Political Wisdom

Last night I went to hear a panel of political bloggers at KU’s Dole Institute of Politics called “Blog to the Chief.” It was very interesting in lots of ways, not least the discovery that at least on the metalevel, conservative and liberal bloggers have pretty much the same take on blogging. For instance, I was very interested to hear Joan “McJoan” McCarter from Dailykos, Scott Johnson from Powerline, Erick Erickson from Red State, and Jerome Armstrong from MyDD all agree that the leftie blogosphere has a sense of community and social movement, while the right side of the blogosphere is mostly a bunch of individuals attacking the mainstream media. And it was fascinating to hear Patrick Hynes’s (of Ankle Biting Pundits and blog advisor to John McCain) explanation for it: People on the right think that they’re smarter than everyone else (“you mean we’re not?” quipped Erickson), and that means each person starts his own blog, and then after a while the inspiration dries up so no movement gets formed. And, not surprisingly, they all agreed that the lefties are more effective.

There were lots of ways in which many of the points these folks were making apply to fandom — my favorite was probably a point McJoan made at the very beginning that politicians need to understand that you don’t talk at a blog, you have to get in there and interact and show up in the comments. It’s a smart audience and they know when they’re being used instead of engaged. On the right, Erickson responded that the Republicans are only just now figuring out that they need to learn to work the blogs while Democrats got it several years ago. He said blogs are more likely to harm than hurt you, but you have to engage them.

The parallels are pretty obvious, I think, if you’ve got an online fanbase: they’re going to be more effective (and easier for you to work and work with) if they’re organized into communities instead of a whole lot of loosely connected individuals), and you’ve got to be in there interacting with them if you want them to really get behind you, even though you might not like what they have to say about you all the time. People want and expect real connection with the figures around whom they rally and if they believe you really care about, understand, and value dialogue with them, they’ll work for you.

They also had some interesting thoughts on Barack Obama’s social networking site which I’ll return to tomorrow. I promise not to turn into a political blogger, but remain intruiged by the similarities between rallying voters and rallying fans.

How to build for the long haul

The other day I seem to have raised a hackle or two with my post criticising Last.fm’s upgrade. So I wanted to turn for a quick hot minute here to something they’ve done phenomenally right that just kind of slipped under everyone’s radar. A couple of months ago, with very little ado and as far as I can tell, no announcements, they launched new versions of Last.fm in multiple languages. They had already launched last.fm in Japanese. Now you can view the site in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portugese, Russian, Chinese, and Korean as well. Here’s a screen shot from the lower right corner of any Last.fm page:
loast.fm screen shot
In the end, if there is one thing that keeps Last.fm head and shoulders above the competition, I think it is going to be this savvy about the internationalism of the phenomenon they’re working. It’s one thing to get the Americans and Brits using your site, but if you can make yourself the premier site in China and Brazil, well that might be all the eyeballs a site is ever gonna need.

It’s easy for people in English speaking countries to forget that most of the world and most internet users, don’t speak English and, even if they do, might well prefer sites in their own languages. If you’ve been looking at the pie charts of the languages of internet users over the years as I have, it’s amazing how quickly the English slice is shrinking while the others, especially Chinese, expand. The web’s future is not English-only and Last.fm deserve praise and emulation for recognizing it.

Mourning Fans

In their constant frenzy to report on the really important issues, the media have been giving a lot of coverage these last couple of days to fans going to the internet to mourn she of the blond hair, huge smile, large breasts and empty head who died unexpectedly instantly transforming herself into a phenomenon more important than the continued violence in Iraq or build up to I don’t even want to know what with Iran. It seems like a good moment to reflect for a second on the value that online mourning can have.

My own experience with this came last May when Grant McClennan of the legendary Australian band the Go-Betweens died of a heart attack at age 48. The Go-Betweens had been one of my favorite bands for many years, and Grant left behind a huge catalogue of beautiful and strange songs. The suddenness of his death was heartbreaking. I never met him but it left me reeling for days and still breaks my heart to contemplate. The (official) Go-Betweens Message Board immediately shut down all other threads and opened a tribute thread. When they shut that thread down 3 weeks later, there were over 1500 messages, including several from other well known or influential musicians. I read through those and sobbed, but I also felt better to know that he had affected so many others at least as powerfully, and often more powerfully, and to feel the sense of communion with all the others in pain at his passing even though we were geographically so far apart.

Grant was only half of the Go-Betweens, and much as the fans mourned and felt so very sad for his family, we also felt beyond horrible for Robert Forster, the other songwriter and Grant’s almost life-long musical partner. There was also consolation in knowing that the online messages we contributed might offer solace to Robert, and indeed they did. After a few days he wrote:

Today I went to the website and read some of the magnificent tributes that have flown in for Grant. People for some days have been telling me of the beautiful things written there. And today I felt well enough and strong enough to go in and read. I thank you all. In time I shall read every one of them. I see familiar names scattered from our past. The vast majority I don’t know. All of you Grant and I have met through our music. Your words and thoughts I find very, very moving. I sense the love and understanding for Grant and his music, and I take the support you send to me to my heart.

It chokes me up to read that, and that kind of says it all about the power of the internet to connect artists and fans.


I’ve noted the parallels between grassroots internet political activity and fandom on here several times, but if you ever doubted I had a point, check out BarackObama.com, a social networking site for supporters of his presidential bid. Launching this just days after making his candidacy official in a speech in which he called for what the bloggers like to call “fatter internet tubes*,” it just goes to show that whatever his political strengths and weaknesses, this guy gets the internet and has good insight into how to get the people who want to identify with you to rally around and start working for you. He’s been called a rock star, and he’s sure working the Net like one. Here’s the touch that really nails it: At the very bottom it reads “Powered by Obama ’08 (and supporters just like you).” Genius. Though I’d get rid of those parentheses.

* Bloggers do a lot of appropriating stupid things politicians say about the internet into their own language. First they started saying “the internets” to mock Bush who used that term in his State of the Union address last year. The “tubes” terminology comes from Sen. Stevens of the ghastly DOPA legislation in a speech where he demonstrated his ignorance of that which he was proposing to ban. Co-opting language is a good form of resistance in many ways, look at “queer” for a good example, but in this case I wonder if it ends up reinforcing the perspectives of the ignorant rather than serving as a form of challenge.

Update: Fred Stutzman has posted a thoughtful analysis of the Obama site here.

Wrapup of week’s online music developments

In case you don’t follow these things as closely as I, there were some interesting developments (or potential ones anyway) in online music delivery this week. First, Steve Jobs published an open letter urging record companies to drop DRM (yet he showed no interest in dropping DRM from any of the independent records sold through iTunes music store), and now EMI is considering selling their whole catalogue as non-DRM mp3s. EMI has often been one of the more forward-thinking majors on this issue, so if anyone’s going to lead, they’re good candidates.

Meanwhile on a different front, Last.fm and Warner Music Group reached a deal to allow the entire WMG catalogue to be streamed through Last.fm’s radio, which will dramatically increase the size of their streamable catalogue and ought to get more people listening to more WMG music. Good news so long as the indies don’t get too squeezed out of rotation as a result.

Last.fm also debuted their new upgrade this week, about which most users seem to be saying “and the point is…?” Major usability issues left untouched, radio moved to the center of the screen where no one seems to want it (as they made clear during the beta only to be, once again, ignored). But the exportable radio feature is massively cool, though I still can’t get it to embed in this page (I did get it to embed just fine in my KU site). Those of you yearning to listen to NancyRadio, can however find it here.

I hate to rag on Last.fm because overall they do a brilliant job and I am, frankly, totally addicted to the site and I so desperately want them to be flawless (fandom, anyone?). They did incorporate one of the pieces of feedback I insisted on in the beta (though the implimentation left something to be desired). Plus my explorations of the alternatives thus far have shown me that they all have problems and I still think that for most purposes, Last.fm is the best of the alternatives.

But as I have groused about on this blog before, Last.fm seems to make the same mistake over and over again, which some users have characterized as “adding bells and whistles” while not getting the core problems fixed. And it does trouble me no end that this is now the second beta period in a row where the #1 dominant response from the subscribers doing the beta testing was left unchanged in the upgrade. I think it leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of users who cared enough to give feedback, and I think the attention to things like radio placement, which was not broken, paired with seeming inattention to things that are broken also makes users question their priorities. I see in this the classic tension and power struggle between fans and producers, in which producers want input and feedback only if it supports what they already want to do, but to give the fans/users what they want outright is just giving up too much control. I know from running the Association of Internet Researchers that you can never get it right for everyone, for everything you do to please one group, another group will object (for instance, with our conferences, people wanted more diversity and more time to present their papers, but they also wanted fewer concurrent panels). But when feedback is totally consistent, I think you ought to give the people what they want, even if it’s not what you want them to want.

(p.s. I know some last.fm staff read this from time to time, please feel free to respond in comments!)