Two Gallants and fan journalism

By now everyone who pays attention has heard about Saddle Creek band Two Gallants‘ violent and disturbing run-in with Houston police at their show there the other week (if you haven’t, google this for summaries). Aside from issues about the enthusiasm with which some law officers whip out their tasers, it’s interesting because of the role of fan communication in its aftermath, as addressed in this Minnesota Daily editorial:

News coverage of the event has been scattered and varied from sources ranging from the Houston Chronicle and Rolling Stone to MySpace and community journalism efforts, such as first person accounts and digital videos posted online. These efforts had a huge impact on spreading news of the incident and gaining more media attention.

Some MySpace pages about the incident seem to have mysteriously disappeared, though the Two Gallants page seems to be working just fine.

I follow political blogs pretty closely (well, some of them anyway) and one thing that has become a recurring motif is the fear that strikes the hearts of politicians when they realize that YouTube can be used to put up videos of all the stupid things they say and do off the record that are captured by anyone who happens to catch it with their camcorder. The moments they turn their back on the mothers of soldiers, cuss people out, and otherwise act very unpolitic get posted and the blog networks make it viral, ensuring that anyone paying close attention gets to see it. It’s an amazing transformation in control, because reports from those present are one thing, but videos have an impact that’s hard to beat, and now that every digital camera (and many mobile phones) record video and YouTube makes their mass distribution easy, every moment that isn’t poised is fair fodder for your destruction.

What we see in the Two Gallants incident is the same thing, only this time it’s the police (or the band, depending on where you stand) instead of politicians, and it’s music fans instead of political junkies. Nearly 500,000 people have watched this video of the incident. It’s given rise to a lot of discussion about the limits of police power, what to do in incidents like this, and, of course, lots and lots of flame wars. Not the highest level of civic discourse, but still a lot more than there would have been had there been no cameras or YouTube.’s next incarnation

Having railed against’s communication screw up on their last beta where there were a gazillion excellent design comments met with “we don’t want design comments,” I’ll give them credit for making the point explicit up front this round. Plus it looks like there are some nice changes afoot, including some design ones.

They have developed an algorithmic “taste-o-meter” so that when you check out someone else’s profile, you see a low-medium-high-super ranking of how many artists you share in common (weighted somewhat depending on how much you listen). I got a shout from a user there wondering whether I thought this would change who friended whom — would people use the ranking instead of their own perceptions and with what consequences? Another ‘friend’ on there commented he finds it offensive “as though is telling us who we can associate with.” There is already grumbling about the algorithm (aren’t there always in each and every service on the net that uses algorithms?), and the staff agree it needs tweaking. Given that some of my self-chosen friends are “super” matches, while my closest “neighbors” (those who the system thinks have taste closest to my own) are only “medium” matches, I’d say it might be the neighbor algorithm that needs tweaking. My own feeling on it: when I look at user pages, it’s the first thing I look at. If I’m a sample of one, my guess is that it will have an impact on how people perceive one anothers’ profiles. How it will affect friending is an open question. I have always had the sense that people ‘friend’ one another on there for many reasons other than shared musical taste. Very few of my ‘friends’ on there are those I think share my taste, they’re much more likely to be people with whom I’ve had an interesting interchange or two or who I already knew offline or elsewhere on the net. (Besides, no one on seems to have that good a match to my listening anyway, which is not surprising given how long it’s taken to build my narrow music collection and said collection’s strange mix of 80s alt american stuff and 00s swedish pop). Effect of the taste-o-meter is certainly a study waiting to be done.

They are also making the artist pages quite different so that all generated information appears on the left and user-generated input is made much bigger and appears on the right. I like this too because it makes more of user input, although some artist shoutboxes are full of either “they suck” or “she’s hot,” neither of which are the developers’ fault.

It looks like they are fixing the issues with their player taking iPod listens into account, another constant complaint of many.

They’ve built in a nifty flash player you can use to listen in-page and they’ve restored the ability to download (some) songs. When I look at my dashboard, the list of recommended songs I can hear all of now includes 3 I can download free. That is awesome.

And perhaps best of all, they have integrated something users have been asking for forever — events listings. It looks like there are a few glitches to work out there, but the basic idea is that artist pages will include tour dates and other important info and user profiles will have links to events for artists they listen to. You can mark which events you plan to attend and see what events your friends are going to, so it ought to help with body-to-body meet ups as well. Cool!

I still wish that they would focus on improving its basic functionality first and foremost instead of playing with its look and very small things, although some of these are important big things (especially the events). Would people rather have the taste-o-meter or the ability to capture more streaming listening? I am sure there is lots of backstage improvement going on that users don’t see, but the constant changing of this and that while leaving the basic ways we are supposed to input music, navigate the site, and the search functions woefully confusing and/or inadequate really works against them.

However, the staff communication is much better in this beta round (probably helps that the feedback is so much better too) and I give them kudos for that.

When users become fans, part 2: Flickr

The other day, I wrote about Web2 sites going beyond fan forum sites and becoming objects of fandom in their own right. One very fun example of this is the Flickr group for people who are fans of Flickr. In this group, Flickr users can post their pictures that either include the letters f*l*i*c*k*r or the blue and pinkish colors seen throughout the Flickr site. Fringe? Maybe, but they’ve got 775 members and almost 1000 photographs in their pool.

I haven’t spent as much time playing around with Flickr as I have, but have generally been impressed with the staff/user communication on the site. They have the usual issues (‘did you change the interestingness algorithm? why?!?!?!’) but it seems to be handled with much less tension than one sees on, if no less confusion. Plus they’ve maintained a sleek and well-designed interface instead of getting all redesign/overly-complicate happy.

Flickr is also home to a lot of other fan groups, including tons for soccer (or football, pick your nationality), media, and, my favorite: groups for fans of…fans (and I mean the kind that make a breeze, not the kind that cheer)! See here, here, and here. Always been into chimneys with ventilation fans? There’s even a group for you!

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.