third millennium BCE. Archaeologists have found evidence of Hellenistic hero cults in sites dating back to the eight century BCE.

Fandom, however, is less than a century old.

It was conditioned on the maturation of a culture industry at a particular stage of technological development. The creaking of the printing press was the birthing cry of mass culture, but print is apparently insufficient to catalyze fandom on its own. Print media is too private. The textual content of the serially reproduced novel is identical in every copy, but the experiential content differs from reader to reader.⁶ Ten thousand people may read the same Sherlock Holmes stories, but no two readers will "see" the same events or "hear" the same voices in dialogue. Fandom required the uniformity of experience made possible by electronic media: everyone who watched Star Trek in the 1960s observed the same Kirk and the same Spock; they watched Bones quips that he's a doctor, not a _____ at the same juncture, with the same intonation, prompting the same reactions from his onscreen hearers. The foundational "texts" of fandom must be accessible for repeated viewings. Star Trek had to enter syndication; Star Wars had to be released on home video and air on network television after its theatrical release.⁷ There had to be identical photographs of the Beatles cut out from magazines and sold as posters; there had to be recorded songs that could be played at any time, and which were sonically identical on every listening, for every listener, always. Level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. had to be the same for every player; it was necessary that someone from New York could visit Los Angeles, stop by the arcade, and compete against the locals on a cabinet whose Street Fighter II was indistinguishable from the one he played back home.

The accessibility of these cultural artifacts, their ready availability, and the technology required to access their content assumes a certain degree of societal affluence, distributed such that a family living beneath the poverty line was still more likely than not to own a television set.⁸

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, geographically dispersed fan groups could commune through conventions, newsletters, and fanzines; but in order to attain full development, fandom required the 24/7 on-demand distance-defying instantaneousness of the internet. Fans needed message boards, fansites, and personal pages to reinforce their interest by versing them in the lore, appraising them of products they didn't know about (say, Japan-only entries in a videogame series, obscure comics that were never collected in trade paperbacks, television holiday specials that were only aired once, and so on), putting them in contact with miniature communities with whom they shared (or which could teach them) the argot of an in-group, and providing amusement and information regardless of television schedules, bookstore and library hours, and so on.

Fans are a cohort (or a subset of a cohort) whose seminal experiences they received unto themselves as listeners, viewers, and readers; who can report and refer to these events and be immediately understood by others who have seen and heard the same things—sold to them all as the entertainments of supernormal stimuli. In many cases, fan communities can be characterized as widespread networks of affiliation whose members all participate in parasocial relationships (another phenomenon whose qualitative leap was contingent on the development of mass media) with the same entities.⁹

Screencap from RPGClassics. Surprisingly, it's still up and functional, and
the Final Fantasy III section looks the same as it did twenty years ago.

Nostalgic reminiscences about early fansites as a havens and communal nodes for young people with obscure or even stigmatized pop-cultural interests (if you attended high school in the mid-1990s, reading comic books, wearing T-shirts with printed images of video game characters, and playing Magic: The Gathering didn't make you popular—and don't even ask about anime) tend to overstate the average webmaster's devotion to the idea of community. In many fansites, a masturbatory element was writ large.

A collector of subtitled bootleg Dragon Ball Z tapes who had a predilection for Android 18 might put together a fan shrine in a place where others could conceivably see and enjoy browsing it—but it was also another way for him to look at images of Android 18, talk (to himself) about Android 18, and read about Android 18 (though he was reading what he himself had written).¹⁰ In the absence of immediate social rewards or compulsions (assuming he wasn't receiving a stream of appreciative emails or regularly getting signatures in his guestbook), what sustained his behavior was either the functions of a relational framework involving a verbally-constructed community for whom he was doing good, or the more basic self-reinforcement of thinking, writing, and looking at a source of reinforcement—most likely some combination of the two. (Full disclosure: I might actually be talking about my own behavior with regard to Final Fantasy and essays about Final Fantasy.)

Television, film, and videogame literature wasn't in short supply during the 1980s and 1990s, but the fact of the fansites' popularity suggests that TV Guide, GamePro, and Wizard left some consumers' appetites unsated. Final Fantasy VII received a great deal of magazine coverage, and several publishers put out illustrated strategy guides—but how many of them gave the avid fan everything he wanted to see and read about Tifa? Where was he going to find full reports on the three "missing" Final Fantasy games if Electronic Gaming Monthly wasn't willing to dedicate space in its monthly publication to years-old, Japan-only Famicom and Super Famicom titles? GamePro might have published a blurb on Vampire Savior, but where was the fascinated player to go to find all the in-depth guides, character lore, translations of development materials, and official illustrations of Felicia his heart desired?

That was a trick question. The fact is, there is no limit on how much on how much novel Dragon Ball Z, Magic: the Gathering, X-Men, Gundam, or X-Files content a fan requires before he decides he's had his fill. An inexhaustible well of material pertaining to a television, film, or video game series transforms that franchise into something like an MMORPG—progressive and illimitably open-ended, assuming that old resources are updated and new resources (which could include message board posts) are regularly put into circulation. Engagement with secondary sources typically follows contact with a primary source; contacting the secondary source will strengthen behavior oriented toward primary sources. For instance: somebody who watched Batman: The Animated Series on Cartoon Network might visit a few fansites; subsequently, the next time he's at Barnes and Noble, he carries a few Batman trade paperbacks to the check-out counter. Reading and enjoying the comics increases the likelihood that he'll spend more time exploring Batman material on the internet, participating in message board chatter, and so on. Engagement with primary and secondary material can result in a mutually reinforcing or augmentative feedback loop, wherein these apparently separate activities (consuming Batman media products, consuming Batman fan-content on the internet, and perhaps producing Batman fan-content) are better understood as constituent parts of an integrated, stable behavioral pattern.

I googled "adventure time" to see how long I had to scroll before finding a fansite. I gave
up at the end of the third page of results. I found this on the second page of results for
"adventure time fansite." As you can see, it's actually a defunct blog.

The process of centralization that brought about the dominance of Wikia/Fandom and the disintegration of the amateur fansites began well before the internet's colonization by commercial interests. When supererogatory encyclopedic fansites appeared, they quickly became the focii of their respective "communities;" if a popular discussion board or chat room existed elsewhere, that typically became the other focus. In cases where the all-purpose, all-inclusive fansite also hosted a communication channel (starmen.net comes to mind), it was both focii; it was an axis. (Without the conscientious implementation of safeguards, an egalitarian culture will not remain level for long.) Their rise didn't erase the smaller, more casual, and/or more grossly amateurish fansites, but they did draw traffic away from them, and perhaps reduced some small webmasters' enthusiasm for improving and updating their own sites.

Wikia owed its eventual dominance over the independent fansites to three factors.¹¹ The first was incidental: the rise of social media and content mills. Obviating the necessity to know a modicum of coding to create a serviceable webpage and guaranteeing social reinforcers by way of tokenized rewards (even before the Like button, social media was designed to empower users to easily send and receive feedback), LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, Reddit, etc. left the small webmaster feeling rather like he was sitting by himself in a little shack next door to the endless party at the Gatsby mansion. Content mills, by virtue of rapid updates by paid writers, cultivated in readers the habit of repeatedly checking them for updates throughout the day, displacing and eventually extinguishing the behavior of checking a sporadically updated site for new content (and perhaps revisiting older content in the meantime). Over time, the amateur's interest in building and/or maintaining a personal website that wasn't part of a formal network declined. Fansites created after 2010 are a rarity indeed.

The second factor was Wikia's solicitation of content from the crowd, whose wisdom is far less efficacious a resource than its tirelessness. A single webmaster can only give his hobby so much time. If he makes a fanpage dedicated to, say, a long-running and still ongoing animated series, and if he's enthusiastic about the series and devoted to his project, he'll certainly create "profile" pages for each of the main characters in which he explains who they are, what they've done, their relationships with the rest of the cast, and so so. Maybe he'll also put together pages for recurring secondary characters, and also for impactful characters with a limited number of appearances. If he intends for his page to be a useful resource for casual fans or curious browsers (or if he's pleasuring himself by finding ways to write about something he enjoys), he'll create an individual page for every episode, summarizing the plots, posting screen captures, offering observations, selecting notable quotes, pointing out callbacks to earlier episodes, typing out two- or three-paragraph reviews, and so on.

But how often will he amend a character's page to reflect something that happened in a new episode? How often will he create a page for a character that recently debuted, and how promptly will he update their page if they make a return appearance? If it's a long-running show with dozens of notable characters, will he make pages for all of them? Will he make sure not to skimp on any of the details? How long will it take him to put together a new page for a new episode? How often will he review his own work and notice typos, poorly constructed sentences, solecisms, omitted information, and so on? If there are comic books and video games based on the TV series to which his site is dedicated, will he write about them? In how much detail? If a new episode retcons old facts or assumptions about multiple characters in the show, how long will it take him to update the information on their profiles?

It's quite a burden for one person to take on, especially if he's a full-time student, works forty hours a week, has a semi-active social life, etc. Divvied up among a small army of fans, drawn by google searches which increasingly consist of "[media property] wiki," the work of updating and polishing an in-depth guide to a media property is considerably less onerous.

The third factor is the redoubtable clout Wikipedia commands. It is trusted, respected, and eminently familiar to anyone who's punched anything into a search engine at any point in the last twenty years. Running on MediaWiki software, sharing Wikipedia's layout and article format, and typically presided over by editors intent on emulating Wikipedia's prose style, a site hosted on Fandom bears the imprimatur of its dot-org paterfamilias. Provided it receives enough traffic to attract dependable contributors, a page on Fandom that examines the fictional life of a pretty pretend talking pony (for instance) will organize and state the facts with the same diligence and in the same dry, matter-of-fact language as a Wikipedia article about Madame de Pompadour or the Crimean War. Just as Tlön's captivating power emanates from the format in which Borges receives it—as a book, an encyclopedia, connotatively redolent of the scholar and the expert's authority—a Fandom page will be implicitly trusted as a leading source by anyone with an ingrained habit of consulting Wikipedia on other subjects. 

Gone, then, is the colloquial, ingenuous language of the personal fansite. Whether this balances out to a net positive or negative is up for debate: somebody who wants to know how Android 18 fits into the overall arc of Dragon Ball Z might not be interested in reading an adolescent male's limerent gushing, his tangential commentary on certain points of the plot, his half-baked theories regarding unexplained parts of 18's past, and so on. Probably it's better he's on Twitter or the YouTube comments section now. But the genuinely insightful, articulate, and even exuberant voices are also lost. The good Fandom page is readable and inoffensive, certainly, but this is achieved by demanding that contributors check their personalities at the door, and then homogenizing their passages into a bland textual paste. Of course, the fan with something to say, a high-context joke to crack, or someone else's fanart to share can avail herself of the platforms offered by social media—where her contribution to the "discourse" will shortly disappear under a mountain of new user-generated content. In the age of Facebook, and of content generation as ethos and business model, only the wiki endures. All other text is ephemeral.

As I write this, I wonder what it would be like to make it acquaintance of a major contributor to a Fandom wiki—the kind of person whose username is ubiquitous across the History pages, who hurries to be the first on the scene to compose or clean up new content after the latest film, issue, episode, or game is released. What kind of personality could I expect him to have, the man who performs this service for free, happily agrees to refrain from conjecturing, joking, or commenting, and is content to have his signature upon the document buried in the web-design equivalent of a janitor's closet? I wonder.

If he's not motivated by the kink of verbally reconstructing a thing that arouses and fascinates him, then perhaps he's animated by a sense of altruism, or even duty: his satisfaction to know that thousands of people like him have a thoroughgoing, peer-reviewed document on the life and times of King of Fighters' Iori Yagami. I imagine the mindset somewhat resembles that of a medieval monk who'd write an abstruse treatise on some minor technical point on theology because he felt he glorified God in the effort of casting a light onto His mysteries, which was his responsibility as a man of letters and of faith. Assuming this analogy holds water, does the Fandom contributor's "God" consist of the franchise, his conception of the community of consumer-devotees to which he belongs and for whom he provides a service, or of a hypostatic union of the two?

His work is not in vain, in any event. The Fandom wiki reifies what it catalogs and celebrates. How can anyone doubt the significance of Touhou games when a permanent, seven-thousand-page illuminated testament to their impact—to the enduring fact of the Touhou Project—addresses them in a luculent voice in which sound the faint but unmistakable accents of the Naturalis Historia, the Encyclopédie, and the Britannica? (Like Melville's cetacean ghosts, these texts carved channels across our values and practices which we yet follow, even if we're unaware of when or how they were laid.) The encyclopedia does more than report facts about events, persons, and ideas: it dignifies its subjects.


Gone are the days when Trekkies were derided as developmentally stunted, socially inept, sexually undesirable losers who gave themselves over to the idolatry of a television series at the expense of following "respectable" middle class pursuits and reproducing the nuclear family. As it turns out, a customer-for-life is a valuable asset (just ask Anheuser-Busch, Phillip Morris, and Pfizer), and the manufacturers of culture (and all the business interests with which they're entwined) can count on having more of them when society doesn't disparage pop-culture obsessives. A closeted fan makes a poor brand ambassador. Nobody benefitted more from the acceptance and normalization of the "geek" than the purveyors of his entertainments.

Probably this was less the result of a concentrated drive to manipulate public opinion than a consequence of two factors. The first: a cohort coming of age after growing up with television, cable channels, VCRs and DVD players, home video game consoles, trade paperbacks, collectible card games, fansites, message boards, and so on, and whose members never "aged out" of watching Bruce Timm cartoons, collecting Magic cards, or playing the latest Zelda game. The second: the major mass media players' bid to open up "geek" franchises to new audiences through big-tent film series (Lord of the Rings, Nolan's Batman films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc.), video games targeted at people who aren't necessarily males between the ages of six and twenty-five, high-concept superhero comics, and so on.¹² It gets hard to discredit an interest or lifestyle when it becomes so popularized that those who were once stigmatized for partaking in it might find themselves being called out for gatekeeping instead.

Cosplay Culture magazine cover from 2015.
Sold at CVS, Walgreens, Target, etc.

If my maternal grandfather (a child of the Great Depression, a World War II veteran who fought at the Battle of Normandy, and a longtime employee of the Office of Community Services) was alive to read any of this, I'm certain he'd be exasperated by what he'd perceive as the utter frivolity of these projects, from the the GeoCities fansite to the Fandom wiki to, the gigantic Final Fantasy essays I wrote for socksmakepeoplesexy way back when. Why couldn't the teenager who wrote strategy guides for obscure Nintendo games to post on GameFAQs spend his time studying, participating in a school club, playing sports, volunteering, working a part-time job, or investing in his future some other way? Why aren't the grown-ass adults who spend their free hours engaged in edit wars on the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic Wiki out there finding ways to get involved in civic life, putting in work for a political cause, or getting worked up about real things that matter in the real world if they have such a goddamned abundance of free time?¹³

My grandfather was not unintelligent, but he had an obsolesced and too-basic conception of social utility. The thing about Fandom that would seem most strange to him is that so many people are committing so much of their time and energy to something so useless. But if he were still alive, and had the inclination to examine the matter more thoroughly, what would really seem strange to him is that Fandom and the cultural apparatus of which it is just one appendage are useful to society—most definitely so.

Paul Klee, Historic Ground (1939)

I am more knowledgeable about the totally made-up in-universe history of the X-Men than I am about specific events of the American Civil War. It's a shameful thing to admit, but it's true. We could probably deduce from this a few things about the deficiencies of public education in the United States; about how effectively comic books have competed for my attention with Ken Burns documentaries and historical tomes; about how much easier it is to comprehend and remember a fabricated visual narrative designed for succinctness, coherence, and amplified emotional responses than to engage with and internalize a text whose author must arrange and reduce to narrative a dense concatenation of bygone events whose connective tissues are often a matter of speculation; or, concerning fansites and wikis, that people write what they know, and people living in a society where absorption in industrially-produced cultural products is both amusement and intellectual pursuit are eminently knowledgeable in the personages, dramas, and controversies of electronic media and YA novel content. But the thing to notice is that it makes no difference whether I'm more conversant with comic books about mutants in skintight jumpsuits than I am with a critical episode in my country's history. 

If it was important to society that I be thoroughly versed in Civil War history, surely I'd be under pressure to memorize dates, battlefields, and the names of generals. Surely I'd be routinely shamed by my peers for not knowing the months and years that the armies clashed at Shiloh and Antietam. Obviously I am not. Nobody cares. Probably the only people who'd really be appalled are history buffs, and—well, if I'm as inured to hearing that a literate English-speaker has never read anything by Melville, Faulkner, or Milton (and has no desire to), the average Civil War history enthusiast has probably also learned how fruitlessly exhausting it is to harangue people about shit they're not interested in.

I'm fairly certain I'm not a stupid person, and I don't think anyone's unfamiliarity with heavy novels should be taken as evidence of a deficient intelligence. Chomsky came to a similar conclusion regarding the discrepancy between the typical American's ignorance of global affairs and the depth of his knowledge about sports, and took a stab at making sense of it:

When I'm driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I'm listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it's plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it's at a level of superficiality that's beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it's quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that's far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that's in fact what they do. I'm sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Substitute "sports" and related terms with language germane to video games, television dramas, anime, etc., and nothing Chomsky says is substantially changed.

Contra Chomsky, superfans aren't living in a fantasy world. Few of the people who become so intensely devoted to media properties as to warrant longform articles about worrying trends among millennials or zoomers—the sort who have anime-girl body pillows and bedroom shelves arrayed with figurines, who retweet illustrations of their "waifus" or "husbandos," who claim to "kin" with a cartoon character, who write My Little Pony fanfiction, who get into savage arguments about the most likely outcome of a fight between Worldbreaker Hulk and Superboy Prime—aren't actually confusing the imaginary with reality. That isn't what's happening here. These people aren't deluded, deranged, or even stupid. They're powerless.  

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that most of us—as in, the majority of adults living in the United States—aren't paid to think or to formulate and express an opinion. We're seldom asked to weigh in on executive decisions in the workplace or on municipal concerns. Developers don't ask our permission to build whatever they please in our neighborhoods. Our landlords aren't interested in discussing rent increases with us. If the person living next door leaves his Christmas decorations out until June, we probably don't know him well enough to ask that he take them down without coming across as a whiny, pushy busybody whom he'll brush off as a matter of personal dignity. We have little to no control over our environment. When we weigh in, what we typically get in response are form letters, excuses, weightless promises, empty gestures, or tear gas and cudgels. What's more, we're isolated: we have coworkers instead of friends, we watch YouTubers in lieu of conversing with people, we give money to VTubers and OnlyFans sex workers because we've given up on dating. (This would still be the case even if the COVID pandemic never happened.) 

If it's all the same whether we can cite historical precedents to make the case for or against some piece of legislation, whether we're keeping up to date on some overseas atrocity for which the United States bears some responsibility, or whether we possesses a learned understanding of the transnational economic machinery that determines the possibilities of our lives—then why burden and depress ourselves?

If we don't have any kind of stake in the lives of the people around us, and if they're equally indifferent to us—then why get involved?

If we have no control over what happens in our neighborhood, in our town, at our job, or in the cities where power is concentrated—why not focus our attention in areas where our actions have results?  

Let us become flâneurs of the digital boulevards. Let's get hooked on Magic: The Gathering Arena, design and share custom cards, and analyze the metagame and lore on Reddit. Let's play all the Final Fantasy games and write a longform critique on each of them. Let's read a bunch of listicles about comic book characters, and then make a few listicles of our own. Let's stream a few Disney movies and then compose a tweet thread where we parse their narratives for elements of colonialism, misogyny, and queerness, and watch the Likes add up. Let's bingewatch Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, browse the Avatar Wiki while we perform research for our fanfic, and contribute a few sentences to articles that seem to have left something out. 

From Max Ernst's A Week of Kindness (1939)

We've may have strayed a ways from Fandom, but we haven't gone far.

At the conclusion of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the reality of the encyclopedia's fictional world proceeds, step by inexorable step, towards actualization on Earth. The effect of Fandom, and every fictional world to which it gives an encyclopedic treatment, is precisely the opposite: it reinforces the status quo. It's a component (and a comparatively minor one) of a social apparatus whose function is preservation, not change. The "messages" conveyed in the content of a mass media franchise make little difference where a society's superstructures are concerned. A superhero movie or a general-audience cartoon may flirt with or even espouse radical ideas, but they're harmless as long as they don't produce an audience that realizes it no longer wants to be an audience. 

As a subculture, fandom (lowercase "f") is structured around patterns of consumption: buying the movie tickets, subscribing to streaming services, buying the new consoles to download the new games, ordering the merchandise on Amazon, scrolling the content mills and wikis and getting exposed to the tailored advertisements, searching the hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, viewing the trailers on a smartphone, reading or watching the retrospective essay and then watching the film or playing the video game being discussed—none of which is especially conducive to shifting the balance of power in a corporate oligarchy. The apparent retreat into fantasy is in fact a commitment to reality, to the way things already are and to the track on which they're already headed. 

The genius of Fandom (capital "F") is that the audience whose consent must be manufactured steps up to the assembly line themselves and offers their services gratis. The culture industry sells us the imaginary worlds; we write the encyclopedias on those worlds, and are transfixed by the conflated texts. Each justifies the other, the primary and the secondary. The result is a behavioral escapement that helps to keep a person cycling from the pleasure of media consumption to the pleasure of absorbing secondary content, and back again to the pleasure of media consumption. To paraphrase Whitehead, such devices (Fandom is not the only one, nor is it the most powerful) help to place and keep minds in a groove. They sustain the routines that stabilize a social order in which power is proportional to a person or institution's command over the public's purchasing habits, and they inhibit the kind of concentrated, on-the-ground organization which Chomsky identifies as being necessary to effectuate structural reform (ideally before internal contradictions and external stressors force change, chaotically, at a catastrophic pace).

Don't mistake any of this for finger-pointing; as I said at the onset, I spend way too much time consuming X-Men content (and spent far too much time composing videogame fan-content) to denounce anyone for their hobbies. We can only live in the world we're given, and can only act in the ways that world has trained us to act.

Given all of this...

We have to appreciate that the encyclopedias of Fandom weren't composed by patricians, friars, or philosophes, but by lay people, evincing the intelligence and efficacy of which the commonest of us are capable when sufficiently motivated. As much as cave paintings, lyric poetry, algebra, and throat singing, the fan wiki is a product of the human spirit—the necessity which impels us to find coherence, tell stories, and make art out of whatever materials are available to us in whatever environments we go about the work of living. Even inside the hothouse of late capitalism, surrounded by serially manufactured banality, under irradiation by stultifying mass media, alienated from each other and adrift in a world where too many of us are disenfranchised strangers, the seeds of our experience irrepressibly germinate mythology, meaning, and loci of communion—however aberrant they might be.

This entry will be the first in a series of (noncontiguous) ruminations on that late capitalist hothouse and the strange new growths that blossom in its soil.


1. I wrote that entry before I'd actually read Marx and discovered that capital accumulation and centralization are concepts that have been treated in exhaustive detail. How embarrassing.

2. The library did, however, have the 2017 edition of the World Book encyclopedia (sometimes billed as a more accessible companion to the Britannica). Some findings: a fourteen-page "Star" article; a three-paragraph "Star Wars" article; no article for "Skywalker." The "Divine Comedy" article was five paragraphs; the "Dante Alighieri" article was nine paragraphs. No "X-Men" article. The "Batman" article was three paragraphs; no "Joker" article. The article for "Salamis" was a brief exposition of the island itself, which refer the reader to the "Persian Wars" subheading of an extremely thorough "Ancient Greece" article. No surprise that an extant print encyclopedia with a size constraint is sticking to its guns—but what really impressed me was World Book's pedagogical superiority to Wikipedia. The latter comes off looking like an information dump by comparison. 

3. Postscript: the Britannica's article on Batman is considerably larger than Frodo's or Vader's—but Batman, as a media property, has a much longer and more varied history than Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, and that's still what the editors care about. 

4. Not that I'm still bitter, but a fan created a Wikipedia article for 8 Easy Bits. It was taken down in 2006 and the word "non-notable" occurred several times in the talk page.

5. McLuhan theorized that a new technological tool, after maturing to its full potential, begins to reverse its original characteristics. Wikipedia makes an interesting case in point as one follows its luciferian ascension from a crowdsourced project that "will take anything from anybody" to an institution tirelessly managed by a cabal of gatekeepers.

6. Comic strips and books are print matter, but they are an exception to the rule. McLuhan rightfully considers them a different sort of animal than reproduced type. Incidentally: it seems print comics still outsell their digital versions in the United States, but that could change—as it has in Japan, where digital sales exceed print sales.

7. In 1982 and 1984, respectively.

8. The rate of poverty in the United States was about twenty-two percent in 1960. In that same year, almost nine out of ten households owned a television set. This also suggests that even in households with limited means, the purchase of a TV was still a priority.

9. In the pre-revision version of this post, I remarked that the parasocial relationship is as old as the concept of a watching, listening deity with a concern or detached interest in the affair of its believers—but by definition a parasocial relationship is with an entity, real or fictional, with no awareness of the knowing individual's existence. I wonder if there is a more apt term that encompasses both parasocial interactions and investment in a deity than "imaginary friendship?"

10. No, I guess we can't have a post without a block quote from Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957):
The speaker's own verbal behavior automatically supplies stimuli for echoic, textual, or intraverbal behavior, and these in turn generate stimuli for further responses....Thinking is more productive when verbal responses lead to specific consequences and are reinforced for doing so. Autistic behavior is a step in this direction...Just as the musician plays or composes what he is reinforced by hearing, or as the painter paints what reinforces him visually, so the speaker...says what he is reinforced by hearing and writes what he is reinforced by reading...[T]he writer composes verbal stimuli which arouse (in himself and, incidentally, in others) emotional or other kids of responses, or serve as prompts or probes to permit him to behave verbally when he otherwise remain silent for lack of energy or wit or because of punishing circumstances. The writer constitutes within himself an adequate community for the sustained production of literary behavior, and he may continue to write for a long time with no further contribution from the external community. 
11. In March of 2021, Starmen.net received about eighty thousand fewer visits than the EarthBound Wiki, but its lower bounce rate and higher indicators of engagement per visit speak to the advantages of its twenty-year entrenchment as the orbital center of English-speaking EarthBound fans. It should be noted, however, that starmen.net's traffic shows a decrease, while the EarthBound Wiki's traffic is on the rise—at least in the short term.

12. A possible (and if so, likely minor) third factor: during the mass migration of the general public into cyberspace, "normies" made contact with preexisting spaces that were built up and populated by fans of comic books, anime, video games, etc.—and here the "geeks" were the natives; they were savvy, confident, and cool. It would be hyperbole to say that suddenly everybody wanted to be a geek—but the aesthetic and comportment came into vogue like never before. 

13. I don't actually know if there are very many edit wars on the My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic Wiki, and I don't want to go looking for them.

2 comments:

  1. When you think about it, in the" Old" days the majority of pepole were just as powerless and blamed everything on " God" or " The Gods" like Odin, Zeus...Ra...and so on .

    Were pepole not just as fixated on the " gods" as pepole are on which super hero is stronger? Hell, in the old days we seen entire temples and pyramids built to what most would say are fictional creatures, were the most that goes to " modern Gods" is comic cons aside from the real fanatical fans.

    The arguments and most rituals of the" old gods" were as far as I know not really doing anything in the real world, it just appeased people from thinking they were as powerless as they really were, in the end...maybe that's all this is, just expressed in a new way thanks to the internet.

    Well...that and to make money out of fiction for those who can sell it.

    Well...hope your book's doing ok, I'm still trying to get mine sold...tricky in a pandemic when you can't promote much...ugh.

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    Replies
    1. Hmm. I'm actually gonna get into this in Part 2, whenever that happens.

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