Guest Post: Industry groks geeks? Producers, fans, and an era of sudden interactivity

My student at the University of Kansas, Ryan M. Milner, recently finished an excellent Masters Thesis about fans of the game series Fallout and I’ve asked him to write up some of its many insights to share with you. Here’s his first of what I hope will be a short series of posts from him:

Geek, it seems, is in.

At least on some level. The very fact that another disc of Lost just arrived at my house via indicates as much. I’m young but I’ve watched enough Nick at Nite to suspect that a show like Lost (or Heroes or Alias) is the product of a market that recognizes the value of fans. There’s no getting this show if you haven’t watched every other episode. You could pick up with Dragnet or Full House midstream and be fine. But Lost requires a more devoted viewership. One that rewards producers with a niche group to market DVDs and digital games to (or in the case of Heroes, sell Nissans to), and rewards consumers with a full universe to expand on and explore, and a deep story to enjoy, one full of self-referential mysteries and clues. Therefore, this enjoyment may be directly correlated to the knowledge one has of the universe.

But this puts producers in a touchy spot, and a tenuous relationship can often develop. Fans, by definition of their investment, are more active, and demand more from a media text than the standard channel-surfing consumer. A slip up in the style, narrative, or plot of The Office, and my friends are all over it. The next time we see each other the debate is on. Deep, nuanced views on character, story, or tone are discussed at length, often with as many unique perspectives as participants.

The popularization of internet has allowed these discussions to widen in voice and reach. This is where things can get especially touchy for producers. If enough fans are displeased enough, and are vocal enough, that’s negative buzz. And it can be cancerous in this cluttered media marketplace. So it’s up to producers to interact with fans and find a balance between diverse interests and goals. Even if producers choose not to engage with fans, that sends a message of its own. And the messages producers send to fans are increasingly consequential in a marketplace where geek is in.

So how do producers and fans of media texts relate in this era of sudden interactivity?

That was what I wanted to understand as I began to examine how a specific group of digital-game fans engaged with producers and each other during a period of tension over the next installment of the game series. Fans of the digital-game series Fallout were active in voicing concern for the upcoming title Fallout 3 (set to release this fall), and did so on the forums of the game’s production studio, Bethesda Softworks. The heart of the tension was that Bethesda wasn’t the developer of Fallout 1 & 2, and was making drastic gameplay and narrative changes to Fallout 3. Analyzing forum interactions made for great study, since I had never seen research document regular producer/fan interaction so deeply, never mind the bombastic beauty of the forum’s confrontations. I’ve never seen such eloquent flames.

A few things impressed me. One of the first things I noticed was that even in a marketplace where geek is in, the producers still seemed to hold all the cards. It was Bethesda’s game. It was Bethesda’s site. It was their vision of Fallout that, whether valid or invalid, would hit the shelves. Fans, recognizing a lack of official ownership or control, acted as lobbyists and watchdogs, attempting to indirectly influence the integrity of Fallout 3 through pleas and petitions spread across thousands of forum posts. Bethesda employees, fittingly, treated fans like outsiders in their responses. Whether cordial or hostile (and different producers interacted in different ways at different times), the undertone was clear: we are the organization, you are the public. We’ll let you suggest, but we will decide. The text is ours.

Even more impressive, fans seemed to happily accept their role in the process. Despite many scholarly concerns over the exploitative side of fan labor, when fans on the official Fallout 3 forum lobbied, suggested, and expanded they did so recognizing that this was their most effective way to influence the integrity of Fallout 3. Exploitation was trivial in the face of such purpose. One poster summed up the general fan perspective on their role in the game development process:

Fallout 3 MUST be like Fallout…the best answer for every question on this forum besides “I have the holy sacred duty to watch over my beloved game”

So the idea that geek is in may not be as empowering to the geeks as I had originally believed. Sure, the internet has afforded fans voice and reach in the development process of the texts they esteem. Sure, many producers are actually listening to the suggestions of fans, and others (especially in the digital-games industry) are incorporating fan feedback and production into the official text. But the tone on the Fallout 3 forum seems to mirror the tone of many media producers. Fans are a great niche market to sell things to, and a ready-made audience to focus-group and beta test. But they are not productive partners in the development of media texts. They are still a rung down on the production ladder. I have to wonder what the media market would look like if producers forgot the words “audience” and “consumer” and began to think of fans as co-laborers in a community of enthusiasts.

Then, I think we could definitively say geek would be in.

Putting the B(ees) in Buzz

Swarmteams is a project led by Ken Thompson exploring whether the same sorts of processes that insects and other biological entities use to organize group behavior through short term low range signaling can be applied to human social groups such as fans. It bills itself as a

new type of community-engagement platform, which was designed around communication principles used by social groups in nature such as ants, bees, geese and dolphins.

It’s an interactive approach, which aims to connect musicians with their dedicated fans, by enabling them to manage, grow, develop and montetise their own fan bases.

Thompson is testing this with a NESTA-funded pilot project using bands in the UK:

Swarmteams enables musicians to communicate directly with their ‘Alpha fans’ – a core group of about 25 dedicated fans. It works by allowing Alpha fans to create and manage their own “swarm” of dedicated fans. These fans are then encouraged to recruit and reward their own swarm of fans, and so on.

As the number of swarms expands, the speed at which messages are spread throughout the community becomes faster – and more effective.

Their success depends on the ability and commitment of the musician/band to grow and manage a viable and passionate fan base, which they can use to sell their music, recruit other fans and promote their concerts and gigs.

He’s got a few bands signed up now, but is still signing more up if you’re in the UK and interested (click that link just above to sign up).

My friend David Jennings, author of Net, Blogs & Rock ‘n’ Roll, a book I wish I’d written but will settle for having blurbed, is working with Ken to assess the effectiveness of the pilot. And with my grad student Ryan Milner I am helping David some of the background — going through the fandom research looking for things that look like swarming, even if they weren’t called that. Says David:

I wrote last year about Swarmteams cross-platform messaging service, and its application for coordinating networks of fans. Swarmteams is running a pilot project for the music industry this year, supported by NESTA, and going under the name of SwarmTribes®. For many musicians, getting the first 10 or 20 dedicated fans is easy enough — but when it comes to multiplying this number things become more difficult. If and when their fan base does increase, they’re faced with the challenges of managing it.

Musicians need a communication system to interact with their fans, which is adaptable and instantly reactive. They need to engage with their fans, using a means of communication that can be scaled up. This is where Swarmteams can help.

I’m pleased to say that I’ll be working alongside Swarmteams as researcher, reporter and evaluator for the project (also funded by NESTA, but as an independent project). And I’m looking forward to working with Nancy Baym of University of Kansas and her colleague Ryan Milner.

The core of the Swarmteams concept is the combination of a “back to nature” communication patterns and the latest cross-platform messaging technologies.

Swarmteams founder Ken Thompson has researched biological/ecological perspectives on team organisation and coordination (laid out in his Bioteams book). Then Swarmteams have designed a communications system around this, combining SMS text messaging, email, instant messaging and RSS.

Starting with those 10 or 20 dedicated fans, bands and artists can use the techniques and technology first to build a broader base of fans and then to motivate and coordinate these fans around gigs, releases and special events.

I kind of inherently dig the idea of thinking about biological/ecological models for our behavior, especially in the context of the oh-so-techie internet/mobile phone world. It’s cool to see some creative thinking and I’m looking foward to seeing how the project pans out. In the meantime, if any of you can think of examples of things that look like “swarming” let me know. Thompson describes the theory behind it as based on these four points:

1. Any group member can take the lead: Any member can broadcast to the group, create their own swarms, invite others to them and create links and content.

2. Integrated Messaging across phone and web: The ability to message every member of your swarm in one click on any device without worrying about how they are connected.

3. Small is Beautiful …..and Big is Powerful: “Swarm Communities” are multiple swarms on common topics of interest providing scale yet maintaining the small group dynamic.

4. Reach the many through the few: Engage individuals within their communities via their trusted relationships.

Music is All about Money

Behold my favorite April fools post (so far) from Swedish independent label Hybris:

Due to illegal filesharing Hybris will have to shut down it’s business.

There are simply no economic incentive for our artists to create when copyright laws are not respected.

Hybris is one of several Swedish indie labels that have banded forces to create The Swedish Model. They share a commitment to celebrating file sharing as a means of music distribution and to building dialogue about creative ways to conduct the business of music.

In The Swedish Model’s statement they say wise things like:

We like computer nerds who put their souls into building protocols that efficiently spreads the music that we love. We are modern you know. We don’t want to have appeals against laws or pirates. We don’t want to have appeals against the appeals either. We want to have a creative discussion about how we can refine the distribution forms and how we further can refine the art form of music.

It is impossible to say yes or no to file sharing. It is something that exists and can’t be removed. Get started and put the energy towards driving the development instead of trying to slow it down. It’s not possible to slow it down – the force in great changeovers that are good for humanity is much too strong for special interest organizations and laws to stop it. That’s it. Stop whining. If you are creative and the music you make is good then there will always be space for you.

It hurts when old business models break. New models will however always take their place. Right now we’re at the end of one epoch and in the beginning of another. The key to moving on is to let the old epoch die and the new germinate. That can only happen if one accepts the new conditions the internet has brought. And it is really time to try new ideas instead of clinging to the old.

Read an interview about the Swedish Model Avi Roig conducted on Its A Trap!.

Read another post where Hybris talk about “the trap of the file sharing debate” here. Find some select quotes from interviews I did with Hybris and others where they elaborate some of these ideas here.

I approve!




Online Music Fan Community Powerpoint

At by:Larm a number of people asked me to share the powerpoints of my talk. In it I argue that the internet has transformed fandom because it expands fans’ reach, transcends distance, supports archiving, provides group infrastructure, enables new forms of communication and lessens social distance. As a result, bands, fans and labels need to work out less hierarchical relationships in which fans are seen as equals who, when treated with trust and respect, will delight in spreading one’s gospel to more of the many corners of the internet than any one person can visit. I make the case through lots of examples drawn primarily from Scandinavian music fans, bands and labels.


One friend warned me to “never give away your powerpoints” but I’ve decided if I’m going to preach the ethos of free, I’d best be enacting it as well. I had a look-see at some of the slide sharing applications and none seems to be able to show the notes section as well as the slides and since that’s where most of the content in my talk was hiding, I opted for saving the Powerpoint notes page as a PDF file instead. You will have to imagine the sparkling live delivery filled with explanatory ad libs and examples missing in this version.

I hope you find it useful and all feedback is always appreciated.

You Can’t Force Them To Come To You

As you have likely heard, Prince has been ruffling the righteous feathers of many fans lately by seeking the domain names of a number of Prince fan sites. The grounds are ‘intellectual property violations.’ Among the violations are photos of fan tattoos of images to which Prince holds the rights. Nevermind whose body they’re on.  You can follow the struggle from the affected sites’ POV on their site Prince Fans United.

In their year-end Pop review, the Telegraph offers their take on this, and on Prince’s move earlier this year to release his recent album as a free newspaper supplement:

What is being established is a new and more direct relationship between artist and fans, apparently with the intent of cutting out the record-company middleman, but it is not without its own complications. Prince gave his latest album away with a Sunday newspaper, using it effectively as a marketing exercise for his fantastically well received 21-night live run at the O2 Arena .

It was a move that reflects the profitability of the booming live sector and, in many ways, marks a welcome shift towards performance becoming (once again) the principle source of income for working musicians. It is the one musical transaction that still requires all parties to show up in person.

But what Prince giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other, launching lawsuits against internet sites (including dedicated fan sites) for unauthorised use of his image. Suing your own fans is not usually considered good for business, but Prince may get away with it on account of his legendary eccentricity.

Prince’s unstated aim, in forcing YouTube (among others) to remove all footage of his performances, is not so much to control his image as to compel fans to come to him (and his own internet portals) for all Prince-related material.

If compelling your fans to come to you rather than building sites of their own isn’t control, what is? He may well “get away with it” but it would take some pretty hard evidence to convince me that he did not do damage to himself compared to where he would have been if he respected the fans’ dedication and let them do their thing.

To expect all the fans to come to you for all their needs is to misunderstand the internet, fandom, and what it means to have “a new and more direct relationship between artists and fans.” You don’t make new friends by insisting they always come to your house and do what you want to do. Sometimes you have to go to their houses and do what they want to do.

Fans like official sites. Fans also like — and many downright need — to build their own spaces where they create the culture.