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Dossier 06/06/2016

From fanfictions to machinimas, a panorama of online amateur creation

Memes, fanfictions, mashups and podcasts by YouTubers... web users' creations use all media and formats, to the point that it is difficult to survey them in detail. Seen from a distance, they give the impression of a vast, creative, and chaotic crucible. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Far from the anarchic image we often have of web culture, it is actually constantly self-organising into genres and sub-genres. This article presents a brief overview of them.

Fan creations

Fan communities centred on Harry Potter, Star Wars, Twilight, Naruto, Super Mario, the Hunger Games, and other TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters are some of the most prolific content producers on the internet. To understand the scale of their production, one simply needs to look at the number of stories or drawings published on dedicated fanfic applications and sites. Wattpad, a site and app dedicated to reading and writing fanfic, has 40 million registered authors and close to 100 million stories. The website DeviantArt hosts close to 2 million pieces of fanart, pictures created by fans. These two formats, which are particularly popular with teens and women, extend, modify and parody popular culture icons. Last but not least, there are fanfilms, maps of works on wikis, and fansubbing, the practice of subtitling TV series, films, and Japanese animated shows which are then illegally shared online.

All of these activities are a part of what University of Southern California sociologist Henry Jenkins refers to as "participatory culture." The key to this transformation from simple consumers to involved enthusiasts is a fandom: a community centred around a work, or more specifically its canon, i.e. its characters and universe. Within this well-established community, fans can explore the world they love, develop it in line with their own ideas in writing, images and video, or even distort it through the prism of a wide range of sub-genres.

In her thesis on fanfiction, Elodie Oger drew up a non-exhaustive list of these sub-genres. The most familiar are hurt/comfort, in which a character is hurt and then comforted by another character; darkfic, in which a "good guy" becomes a villain; deathfic, which tells the story of a character's death; and slash or yaoi, in which two characters have a homosexual relationship not planned by the author. The older the fandom, the more codified or even regulated these sub-genres. While these standards have become set over time, new fanfiction, fanart and fanfilm subgenres are constantly emerging.

This highly organised array of genres is also representative of other online productions like machinimas, mashups and YouTube videos. According to Sebastien François, a post-doctoral researcher at the ICCA Laboratory of excellence, fanfiction is no exception to the rules of the creative process which, as shown by Howard Becker, is implicitly collective. The authors who publish on, for example, have close relationships with their readers, who serve as audience, critics, and even editors or correctors. This collective approach had led to the stabilisation of various standards and codes. Furthermore, tags and key words are systematically used to directly categorise works by sub-genre, to ensure that it reaches its target audience.

Strange as it may seem, fandoms and their groups and sub-groups worldwide see themselves as virtually unrestrained by the studios or publishers which create, market or own the rights to their favourite works. Certain communities, particularly those linked to Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, go so far as to translate the positive values embodied by the characters into reality and become involved in fomenting social change. For example, the 100,000 worldwide members of the Harry Potter Alliance have promoted "magic, enthusiasm, and knowledge" by forming partnerships with NGOs, sending food or books to devastated regions across the world, and more. Productions and initiatives which, according to researcher Mélanie Bourdaa, may not be to the taste of the original authors or the major rights-owners.

Mashups: creating by recycling clips and films

Mashups, which are produced both by true amateurs and creators who have received some form of visual arts or film training, are essential recycled, twisted and remixed films and videos, generally based on current pop culture. As Julien Lahmi, a mashup film-maker and the founder of the first encyclopaedia of "mashup movies," explains, this amateur creative format grew exponentially with the rise of the web, and has a particularly high number of French practitioners.

On YouTube, the most popular and accessible mashup genre remains the tribute: a montage dedicated to a person or character, with an emotional rock soundtrack. Other stable genres are also well-known, including one in which different films are combined into a single scene, so that the characters encounter each other. One famous example is Antonio Maria Da Silva's Hell's Club. Another example is re-dubbing, in which post lip-synching is used to reinvent movie dialogues, a technique exemplified by Mozinor. Other categories include YouTube poop, frenetic mashups with no real plot in which short clips are remixed to create absurd, vulgar videos.

Improvised mashups created by unknowns, often connected to current events, regularly spring up online. This format is clearly a part of participatory culture, and emerged thanks to easy online access to clips and films, and will as easy-to-use editing tools. However, it is also a part of a movement known as cultural jamming, which promotes resistance to mass media by re-appropriating and hacking mass market works. The movement cultivates very specific references, like "Can Dialectics Break Bricks?", a 1973 Kung Fu movie détournement by former Situationist International member René Vienet, or the more familiar "American Class," produced two decades later by Michel Hazanavicius and Dominique Mézerette. The increasing presence of quasi-professional directors, online listings and analyses in encyclopaedias like Mashup Cinéma, and the way that festivals, like the Forum des images Paris (2011-2015) have adopted mashups make them a hybrid family, somewhere between pure participative expression and a new, semi-pirate film genre.

Creating through games: machinima, mods and speedrun

Video games, often described as a pure consumer good, are in fact one of the pillars of participatory culture. In fact, the first video game was developed via unofficial "creative" use of an MIT supercalculator. The idea of "messing around" to create something is a part of the genre's DNA. Better yet, the explosion of digital technologies, which Stéphane Vial, in "L’être et l’écran," described as "ludogenic," meaning that they tend to stimulate a sense of play in users, has accelerated video games' integration into participatory web culture. According to University of Liège researcher Fany Barnabé, there are three main types of creation based on games.

The first is modding, which consists of modifying various elements of the game to change the plot, the textures, the characters, or the gameplay. Minecraft is one of the most frequently modded games, with over 600 mods on the site! The second is speedrun, another video format, which is more of a sport or competition than an art form. The idea is to complete the game as fast as possible, without necessarily following the storyline, using all of the player's skills and expert knowledge of the game and exploiting bugs, to skip levels.

The third form, a more artistic approach, is called machinima. The name is formed from the words "machine" and "cinema," and echoes the word "animation." It refers to film-type videos made from a video game. The first machinimas emerged in the mid-1990s, with the release of the earliest first-person shooter games. Players would record their multi-player games using additional software, and then add dialogue. Like cultural content created by fans, machinimas recycle the original work, in this case directly through the game engine, which is used to shoot scenes. While it is difficult to quantify the actual number of videos produced, the website, whose YouTube channel has over 12 million subscribers, demonstrates the genre's popularity. As Fanny Georges and Nicolas Auray have observed, the success and recognition of machinimas, fanfilms and mashups as new artistic forms depends both on the social media outlets used to share the video, distributors like, and professionals - not necessarily from the digital sector - who organise competitions and festivals. Machinima has gone far beyond its amateur origins, is are now featured in a number of festivals, including the International Academy of Web Television of the Academy Of Machinima Art & Science.

One final genre is let’s play, video game live streaming, mainly on the platform Twitch. All of these practices, whether creative or athletic, amateur or quasi-professional, have one common feature: the fact that the players have the possibility to "create and stage their concept of what is means to play.

Creation through self-staging: the example of YouTubers

While some creators focus on fictional works, other work on themselves, their lives, and their interests. Given that all of the tools needed to capture every second of our lives are now available, self-staging generally relies on photo and video formats. Since 2010 and the appearance of smartphones with a camera in the front, selfies have become the most popular of these formats. The arrival of affordable video cameras and editing software also enabled the dramatic rise in video formats and the emergence of YouTubers.

YouTubers face the camera and talk about moments of their life - like stand-up comedy combined with quick sketches illustrating their words. France's top stars include Norman and Cyprien, who have 7 and 9 million subscribers respectively and are the kings of the humorous genre which dominates the French YouTube scene. According to Jean-Samuel Beuscart and Kevin Mellet, this genre is a part of "a rich and plethoric yet relatively coherent and orderly creative universe" since it is governed both by audience ratings and very similar aesthetic codes (fish eye camera, an apartment-style background, etc.), as well as the relationships between YouTubers.

Other genres are also emerging, including reviews, which consist of on-camera critiques of an element of popular culture like manga, cinema, or retrogaming and its old-school video games which delight French YouTuber Joueur du Grenier. Tutorials, which are posted both by women specialised in fashion and beauty and men focused on electronics and DIY, are a more didactic, practical way to stage enthusiasms and hobbies.

While we refer to "self-staging" here, YouTubers' motivations do vary, ranging from recognition of an artistic identity and the joy of sharing to (quasi-) professionalisation on YouTube via monetized videos. However, YouTubers are increasingly criticised for producing highly formatted content for highly informal communities, composed solely of the channel or YouTuber's audience. The experimental aspects of the platform's early days may well have migrated to other spaces. Those spaces include "vlogs," video blogs which showcase bloggers' daily lives in a family reality TV type style, or Snapchat, Vine and other live distribution platforms like Péricope. Smartphone videos are a relatively raw format which allow amateur video producers to eliminate editing and framing and in certain cases to broadcast their content live. Most of these productions are ephemeral, and are intended to go viral like flashmobs or the zany Harlem Shake videos of 2013, which showed people in costumes dancing to the Harlem Shake.

When creations circulate like memes

One of the major explanations of the 2.5 billion views of singer Psy's YouTube clip Gangnam Style, posted in summer 2012, is the wild variety and success of the copies, parodies and spin-offs it generated. These versions ran the gamut of amateur cultural forms, from mashups using The Matrix to machinimas shot in Halo, and were produced by people ranging from fans of Psy to YouTubers covering the song at home on their guitar. All of these versions contributed to turning the song and its horseback riding dance into a widely circulated meme. Memes, which can involve drawing, photography, videos and gifs, make unofficial use of all of the different types of digital creation. They combine humour, social and satirical commentary, reappropriation and viral distribution to become archetypes of the participatory culture described by Jenkins. Researchers Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers have shown how a character like Chuck Norris can be adopted by web users, reused, remixed, and acquire a new significance to nourish large-scale digital conversations. Ultimately, memes are both a culture born of amateur practices and the symbol of their essential feature: their social nature, in the form of long-term communities which converse and create internally, like fandoms, or improvised, temporary communities which exist just long enough to generate the next Gangnam Style.


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