When people defend the artistic qualities of fanfic, they often turn to classic literary comparisons. Shakespeare wrote fanfiction! So did Dante, more or less! It’s technically true, but this argument doesn’t reflect the reality of fanfic culture. Transformative fandom evolved in reaction to modern capitalism. It’s not just about writing fresh stories based on pre-existing ideas.
Copyright law is one of the main reasons fanfic culture exists in its current form, with fans turning to homemade, non-profit media to fill the gaps in legally licensed canon. In the early, pre-internet era of fanfiction, when fans published their work in print fanzines, they were hemmed in by two recurring threats: crackdowns from copyright holders and censorship of sexual content. This continued onto platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr, echoing the evolution of online censorship elsewhere.
In this video essay for the Daily Dot’s Lost History of the Internet collection, we explore the way fandom has responded to outside pressures. To people who have lived through NSFW content purges on Instagram and Tumblr, fandom’s early history can seem eerily familiar.
Back in the 1970s, when fanfic zines really began to take hold, fandom was crucial to the success of Star Trek as a franchise. Star Trek‘s creators benefited from (and celebrated!) fan culture, but certain content was inevitably frowned upon. While Kirk/Spock is now viewed as a foundational ship for queer fandom and slash fanfic as a genre, it was heavily policed at the time. Not just by homophobic Star Trek fans who objected to same-sex media, but by American obscenity laws.
During the fanzine era, queer fanworks were typically distributed in a clandestine manner to avoid prosecution. And some fandoms were more welcoming than others. When Star Wars exploded in the 1980s, Lucasfilm had a more hands-on approach than the people behind Star Trek—at one point publishing an open letter banning “homosexual expressions of love” in Star Wars zines. Obviously, fans kept publishing queer content, but this early crackdown may explain why slashfic about Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Lando Calrissian never became a fandom juggernaut like Kirk/Spock.
As internet culture began to solidify, so did the laws restricting what could and couldn’t be published. As we explain in the video, the last 30 years have seen a constant cycle of fan creators finding new ways to distribute their work, only to be ejected by online platforms or penalized by moral panics. And as we know from ongoing conflicts about online censorship, the journey certainly isn’t over.