Readers, Tips, and Gratitude

Hi there everyone,

Well, this blog is about to hit its three month anniversary. I always thought 3 months was about the right length to know if a relationship has promise or not, and I have to say, this one is looking pretty good. Online Fandom has brought me in touch with many interesting people and ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have met and has generally just been lots of fun. Thing is, it’s all kind of mysterious — who are the people behind those unique hits? what are they here for? what do they get? what do they want more of? less of?

The first principle we teach in Communication is that the best communication is audience-centered. That’s a trick when you don’t really know who’s there. So if you’re paying attention to this site, I would love to hear from you. Tell me who you are, tell me what you’d like me to write more about, tell me what brings you here, share your ideas about phenomena worth covering. Just say hi. You can email me at nancy at onlinefandom dot com, or leave a comment on this post.

Thanks for reading, it’s great to know you’re there, even if I don’t know who you are.


Association of Internet Researchers

Christy Dena has done a nice write up of fan-related presentations at the recent Association of Internet Researchers conference in Australia that I just attended. After organizing the first AoIR conference in 2000 and spending many years being an exemplary AoIR citizen, I confess that I spent much of my time there meeting new people and exploring Australia rather than listening to presentations at the Hilton, but I did see Christy’s very interesting paper about fandom distributed across media and quite enjoyed meeting her. You can see Kevin Lim interview her about her topic here.

Two other people’s work I found particularly interesting are Daniel Skog (blog here) and Sal Humphries. They are both looking at what I consider an increasingly important new concern I’ve mentioned here before — the consequences of conducting social life in proprietary spaces, Skog in the context of Sweden’s LunarStorm, and Humphries in the case of online games.

There’s a lot of interesting media-related work going on in Australia, and it was great to be exposed to it. My own paper was about the representation of the internet as a relational medium as seen in Ann Landers and Dear Abby between 1993-2004. It’s part of a larger project taking an historical look at how the role(s) of the net in personal life were understood as the net went from new to normal. It’s got nothing to do with fandom, so I won’t go on about it here, but it’s fun stuff and I had a blast presenting it.

If you are looking for a quick virtual vacation, join me on a walk from Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach along Sydney’s Coastal Walkway. Wow.

Rewarding top social media users

Techcrunch had a piece up a few weeks ago about whether or not top contributors to social media ought to get paid for the work they do, which I strongly recommend reading. It discusses the blurring boundaries between amateurs and professionals:

Recent events are proving that top contributors to social media sites need recognition and approval, if not payment, in order to continue doing the hard work required to make a social site vibrant. Mike Arrington has called Calacanis’s move to hire top users away from other sites by offering to pay them a huge red flag for Netscape, but I disagree with Mike and think current developments in spaces like social news but especially video sharing indicate that rewarding top users may be a solid strategy.

I want to recast the discussion in terms of fandom, because part of what’s going on here is that some users are doing things through social media sites that become objects of fandom. People go to the site, in part, to see what those users have created. Taking the users for granted and treating them all the same may drive out the ones who are making the site most worthwhile. Why feed an animal that doesn’t love you when you can create a domain of your own and get your fans to go to YourOwnSpace?

I’ve thought about this in the context of I think it would be to their benefit to have a way to show who the stickiest users are — who’s got the cutting edge taste everyone wants to check? who’s writing the journals people love to read? who’s doing great work filling out the artist wikis? I don’t know that those people ought to get paid (though I wouldn’t object if they did), but wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if they at least got visible recognition?

I wrote the other day about the ethical onus to honor users in proprietary spaces that depend on users to provide the value. Recognizing those who gain fans through the site is one way to meet that challenge.

There’s likely to come a point when people stop being willing to line other people’s pockets with free creative labor. The wise will figure out ways to avert that problem before it starts.

When users become fans

Today I want to say a few things [rant] about It may sound like I’m trashing them, but I think the issues there apply to other sites as well, and they speak to a new development where sites like that are built to serve fans become objects of fandom in their own right.

When I first found this site, I was skeptical about letting anyone know EVERYTHING I listen to. It seemed invasive and I didn’t know whether or not to trust them.

A few months later, I looked again and decided it was worth it. I downloaded the plugins and I fell head over heels. After a while, I started writing a bit about music in the journal on there, and before long I was writing and writing about every show I ever saw, every record that caught my ear. I was high on the site. I talked it up to everyone I met. I read its forums voraciously and I saw some user suggestions taken seriously and changes implemented based on forum discussion. I visited it over and over each and every day. I was ready to take any money I had lying around and invest it if they’d have let me. In short, I became a fan.

And not the only one. Their forums, at least a few months ago, were FILLED with people doting on their staff. This was helped by the fact that several prominent staff members spent time in the forums responding. There were always comments in there about how great they are, what great work they do. Criticisms were met with attacks – how dare anyone question that great great staff, providing this amazing service for free! If it doesn’t work right, you need to get a life, not criticize!

And then, slowly and sadly, my buzz wore off. Partly it was just because I got used to it. The honeymoon ended and omigosh, my perfect husband left the toilet seat up and left hairs in the sink. I took getting charts and recommendations and having a space to write about music for granted and started noticing the problems. And there were plenty to notice – the spring and early summer were plagued with glitch after glitch after glitch. In their forums I suggested they focus on making the site work rather than trying to figure out new features, their top developer assured me the glitches had nothing to do with their innovations. I still don’t get this. When you only have so many people, there’s only so much they can do.

But here is the thing that really turned me off. They had a beta testing period for an upgrade in July. In the beta forum, there were a lot of suggestions made, bugs found, glitches noticed. Okay. There was also a lot of active and completely consistent resistance to the usabilty and aesthetics of the new design which, personally, I thought were a tragic decent into bombastic user-unfriendly glitz on a site that had once been the paragon of elegant aesthetic simplicity. And the sizable sector who said “I don’t like the design!” were roundly attacked by other users for being fuddy duds resistant to change. I could live with the users attacking other users, that’s nothing new. And the staff were pretty nice throughout the discussion.

But then they debuted the upgrade without a single modification to the design. And people who hadn’t been in on the beta started raising all those design issues again. Someone pointed out these issues had all been raised in the beta. And then the staff said “the beta test was a bug hunt, not a design feedback opportunity” (not exact quote). What an insult to the people who had spent such time giving them such good feedback (we’re talking about 30 point lists written by people who knew their computer science). I was put off again recently to see that they went and implemented some of the changes that had been suggested this summer. Glad, of course, that they did make the changes, but it showed what I think is one of their greatest tendencies to shoot themselves in the foot – they just don’t know how to communicate with their users. Or, in the context of this blog, they don’t know how to communicate with fans. All they had to say in July was “thank you so much for the feedback on design. We will take all your comments into consideration and continue making improvements over time.” And when they implemented some of those changes, they should have said “Over the last few months, we got a lot of feedback that you wanted [thing they changed]. We’ve listened.” But they didn’t.

I think this get at four core things:

1. in the world of web2, sites and the people who run them can be objects of fandom

2. that’s an enormous opportunity for companies, but they have to know how to work it and how to build it which means

3. they have to communicate well with those who are already sold and well with those who aren’t, so that more and more people will go beyond user and become fan

4. the people behind those sites need to study their users and understand the ways they’re using the sites before making what otherwise appear to be whimsical changes

We’re living in a world where we do more and more of our socializing in proprietary spaces, and I believe that brings with it a new ethical onus on those who run the sites. The Facebook minifeed disaster is a good example of what to do right and what to do wrong – they made a change without any user input, users freaked, they told them to chill out, but within 24 hours reversed course and admitted they had screwed up bigtime. They made a mistake but they owned up to it and fixed it quickly. demonstrates the merging of fandom, public relations, and customer relations in this new world. If nothing else, I hope other sites can watch and learn from their mistakes. But what I really hope is that can stop shooting themselves in the foot and live up to its promise, because there’s no other site out there that can do what they can do, and what they can do is very very good indeed.

Making money by fostering emotional ties

Derek Webb is a Christian musician whose records have sold about 20,000 copies apiece. He’s trying to increase interest by giving his CD away on his website, a strategy which may be increasing its sales. His label president describes it as getting “emotional, relational currency” instead of cash:

For Ino Records President Jeff Moseley, the word-of-mouth buzz that the giveaway has generated is as interchangeable as cold hard cash at this point in Webb’s career.

“This is emotional, relational currency that we’re trading for an album, as opposed to dollars and cents,” Moseley said. “We think ultimately that will turn into some type of monetary value.”

Though it’s still too early to measure results, early indications are that the effort is paying off in harder dividends than just warm-and-fuzzy feelings among Webb’s relatively narrow fan base.

On Wednesday, Moseley said that he’s seeing anecdotal evidence that Webb’s weekly album sales of about 300-500 are actually experiencing significant percentage increases in the week following the launch of the free download. Official data is not yet available.

And Webb reports that merchandise and CD sales doubled on the road following his announcement to give away the album for free download.

John Styll, president of the Nashville-based Gospel Music Association, who has been involved in battling music piracy alongside his peers in the industry over the past few years, said if Webb finds a way to make the model work, he expects other artists and labels to follow suit.

The mystery remains how exactly emotional currency translates into the green kind, but I believe he’s right that it will. Fans who feel connected, who feel grateful, who feel like you’ve been generous with them, are surely more likely to fork over money. The article also mentions another Christian artist, Keith Green, who made “a surprising amount of money giving his albums away for free in the 1980s and simply asking for a donation in return.”

Time will tell what the best way to deal with piracy is, but this sort of turning on its head is a creative way to approach it. There’s a nice theory of relationships called Social Exchange theory. The basic premise is that we seek relationships where the rewards we receive outweigh the costs we have to pay. It’s a very rationalistic model and not without problems, but it still works surpisingly well at describing and explaining much of people’s sense of what’s fair and what’s worth maintaining. One of its core premises is that when the exchange is social (versus commercial) it inherently engenders feelings of obligation — you gave me something, I owe you something next time. When I teach this, I often use the example of when you get an expensive birthday present from a friend and next time it’s her birthday you feel obliged to buy a gift of comparable value lest you be seen as a jerk. If we make the musician-fan relationship more social and less explicitly commercial, or if we at least build the social side more alongside the commercial, fans are more and more likely to feel personal obligation to the musicians.