More on “the Radiohead economy”

Before it slips away, I wanted to draw attention to this excellent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the interpersonal elements of the Radiohead pricing experiment. It draws on an article I’ve used often when I teach nonverbal communication about tipping, which I thought was a clever link on the writer’s part:

But so far, economists don’t understand much about what motivates people to make payments voluntarily—and those of us doing the paying don’t understand it, either. When it comes to restaurant tipping, for instance, a “gifting” practice that continues to baffle economists, research indicates that the actual quality of service doesn’t make much of a difference to the tips a server receives. Although patrons invariably cite service as a major factor in how and why they tip, research data show that it only accounts for a 1.5% difference. What makes a greater impact, according to studies done by Professor Michael Lynn of Cornell University, is the degree of interpersonal connection we feel with a server. One subject in the study who made the simple change of introducing herself to diners by name saw her tips increase from 15% to 23%. Tricks such as touching customers on the shoulder, writing “thank you” on the bill and crouching beside the table to take an order were shown to generate even greater monetary rewards.

Another piece, also exploring the extent to which this model might be expanded into other products appeared recently in AdWeek. Its author speculates that games are ripe for this sort of pricing scheme, and quotes me (this is getting old, I know) making the interpersonal point:

In general, game developers build successfully on a key element of consumer-generated pricing: passion. According to Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas who studies online fandom, that factor is the assumption or reliance on “an audience that cares about you enough to pay for something they can get for free.” It’s a dialog, she says, that “melds a commercial relationship with a social relationship. There’s something more than commerce.”

At any rate, both articles are notable for replacing hype with reasoned comparisons to other phenomena that rely on user-generated pricing.

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On a personal note, my apologies for my irregular posting to anyone who misses more regular updates. At least until the new year posting will stay sporadic: We are hosting 4 job candidates in my department this week (during an ice-storm that has left Kansas in a declared “State of Emergency”) and next week I am headed off for an exciting little combined work and pleasure jaunt to Oslo and Copenhagen. Sunlight? Who needs it!

Social network sites: Migration or multiple residency?

People are buzzing more and more about the need to understand “social network migration,” particularly in the wake of what looks like a  mini-exodus of sorts from MySpace to Facebook. “Migration” is an interesting metaphor. It situates one site as Homeland, and implies that groups of people then pack up and move to a new land. Of course, “migration” also has a bit of a seasonal quality, implying that when the winds shift, people will up and leave once again.

I’m sure that’s happening, but there’s another equally important phenomenon we shouldn’t overlook: multiple residency. People are building digital abodes in more than one site. Rather than moving from one site to another, many people are hanging out in several of these spaces at once – something that is getting easier and easier with applications and widgets that import and export information across them.

I recently surveyed approximately 600 users of Last.fm. One question I asked was whether they used “any other social network sites such as MySpace or Facebook.” Two thirds of them said yes.

When asked whether a random friendship they had on Last.fm was also a friend on another site, half of those who used other social network sites said yes. In other words, a third of friendship pairs on Last.fm are also “friends” on at least one other social network site.

Two of my graduate students and I are in the process of making sense of the answers to the open-ended question of how they would compare their Last.fm friendships to those on other sites, but I can tell you that they are all over the place. Some speak of Last.fm friendships as being more important and exclusive because they are based on shared music. Some speak of Last.fm friendships as more trivial and irrelevant because they are based only on music.

In my own case, there is a subset of my Last.fm friends who are Facebook friends. I have more Facebook friends, but I will add almost anyone who seems to have a decent reason to want to be my friend on Last.fm, but I’ll only friend people I already know or know that I want to know on Facebook.  Some Last.fm and Facebook friends are LinkedIn and Flickr contacts. I’m not sure if anyone connects with me in all 4 of those sites, I don’t think so.

Each site manages different dimensions of our relationships, and I don’t particularly want it all fused into a single site, especially if that single site is under corporate ownership. By diversifying my social existence online I can foreground some relational qualities in each site, but I can also spread the risk of dependence on dubiously trustworthy longterm providers.

Thinking in terms of “migration” makes little sense if one wants to understand how people make choices amongst which sites they use for which purposes.

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.

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.

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.