The New Shape of Online Community

I’ve got an article just published in the new issue of First Monday called The New Shape of Online Community: The Example of Swedish Indie Music Fandom. It’s two things — a documentation/description of how this particular fandom is organized, and also an argument that the days of thinking of online community as associated with single domains is over. Instead, I argue that fans are organizing themselves across multiple sites, not just as individuals, but as distributed groups. This has implications for everyone from fans to scholars to site designers. As I summarize in the conclusion:

The Swedish indie fans practice what might be called “networked collectivism” in which loose collectives of associated individuals bind networks together. On the one hand, this means that groups can avail themselves of many mediated opportunities to share different sorts of materials including text, music, video, and photographs in real time and asynchronously. On the other hand, this creates many problems, particularly with coordination, coherence, and efficiency (i.e., the same materials must be distributed in multiple places, and sometimes there are many replicated efforts).

For those seeking to study online communities, this sort of social formation poses the methodological challenge of how to bound the object of study. It has long been the norm to go to an online space and study it. We have countless studies of particular newsgroups, Web forums, social network sites, and blogs. We have few studies that explore the connections amongst these disparate online platforms, despite the fact that people’s online activities are almost always distributed across multiple sites. It is no longer clear that going to a site is an appropriate strategy for studying community on the Internet.

One might liken the problem to that of a “pub crawl” in which a group goes from bar to bar drinking. One can do a fine study of any one of those pubs, and likely find something resembling community at play. Yet a slight shift of perspective from the space to the patrons reveals that for them, whatever community might be happening at that pub cannot be understood without reference to other spaces in which those people also meet.

From a practical perspective, this form of social organization poses problems for both individuals and those who want to connect and be connected with them. When a community is spread across multiple online spaces, it requires more time and effort for people to figure out what there is and to what extent in which spaces they will develop a community–specific identity. The analysis presented here suggests that with so many places to have discussion, it may be hard to reach the critical mass necessary to sustain ongoing conversation anywhere, with potential negative consequences on the development of shared meanings within groups.

Developers face the practical problem of how they can make sites that serve as both locations of activity and which can be exported to other sites in order to build connectivity across locations.’s exportable charts are one example of responding to this emerging demand, as is Virb’s built–in capacity to import blogs and photo feeds from other sites into one’s profile.

At a time when organizations from rock bands to public health services are increasingly turning to the Internet to reach their audiences, it is not enough to create one’s own site or to get on MySpace. Like the community members, they need to immerse themselves in this ever–more distributed and complex terrain in order to understand which online sites to target and how.

I’ve got at least one more paper on the topic of Swedish indie fandom in the works, so am quite interested to hear any feedback on this paper. And I hope you find it useful or at least fun to read.

Band Promotion on Facebook. Or not.

Adam Shahbaz has written a thoughtful and entertaining post about how Facebook has changed for him since his time as an early user connecting with his friends, through the minifeed, to an era when he has to friend his boss (hi, Brad!). Embedded in it is his report on trying to use Facebook to promote his LA-based band. Short story: it didn’t work:

Facebook became a great marketing tool for my band, rejn (pronounced “rain”). Now users would get our concert messages even if they had yet to join our global group. The group, by the way, jumped from a paltry 200-something local members to a growing 600 global membership of “devout” Facebook users in a very short period of time. For the effort (little) and the cost (free), we seemingly got a great deal.The original, more local fan group, however, allowed us to engage our users. People clicked on the band members and checked out our pages and saw the parties we played at and whether we passed their litmus test of coolness. They checked our individual pictures: bass player doing a keg stand, lead singer in mid-back-flip.

Things were looking up.

With the new global fan group, the one that killed the original, people commented less. For every message we sent, our fans became more resentful of the influx of spam. We had to resort to older techniques to get people to come to the shows. After all, with a small band as with a small business, local means golden. But the announcements became worthless.

We even paid for 30,000 flyers to be distributed exclusively on the University of Southern California Facebook network. At the show, I asked around and did not find one person who even saw the flyer, let alone anyone who found it compelling enough to come to the show. I never expected a big return, but I figured at least one person would have seen it. We were back to good old word-of-mouth.

Facebook has a ways to go toward being a meaningful way to promote bands (despite ReverbNation’s bold efforts to make it easier). The problem of notifications coming too fast and furious on Facebook to digest and therefore seeming more and more like spam is a big one. The very weak support for groups — there is no easy way to see if there are new messages in discussion threads, for instance — is another. FB groups, like so many on other social networks, seem to be serving far more as identity badges than meaningful ways to interact or build community.

Blogging Athletes

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article up this week about athletes using the internet for direct communication with their fans:

As the MySpace generation reaches professional sports, many athletes are maintaining website profiles and blogs. Along with providing a direct link to fans, these personalized Internet entries serve as an excuse to limit interviews with mainstream media while also offering the ability to deliver unfiltered messages.Bryant used his site to acknowledge it would be tough to leave the Lakers — but he would if it meant playing on a winning team. Other reports are purely personal. Tiger Woods announced the birth of his daughter. And Greg Oden discussed the pain of having his tonsils taken out.

“They come off good if the athletes know what they are doing,” said Will Leitch, editor of, a website that often links to players’ websites. “The mistake is when you see people that still have their college MySpace profile up and all of a sudden they are in the NFL or MLB.”

Indeed, while posting messages is often intended to clear controversy, it occasionally causes it.

This is a topic I’ve covered before, in terms of musicians in these posts (among others):

How the internet transformed what it means to be a music fan

The new social rules of internet fame

Pop Stars must blog says Baltimore Sun

Music Fans and musicians belong to each other

My take on this is that it can work very well if the image the star builds on his or her site is consistent with the public persona that’s working for them already, and otherwise it can be a mess. Or as I was quoted as saying in this article:

“There’s a fine line between being candid and getting yourself in trouble, and it depends a lot on what your image is,” said Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. “There is a reason professionals usually handle that stuff.”

I strongly believe that the opportunity for direct relationship building between fans and artists, athletes, public figures, is a good thing, but I like how this article points out its potential pitfalls.

Some observations on social network survey research

About 10 days ago, I launched a survey on designed to assess the nature of “friendship” on the site. In the broadest sense, I just what to know what kinds of relationships hide beneath that label.

Getting the survey posted in a way that anyone would respond was a challenge in itself. I spent a lot of time over the last 2 years building relationship with the site, its staff, and its users. Originally this was not because I wanted to do research, but because I fell in love with the site and, though I have periods of intense frustration with it, generally I still seem to check in multiple times a day out of my own fannish interest. But anyway, with staff consent, I posted the link to my survey in a couple of their forums, and one of their most visible staff people stepped in and endorsed it on behalf of the site.

I’ve been pleased with the response rate, but the whole process has raised a lot of interesting issues.

(1) Non-randomness. I take it as a given that you just can’t get a random sample in a site like that. So in addition to posting it in the forums, I asked people to ask others to fill it out. I’ve been really happy that people did do that. Some got so excited they ran around posting a link to it in all their friends’ shoutboxes, others wrote journals about it. I have no doubt that’s helped a lot. But what do I lose by having friends of friends filling it out? On the other hand, thus far it’s an amazingly diverse sample in terms of age and nationality, and that is thrilling (especially for those of us used to studying college students at one university).

(2) User involvement. I’ve made a point since posting it to be on the site a lot in order to respond to feedback. A few things have happened. First, to my surprise, about 20% of the people who’ve filled it out have left me notes to tell me that they did. Why? I assume it’s because I made a personal appeal (“I need your help”) and they want recognition for their altruism (which I’m more than happy to provide). Another reason is that many of them have found the survey interesting and appreciated how it made them think. I find that fascinating. Several have made a point of saying that they want me to do more research and they want to be involved when I do (“interview me! I want to discuss this!”) Most intruiging is the number of people who want to talk about the methodology with me — what are my research questions? how will I present the findings? how am I handling the issues of non-randomness? why do I ask them to report on a random friend and how does this affect the outcomes? It’s not often, I think, that our research is publicly critiqued while in progress, and I find that both rewarding and challenging, but (given the positive feedback) mostly rewarding. Still, I was not expecting to give mini lectures on methodology. But it’s good, it’s really good. It makes me think we should do much more of this.

(3) User misunderstanding. I’ve asked people to report about the first person on their friends list, which is random every time they open their profile. Several people have been uncomfortable with this because that person is not “typical” or not a good example of a “good” friend, or because it was a family member. One one hand, I may not have done well enough at conveying the point that I want ALL the varieties of relationship that are covered by the label, not just the ones that seem to fit the label. On the other hand, I think even when that’s clear, people seem to feel a moral tug toward what the label ought to mean, so that they’d rather describe a “good” example than a bad one, even when they all appear identical on the site. That’s interesting in its own right.

(4) Young people! One of my biggest frustrations is this: I state explicitly that you must be 18 or older to fill it out and that by clicking through you assert that you are 18 or older, yet just over 10% of them are filled out by people aged 12-17 who either skipped that paragraph or just didn’t care. It’s not that I don’t want to hear what these people have to say, I do, it’s that studying youth requires human subjects steps I didn’t think were tenable for me in this context (e.g. parental consent). So now I have this data I am not sure I’ll be able to use (I’m hoping our human subjects committee with okay my analysis of them, but if not I will do the required thing and chuck them, heart breaking all the while). KU has a really wonderful Human Subjects office, and I am loathe to cross them. I am hoping they will concur that I have no idea who these people are and their responses are harmless and will let me use them despite my best efforts to keep them out in the first place.

(5) The highs and lows. Watching the data roll in, or stagger to near nothingness, is bizarrely emotional for me. I should probably just not look until I get back to Kansas and am ready to do analysis, but I can’t help checking in all the time. When there are lots of new responses, I feel so happy. When there aren’t I get really bummed. How much is enough and what does ‘enough’ mean when it isn’t random anyhow and there’s no way to measure response rate?

(6) One of these days I hope I can learn to remember to design quantitative studies with a more quantitative sensibility. I am always asking about the things I want to know about, being qualitative, trying to get as much information as I can and build understanding from the bottom up. I am rarely thinking in advance in terms of modeling variables and their relationships to one another in ways that can be easily analyzed statistically. I dislike the simplicity of much statistical modeling, but managing the complexity of loads of variables is not easy. This survey combines quantitative and qualitative questions.

If you’re a researcher, how have you dealt with these issues?

If you’re a user or know people who are, please spread the word!

ReverbNation joins the Facebook Application Fray

They may be a little late to the game, but ReverbNation have debuted their Facebook application, and it’s got some interesting qualities that the other music ones don’t (and some that they do).

The fans get to make playlists of tracks and embed them on their profiles. These can continue playing even when people navigate away from the profile.


That’s cool, but when I fooled around with it, it seemed like an awfully small selection of songs to choose from in their initial interface screen, despite ReverbNation having over 60,000 full length songs on site.

The app also tracks charts and lets you play songs right off them and gives info about shows in your area.

But the part I think is particularly interesting is that it ports the data out of the ReverbNation artists’ pages (created by the artists), so that each band has a self-authored ‘profile’ on Facebook. As far as I can tell, this is the first application that provides a meaningful way for bands to have a manageable Facebook profile, replete with photos, songs (that fans can click to hear or add to their playlists), bios, tour schedules, etc etc. though only available to those using the ReverbNation application.

In other ReverbNation news, they’ve teamed up with free website template site hosting site Freewebs to create a ReverbNation widget that Freeweb users can easily install on their web pages.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think ReverbNation are very forward thinking in looking at ways they can enable artists and fans to spread music all over the net rather than keeping them at one site. These offer more examples of that foresight.

Here’s screen shots of a couple of tabs on an Artist page within the application (click for full size):