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Fansubbing in China as a Form of Produsage

Hong Kong.
The final speaker in this session at The Internet Turning 40 is Donna Chu, who highlights the different forms of content creation which are emerging in Web 2.0 environments as the nature of production and consumption is shifting. Does this mean that users are empowered or exploited in this environment? What forms of civic participation are possible here?

Some of these questions are not new, but continue similar discussions in the area of fandom - fans have been creating content for a very long time, and have now simply moved online to share that content. Fans mobilise in support for discontinued TV shows, create petitions to save characters which are to be dumped from TV shows, etc. TV fans who participate in this way, though, are also contributing free labour to these TV shows, and could be seen as being exploited.

The practice of fansubbing is particularly interesting here. It dates back to the 1980s, when international fans of Japanese animation began to create their own subtitles to these films and circulated these subtitled videos. This was difficult in the pre-Internet age, of course, when it had to be done by posting VHS tapes around the world; today, we are in an online, 'digisub' era (which also creates additional copyright concerns, however). Fans acquire new videos through Bittorrent, then engage in translation, timing, editing, typesetting, quality control, encoding, and distributing, and have created a division of labour in the community to organise this.

In China, this has been popular since 2002, and increasingly also focusses on fansubbing US shows; a strong competition between different fansubbing groups to be the first to share their subtitles online has also emerged (sometimes taking only 10 hours between episodes shown in the US and sharing the subtitles in China). Such fansubbed shows add to the audience for these shows, of course, but also violate copyright in re-sharing the fansubbed episode using Bittorrent. Some of this came to a stop in December 2009 when Bittorrent China was shut down by Chinese authorities (for not having a broadcast licence), however.

Commentators have wondered why fans contribute such free online labour; others have described their competitive work ethic as 'neoliberal'. The legal and ethical implications have also been highlighted - is this fan culture or simply massive filesharing; does it support piracy (some of the episodes end up being sold as illegal DVDs in China)? How does it contribute to cultural globalisation and spread the cultural values of the originating country?

Additionally, the social organisation of fansubbers are particularly interesting: there are hierarchies and divisions of labour which emerge in these communities of practice, and there are learning aspects as well. This serious leisure enables participants to build up specific skills which may be professionally valuable to them - so do participants see their work as free labour for corporate interests?

Donna interviewed members of various fansubbing groups, one of which had some 700,000 registered members (of whom only a small percentage were actively involved in the fansubbing itself, though). They were mainly young females in major Chinese cities, from a range of professional fields; many were students at varying levels. Learning and practicing English was a major reason for joining for them, but being part of the community was a major reason for staying - commercial interests were not a major driver. Fansubbing was seen as a satisfying and valuable activity; through their serious leisure, these participants were labouring to learn.

And that's it - there's a final discussion panel on teaching new media, but I'll refrain from blogging this - too difficult with ten participants... Great conference - thanks again to Chinese University Hong Kong for their incredible hospitality.

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