Understanding the Networked Audience

I spent the latter half of this week in Princeton. I was invited by the Center for Information Technology Policy and spoke on the topic “Understanding the Networked Audience.” Here is a super-short summary of my talk:

The “audience” has been constructed in many ways: as passive receivers, as market segments, as reader-responders, analysts who work together to interpret texts, and most recently as producers of new materials, publicists, outlaws and collaborators.

Audiences have always been and done all of these things, but the internet enables them to be more active, more social, and more productive because it expands their reach, bridges time and distance, supports archiving, lessens social distance, and supports new forms of engagement (e.g. vidding).

Audiences were networked before there was an internet: witness Grateful Dead’s touring fans. They traded bootlegs using cassette tapes and tape trees long before there was P2P file sharing. They produced fanzines, art and other forms of cultural production.

When the internet (invented in part by sci fi fans) developed, fans were early adapters, creating mailing lists, usenet groups and, as soon as there was a WWW to do it on, fan sites. Meanwhile, the bands and other forms around which audiences rallied had boring websites that no one visited.

In today’s media environment where it’s easy to make one’s material public, it’s ever harder to get (potential) audiences to pay attention.

The old gatekeepers like journalists and disc jockeys have not been abandoned and are still the focus of even independent publicity campaigns. Bands and other forms of cultural producers have learned to build more interactive and engaging sites, but fan sites often remain better than official ones.

MySpace was huge because it offered bands a means of constructing their own identities and building relationships with their audience without mediation from the record companies or the press. But even on MySpace you have to get noticed, and audience word of mouth is key to that.

In the context of music, fans help bands get attention by writing mp3 blogs, archives, wiki entries and news sites. Smart bands and labels adapt and feed the fans by distributing free music and videos.

Into this mix, third party “Web 2.0” platforms seek to supplement and monetize this audience-as-filter role with things like recommendation systems, personalized radio streams, social networks (e.g. Last.fm for music, Flickster for movies), library sharing, Facebook applications, portable playlists, widgets, and more.

Smart entertainment providers need to be represented in all of these venues as well as representing themselves offline (enter street teams, touring, etc). Indeed, even though music audiences are more international than ever, touring matters as much as ever and arguably more than ever. This is helped by the fact that online fans become (impoverished) booking agents in order to bring the bands they like to their towns and countries.

Because entertainers of all sorts now need fans in order to gain attention (and credibility), the relationship between entertainment providers and consumers is becoming increasingly egalitarian, less commercial and more interpersonal. Instead of being viewed as “audience,” fans become collaborators in producing not just an audience, but a culture in which some forms of popular culture can thrive (e.g. underground music scenes).

The personal relationships formed are rewarding for both fans and artists, providing motivation for fans to serve as publicists and for artists to continue making their art. It’s not just about money.

As a result, the culture industries are undergoing massive transformation. The puzzle of how to treat audiences as equals, honor their creativity and importance, give them materials to play with, yet still make money is not yet solved. Radiohead’s choose-your-own-price experiment and sites like Amie Street where the cost of an mp3 depends on its popularity are two of many test-strategies that people are using.

If one thing is clear in this scenario, it’s that anything that alienates fans, that makes them actively dislike you, or that squelches their creativity in the name of control will not work in the long run.

We need models that put the art and the human relationship at the center of the equation in place of control (i.e. hierarchy) and profit.

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Doing a Radiohead?

As we all know, Radiohead self-released their record, In Rainbows, let fans pick the price for the download, charged up the wazoo for the immaculate box set, and is planning to release the cd on plastic for people who like stores to make their purchase as well. While controversy swirls — was the bitrate so low in an effort to make fans buy it twice? did 60% really pay nothing? did it really come out to just over $2 per download? etc etc (as far as I can tell, the answers aren’t public to date despite polls trying to figure it out), the concept has already become so watered down as to be almost irrelevant.

Witness the NME’s announcement that My Bloody Valentine are, as they put it, “doing a Radiohead.”

What does it now mean to “do a Radiohead”?

All it means is that you release a record yourself, on the internet.

No set your own price (which others did before Radiohead anyway, see Jane Siberry for instance).

No groovy box set.

Just a plain old “here’s our record, download it directly from us.”

I’m all for self releasing your music when it’s feasible, but what’s with giving Radiohead the credit for an idea hundreds, nay thousands, of other bands have been doing for years? Silly.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

For those in the US, enjoy my favorite holiday!

I’ll be back posting next week, I hope (!) — crazy busy time of year here — but in the meantime, I have to go make some stuffing and get going on that big bird.

If you were going to roast a turkey today (or for an upcoming holiday) and are looking for a recipe, I am officially a HUGE fan of this one. Yum Yum Yum. And only 2 sticks of butter. Yikes.

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Chicago

If you’re reading this, I’m in Chicago at the National Communication Association meeting. This (Friday) afternoon at 3:30-6:15 at the Hilton, I’m speaking in a double-session roundtable on the future of human communication and technology research with some excellent colleagues. Mostly I’m meeting with potential hires as I’m chairing a search for a new assistant prof of Interpersonal Communication.

What I’m not doing is hanging out online because I left my laptop at home! So enjoy my silence. Unless you’re in Chicago, in which case, come listen to me talk :)

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Online Fans Buy A Team!

Last May I wrote about a UK fansite trying to organize football (that’d be soccer to my American brethren) fans to go beyond armchair coaching and webboard kvetching to collectively purchase a team. Today’s big news is that they did it!

An Internet-based collective of soccer fans from more than 70 countries agreed in principle Tuesday to buy a controlling interest in the lower-league English soccer club.The deal will give them a vote on everything from team lineup selections to which players should be transferred.

The pro club said it was overjoyed by the deal with MyFootballClub, calling it a world first and the start of a new age in soccer club ownership.

“This is a brand new concept, basically a massive trust,” said Roland Edwards, a director and club secretary of Ebbsfleet United in Kent, southern England.

“These individuals have bought the team. They will help run it; they will feel part of it,” he said in a telephone interview.

When I first wrote about this, I framed it as boundaries melting, and I don’t know how else to describe it when the fans become the owners. This is not being a prosumer, produser, or any other cultural studies fandom catch phrase you want to use. It’s a fundamental switch. What potential does this have for our eventual understandings of concepts like “owner” and “fan”?

Single rich fans have been buying teams forever, but groups of fans? One of the central themes of this blog is the shifts in relational and power dynamics between fans and the things and people around whom they rally that the internet enables. This has got to be one of the most striking examples yet.

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