The Entrepreneurial Fan

I once had this friend who was very good at merging his hobbies with what was required of him. He earned his school credits working on his anime news and community website. He got all of us writing jobs for a media-related trade publication, where we could write basically anything anime related. Yet by the end of his school, he was desperate to somehow turn his anime related projects into businesses. When his hopes had finally been dashed, he decided to scrap anime altogether. Watching anime and being engaged with the community was an opportunity cost for him. After that, he entered society and never looked back.

This anecdote is probably a more extreme case of what happens when fans run out of currency, be that reputation, money, or time. If you are a part of an anime community, reputation matters, however it’s not as crucial for watching anime as is lacking the other two. Anime related hobbies are extremely expensive, be them money-wise or time-wise. I’m putting in the following touches for this blog entry at three o’clock in the morning, which will definitely cost me health, job performance, and time in tomorrow’s afternoon. You can also estimate the cost of anime on your life. But we always come up with ways to justify how anime enriches our lives and why they are worth watching, don’t we? However, in more extreme situations, we might be surprised to learn that anime won’t fit the equation no matter what.

To give a large-scale example, I firmly believe that the ongoing global financial crisis killed off a genuine sense of an anime community in my country, which only became apparent as the years went by. The financial stability before the crisis enabled many kids, even kids from families that weren’t that well off, to be able to devote substantial amounts of money, but more importantly time to their hobbies. This historical pattern is common to when the Japanese otaku began emerging in the 1970s. Japan’s growing interest in animation and doujinshi, along with enthusiasm for sci-fi and technology, backed with a booming economy, produced the perfect storm and jump-started the anime industry as we know it today. Similarly, for the time that our local anime communities were growing, it was so because we were putting a lot of effort into them. We had fanzines, web portals, an anime database with localized descriptions, and a variety of events to attend. While community-making these days in general is usually a for-profit venture, for us spreading appreciation for anime and attracting like-minded folks was a goal in itself. Very few individuals attempted to milk what had been built, and for good reason. I remember dismissing their plans because the local market was at the time too small and underdeveloped for anything like that. Suffice to say, I lost a friend.

Fast-forward ten years, we are still feeling the effects of the financial downturn. Kids are growing up to be responsible adults, they watch anime as a pastime. They don’t have the time to live out their healthiest years in front of a screen. Watching a foreign animation product that won’t net them anything is a waste, not to mention doing anything fan-related that isn’t watching. Unsurprisingly, over here the only fan activity that is still publicly visible is organizing anime conventions. It goes without saying, even in Slovenia conventions have merchants selling anime goods, we have artists running stalls, and of course cosplay. The artist alleys have taken on a character similar to that of their Japanese, German, and American counterparts, meaning that the local artist alley is not so much an art space as it is a marketplace. The artists are putting up their stalls to promote their products and services, whether it is for financial profit or for social capital.

As a disclaimer I have to say that I am not trying to put value judgments on this mode of prosumption, however, the cynic in me sees these leanings toward more profitable / less costly fan activities as a sign of tough times being trodden. Organizing conventions, creating art pieces, or doing cosplay might not immediately trigger what my line of thinking is here, but it’s important to contrast their frequency, in the public fan space, against other, less profitable activities. For example, writing anime reviews used to be a staple of our fandom and treated as a sign to the world that even fans in a two-million tiny country of Slovenia watch anime. I haven’t read an anime review or an analysis piece in Slovene in years now, except in a magazine which somebody is selling copies of.

English-speaking Anitubers rub me the wrong way the same as the fandom situation at home. It doesn’t matter if these creators are earning ad revenue off YouTube, or that they are finding Patrons to finance their efforts, to me the notion that they have to justify their prosumer activity with some sort of personal gain is quite interesting. Even those that don’t manage to make a single penny can use their YouTube channel as a springboard for future projects. PauseAndSelect, who is the only Anituber whose videos I cherish, would likely not be doing YouTube if not for the support he receives.

OK, but now that I made you think about your favorite YouTuber you get defensive and ask: “What’s the big deal if they make money doing what they love? Isn’t that great?” A long time ago I took a stab at doing anime blogging for a living, and aside from not having the talent nor the technical skills to pull it off, if you want to grow as an anime blogger there are so many things to sacrifice around your desired delivery in order to fit the expected, profitable format. I imagine it’s similar with YouTube. In the last year there have been numerous occasions at which I wanted to make and upload a video myself. Even though I have the equipment and the technical (and possibly the writing) skills to do so, I just couldn’t bring myself to it, because the format demands so many compromises. I admire PauseAndSelect for sacrificing very little in comparison to his competitors, but even he had to make some. For example, he needs to maintain a Twitter presence. He dug himself into a hole of stewarding a Discord community. He needs to interact with his Patrons. Sometimes he finds himself sifting through dumb opinions from his fans who haven’t read Nick Mansfield’s Subjectivity, plus it’s twice as hard not to call people idiots when you’re a PhD student. He also needs to play the PR game, to make himself look like a person his followers can relate to. In other words, he needs to do all these different things because the symbolic order is a bitch, which has nothing to do with his creative output. Doing these extra things, which is required of any entrepreneurial venture, is second nature to some, but it sure isn’t something that I’m comfortable doing.

Profitability of fandom engagement is what I would like to continue discussing. My own theory is that some fans carry the burden of constantly seeing a financial or a temporal constraint on practicing the hobby, and so they don’t enjoy it like a regular fan does. Instead of investing their money into plastic toys or FGO, they feel like they need to make the best of their time by picking the more profitable activity. Why waste your time posting pseudonymously on Reddit when you can make a YouTube video and increase your status as a community member? Why not stream your weeb games on Twitch and gain a following? I’d say that a five-dollar donation is better than a bucket of downvotes. In short, the entrepreneurial fans cannot allow themselves to become regular fans. They cannot justify their time doing so, or they cannot afford it.

This post isn’t meant as an ode to entrepreneurs, I actually feel sorry for them. My country’s fandom has seen better days, and I say that despite conventions increasing their attendance thirty-fold in the last 8 years. However, I do believe that it’s still much cheaper for a Slovenian fan to go to a convention and spend a few hundred bucks there than to spend a couple of hours every day being an active member of an online community. The math checks out for him.

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