This is fandom?
I took a look at Participate: The Revolution of Fan Culture (which made me wish that, as in most cases where "revolution" is used, people used the more appropriate "evolution.") About 16 minutes in, it discusses fanfic and references LJ. However it gives only a passing nod to the vast amount of participation in places such as FFN and LJ, to focus instead on fan films and the fans who have become part of the entertainment industry (all the interviews are with people who make a living or make money from fans). This odd skew was perhaps most apparent in one interview segment where Lucas is referenced as the fanboy who changed things by being a geek and making a geek film. I thought an even better argument for Lucas being a fan and a revolutionary was what Lucas did for the technical side of filmmaking, not to mention the financial side by demonstrating the incredible empire-building power of merchandising. What troubled me is how "Participate" skewed the definition of fan, and also suggested that the "revolution" in question was in fact the commercialization of fandom. While I agree completely that to be a fan is to be a participant in some way, this focus on the migration of a few fans into the industry seems to be as much about fans as interviewing a well know artist about hobby painters. Sure, one's personal passions may have been the source of a professional pursuit, but to focus on the people who have taken a professional track is to ignore the vast hordes of people who lead completely different lives from their fan passions, and to the work that fans do as fans. The concerns of the professional and the concerns of the fan are different things.
This presentation of "fan culture" as a professional culture bothers me for two reasons. For one, and I could be wrong about this, it takes the view of sports fans and transplants it to entertainment fans. I suspect the idea that every sports fan deep in their hearts wishes that they could be the one on the field, pitching the perfect game or scoring the winning goal, might be true. And surely many entertainment fans would also like to be the one on the screen, or at least the one behind the scenes putting something on the screen. But I don't know that being a fan should automatically be equated with wanting to be a pro. For some people a hobby is just that, a break from one's normal life and not a frustrated desire to make a living from the hobby itself.
The second reason is, I think, an unsubtle desire for "legitimacy". And the easiest way to make anything legitimate (especially in the U.S. culture) is to make money from it. The interviews and footage for this documentary come largely from the NY ComicCon, and I think one could hardly have a better example of the commercialization of fandom (and the growing meaninglessness of the term "fan") than to feature it. People are paying attention to ComicCon these days because it's seen as a place where money can be made – not necessarily from sales but from marketing. Celebrities then follow the money and crowds follow the celebrities. Had this film focused on, say, Escapade instead I think it would clearly have been a substantially different film, and a much better exploration of fandom as a culture. Being a separate culture was discussed in the beginning in somewhat vague terms but it doesn't seem to have been the purpose of the film despite being in the title.
For example, the film later talks about how cheaper equipment and online distribution is allowing fans to create their own jobs in the industry. However this is a change hardly limited to fans. Lots of professions have found it easier and more profitable to use common technology and the Internet to make money – look at many bloggers. Were they previously journalism "fans"? Programmers have the same options, musicians have the same options, small business owners have the same option – what makes this fannish?
Strangely, it seems to me the film does inadvertently explain the lack of respect with which fans are held. If all fans are essentially failed professionals due to lack of talent, or effort, or luck, or whatever else is deemed to be important in becoming a pro, then they really are losers in a very literal sense. And I suppose this also provides a certain definition of fan, which is a person who is not simply a consumer but wishes to be an insider (but who, through sheer odds, is unlikely to succeed). There is next to no attention given to fan work that is inherently non-commercial, for example.
Machinima, one of the fanworks which has shown a particular likelihood of crossing to pro work, is briefly featured, which is what the creators of Red vs. Blue state when they are interviewed. Not interviewed? Any women. At all. There are some women seen in crowd shots and I believe a few included in the Trek improv group who appears (their segment is rather dark), but that's it. So I found it a little ironic that in post-credit clips one of the Penny Arcade creators comments "That's very insightful, maybe I should turn the camera around." The film creator? A woman. Her statement on the film includes the following:
"My hope is that it will highlight an aspect of fandom that is not always seen." Really? ComicCon and its vendors/celebrities are unseen? She interviews Joss Whedon for heaven's sake.
"It's about how creativity comes from passion and passion is what makes a fan. " So how about showing more of fan creativity instead of pro interviews?
"I want to communicate the fact that being a fan is about more than being a passive viewer, it's about participation, it's about creation. Creation of communities, of joy and of art."
So why not feature those communities? I have to suggest that if this was her purpose she has failed heartily at it. Something that I think succeeds much better? Counteragent's "Still Alive." While I would never call it a snapshot of fan culture as a whole (and I think that anyone who proposes to put something like that forward misunderstands the nature of fandoms), I think it does a fairly good job of encapsulating a very local one – and by doing that suggesting elements that may be common to many other fandoms large and small.