realms of ruin & fandom buy-in
warning: flashing gif at the end
If you are a person who is not Terminally Online, you probably missed Wednesday’s tempest-in-a-teapot: the announcement of, immediate backlash to, and eventual scrapping of the shared-world project Realms of Ruin. Here are the basics: on Wednesday, an Instagram post (since deleted) went up, announcing a new collaborative shared-world project from a list of YA bestselling heavy-hitters. Shared worlds are nothing new, nor are attempts to monetize existing fandoms, but the addition of the cryptocurrency element (and what looked like a complete lack of foresight around how this would actually work) destroyed the project before it got off the ground.
First, a shared world is exactly what it sounds like: a group of authors writing within a world either created collaboratively or handed to them by someone else (say, a packager.) Shared world is a term more generally associated with publishing—I think because it involves copyright. Who gets copyright on the basis of the shared world is something that is worked out before the authors are even brought on board, and participants generally don’t retain copyright on anything other than original characters and scenarios created for that world. This differs from fanfiction, where creators are using the copyrighted settings, scenarios, and characters owned by others. Fanworks fall under the legally protected category of fair use, loosely defined as creative output inspired by someone else’s IP (intellectual property) which thus cannot be monetized. They are noncommercial by nature, because copyright law grants the copyright holder the sole right to profit off of the work.
So from the beginning, the questions arose: who owns what in Realms of Ruin? In a now-deleted blog post, project co-creator Julie Zhao (who was not a contributor, as far as I know) laid out the rules: “Anyone can write a story in this universe and mint it into an NFT they own. The authors will promote and reward the best stories. A collectible NFT character set will be sold at launch to fund the promise.” But copyright in a shared worlds situation is already incredibly complicated; who owns the copyright to the world fans would be writing into? Later in the same post, Zhao described RoR as a kind of community-created, community-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The problem is that with the MCU, someone owns those characters—Disney. Fans remixing the stories and writing 100k coffee shop AUs where the Winter Soldier is a pastry chef and not a merciless killing machine are able to do so because they are prevented by law from profiting off of it. And as Dan Olsen points out, a story that is community-owned is “philosophically incompatible” with crypto; an NFT is essentially the purchase of an expensive entry in someone else’s database, and cannot be shared. (Moreover, most crypto exchange servers don’t allow participation from anyone under 18—a bit of a problem if you’re going to be aiming a project at a YA market full of minors.)
And as author-slash-legal-genius Courtney Milan points out late in her Twitter thread on RoR, why would fans even stay in RoR’s “NFT walled-garden?” Why pay-to-play when you can play for free on something like The Archive Of Our Own? RoR is the latest in a long line of attempts to monetize fandom, to leverage existing fan goodwill towards a creator in an effort to make money. From Pottermore to Kindle Worlds, attempts to monetize fandom in this way have historically failed. This isn’t because fandom isn’t profitable, but because that kind of loyalty, that kind of creativity, can really only flourish when it’s organic. No one writes fanfiction or draws fanart because they think it’s going to make them money one day. They do it because they love the original story and want to make it their own somehow.
For a fandom to thrive, it has to spring up naturally. Maybe RoR will revive itself under a different aegis, without the crypto angle that made it so hellishly unfeasible in the first place. But I’d bet that regardless of how it comes back, if it does, or whatever different version springs up in the not-to-distant future, it’ll fail the same way.
Do you have a question about writing, publishing, books? Is there something you want covered in this newsletter? Do you want to hear thoughts on companies trying to “disrupt” publishing? Leave it in the comments or in a reply to the newsletter!
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
The Caps absolutely stomped the Colorado Avalanche this week, in a game that required the Sacred Texts to figure out how to watch. After a lackluster season (and a cocaine bust) last year, our bird son Evgeny Kuznetsov got two goals in that game, and it was a glorious thing to witness. Elsewhere, the Premier Hockey League’s games will be broadcast on ESPN+, which is a real coup. Coming on the heels of accusations from his ex-wife that he bet on his own games and is a domestic abuser, San Jose Sharks player Evander Kane has been suspended for twenty-one games for giving the team a fake vaccination card. What do you call that hat trick?
“Bones or no bones?” How Noodle, a 13-year-old pug, became the Internet’s beloved oracle by Maddie Mortell (Boston Globe)
“Bones or no bones?” is a question Jonathan Graziano has asked of his pug Noodle for years now. It is then that the very round dog decides whether to stand up or flop into a puddle. If Noodle “has bones,” the 13-year-old pug has decided to stand, which means it’s going to be a good day and spirits are high. On “no bones” days, Noodle immediately slumps back down into his cushy bed, which means that it’s maybe not the best day to to take big risks. It’s like watching Punxsutawney Phil check for his shadow on Groundhog’s Day, except you don’t have to wait a whole year for the next prediction. “No bones” days do not mean bad days, by the way, but we’ll get that later.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (New Yorker)
Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart. For those of you who don’t know, H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The “H” stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to “one arm full of groceries.” H Mart is where parachute kids go to get the exact brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home. It’s where Korean families buy rice cakes to make tteokguk, a beef soup that brings in the new year. It’s the only place where you can find a giant vat of peeled garlic, because it’s the only place that truly understands how much garlic you’ll need for the kind of food your people eat. H Mart is freedom from the single-aisle “ethnic” section in regular grocery stores. They don’t prop Goya beans next to bottles of sriracha here. Instead, you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
Bonus: this essay is now a memoir, available now!
The Internet’s Original Sin - an interview with Shoshana Wodinsky by Charlie Warzel (Galaxy Brain)
But the more I started reporting on digital privacy issues, the more it became extremely clear that this huge, opaque online advertising ecosystem was a lucrative blackbox, powered by our personal data. It grew faster than anyone could regulate it, so it was barely regulated. It was (is) ripe with billions of dollars of fraud per year ($52 billion in 2020). And because the system is so hard to understand, it’s ripe for bad actors to use it to pollute the internet with garbage ads. The online ad ecosystem is helping to fund most every publication — including those that spew hate or misinformation. The online ads game is at the center of Google and Facebook’s dominance, too. Most everything bad about the internet (and a lot of good things too) has at least a little bit to do with this ecosystem.
Martha Wells’ introduction to the Subterranean edition of The Murderbot Diaries | How Long Does it Take? | The Believer was a victim of mismanagement and neglect | Ransomware Gang Masquerades as Real Company to Recruit Tech Talent | Vinyl is Selling So Well That It’s Hard To Make Vinyl | It’s Time for Americans to Buy Less Stuff