If you’re reading this, I’m in Chicago at the National Communication Association meeting. This (Friday) afternoon at 3:30-6:15 at the Hilton, I’m speaking in a double-session roundtable on the future of human communication and technology research with some excellent colleagues. Mostly I’m meeting with potential hires as I’m chairing a search for a new assistant prof of Interpersonal Communication.

What I’m not doing is hanging out online because I left my laptop at home! So enjoy my silence. Unless you’re in Chicago, in which case, come listen to me talk :)

Online Fans Buy A Team!

Last May I wrote about a UK fansite trying to organize football (that’d be soccer to my American brethren) fans to go beyond armchair coaching and webboard kvetching to collectively purchase a team. Today’s big news is that they did it!

An Internet-based collective of soccer fans from more than 70 countries agreed in principle Tuesday to buy a controlling interest in the lower-league English soccer club.The deal will give them a vote on everything from team lineup selections to which players should be transferred.

The pro club said it was overjoyed by the deal with MyFootballClub, calling it a world first and the start of a new age in soccer club ownership.

“This is a brand new concept, basically a massive trust,” said Roland Edwards, a director and club secretary of Ebbsfleet United in Kent, southern England.

“These individuals have bought the team. They will help run it; they will feel part of it,” he said in a telephone interview.

When I first wrote about this, I framed it as boundaries melting, and I don’t know how else to describe it when the fans become the owners. This is not being a prosumer, produser, or any other cultural studies fandom catch phrase you want to use. It’s a fundamental switch. What potential does this have for our eventual understandings of concepts like “owner” and “fan”?

Single rich fans have been buying teams forever, but groups of fans? One of the central themes of this blog is the shifts in relational and power dynamics between fans and the things and people around whom they rally that the internet enables. This has got to be one of the most striking examples yet.

Serious Doubts About Facebook

At the risk of becoming an all Facebook all the time blog, which I really don’t want to be, I do have a few more things to say before hanging up the FB hat for the week.

Last week, they rolled out “social ads” which will be so delightfully targeted just at us that we won’t even perceive them as ads, they will simply be information. Lest the lack of nonverbal cues fools you, I don’t believe it for a second, ads are ads and I don’t want to see them.

In conjunction with this, they also announced brand sites where a company/celeb/whatever can create a profile, and then instead of becoming a friend of that profile, we, the mere users, can become “fans” of that brand. Yep, that’s right, I can announce to the world that I am a “fan” of Facebook. Or Google. Or, apparently, Neko Case. Label conveniently provided by Facebook. All I have to do is bite and my whole social network can know.

Part of me wants to applaud them for recognizing the distinction between “friend” and “fan.” Part of me wants to appreciate the movement of “fan” from “weirdo who needs a life” to “person who’s into Facebook.” Most of me wants to scream. Why? Honestly, I’m not quite sure, but aside from the fact that its execution seems so lame (as Rob Walker nicely summarizes), it just seems so crassly tied to the advertising piece. It also seems aimed to supplant groups that form around brands and enable a much more top-down form of brand-fan interaction.

Facebook’s overt strategy — enter their “beacon” script that sends info from “affiliate” websites back to Facebook so they can share with our networks (and themselves) what we do on the rest of the web — is to turn all of its users into little viral advertising modules. See Fred Stutzman’s blog for the best coverage of the privacy implications of all that FB has been up to lately. Unsettling, to say the least.

I have really liked Facebook these last several months. It’s been a great way to keep contact with a wide group of people I really like but don’t generally keep up with very well when we’re not at the same meetings. It’s been playful, professional, and entertaining.

But if I end up feeling like all those friends are just advertising parasites using my friends as hosts, and if my activities are just fodder for targeted advertising, then I’m done. If Facebook doesn’t make it really easy and obvious for people to opt out (or better yet opt in) to the “affiliate” program, then I’m done.

I am deeply concerned about the degree to which we are living our personal lives in proprietary spaces that do not belong to us and in which we have no rights, not just Facebook and MySpace, but also roleplaying games (what do you do when you get kicked of World of Warcraft and that’s where your friendship group all hangs out?). The inability to download my own information from really bothers me. The inability to download or export information from Facebook is problematic. But if my social life is going to be all about sending and receiving ads, I want out. And if being a “fan” is going to be reduced to “providing advertising for” I want out.

We need ways to build business models that aren’t just about using people to sell stuff and selling stuff to people. Human connection is worth more than that.

Is Facebook A Fad?

picture-1.pngThe video is now up from [Canadian public television station] TVO’s current affairs program, The Agenda‘s panel discussion of the future of Facebook that I participated in the other night with 4 other guests. For the first half I listened along thinking “everyone’s got something interesting to say,” but toward the end there Om Malik pulled out the old “people socialize online because they are socially awkward and don’t want to talk to people face-to-face” canard and I couldn’t help but leap into action to combat caricature with evidence. Wind me up and watch me go.

It was a real hoot recording this. I went to Kansas City Public Television, where I sat alone at a table on a little stagey kind of thing, with a cameraman (who was obscured by his massive camera) and an engineer (hiding behind a little wall behind me) with bright lights beaming down on me. Given that, I was surprised how fully I got caught up in the discussion. When it ended, the camera man and the engineer continued discussing the topic with me, which I thought was a neat testament to how engaging the discussion was. The whole thing was a class operation start to finish.

There were several things I would have liked to have said if it had been a longer discussion, like about the need to differentiate between privacy in terms of what we show others on our facebook pages and privacy in terms of what information facebook collects about us behind the scene for their own use (which is getting creepier by the day), and about the fact that there are privacy controls for the former that people can use (so they could, for instance, opt out of being google indexed on facebook), even if research shows that they rarely do use them. Jesse Hirsch makes a point in the discussion about the basic literacy skills needed to understand how facebook affects one’s privacy that’s important and deserved some elaboration.

So if you’re interested in a high quality half hour discussion of the question, enjoy the video [you have to click the blue 'Is Facebook A Fad' tab next to Steven Pinker]. The video could be very useful for teaching purposes too — I know I’ll be showing it when I teach social networks in my Communication on the Internet course in the next 2 weeks.

Update: The video will only stream for 10 days. If you yearn for your own personal copy, subscribe to the podcast here and you can download it.

Internet Inquiry Goes to Press! (and me on TV)

Yesterday my co-editor Annette Markham and I sent the final manuscript of our collection, Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method, to our editor at Sage. The book is targeted at graduate students learning qualitative research methods (participant observation, ethnography, interviewing, discourse analysis, etc), and those who want to consider those methods vis-a-vis the internet. We hope to see it wind up in qualitative research and internet studies seminars, as well as on the bookshelves of internet and qualitative researchers.

It’s based on the premise that there is no recipe to getting it right, instead there are smart ways of thinking through key questions. So what we did was pose questions, have one accomplished researcher explain how she answers it, and then have two other accomplished researchers respond to that response and offer their own answers. Those familiar with the field of internet studies will likely recognize many of the included authors. The initial reviews have praised it for being the only one of its kind, well written, and useful. I don’t know when it will be published or go on sale. In the meantime, here is the table of contents:

Introduction: Making Smart Choices on Shifting Ground
Nancy Baym and Annette Markham

QUESTION ONE: How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects?
Christine Hine
Lori Kendall
danah boyd

QUESTION TWO: How can researchers make sense of the issues involved in collecting and interpreting online and offline data?
Shani Orgad
Maria Bakardjieva
Radhika Gajjala

QUESTION THREE: How do various notions of privacy influence decisions in qualitative internet research?
Malin Sveningsson Elm
Elizabeth A. Buchanan
Susannah R. Stern

QUESTION FOUR: How do issues of gender and sexuality influence the structures and processes of qualitative internet research?
Lori Kendall
Jenny Sundén
John Edward Campbell

QUESTION FIVE: How can qualitative researchers produce work that is meaningful across time, space, and culture?
Annette N. Markham
Elaine Lally
Ramesh Srinivasan

QUESTION SIX: What constitutes quality in qualitative internet research?
Nancy Baym
Annette Markham

I owe a huge thank you to Annette for how hard she’s worked this last month getting this out the door. It’s been a long process.

On another note: Canadian readers can find me on the teevee this evening as part of a panel discussing the future of sites like Facebook on The Agenda with Steve Paikin.  Video should be on their website tomorrow.