The rewards of non-commercial production: Distinctions and status in the anime music video scene
First Monday

The rewards of non-commercial production: Distinctions and status in the anime music video scene by Mizuko Ito

Anime music videos (AMVs) are remix videos made by overseas fans of Japanese animation. This paper describes the organization of the AMV scene in order to illuminate some of the key characteristics of a robust networked subculture centered on the production of transformative works. Fan production that appropriates commercial culture occupies a unique niche within our creative cultural landscape. Unlike professional production and many other forms of amateur media production, transformative fan production is non–commercial, and centered on appropriating, commenting on, and celebrating commercial popular culture. Participants in robust fan production scenes are motivated to create high–quality work that can rival the quality of professional media, but do this within an entirely non–commercial context. Rewards are not financial, but rather center on recognition and social participation. I describe how AMV creators, supporters, and viewers engage in processes of social inclusion as well as processes for marking status and reputation that delineate different modes of participating, contributing, and being recognized. This paper starts by outlining the conceptual framework and methodology behind this study. Then the paper provides historical background on the AMV scene before turning to descriptions of three complementary dimensions of the AMV scene drawn from ethnographic fieldwork: the properties of open access and sharing that support an amateur ethos, processes of connoisseurship and distinction making, and how status and reputation are established and negotiated among the elite editors that comprise the core of the scene. Together, these characteristics of the AMV scene provide incentives for both new and aspiring creators to participate, as well as for more experienced creators to improve their craft.


The social and cultural contexts of fan production
A brief history of AMVs
Open access, sharing, and volunteerism
Connoisseurship and subcultural capital
Recognition and status



Over the past several decades, overseas fans of Japanese animation (anime) have grown tremendously, fueled by increasingly robust localization industries and online fan–level distribution. With often long–running and complex narratives, anime invites high degrees of audience engagement, further encouraging the growth of fan networks. Just as in Japan, overseas fans of anime are active creators and remixers, appropriating the media they love to create their own fan fiction, art, and videos. One genre of fan remix which is particularly popular in the English–language anime fandom is the anime music video (AMV). AMVs involve remixing anime to a soundtrack of the editor’s choosing. Most commonly, this involved editing excerpts from an anime series to popular Euro–American music, but some AMVs are created out of other audio sources, such as movie trailers, or fan–created dialog. Although there is a counterpart to AMVs in Japan, the English–language fandom is unique in how central AMVs are to the fan scene. For example, every major fan convention in the U.S. will feature an AMV competition or screening, which is one of the most popular events. Thousands of AMVs created by U.S. and European fans circulate on video sharing sites and editors congregate in active online communities that cater to their art form.

The AMV scene is made up of a highly distributed set of creative practices, social networks, and norms, supported by a complex social, cultural, and technical infrastructure that spans online and off–line contexts. This paper describes the organization of the AMV scene in order to illuminate some of the key characteristics of a robust networked subculture centered on the production of transformative works. Fan production that appropriates commercial culture occupies a unique niche within our creative cultural landscape. Unlike professional production and many other forms of amateur media production, transformative fan production is non–commercial, and centered on appropriating, commenting on, and celebrating commercial popular culture. Participants in robust fan production scenes are motivated to create high–quality work that can rival the quality of professional media, but do this within an entirely non–commercial context.

The aim of this paper is to identify the unique rewards and incentives for participation in a non–commercial media production scene, centered on the creation of transformative works. Rewards are not financial, but rather center on recognition and social participation. Rather than simply gesture to diffuse values of openness, community participation, or sharing, we need to pay close attention to the social structure and hierarchies within a media production scene in order to understand incentives for participation and achievement. I describe how AMV creators, supporters, and viewers engage in processes of social inclusion as well as processes for marking status and reputation that delineate different modes of participating, contributing, and being recognized. This paper starts by outlining the conceptual framework and methodology behind this study. Then the paper provides historical background on the AMV scene before turning to descriptions of three complementary dimensions of the AMV scene drawn from ethnographic fieldwork [1]: the properties of open access and sharing that support an amateur ethos, processes of connoisseurship and distinction making, and how status and reputation are established and negotiated among the elite editors that comprise the core of the scene. Together, these characteristics of the AMV scene provide incentives for both new and aspiring creators to participate, as well as for more experienced creators to improve their craft.



The social and cultural contexts of fan production

In the decade from the end of the nineties to the present, fan production has become much more visible and pervasive. Armed with increasingly accessible digital media production tools, fan makers have taken to online networks to gain audiences and organize communities of interest. Henry Jenkins (2007) argues that fannish consumption has become thoroughly normalized in the digital age. Jenkins, who’s early work on fandom exemplified the first wave of fan studies in the late eighties, today describes a very different landscape in scholarly studies as well as general public perception of fan activity. Rather than having to argue for the importance and legitimacy of fan activity, he sees public opinion as increasingly acknowledging that “fandom is the future,” and fannish activities have become part of the everyday life of mainstream consumers. Many of the buzzwords of contemporary networked culture have applied to fans for decades — prosumers, connectors, inspirational consumers, multipliers, and lead users.

Fan production is an early prototype of the kind of non–commercial cultural production that is now thriving in the networked digital era. A growing body of work examines how amateur media culture challenges existing social and cultural structures, such as intellectual property regimes (Lessig, 2004), commercial culture (Benkler, 2006), and organizational forms (Shirky, 2008). Fan production is an important member of a family of practices that exemplifies the growing visibility of non–commercial cultural production. Despite the growing interest, however, we are still in the early days of developing an understanding of the social structures and cultural norms that undergird these diverse forms of non–commercial cultural production. Unlike the well–trodden ground of professional production and market incentives, we know relatively little about what sustains participation, motivates contribution, and rewards innovation and achievement for fans and amateur makers. Further, we have only just begun the difficult work of disentangling the differences between different forms of non–commercial production. Like other papers in this special issue, this paper describes the norms and ethics of non–commercial production within a specific digital media scene.

Just as early fan studies framed their objects in opposition to mainstream culture, digital culture studies have also tended to frame new networked culture as a challenge to dominant forms of commercial and proprietary culture, rather than as constituting cultural forms with their own unique norms and structure. Detailed ethnographic work that examines the infrastructures, social structures, and cultural norms specific to amateur, non–commercial digital culture provides grounding to these discussions of broader trends in media and communications. The AMV scene is not simply an open playground for “free culture” that lacks boundaries or structure, but is home to a sophisticated set of mechanisms that differentiates the subculture from the mainstream and from other subcultures, and produces distinctions and stratification within the subculture as well. This perspective also serves to qualify and specify some of the contemporary debates in fan studies. While certain forms of fannish subjectivity and practice have become much more visible and accessible to casual media consumers, fan cultures still retain a resilient subcultural core that resists absorption by the mainstream. Networked fan cultures are simultaneously becoming more accessible and more exclusive, and these two dynamics are integrally dependent on one another.

Although remixes and other transformative works are now highly visible online, we need to be cautious in assuming that fannish production is becoming “mainstream.” Even as popular video remixes get millions of views on YouTube, there continues to be resilient subcultural niche groups that traffic in more exclusive and inaccessible forms of fan videos. In comparison to highbrow media connoisseurship, popular media fandoms of television series and genres are more open, participatory, and accessible, and have become even more so with the advent of networked media. At the same time, these fandoms have also invested in subcultural identities that mark their forms of consumption and production from mainstream sensibilities. In her study of club cultures, Sandra Thornton (1996) suggests that subcultures have their own unique forms of cultural capital, reputation, and distinction that are constructed through specific forms of media production, circulation, and uptake. The core taste makers of a subculture must constantly resist the perception that they have gone “mainstream” or they have “sold out.”

Fandoms are subcultures with unique reputational schemes, hierarchies, and subcultural capital. In the AMV scene, as certain anime series become more accessible through mainstream channels, or certain forms of remix become more common, the scene has continuously worked to raise the bar of what it means to be a true anime connoisseur and insider. These are mechanisms by which cult media producers distinguish their cultural world from both the mainstream commercial sector and common, everyday media production and consumption. Describing the relationship between commercial and fannish media cultures, Jenkins (2006) argues that fan activity and commercial activity are becoming increasingly synergistic. It is not that amateur media production is replacing professional media, but rather that both are occupying a shared and convergent media ecology. Leonie Margaret Rutherford (2009) has suggested that Twilight fans engage with both celebrity–driven blockbuster content, as well as engaging in communities of interest online that often have a subcultural and niche bent. Fan cultural products are one example of how cultural niches and differentiated subcultures are produced with the materials of massively networked social media and commercially distributed popular culture.

These subcultural distinctions and forms of cultural capital are central to how systems of status and recognition operate in fan scenes, and a key to understanding what drives participation. Thriving non–commercial production challenges our existing models for what motivates creative work and the drive towards excellence. Rather than relying on financial incentives and proprietary intellectual property regimes, the motivations for non–commercial production center on dynamics of social connection, learning, participation, and recognition. With some forms of commons based production (such as Wikipedia or much of the open source software world), the work can be oriented towards external and mainstream audiences, but many non–commercial and amateur producers occupy niches, where the pleasure is about participation in a subculture that is distinctive and often esoteric. Much of fandom would fall in this latter category; even when engaging in blockbuster content, fans take pleasure in esoteric minutia and alternative readings of popular media. Transformative works are also difficult to commercialize and generally do not have a commercial counterpart that provides a pathway to professionalization. Unlike with mainstream commercial media, or amateur production that can be professionalized, the pleasures of production of transformative works are intrinsic to participating in a creative community rather than motivated by extrinsic financial rewards. Fan producers situate themselves within a community of peers who share their subcultural identities and interests, and their status and interaction among these peers is what drives engagement and the production of high quality work. After introducing some background on AMVs, this paper focuses on these social dynamics that drive participation in the AMV scene.



A brief history of AMVs

Although AMVs are now an established part of the overseas anime fandom, they are a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of fan practices. Digital video editing tools only became accessible consumer technologies in the late nineties. Before then, editing required analog editing tools that demanded tremendous patience to edit with. Longtime participants in the AMV scene generally date the origins of AMV making to some early videos made by U.S. fans in the early eighties, with the first communities of AMV creators emerging in the late eighties and early nineties. In Japan, anime fans had been making video remixes known as MADs since the late seventies, and fans of U.S. television had been creating remix “vids” since around that time as well (Coppa, 2008; Jenkins, 1992). By all accounts, however, AMV making evolved on a trajectory that was quite separate from these other fan video scenes. Vlad G. Pohnert (2005) notes that in those days “AMVs were a cult of a small group of people and AMV contests were shown in rooms the size of shoe boxes.” By the late nineties, AMVs were being shown at anime conventions which were starting to crop up around the country, though the creator community was still small. EK, who began creating AMVs in the late nineties recalls the scene around 1998 and 1999. “I think at one point, pretty much every AMV editor in the U.S. knew each other, or knew of each other.” She describes a snail–mail based VHS trading network “that mostly overlapped with fansub trading at that point.”

By the late nineties, editors were beginning to transition to digital tools, and in 2000, was founded. Prior to the establishment of this site, which AMV creators affectionately call, “the org,” AMV makers hosted their videos on independent sites. The org quickly become a central clearinghouse for editors to upload their videos and to communicate with one another and their audiences (LantisEscudo, 2008; Pohnert, 2005; Springall, 2004). This turn to digital culture had a profound effect on the AMV scene by broadening access to video editing and distribution. This move towards digital creation and distribution happened in tandem with a surge in anime’s popularity overseas, and the growth of digital fansubbing (Springall, 2004). Today, what was once a practice restricted to highly committed adult fans, is now being adopted by much younger and more casual creators. In our 2006 online questionnaire, the majority of video creators responded that they started to create AMVs in their teenage years. Video remix has entered the ranks of other fan creative practices such as fan art, fan fiction, and costume play as accessible forms of creative production. At the same time, responses to our questionnaire suggest that there are still significant barriers to entry because of the technical nature of editing practice and the kind of subcultural capital needed to participate. At least among the active participants in the org who responded to our questionnaire, the male/female split was 62 percent/38 percent. Respondents were overwhelming white (81 percent) and came predominantly from college educated households [2]. Editors have unusually high levels of technology access, with 91 percent reporting that they had their own computer by the age of 13. Although the viewership of AMVs are likely much more diverse, the core editing community shares demographic characteristics with other geek technology subcultures in being predominantly, white, male, and highly educated.

Today’s AMV scene is distributed across a variety of online sites and supported by a network of conventions in the U.S. as well as other countries that support an overseas fandom. English–language fandoms and conventions in North America and the U.K. continue to be the center of gravity for the AMV scene, but it has spread to other countries in Europe as well as other regions such as Latin America. Online, the org continues to be a central congregation site for AMV editors, but AMV viewers are turning to more accessible video streaming sites such as YouTube of Vimeo and to watch AMVs. This has been a source of controversy within the AMV scene, as editors worry about their videos being made more accessible to publics that are not part of the anime fandom. The number of videos uploaded to the org grew steadily from 2000, with a dramatic jump between 2003 and 2004. After 2005, which is the year that YouTube opened its doors, the number of uploads per year has steadily dropped, pointing to the gradual decentralization of the AMV scene [3]. Unlike the early years, when there were relatively high barriers to entry to the creative practice, and audiences were highly circumscribed and well–defined, today’s AMV scene is much larger, more distributed, porous, and diverse. This transition to a networked and open distribution ecology, the greater visibility of AMVs among anime fans as well as the general public, and the growing pervasiveness of video remix as an everyday media production process are the backdrop to today’s AMV scene. I turn now to a more detailed treatment of the social structure of the contemporary AMV scene, beginning with a description of how the scene embodies an amateur ethic of open and participatory media culture, and then going on to outline processes of distinction through appeals to more sophisticated forms of media connoisseurship. The final descriptive section examines how an “elite” core of editors is maintained and recognized, comprising the center of gravity for the scene as whole.



Open access, sharing, and volunteerism

The anime fandom outside of Japan was built largely through the effort of fans who brought the media that they love to their local contexts, set up anime clubs, and evangelized to others. Fans will often describe how they are committed to sharing their love of anime to others, and making their home countries hospitable for anime industries. Even today, when anime has become a visible subculture among youth all over the world, the fandom still retains an open and evangelical feel. AMV creators also position themselves as evangelists and translators for an inaccessible form of cult media. AMV creators embody what Lawrence Eng (2006) describes as the otaku ethic, acquiring subcultural capital through their insider knowledge of anime, trying to stay as close and true to the original Japanese source. At the same time, they display this insider knowledge by creating works that translate cult media to local referents and make it more accessible to a broader cut of the fandom. In discussions with AMV makers, they often describe their videos as “advertisements” for particular anime series. For example, in a description of one of his AMVs, Sail On, on, Inertia advocates for One Piece, a series that he thinks has not gotten enough recognition overseas:

One Piece is an epic series, long running and always fresh, but it hasn’t got the best recognition this side of the pond, barely anyone here had heard of it a year or two ago. Its art style takes more than a little getting used to, and betrays its underlying awesomeness. So here I’m trying to expose a little of that ;) Do note this is from the original One Piece, not the hacked up American dub version with water pistols, cork guns and no blood. or plot. [sic]

Sail On was picked up by one of the fansub groups for One Piece, and promoted on their site as part of their three–year anniversary and celebration of the One Piece series and their ongoing work. Although remix videos can run the gamut from highly critical and political works to more fannish ones, AMVs most commonly are created in an appreciative and celebratory mode. Editors will often point to this characteristic of AMVs as a reason for why the original creators should allow AMVs to flourish. Carolina, an AMV editor argues: “The most likely result of a fan video and fan fiction is to gain greater exposure for the original product — free advertising! — and that exposure is also almost always positive, since people tend to love the original sources they use for fan productions.” This stance was echoed by all the creators I spoke to.

Regardless of the degree to which AMVs actually do provide effective advertising for anime companies, fans pointing to this as an ethic is an indicator of an underlying commitment to amateur culture, the value of non–commercial sharing, and social norms of volunteerism, while simultaneously working to support the professional anime industry that their fan culture is dependent on. Fans recognize that they are “borrowing” and “sharing” in an amateur and non–commercial mode that is synergistic with the commercial industry, but also defined in opposition to its norms and values. Many AMV creators mentioned the fact that they value AMVs and the surrounding communities because they embody this kind of amateur, participatory ethic. Any financial motive on the fan–side of the equation is explicitly frowned upon. Darius, an AMV maker and con organizer, describes how AMVs are a mechanism for people to start to get involved in a creative practice and a welcoming peer–based creative community:

It is one way that people can educate themselves creatively and technically … . It’s basically people just having fun with each other and they aren’t trying to make a profit. People don’t try to sell AMVs. Nobody does that. It’s basically just giving, and oh that’s a cool show … . It is all a community type effort, village minded, whatever. I know that they are probably going to at some point try to regulate it. But the fact that people have the ability to create something, and do something on your own with something you have just bought, and to teach other people. That’s a wonderful power to have.

Darius gives voice to the populist and open ethic of the AMV community, which is non–institutionalized and “unregulated,” a practice created by fans for fans as a volunteer and amateur effort, pursued for pleasure and play rather than financial rewards.

This non–commercial and communal spirit was most evident among those fans supporting the infrastructures of the AMV scene — the org and various AMV competitions and screenings at cons. In my interviews with convention staff, I was stunned by the amount of time, effort, and financial resources that the organizers poured into the events. Organizers spend all of their free time leading up to an event, and almost all their time at the event in coordination activities, and receive at most a free hotel room and some meals for their labors. For example, ScottAnime describes how during his peak years of con organizing he would be working con lead or AMV competition organizer at eight or nine shows a year. He saw his first AMVs at a convention in the late nineties, and was inspired. After realizing that he had no talent in video editing himself, he decided to dedicate himself to the coordination side of things. Quu, who is credited for developing the first computer–based systems for running AMV competitions, describes how he donated thousands of dollars worth of video and computer equipment, as well as his own programming expertise to develop a system optimized for AMV competitions and screenings, setting a new standard for the scene. “It’s art. You saw the crowd cheering and everything, the amount of energy in the room … . I did it because I considered the videos art and that’s what you do.”

The org is also sustained entirely on volunteer effort and member contributions. The site includes many modules programmed by the site administrators, and is highly customized to cater specifically to the AMV scene. Members can upload and download high–quality video, rank and comment on videos, write in blogs and forums, and aggregate information about competitions. In addition, the site hosts a wealth of member–generated content that caters to both newcomers and old hands. While the forums often include insider discussions and opinions about AMVs and anime, the site also features lengthy guides on how to make and evaluate AMVs that are targeted to the aspiring editor. In our interviews with editors, many described how they relied on these guides in making their first forays into AMV making. Editors also described how they would turn to the forums on the org for questions about AMVs, and could count on somebody with expertise to respond. These kinds of resources, where experienced editors freely share their expertise in an open environment, have been key to the expansion of the base of AMV makers.

In contrast to their relation to professionally created videos, fans see AMVs as an accessible media practice that they can aspire to. The fannish appreciation of anime and AMVs is integrally tied to the impulse to create. One aspiring editor, Starfire2258 describes how after viewing his first AMV competition “that inspired me immediately to 1) Find out how to get more of these awesome creations … 2) Watch some of the cool anime series that these AMVs showed me and 3) Figure out if I could create one myself.” Fan viewers of AMVs will often identify with the video creator, rather than in a more distanced relation of a media consumer. For example, Gepetto describes his first exposure to an AMV, when he realized that it was made “by a fan just like me.”

Today I don’t think much of it, but back then I was amazed at the idea that such a pretty little videoclip was made by a fan just like me … . I put it on loop and watched it several times in a row … I left the computer on all night and downloaded a few AMVs. I liked them all, and began thinking “what kind of video would I really want to see?” Since I had no idea where else to look for AMVs, I decided, “Why don’t I make some myself? If I want to watch an Iron Maiden video so bad, I’ll just make one and watch it.” My first video took about two and a half hours to make and it turned out extremely horrible. But I loved it.

Every editor we spoke to described how they started making AMVs as part of their participation in the anime fandom, and that they picked up video editing skills in the process of working to make their own AMVs. They look to the AMVs of other editors and see examples of work that they feel they can match or surpass, as well as work that they can aspire to. That the AMV scene includes highly polished videos as well as videos by new and less accomplished editors is an important component of the overall ecology. Unlike professional practices, which weed out beginners and the less talented, amateur scenes thrive on a diverse range of quality and skill. Beginning editors may start by imitating popular kinds of genres and mashups, as in Gepetto’s case, remixing Naruto to Iron Maiden. Some editors will stop there. Those who get more involved in the scene will start modeling their work on more experienced editors, and aspire to broader visibility through competitions. For example, at the time of our interview, Earendil had created two AMVs and had still not entered any competitions, though he was considering it. He says he doesn’t have personal relationships with other editors in the scene, but has a “a list of ‘videos to aspire to.’”

Drawing from how–to guides on the Internet, posting questions on forums, and through trial and error, editors almost always learn how to create AMVs through a self–directed learning process. With the growing availability of AMVs, information about AMV creation, and accessible video editing tools, the ability to create AMVs is within arms reach of a much larger cut of the anime fandom. Jbone reflects on how digital technology has been “a blessing and a curse” to the AMV community. “It lets people who know what they are doing do it more easily, but it allows people who don’t know what they are doing to do things much more easily as well.” While many we interviewed valued the democratization of AMV creation, some of the more established editors describe how this trend can come into conflict with the community’s ability to support and recognize quality work. XStylus notes:

Around the time when came around, the barrier for entry started to drop. DVD ripping eliminated the need for complex video equipment, and computers were starting to include rudimentary video editing programs. Windows Movie Maker was (and still is) a joke, but it was enough for some people to get the basics down. Eventually they’d get their hands on a bootleg copy of Premiere, and then they’d go on to make their first AMV, usually with Linkin Park music and DragonBallZ footage. I feel the community and craft suffered as a result of a deluge of carelessly made AMVs. Quality got replaced by quantity. The high barriers to entry in the AMV community meant that only the truly dedicated would cross the hurdles needed to make an AMV. Now that practically anyone can make one, everyone does make one. It makes it supremely difficult for a new video of quality to stand out unless the creator already has a reputation.

Here we see the tension between the open and populist ethos of the community and the maintenance of subcultural capital. XStylus gives voice to a common refrain among experienced editors, that there is a glut of AMVs that combine two highly accessible media sources popular among teenage boys: Dragon Ball Z and Linkin Park. Lone Wolf, another experienced editor, says that he is fairly open to viewing a wide range of AMVs, “as long as it’s not Linkin Park Z.” The Linkin Park Z video has become a stand–in for the degradation in quality that has accompanied an expansion of the base of AMV editors to include a younger population and anime that is readily available through mainstream cable sources. In the early years of AMV making, the scene was characterized by comparatively older editors (in their twenties), and a flat, peer–based structure, with technical and economic barriers to entry that kept casual creators away. Today, the AMV scene is characterized by a finer set of internal distinctions that enable the scene to welcome new participants, as well as maintain subcultural capital that is out of reach of the casual fan.



Connoisseurship and subcultural capital

Although the anime fandom has an evangelical and open quality to it, it also places a premium on esoteric forms of subcultural capital and differentiation from mainstream media tastes. AMVs not only expose viewers to new kinds of anime, they also interpret and reframe the source material in new and often unexpected ways. The pleasure of viewing an AMV is in connecting with how other viewers have experienced a particular series or connected with a particular character. Like fan fiction or fan art, AMVs appropriate and reframe found materials, engaging in a critical practice of connoisseurship and interpretation by creating an incredibly diverse range of media works. In many cases, fan created transformative works give voice to marginalized subjectivities and viewpoints and offer alternative interpretations of popular texts. In the case of Star Trek fandom, for example, Francesca Coppa (2008) has argued that female fans have used fanvids to offer alternative representations of media texts, to “heal wounds created by the marginalization, displacement, and fragmentation of female characters.” AMVs aren’t dominated by the critical, feminist edge that’s evident in much of the vidding community, but AMVs still involve representing alternative viewpoints not present in the professional media works. They embody the unique viewpoints and interpretations of overseas fans who are reframing and recontexualizing Japanese media to their local referents. While some AMVs are done to J–pop and other Japanese audio sources, the vast majority of AMVs are edited to Euro–American audio sources, cultural mash-ups that give voice to the experiences and interpretations of foreign fans of Japanese media.

As in the case of professional music videos, viewers and creators look for good editing, effects, timing, and high video quality. At the same time, as amateur, non–commercial, transformative works, what people look for in an AMV differ fundamentally from the standards applied to their professional counterparts. As Coppa (2008) has argued in the case of vidding, AMVs are made primarily as a form of commentary on the anime source material, not as a way of illustrating popular music. These are works that grow out of anime fandoms, not music fandoms. Further, unlike professional works, AMV creation is part of the ongoing communication and social life of fan communities. The goal of much of AMV creation is participation in this fan scene, not creating a media work that is going to stand on its own, apart from this social and cultural context. Many creators, particularly beginning creators, see the process of AMV creation as an end in itself, and may only share their videos with a few close friends. Even AMVs that are submitted to or to a convention screening are designed to circulate among a community of peers who share similar subcultural, niche interests, rather than being media works that are meant to circulate to broad and undefined audiences.

Even as anime has become more accessible over the past decade, AMVs continue to perform an important role in introducing anime fans to new series that they might not have otherwise been exposed to. In my discussions with AMV creators, many saw their roles as connoisseurs and taste makers, who evangelize for the series that they find most compelling. The advertising role that AMVs play in the community is tied to differences in how AMVs are valued and evaluated related to the tension between popularity and subcultural status. AMVs created using already popular source material will be catering to an existing fan base, but those using more obscure material can stake a stronger claim to the AMV’s role in evangelizing to new audiences. While AMV viewers often describe how they go looking for AMVs specifically for series that they are already invested in, editors, particularly those at the core of the community, will generally place a premium on source material that is less accessible or more sophisticated than the material that has been picked up by U.S. cable networks. Darius, an old–timer in the AMV scene specializes in AMVs made from classic anime from the eighties and early nineties. He laments the fact that most of the AMVs that get shown at today’s conventions are made from the current popular shows. “There’s so much more … I don’t want to just limit it to what is most popular at the time. I want to really kind of send some of that up … and expose it with different people so they can go track it down themselves if they want.”

Experienced editors will explicitly avoid themes that have been overdone and often chastise new editors for picking source material that is too common. For example, MercyKillings says he was motivated to start editing because of the low quality of many of the AMVs he saw on the Internet. “I was watching AMVs and I noticed that the quality was just crap, and it was really annoying because they were all the same thing. They were all Naruto based, or they were all Dragon Ball Z, and everybody used Linkin Park.” One editor, interviewed as part of Annie Manion’s master’s thesis on anime fans, described how he started making AMVS with a Dragon Ball Z video and was promptly smacked down by another editor for using such common footage.

For me it was a forum for people to showcase their editing abilities and their own artistic talents without having to spend too much money. They could just take an anime and they could edit to their own piece of music and I mean it’s free and it’s open and it’s — I just thought it was wonderful to be part of that. And I tried it once and I took … a Dragon Ball Z video — and I edited that to a piece of music and I put it on there and there was one guy who came on there right away and was like, wow, this is great editing, I love it, but you used Dragon Ball Z. Why the hell would you do that? Nobody likes that. And you know to say it’s not very creative. And they were accusing me of not being very creative because the anime has been so overdone. And so I mean it’s one of those things. These are people who get so worked up and they’ll look at, like I said, the most obscure animes. They’ll know about the most obscure topics. They won’t say anything in English about anime. Then you also have like anime conventions where people just I mean go all out with their love for it.

He gives voice to the tension in the community between sharing a common, collective imagination and enthusiasm with other fans, “where people just I mean go all out with their love for it,” and those in the discerning “elite,” who traffic in the exclusive subcultural capital of obscure anime, Japanese language, and insider knowledge. Even editors who are well–established in the community have to take their hits for using common source material. Inertia notes that people are critical of his videos because they draw from popular series. His AMV that combined Naruto footage with the audio track from a Matrix movie trailer was widely viewed and won several prominent awards. At the same time, “the Narutrix being so popular for such a popular series, it tends to get a lot of backlash from the higher authors. It took a lot of criticism for being a crowd pleaser. That was its main critique.” Similarly, during the AMV awards for Anime Expo 2007 (a major anime con), one of the featured entries made use of Naruto footage, and the organizer “praised [the editor] for his video, stating that normally they can’t stand to watch Narutard [4] videos but they could not take their eyes off this video.” (Suwatanaponched fieldnote)

This tendency for AMV editors and curators to mark their practice as exclusive and discerning has not been lost on those who take part in other dimensions of the fandom. Kohjiroh, who has dabbled in AMV making, but does not socialize with AMV makers, thinks “a good portion of them seem like assholes.” He notes that there is a “hierarchy within the anime con community” that segments different ways of participating in the fandom. “Cosplayers get treated like celebs, AMV creators get treated like professors, and the average con goer is like a commoner.” In other words, AMV makers have a reputation as being part of a discerning, elite class of fan, who produce works that are consumed by the more casual fan. While this connoisseur status can be viewed as elitist by those outside of the core, it becomes a source of status and subcultural capital that becomes a magnet for viewers and aspiring editors. AbsoluteDestiny, a well–known editor, quips that “I think it’s the point in which any community becomes a real community is when a selection of that community gets accused of being elitist.”



Recognition and status

As Thornton describes in the case of club cultures, maintaining subcultural capital and status requires ongoing processes of distinction making. Participants in a subculture must work to distinguish their practices and from the mainstream, and establish hierarchies and distinctions within the subcultural scene as well. Although the kinds of subcultural capital that anime fans traffic in is quite different from the club cultures that Thornton describes, the processes of distinction are similar. Within the anime fandom, the AMV editor community is positioned as elite taste makers and commentators, or as Kohjiroh described, as “professors.” Further, within the different communities of AMV editors, there are various formal and informal mechanisms for creating status, reputation, and distinction. These mechanisms have been proliferating as AMVs have become a more popular and accessible media form. Lacking the formal gatekeeping functions that define the boundaries of professional practices, or commercial indicators of success, amateur creative communities must rely on more distributed mechanisms for developing status and reputation.

The more formal mechanisms for evaluating and ranking AMVs include various feedback and ranking mechanisms on online sites, as well as formal competitions online and at conventions. After was established in 2000, it quickly became a central site for members of the AMV community to congregate, share, and comment on each other’s videos. As the site has evolved, the site administrators have added a range of different mechanisms to allow people to rate and give feedback on videos, and to compete for recognition and visibility. For example, when a viewer downloads a video from the site they are automatically asked to provide a five–star ranking of the video. Viewers can also provide more detailed opinions on the videos, add them to their favorites lists, or provide comments. All of these metrics are aggregated into different “top video” lists that are easily viewable on the site. The site also hosts a forum for feedback swaps, where people offer to post an opinion on somebody’s video in a reciprocal exchange. Further, the org hosts an annual viewers choice competition, and provides indexes and listings of all the major AMV competitions both online and at conventions, archiving the winners lists. In my interviews with AMV viewers, most people relied on a hybrid of mechanisms for deciding with AMVs to view. While some would rely on recommendations from their friends, or go looking specifically for AMVs of anime series that they liked, most also relied to some extent on competitions and rankings to identify new videos and editors that they were not already following. These kinds of ranking systems have become more crucial as the base of the AMV community has broadened. As Jbone notes, “the lowest common denominator has always existed, but it feels like over time people have become less shy about sending the lowest common denominator for public viewing.” More established creators say that they largely rely on their existing networks of editors or competitions to filter the AMVs that they view.

How AMVs are ranked and evaluated is also embedded within the structure and hierarchy of the AMV community, which employs a variety of more informal and peer–based practices for developing reputation. AbsoluteDestiny describes the trajectory that editors can traverse to move from entry–level participation to a more central role in the AMV scene. Becoming part of the editing elite means both developing social connections in the scene as well as producing quality work.

You move from first trying to make something and showing it to a few friends. And then if you start getting to know some people online you might upload it to the org. Or you could enter a competition. When you decide to go to a big convention and meet other AMV creators, then that’s another level again. It’s at the big AMV conventions, when we get together to talk about each other’s videos, that you start to understand that the videos are actually conversations among AMV creators. You wouldn’t necessarily know that just from downloading the videos. The videos are a result of conversations that editors are having through a lot of private channels like at conventions or on IM.

He describes how he got notoriety for his signature Shameless Rock Video by first participating actively online, and becoming known by other editors, and then eventually releasing a video that made a splash and went on to win competition awards. He says the social connection with other editors gives people the initial impetus to take a look at a video. “Having some sort of name recognition even if it’s not for your videos but for your general participation in the community, will aide your presence … . When there are so many videos out there now, it’s incredibly difficult to get noticed.” Other editors describe how they may not be part of the con scene or the core elite crowd, but develop reputations through online participation and contributions. The scene is supported by a diversity of forms of participation, which allow people to participate as newcomers, and with varying levels of social commitment, with only a small cut of participants going on to join the elite inner circle. Although many accomplished editors are not heavy social participants in the scene, there is a highly connected inner core that acts as a center of gravity.

Editors in the inner circle share social connections, and an ongoing give and take. They look to their peers for ongoing feedback and critique in a way that is not necessarily visible in the public AMV forums on the org, or in other AMV discussions such as the Yahoo group, or the irc channel. For example, dokidoki describes how the feedback he gets from other editors on his beta videos is invaluable, and this communication generally happens via IM or e–mail. For those who are established members of the inner circle of editors, the community operates at a scale that is akin to the early years of the AMV scene in the late nineties. Editors know each other personally, and are in frequent contact, giving each other feedback, commentary, and help in improving their craft. Many of these established editors are also involved in the organizing of AMV competitions and events, and judging. In discussions with both new editors and those who are more central to the scene, people would generally name the same pool of editors as those with an established reputation in the scene. Although the claims to fame vary to some extent, the key factors are whether their videos have won awards in conventions, their longevity in the AMV scene, and whether they are socially active in the convention circuit or in online forums. The elite editors have status because of their social commitments to the scene as well as by having their work recognized. Alan Clontz, who was one of the coordinators of a large collaborative editing project, AMV Hell, describes how “the community aspect is probably one of my favorite aspects though. Not so much having other people watch my videos but just talking and socializing with other creators.” He sees his community specifically as other creators and not the broader audience for his AMVs. As editors move into more elite status in the scene, they tend towards affiliation with the core social community of editors rather than the broader fandom.

Although editors rely on a mixture of inspiration, creativity, and hard work to create their videos, most will also acknowledge the importance of social support within the creative community. What constitutes an original and creative work is something that can only be understood within the social back–and–forth of commentary about videos. While a new editor with less experience in the scene may think that their Linkin Park Z video is innovative, more established editors will see the video as a rehash of a well–established formula that requires little technical or interpretive skill. Many highly acclaimed videos will rely on bringing together a set of uncommon referents together into a unique interpretation. E–Ko’s Tainted Donuts, for example, is a video that is celebrated for being one of the first to tell a story by seamlessly melding together characters and scenes from two different anime series. Other videos are acclaimed because of their innovation in developing a new technique or a new genre. For example, Kevin Caldwell’s Engel raised the bar for lip synch and timing, and Scorpion Unlimited’s Whisper of the Beast set a new standard for the use of digital effects in AMVs. Some of the most highly acclaimed videos are also those that rely heavily on insider knowledge about the AMV community itself, and are “meta” commentaries on the community or the creative process of editing. Dokidoki’s Right Now is still a favorite among many fans because it comments on many shared referents in the fandom. More specific to the AMV scene, EK’s Failed Experiments is a parody of her own experiences as an AMV editor, and is considered one of the classics. Similarly, XStylus’ A Total Waste of 6 min 35 sec pokes fun at many of the common mistakes that AMV editors make, and received a tremendous ovation when screened at Anime Expo 2002.

As the AMV scene has matured, the distinctions and distance between elite editors, newbie editors, and the viewers of AMVs has grown. The quality and technical sophistication of the best videos has also grown in tandem with this growth in social distinctions. While interactions between the core group of editors still retain the feel of a close peer–based community and an ethic of sharing and reciprocity, those on the periphery can often experience social distance. Many of the more successful editors produce works of professional quality, and have an aura of celebrity that often sits uneasily with the more populist ethos that animates many amateur and hobby cultures. At the same time, these elite editors and their work function as a powerful magnet for participation in the scene. These are the works that generate large audiences for AMVs as well as fuel the drive for quality. Although participation in the scene has been broadening and diversifying, the elite core operates as an effective force of cohesion for the scene overall because of the high quality of work produced. Social distance and differentiation are key factors in promoting a robust non–commercial production scene that can produce work of professional quality, while also remaining inviting to new entrants. While there is clearly an elite group of editors with status, overall, the scene remains welcome and open to newcomers, and there is a certain expectation of parity and sharing among even elite fans. The ways in which the AMV scene promotes this open and non–commercial ethic, while also supporting achievement, status, distinction, and recognition of high–quality work, are all properties of an amateur creative community that has successfully weathered a transition to the heightened visibility afforded by online networks.




Today’s AMV scene incorporates both diversity and cohesion by integrating the populist and open affordances of networked media as well as mechanisms for developing status and reputation that defines the core leadership of the scene. My intention in describing the various forms of distinction, hierarchy, reputation and status making in the AMV scene is not to portray the community as elitist or exclusionary. Quite on the contrary, my argument is that in order to maintain a democratic and open ethos towards participation and media making, amateur creative communities must rely on distributed and peer–based processes for distinguishing new and experienced participants and recognizing high quality and innovative work. The AMV scene is an example of a creative community that has been highly successful in recruiting a very broad base of young creators into video editing practices, keeping barriers to entry low and the pleasure of creation high. At the same time, the community has developed ways of highlighting and celebrating the work of those who have the commitment and skills to develop exceptional work. Although participants in the scene experience tension between the more “common” and “elite” forms of participation in the AMV scene, I’ve argued that in fact they are integrally related and synergistic. The health of the AMV scene as a thriving amateur, non–commercial, and networked creative practice is predicated on the diversity and hierarchies that have evolved over the years.

As more and more and more creative and hobby communities become digitally networked, this productive tension between open and populist tendencies and processes of subcultural distinction will be a persistent feature of the cultural landscape. Non–commercial, amateur, and peer–based production scenes thrive on models of open participation and access, but processes for differentiating participation, recognizing leadership, and developing status and reputation are also central to the scene. People do not contribute to the AMV scene simply based on diffuse volunteerism and commitment to a cultural commons. Processes for maintaining an elite core, competitions, and other systems of recognition provide important incentives that drive the quest for quality and innovation among the more committed creators. Unlike professional practices, driven by financial incentives and formal institutional structures, communities like what we see at anime conventions and at the org are driven by different kinds of motivations and rewards. We see organizers and site administrators, as well as editors putting in extraordinary amounts of effort to support AMVs as a passionate hobby, something that they expend financial resources to support. The value people get out of participation is a complex alchemy of community participation, recognition, and the pleasures of creation and connoisseurship. End of article


About the author

Mizuko Ito is a cultural anthropologist of technology use, examining children and youth’s changing relationships to media and communications and is an Associate Researcher at the University of California, Irvine, with appointments in the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of Informatics. She has conducted a wide range of research projects in Japan and the U.S. on new media use. Her work on educational software appears in her book entitled Engineering play: A cultural history of children’s software (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009). In Japan, her research has focused on mobile and portable technologies, and she co–edited a book on that topic with Daisuke Okabe and Misa Matsuda entitled Personal, portable, pedestrian : Mobile phones in Japanese life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005). Most recently, she has led a three–year collaborative ethnographic study, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, examining youth new media practices in the U.S., and focusing on gaming, digital media production, and Internet use. The findings of this project are reported in Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010). She is conducting ongoing research on Japanese technoculture, and is currently studying online fans of anime and editing a book on otaku culture. At the Humanities Research Institute, she is leading an effort to develop a research collaboration hub for the field of digital media and learning. In addition to her current work funded by the MacArthur Foundation, she has been awarded grants by the National Science Foundation, Spencer Foundation, Mellon Foundation, Intel Research, Abe Fellowship Program, and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. She is the recipient of the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies from the American Educational Research Association. Her Web site is at
E–mail: mizukoi [at] uci [dot] edu



First and foremost, thanks goes to all the AMV editors and anime fans who took the time to speak with me and my research team. I’d particularly like to thank Jonathan Cullinane (Inertia), whose videos and curation at our first video fest were what hooked me irretrievably on the AMV scene, and phade, who was kind enough to help get the word out about our questionnaire. Though I’ve barely scratched the surface of the AMV community, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the patient guidance, good humor, and encyclopedic knowledge of Tim Park (dokidoki). This work was supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and by the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California. My research assistants on this project included Rachel Cody, Renee Saito, Annie Manion, Brendan Calllum, and Judy Suwatanaponched. Without them my knowledge of the anime fandom would have been much more impoverished, and cons would have been much less enjoyable. Becky Herr–Stephenson kindly stepped in to clean up the data from our AMV creator questionnaire. This work has also benefitted from an on–going collaboration and conversations with Jennifer Urban, and comments by Dan Perkel and Henry Jenkins.



1. This paper draws from ethnographic fieldwork with the AMV scene in 2006–2007, which included interviews, online observations, and through observations and conventions in Los Angeles, San Jose, and Atlanta. This chapter relies primarily on interviews with 23 AMV editors. I was the lead researcher of a team that included several graduate and undergraduate students, including Rachel Cody, Annie Manion, Renee Saito, Brendan Callum, and Judy Suwatanaponched. Jennifer Urban, a collaborator on this work, also participate in the fieldwork. When the observation or interview was conducted by somebody other than myself, this is noted in the text. This work is part of a broader study of the overseas anime fandom, and in addition to the interviews with the editors, we interviewed 42 other fans involved in different dimensions of the fandom, ranging from casual con–goers, to fan fiction writers, con organizers, fansubbers, cosplayers, and fan artists. These interviews with the broader fandom contextualize the more focused case study work on AMV makers. Finally, we also fielded an online questionnaire for AMV editors, in the fall of 2006, asking about background information as well as some details on how they create their AMVs and participate in conventions and the online scene. The questionnaire was featured on, and garnered 277 valid responses.

2. For mother’s level of education, 43 percent reported to be some college or college degree; 22 percent reported some graduate school or graduate degree. For father’s level of education, 37 percent reported to be some college of college degree; 26 percent reported some graduate or graduate degree.

3. These numbers are from personal communication with Tim Park, one of the site administrators at the org, and are derived from the numbers of videos in the “premiered” category entered into the org for each year from 2000–2008.

4. From the urban dictionary: “Narutard is a derogatory term applied to otaku fans of the anime title Naruto. It is a word play on the combination of naruto and retard. This term surfaced during early 2004 at the beginning of the anime’s popularity in America and characterizes the behavior of Naruto fans as being so blindly devoted to the series (with an almost religious cult–like fervor) that they act incredibly stupid and can be confused with retarded (er, mentally challenged) persons.” From, accessed 7 July 2009.



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Editorial history

Paper received 8 April 2010; accepted 17 April 2010.

Creative Commons License
“The rewards of non–commercial production: Distinctions and status in the anime music video scene” by Mizuko Ito is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

The rewards of non–commercial production: Distinctions and status in the anime music video scene
by Mizuko Ito.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 5 - 3 May 2010

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