DISCLAIMER: Sweeping generalizations about fandom follow. Also, the "fandom" I am talking about belongs solely to LJ, not because LJ is the be-all and end-all of fandom, but because it is LJ's social network that is rising against FanLib. There are plenty of people who fit into fandom but not this particular analysis of "fandom", but they're not the ones banging on drums and calling for FanLib's heads, so I'm not talking about them.
Read at your own risk.
I have been watching the whole FanLib debacle with a certain amount of glee, not the least of which because I find it thrilling to watch people shoot themselves in the foot, as FanLib has been doing in a particularly spectacular, annihilatory way. And I have reached certain conclusions: namely, that FanLib has fallen down not because they are rapacious, greedy, and not terribly bright, but because their view of the world is fundamentally opposed to the view which fanfiction writers have of their community.
FanLib has come in to the debate with a certain mindset. (I’d call it “masculine” because it traditionally is, as the social mindset fic writers have is traditionally feminine, but that would cause people to focus on the gender issue, and I am trying to talk about the communications issue.) They see a resource, they think it should be put to use, they have goals to do this and they set about reaching them. This, in and of itself, is not evil, or even wrong. It is simply one way to go about doing things. Fandom, on the other hand (and I am using “fandom” as a short hand for “the community of fanfiction writers and readers”, although I am aware that they are not the same thing), has a completely different mindset. Fandom is a community, which relies on social ties, an internally created hierarchy, and constant communication between its members. It is tight-knit and wary of outsiders, not because it has been burned in the past, but because of its intrinsic nature. Membership in the group must be established by spending a certain amount of time interacting with other members of the group, and your place in the group is determined by the network of social interactions you have set up. Again, this is not inherently good just as how FanLib thinks of things is not inherently evil, it is simply a different way to go about doing things.
This kind of group is by its very nature difficult to break into. Establishing a social network takes time and a great deal of effort, and cannot be accomplished by walking into an established group and saying, “Here I am!”* FanLib’s mistake was thinking that by showing up and “talking like they belonged” (which they got wrong, of course, but that was a symptom of not knowing the kind of community they were dealing with), they could become an accepted part of the community.
The mistake is understandable. FanLib is approaching the issue from a completely different mindset. To them it is incomprehensible that they would not be accepted immediately if they offered a “cool” product (that they thought their product held any attraction to the community in the first place was another symptom of not knowing the kind of community they were dealing with), because the kind of social networking that forms the basis of fandom is alien to them. In their world, you are judged by the product you produce, or at least the product you can promise you will produce, not by the social ties you have. In fact, social ties in the manner which fandom employs them, that is, social ties used for being social, are essentially valueless in FanLib’s world. I am not claiming (to be clear) that product is not valued in fandom -- we do like to read good fics, not crap, and (let's be honest) there is a lot of crap out there, on LJ just as much as on the infamous "Pit of Voles". In fact, the main argument about why BNFs have such a place in the social hierarchy, and I think it's a valid argument, is because the product they produce is of such quality. But in fandom, quality product fits into a social network. All product does. And that social network is valued because it is a social network, not simply because it is associated with the production of product. This is what FanLib is not getting. Since in their world value is judged solely by the products produced, the idea that the social interactions themselves are highly valued in addition to the product is incomprehensible to them.
It is obvious that FanLib was shocked and confused when they encountered the reality of fandom, and that they are (finally) trying to work with fandom, or at least no longer alienate it, as evidenced by the answers Chris Williams was willing to give to Harry Jenkings. But the mere fact that Williams refused to talk to anyone except Professor Jenkins is indicative that they have not changed mindsets – indeed, that they still are clueless about how fandom actually works. I have only the utmost respect for Professor Jenkins and the work he does with fandom, but the truth of the matter is he is not “one of us”. He is the benevolent anthropologist, an onlooker who may have established social ties with the community but not within the community. Williams stated that he was willing to talk to Jenkins and not to members of fandom because he “had dual citizenship in fandom and academia” – and that, right there, is why FanLib is failing. Williams fails to grasp that fandom is its own self-contained unit and does not appreciate intrusion from outside, and that “academia” is not a part of the community and therefore communication with an “academic” because he is an academic, even one as partial to fandom as Jenkins, is hardly going to gain you acceptance in fandom. Williams fails to grasp that to be accepted by fandom he must become part of fandom, and that that means interacting with the people who compose fandom, not those who serve as its communication to the outside world. In fact, by using Jenkins as an interpreter, Williams is firmly establishing that he considers himself part of that “outside world”, but he seems unable to realize that this means he is not going to be able to get fandom to do what he wants. Fandom does not trust the outside world not because it is the outside world, but because it is not fandom.
I am not going to start talking here about how FanLib is “doomed to fail”. They can certainly narrow their scope in such a manner that most of our objections are made irrelevant, and there is no reason why they cannot become successful by being a holding pit for all those refugees from the “BNF” culture on LJ, like a not-yet-wanky FF.net. (I am not saying that FanLib doing such a thing would lessen its risk to us, in the issue of forcing lawsuits we do not want, I am simply saying that becoming such a thing may well enable it to survive without the involvement of the pesky argumentative LJ-types. After all, I’m pretty sure they didn’t know we existed in the first place.) What I am saying is that unless there is a paradigm shift in the FanLib company, they are doomed to never gain acceptance within fandom, because they not only do not think like us, they don’t understand how we think.
And this is a divide that is impossible to communicate across – they will continue to say, “But we have an awesome product! Why don’t you like it?”, and we will continue to say, “We prefer the product we make ourselves, not because it is better than yours, but because it is ours.”
* On a side note, I think this is at the heart of the problem some people have with “BNFs” – it is not specifically their place in the hierarchy they are objecting to, it is that BNFs have a more established social network and in a community where your position is determined by the strength of your social interactions the not-BNFs feel like they are on the fringes, with the resentment that any fringe group has. And I’m not saying this as a BNF myself – I think about six people read my X-Men fic, and maybe twenty read my football (er, soccer) RPS if I post it to a community, so I hardly qualify.
Some of this has been reworked due to insightful points raised in the comments.