Vidders Talk Back To Their Pop-Culture Muses

'Us' by Lim i i

hide captionThe vidder Lim combined footage from many different films and television shows, including this shot from V for Vendetta, to create the video "Us."

Lim/California Museum of Photography
'Us' by Lim

The vidder Lim combined footage from many different films and television shows, including this shot from V for Vendetta, to create the video "Us."

Lim/California Museum of Photography
Batman Looking At Copyright i i

hide captionIn another image from the fanvid "Us", Lim alters an iconic shot of Batman's bat signal so it appears as a copyright symbol.

Lim/California Museum of Photography
Batman Looking At Copyright

In another image from the fanvid "Us", Lim alters an iconic shot of Batman's bat signal so it appears as a copyright symbol.

Lim/California Museum of Photography
Star Trek i i

hide captionThis image, taken from Lim's video "Us", renders footage from Star Trek in a sketchy style.

Lim/California Museum of Photography
Star Trek

This image, taken from Lim's video "Us", renders footage from Star Trek in a sketchy style.

Lim/California Museum of Photography

For decades, Americans sat in front of their televisions and watched — just watched — their favorite shows.

Those days of passivity are over. Now when we turn on the TV, we also fire up the Internet to vote for contestants on Dancing with the Stars, check out extra interviews with the cast of Survivor and read the Grey's Anatomy writers' blog — all while chatting with other fans on message boards, of course.

But one group of fans has interacted with their favorite television shows for more than three decades. Vidders, as they're called, make unauthorized underground videos using clips from the shows. Each vid compiles dozens of clips from various episodes, all set to a song.

Take this vid, about CSI: New York. It sets some of the show's gritty crime scenes — ambulances, burning buildings — to a mournful song by the band Good Charlotte. The vidder wants to say something about the dangers faced by cops on the show, and he's saying it by cutting existing scenes together.

"Vidding is a way of seeing," explains vidder Francesca Coppa. She's a professor at Muhlenberg College who's written scholarly papers about vids. She also belongs to a community of mostly female vidders who avidly follow programs like Smallville and Stargate Atlantis.

Coppa says their vids analyze aspects of beloved shows, often from a feminist perspective. They create character studies (like this one inspired by Law & Order: SVU), building different stories from the ones they've been given.

"I think women are having to supplement mass-media culture with their own ideas," Coppa says. "Or fill in the blanks themselves with things they're not getting from the mainstream culture."

Coppa says vidding was born back in 1975, when a fan named Kandy Fong showed a slide show at a Star Trek convention that used a recording of Leonard Nimoy singing a Joni Mitchell song, illustrating Spock's dual nature.

From there, the story of vidding is a story of people mastering technology to respond to shows they love. Vidders evolved along with technology in the 1980s and 1990s. Coppa recalls the days when vidders would laboriously edit VHS tape using two VCRs, then mail the finished vids to each other. These days cheap, easy-to-use-digital editing software has transformed the medium — and how it's being received.

Vidders like Rachael Sabotini feel that the communal experience of vidding has been complicated by the Internet. When non-fans discover vids like this Star Trek-meets-Monty Python mash-up, what had been intended as a private fan experience goes viral. And big media companies have noticed that vidders are using copyrighted material.

Georgetown law professor Rebecca Tushnet is an occasional vidder who serves on the board of an advocacy group called the Organization for Transformative Works. She says there's been a lot of "notice and takedown" — that's when videos get removed from platforms like YouTube without warning.

But vidders shouldn't be treated like pirates, Tushnet argues. They're people responding to culture in noncommercial ways. Coppa adds that these days, YouTube functions as the public square of yore.

"This is our public space to talk," she says. "Except it's a space where the platform is owned and the servers are owned and the content is owned."

Both Coppa and Tushnet say that media corporations are beginning to tolerate vids — to the point that some vidders feel they have to struggle against commercialization. In the meantime, the medium is beginning to find significant mainstream recognition, even from museums. One rising vidding star has this vid, called "Us," on display right now at the California Museum of Photography.

It's about what it means to be a fan, and it was painstakingly created by a 27-year-old British woman who vids under the name Lim.

"We all speak the language of television," Lim says. "We all know the basic symbolism. Rain means redemption; an open window means a new choice or opportunity."

In fact, Lim says she's mastered the language of television better than the media companies that often put pressure on vidders.

"The media seems to think they own the things they've pumped into my brain in 27 years," she says with an incredulous laugh. "It seems to me ludicrous that television spends so much time and so much money carefully colonizing my mind. But it is my mind."

Lim can't help but speak her mind, she says. And she's one voice in a growing chorus of fans who've discovered they can talk back to their television shows.

Concealing the identity of one source in this report is in accordance with NPR policy that calls for identifying all news sources by name except in instances where doing so would result in physical or financial harm.

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