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 last.fm. 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.

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When users become fans

Today I want to say a few things [rant] about last.fm. 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 last.fm 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.

Last.fm 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 last.fm 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.

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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.

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Great Moments in Rock and Roll as Cartoons

Joel Orff is a cartoonist who (among other things) illustrates “great moments in rock and roll” that people send him. He’s got a book of them, and a website where he keeps putting up new ones and invites you to send him your story. It’s a super cool way to collect and tell fan stories. The illustrations really lend something more than the narratives alone.

On the book-plug site, Orff says this:

My goal with the Great Moments in Rock ‘n’ Roll series has always been to entertain, and to present people’s stories in a respectful way. My favorites are the ones that someone may have never thought was worth telling, but for some reason has stayed with them as a favorite memory. I’ve consciously kept the drawing loose and spontaneous, to reflect what I believe are qualities of the best rock ‘n’ roll.

The most recent strip is of a show I saw last month that was indeed a great moment in rock and roll, and though his illustrations don’t look a thing like the band, it really does nail the show.Reading through them there are so many classic moments of music fan experience. The Duran Duran one is just funny, and the Sonic Youth one, well if you’ve been upfront at enough shows it’s just so easy to imagine it happening. The Gary Numan one about going to your first concert is sweet and blazingly right on. Lots of insightful moments captured in this collection.

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Barenaked Exemplars

Let’s hear it for the Barenaked Ladies for coming up with some fun ways to get fans involved in their new record. They’ve got fans doing remixes of their songs (the best will be made into an EP with all proceeds going to charity), designing t-shirts (the best will receive cash prizes and be sold on their tour), and competing for best air-guitarist by submitting videos of themselves playing along. You should really read the whole London Free Press article (and forgive them for describing such excellent ideas as “digital daliances”). Among the quotes I liked best:

“People are doing amazing remixes,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Ed Robertson said. “We’re getting these ridiculous disco versions of our songs. There’s a lot of people that are really good.”

“The main thing is just shifting the focus to the fan and letting them decide how they want to consume the music,” Robertson explains … “We just realized it’s really not in our control.”

These are great ways to get fans involved — fun creative things they can do and real ways to honor the best of what they do without exploiting them. I hope we’ll see more bands recognizing that the flip side of losing control are the many great rewards to be found in encouraging participatory fandom.

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