Managing and Mocking Identities

The worlds of politics and fandom have been merging for some time, and it’s never been clearer than in this US election cycle where “user-generated content” from YouTube debate questions to Obama girl videos to Facebook groups to political blogs have been so important and inescapable. When I look at what is happening on a site like Democratic political blog DailyKos and what is happening on a site like Scandinavian music blog Its A Trap, there are as many points of similarity as there are difference.  Abagail Derecho, also a Convergence Culture Consortium affiliated researcher, is working on an article called “Everything is Fandom” about the Hillary and Obama “fan bases” arguing that their supporters act just like fans. I can’t wait to read it.

Against this backdrop, I’ve been hearing the meme “John McCain’s got a YouTube problem” repeatedly. I always took it to mean that he cannot hide the times he’s switched positions because the videos of his former statements are there on YouTube for all to see.

But last night my 7 year old son asked to see a John McCain speech (he is an ardent Obama supporter) so I went on YouTube and searched John McCain. It was not easy to find a straight John McCain speech rather than a remix, mashup, or video that had been otherwise altered in order to oppose him. This was our favorite:

In contrast, when we searched Barack Obama, it was very difficult to find anything BUT his own straight performances.

In this case the Obama fans are remixing McCain’s materials in order to support Obama. It’s funny to imagine what that would look like in other kinds of fandom. As The World Turns fans putting together videos that mock General Hospital? NIN fans doing critical remixes of Metallica songs?

I’ve heard a number of explanations for why the Democrats seem to be better able to work the internet than the Republicans (although GW Bush’s focus on using email to get out the vote vs. John Kerry’s focus on using it for fund-raising is an important counter-example). But it seems to me that one essential piece with ramifications for everyone who has an online identity or seeks to motivate people to organize and promote them online, is simply that Obama has been really good about getting everything that he does up online and then letting people know it’s there. When my 12 year old wanted to hear the Father’s Day speech he gave yesterday, we found it immediately, on Obama’s own YouTube channel.

When I was at Mesh in May, I was asked how people can “control their online identity.” I said you can’t, but that your best bet was to put enough of yourself out there that when people encountered material that challenges your identity, they would be able to know the difference between the real you and the nasty things people say about you.

Of course, it also helps if the real you doesn’t say really stupid things.

Metallica admit some blunder, blunder anyway.

Metallica have offered a rationalization for demanding that those invited to a listening party take down the reviews of the album they wrote. Oops, just some underling’s dumb move, honest. On, they write:

While we occasionally enjoy reading the various comments, rumors, speculation, reviews, gossip and all the good that the internet brings, rarely do we feel the desire/need to respond to the “blogosphere” . . . hey, everyone is entitled to have their thoughts and opinions, right? However, once we re-surfaced on Tuesday after a few weeks on tour in Europe, we were informed that someone at Q Prime (our managers) had made the error of asking a few publications to take down reviews of the rough mixes from the new record that were posted on their sites. Our response was “WHY?!!! Why take down mostly positive reviews of the new material and prevent people from getting psyched about the next record. . . that makes no sense to us!”” So after a few rounds of managerial ear spank and sentencing everyone at Q Prime to 20 push-ups each, we figured why not take matters into our own hands and just post the links here on our site. [boldface added]

One step forward for acknowledging the obvious (people posting positive reviews is good, not bad), but two steps backwards for doing it in a way that is all about keeping control — sure you can write your reviews, but people have to come to our site to read them. One commenter noted in response to the coverage on Drowned In Sound:

Or it was a really clever way of having all the good reviews

on one place on their own website, which would be read by many more metallica fans than would read all those sites combined.

I am not sure their own site would really get more hits than all the others combined, but even were this so, it would be so much better to say: “We are contacting everyone who received this misguided take down notice and encouraging them to repost their reviews. We will be linking to them from this page, if we miss yours, let us know so we can add it.”

Their goal should be to foster discussion of the band everywhere they can, including but never limited to, their own site. Centralization is dead.

Internet Inquiry (my new book!) ready for prepurchase

The book I co-edited with Annette Markham about the use of qualitative research methods, Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method, is now available for prepurchase at Amazon. It’s scheduled to exist on paper between covers next month, just in time for fall classes. You can also order it direct from the publisher or request an examination copy here. I don’t like that shade of green much, but think the book will be very useful for many people, especially those learning qualitative methods, or those trying to think through the issues that arise when methods designed for face-to-face interaction are used to study online contexts. Here’s the blurb:

Product Description

This collection of dialogues is the only textbook of its kind. Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method takes students into the minds of top internet researchers as they discuss how they have worked through critical challenges as they research online social environments. Editors Annette N. Markham and Nancy K. Baym illustrate that good research choices are not random but are deliberate, studied, and internally consistent. Rather than providing single “how to” answers, this book presents distinctive and divergent viewpoints on how to think about and conduct qualitative internet studies.

Key Features and Benefits

  • Presents each chapter in the form of a question in order to provoke explicit consideration of key issues
  • Illustrates choices made within larger disciplinary contexts to help students blend approaches, think broadly, and conduct internet research with the benefit of multiplicity
  • Offers a range of perspectives in each chapter to vividly demonstrate that there are many ways to answer methodological challenges well
  • Includes contributors from multiple disciplines and across the globe
  • Provides a highly reflexive writing style that allows readers to see processes that are rarely visible in finished research reports

Intended Audience

This edited volume is an excellent supplementary text for a variety of advanced undergraduate and graduate courses such as Internet Research, Research Methods, Qualitative Research Methods, and Computer-Mediated Communication in the departments of communication, media studies, sociology, and anthropology. It will assist new scholars as well as seasoned practitioners in this arena make informed choices in how they conduct inquiry.

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.

Burnt Bridges

The Calgary Herald offers an interesting take on Metallica’s “Mission: Metallica” online program:

Internet users have a lot of raspberries for Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who in 2000 turned in illegal downloaders, but now wants to jump on the digital bandwagon. [...] Unlike Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and a slew of indie bands (Victoria’s Jets Overhead, for one), Metallica won’t be releasing its album for free, but the step away from DRM (digital rights management) music is a massive step for them, as it makes the music easily shareable on many websites.

Too bad people are viewing the move with a jaundiced eye. After news was posted on, a slew of angry music fans posted their views about it, and they were anything but positive.

“(Expletive) Metallica,” wrote a user named me not you. “These jerkwads helped kill the original napster and They single-handedly delayed the digital music revolution by at least 4 years. They sued little kids and grannies. Now after clearly losing the fight against progress they want to suddenly join the winning side. Go to hell, Metallica.”

Another sample: “Oh I get it, now that your careers are in the (expletive), you finally wanna open up to this ‘new & hip’ digital world only NOW in 2008 after years of alienating thousands of your fans by suing the pants off them & treating them like criminals for spreading your music. Too little too late.”

And my favourite: “You wanted me to pick between mp3s and metallica? i did. you lost.”

What’s to be added? Ethan Kaplan spoke at the Mesh conference about the challenge a band like REM has in using the internet in exciting ways without seeming like they’re trying to co-opt youth. Well, their challenges are nothings next to Metallica’s. REM may have been slow to come around to the digital revolution, but at least they always turned a willfully blind eye to bootleg trading. All I can say if Metallica fans don’t all appreciate their conversion is ha ha ha. Though it’s good, I guess, to see the dinosaurs trying to get hip before going extinct.