A Whole New Way for Fans to See

I spent the last several days at a Cornell/Microsoft Research Symposium about online community. Many of the people who presented are doing fascinating research on *massive* scales (scales like: ALL the metadata from YahooGroups, or Usenet, or Everquest…). and finding all kinds of patterns that characterize and predict behavior in online groups. There were several talks about network patterns in wikipedia.

I enjoyed and learned a lot from all the presentations, but the one that really caught my fancy was Fernanda Viégas’s presentation of the site Many Eyes. Fernanda is part of a visualization design research team at IBM. This site allows anyone to input their own data in a simple columns and rows spreadsheet format (they suggest some data sources if you want to play with data but don’t have your own), and then generate all kinds of amazingly rich interactive (java-based) visualizations from it at the press of the button. You can also upload free text and get an instant tag cloud. Other people can then see, comment on, and blog about the visualization.

One of her key points is that visual representations can give us an immediate understanding (picture’s worth 1000 words and all that — and this site shows us that a multi-layered interactive picture is worth 1,000,000). Not surprisingly, among the first fans who seem to be appropriating it are sports stats people. For instance, “sportsbetting” has recently uploaded a data base from sportsinteractive.com of basketball player’s points–per-game for the 2006-2007 NBA Season. It’s a bar chart and as you scroll over each line it shows you who that line represents and his individual ppg.

Harry Potter also showed up early, when the Top Fifty Most Popular Books on LibraryThing data clearly showed Harry’s popularity with great big circles:

most read books

The coolest part, from my perspective and apparently Fernanda’s as well, was that people immediately jumped on it and personalized it by interacting with the chart to highlight the books they had read, taking a screen shot, and then posting it in the comments:

personal visualizations

My thoughts went immediately to thinking how cool it would be to have band’s career concert chronologies up there so fans could do the same with the shows they’d been to. Suppose for example that one could see a tag cloud of all the songs Bob Dylan performed live (see here for previous blog on this), sized by how often the song was played. Suppose you could browse R.E.M. tours by town. Suppose you could do line graphs of the rise and fall of individual songs across Madrugada’s performing history.

I can’t think of a fandom that wouldn’t be able to find some really interesting and fun applications of this technology. For some (sports fans) it’ll be easier than others since so much of that information is already in statistical form. But if there’s one thing that’s true of fandom, it’s that there’s usually someone up to most tasks, so here’s a call to all the people maintaining, contributing to, and using those fan archives — think about how you could get your info uploaded here!

If you’re so bored that you think looking at conference pictures might be fun, you can find Marc “co-sponsor” Smith’s photostream on Flickr.

More interesting might be the tag chart of the symposium abstracts that Fernanda did (within about 5 minutes of my saying “wouldn’t it be cool to…”).


Austen mania

Lest anyone think that fandom is limited to the modern, The Times Books Online recently ran a nice article about the ascendence of “Austen mania” in which they point to the activity of online Jane Austen fan communities in fostering her continuing appeal:

Austen inspires devotion like no other author and the internet has allowed her fans a voice that travels far faster and further than the quill-driven letters of the 19th century. If anything, it has intensified their adoration of Austen and their eagerness to defenestrate anyone who offends her.

“The amount of activity on the web is absolutely crazy,” said one Austen expert. “There is a whole cult out there and it’s not something that happens to other authors.”

Antagonise the Janeites, as the most fervent fans are known, and their response is merciless.

Having studied soap opera fans on the net for a long time, I can’t say I’m surprised that Austen fans would be at it as well. The Austen Blog provides a nice looking guide to all the Austen news fit to blog, with links to many news sources. Pemberley offers discussion groups and describes its identity like this:

We, all of us, remember only too well the great relief we felt upon discovering this haven for Jane Austen Addicts. If your eyes did not widen, if you did not gasp in recognition, if you did not experience a frisson of excitement when you discovered a whole campful of soldiers – er – a whole websiteful of fellow Jane Austen Fanatics, then this place may not be for you. We are The Truly Obsessed here and have been known to talk for weeks about Jane Austen’s spelling quirks and Mr. Darcy’s coat (“No, no – the green one.”)

This site collects Austen fan fiction. And there’s a Jane Austen MeetUp group too. I’m sure there’s a rich social world (or worlds) hiding in there…

Update: I’ve been assured that there are indeed social worlds worthy of Austen novels to be found in her fandom. If you have insights or perspectives on that fandom to share, please comment. Sam Ford at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium has also written a follow up post that nicely elaborates my implied Austen-soap opera parallel.

Update Update: Hi Pemberley people (and thanks for pointing out my spelling errors!). I’m still yearning to hear more about life in Austen fandom, so please feel free to offer insights in the comments!

Seminar on Self-Organizing Communities

I am headed off to this “international symposium on self-organizing online communities” so expect light posting for the next several days but a mind on fire upon my return.

I will be talking from a qualitative research perspective about the problem of trying to figure out where the heck the boundaries of a ‘community’ are anyway when they’re spread through so many parts of a site and so many different sites. I argue that qualitative researchers are supposed to problematize our areas of study and that there’s more to problematize in thinking about “online community” now than ever.

The talk is sort of a hybrid of thinking I’ve been doing about music fandom on Last.fm and the Swedish music fan scene on the internet and the conclusion of a book I am wrapping up the editing of with Annette Markham (tentatively titled Internet Inquiry, and due to be published by Sage Publications in 2008). The book puts together different scholars’ perspectives on challenging issues in conducting qualitative internet research and when it finally comes out, it’s going to be great. It’s got some wonderful contributors.

But in the coming days I mostly hope to be listening and learning from the stellar group of online community scholars they’ve assembled, some of whom I know and others whom I look forward to meeting. Among the participants are: Nosh Contractor, Peter Monge, Barry Wellman, Bob Kraut, Paul Resnick, and smart folks from Microsoft Research, Yahoo, and, of course, Cornell. Should be fun.

Tape Trading in the Digital Age

I’ve had a half-written post lying around for a long time in which I wanted to reflect on the change from tape trading to torrenting but I’ve never been quite sure what its final point is. This excellent article about bootlegging, in conjunction with a couple of emails I’ve gotten recently from people talking about differential levels of respect for bands that do and don’t allow bootlegging, makes me want to finish that post. The linked article talks about the Woodstock-era Deadhead origins of tape trading, the pros and the cons of it from band and fan perspectives, the bands that play along, the ones that don’t and the legal and ethical issues entailed by both positions.

I was pretty active in tape trading in the 1980s, collecting mostly REM shows, but also a lot of other bands in the ‘college rock’ scene of the early 1980s. I have a dusty drawer full of what are probably now warped cassettes. To be involved in the tape trading scene, you had to really know people who knew people. You couldn’t just hop in as a novice fan and build a good collection. You had to work the social network to get the good stuff. For instance, one of my great coups was when someone in a band (the dBs) gave me the secret address of someone in Chapel Hill, NC who had all kinds of early recordings of southern pop bands and told me to tell him that he’d sent me. Those tapes were treasures when they arrived.

And now you just fire up your torrenting program of choice and bam, all those shows I collected like treasure hunts are right there, in multiple for everyone. I can’t help but feel a little bit like something’s been lost. But maybe that ‘something’ is elitism — I used to get social status for the boots I’d collected, and now I’m just another torrenting geek, and a less obsessive one than many at that. The internet’s made everyone as cool as they want to be.

I also rethink my sense of loss when I realize that despite the easy availability of many recordings, in fact, torrents do not last forever and personal connections still matter. The internet enables us to build more of those connections than we used to. When I got interested in Norwegian band Madrugada, I devoured their records and wanted more. I found a fan community that posted a lot of torrents, with the band’s permission (for more on this and an interview with the webmaster, click over here to an earlier post), and I built myself a nice collection. But some of the very best stuff I got came not from the torrents but from a person on that site who felt bad for me never getting to see them in concert and snail mailed me over a dozen live recordings (from France!). Those cds were treasures when they arrived.

I have never believed that trading bootlegs (not selling: trading) takes any money away from anyone. Live recordings can enhance the fan experience dramatically. The flaws in the performance, when there, give us that much more to appreciate about the recorded versions, and the transcendent shows when the songs just flow one into the other and the band plays like one organism do more to enhance attachment to a band than any studio recording ever could.

A new spin on protest music

Here is a profoundly weird little blip on the pop culture radar: Stop Peter Bjorn and John

Peter Bjorn and John, if you don’t know, are an indie Swedish pop band who are having a bit of US success right now with their whistle-happy single Young Folks. The song is from their 3rd record, Writer’s Block, which made a lot of Top 10 lists last year (it made mine too, although I prefer their second record, Falling Out). So anyhow, as the band prepared to come to Austin for SXSW in hopes of breaking the US, or whatever it is one hopes for in times such as that, someone started the Stop Peter Bjorn and John blog. In the first post the anonymous author wrote:

The goal of this blog is simple: to stop the band Peter Bjorn and John from getting any more popular than they already are. Just to be clear, I accept that Peter Bjorn and John are already somewhat popular, and that there can be no undoing this. I merely want for the indie-rock community to take matters into its own hands to ensure that this popularity, at least here in the United States, goes no further.

Why this band in particular? A later post offers an explanation:

Do we want Peter Bjorn and John to be hailed as the standard bearers for a whole genre of music? And the answer is: NO WAY. As I acknowledged in the previous post, “Young Folks” was catchy and harmless, but this band is not a significant band. Peter Bjorn and John must be stopped.

And we can do it. As admittedly cheesy as this may sound, if there’s one thing that blogs (and consumer-generated media more generally) have taught us in the last few years, it’s that those of us who try hard enough really can affect the culture, even if we never get some big cultural institution to back us up. This has been especially true with indie rock.

We make these bands ourselves, online, though our posts, listens, downloads, and links. If we want to take them down, we can. In the case of Peter Bjorn and John, we must.

This week, the blogger admits personal failure and posts a farewell:

To those of you who are turning up right now to protest: I am sorry. This whole campaign against Peter Bjorn and John has pushed me to what I now realize is a total mental and emotional breakdown. I haven’t eaten in forty-eight hours, and the friends I am staying with have basically asked me to get out. I simply can’t carry this burden any longer. I have packed up my car and am leaving town.

I started this blog to take the fight to Peter Bjorn and John. Obviously I can’t claim to have won that fight, but I hope that the fight will continue without me today. Maybe someone reading this right now will decide to make the fight their own. As for those of you who like Peter Bjorn and John, who are raising them up to some sort of demigod status even as we speak — well, you can go ahead and pile on me if you like. Call me names. Gloat. I expect nothing less from you smug indie jackals. Mark my words, though: history will smile on our side, not yours. It’s cold comfort, but it’s all I’ve got right now.

So what is this? People in the comments seem divided: is it a pathetic loser who has picked the oddest of objects to act out against? or is it a viral marketing campaign on their behalf?

Anti-fans are nothing new, though for there to be an activist antifan trying to organize protests against a little Swedish band is certainly a weird one. But viral marketing campaigns in disguise as antifan movements may be something new. Whether intended as a marketing ploy or not, it seems to have gone further toward increasing PB&J’s allure than toward limiting it.