What are you talking about?

One big piece of the success of MySpace has been its direct tie to musical taste. Here’s a psychological study that has some provocative hints for why music might work particularly well in the context of a social networking site:

A recent study put participants in same-sex and opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most popular topic of conversation was music. [...] The number of people who talked about music was surprisingly high. In the first week on average 58% of the pairs discussed music compared to 37% of all the other categories of conversation combined. Other categories included books, movies, TV, football and clothes.

Why then do we use music as a first port of call in getting to know another person? We probably think that music is indirectly telling us something about the other person’s personality. For this reason, the second question this study tried to answer was: how good is music as a measure of personality?

To measure this, participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs. [...] Overall the results showed that music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality. Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about whether a person was conscientious or not.

One of the points I made in my work about online community is that people tend to study online social dynamics, processes and formations without paying attention to the topics around which they are organized. But understanding what people are talking about is absolutely critical to understanding how they’re doing the talking and thus the microprocesses through which they are forming relationships and communities.

One need only look at the comments on YouTube posts to realize that in many ways, video sharing doesn’t lend itself to conversation that builds connection and community the same ways that music sharing can. But music sharing still falls short of serial drama in its ability to keep a group of people sustaining ongoing conversation over time.

The other point that emerges from this study is the centrality of fandom in defining who we are, how we understand one another, and the voluntary relationships we form.

Social Network for Wine Fans

I am one of those classless losers who has trouble telling the difference between fine wine and grape juice that’s gone bad (though I excel in my ability to appreciate fine champagne). But even I know enough to know that wine appreciation is best done socially. Everything I have learned about wine (and I have learned that I do in fact kind of like some of it a little bit more than I thought) I’ve learned from wine parties where smart people cultivate clever groupings and everyone stands around talking about it. My friends who host these wine parties can only be described as fans — they browse the wine aisles like I browse record stores, they wear t-shirts and baseball caps from their favorite vinyards, they plan vacations around visits to wineries, their favorite movie is that one where the two middle aged guys go on a wine-tasting tour of California before one’s wedding that everyone liked so much (typically, I thought it was overrated).

So I think the founders of Vinorati are really on to something by creating a social network site specific for wine lovers. I especially like the tag clouds.

I’m sure they don’t call it fandom, but if that ain’t fandom…

…maybe this is?

ST. CHARLES, MO—Print-shop manager and potato-chip connoisseur Nathan Sterken, 26, was surprised by the “exceptionally rich mid-palate notes of onion” and “wonderfully creamy but sour overtones” in a fresh Big Grab bag of Lay’s Sour Cream & Onion potato chips he purchased from a local deli Tuesday. “I find myself enticed by the playful salty-sweet flavors of this blend,” said Sterken, who first developed a taste for potato chips during his four years working at a St. Charles–area 7-Eleven convenience store. “The flavors are robust without overpowering the fragile potato, and they mature into a rich, truly unexpected canola-oil finish.” (from the inimitable Onion)

A digression about teaching

This has very little to do with this blog, but I just wanted to share parts of a really nice letter I got recently from a former student. Those of you who aren’t in the education business yourself ought to know how much those of us who are love hearing things like this. I think they go unsaid too often:

Dr. Baym,

It has been quite some time since I spoke with you, but I wanted to contact you because out of all of the courses I participated in at Kansas, your courses have stuck with me the most. Your class in Internet Communication was way ahead of its time. In 2004, we were just beginning to discuss the impact of Facebook was having on the way we socialize on the internet. [...] Many of the topics and issues we covered in your course on Internet Communication come up every single day in my life. [...] I just wanted you to know that I think about your class and what I learned in it almost every day. [...]

Teaching is a lot like gardening — you plant seeds. Some of them never sprout, some bloom profusely within weeks, some keep growing back and others have one good season, others take root but don’t bloom for many seasons. Once you’re out of our classrooms, we never know the long-term impact we might have.

So if you have a favorite teacher from days gone by, send him or her a letter and make someone’s day like this person did mine.

“Give Thy Brand to the Consumer”

MarketingProfs.com offers The 12 Tenets of Social Media Marketing which are both funny and wise. Their audience is broad, they’re talking about marketing anything. But what they have to say is very relevant to those marketing specifically to fans, especially this pearl o’ wisdom:

XI. Give thy brand to the consumer

They will take very good care of it, for they will give it back to you in better shape than when they got it. Fear not that thy consumer shall have input in your brand. But heed closely thy clueless ad agency so it does not chargeth thee a hefty fee when in fact the consumer creates thy ads.

They will take very good care of it. Don’t fear their input. Don’t pay others for your fans’ creativity. Right on.

Yahoo Building Brand Fan Sites

The Los Angeles Times reports that Yahoo is building websites for fans of “the 100 hottest entertainment brands,” a project modestly dubbed “Brand Universe.” Their notion is that there are zillions of brand fans out there and the site that gives them a place to rally around their brand fandom will reap the benefits of that fandom. If it’s not the brand sites themselves, well then, they figure, let us step into the breach:

Most of the brands selected by Yahoo already have their own websites. But what sets this project apart is that Yahoo is using other companies’ products to promote its own — with or without the cooperation of those companies. “We’d like to work with brand owners,” said Vince Broady, Yahoo’s head of games, entertainment and youth properties. “But we don’t necessarily need the brand owners to do this.”

They have used their own internal statistics to figure out which brands have the most “passionate audiences” in the demographics desirable to advertisers. Among the brands they plan on promoting this way: Wii, The Office, The Sims, Lost, and all things Harry Potter. They’ve already made one for Wii:

The site, wii.yahoo.com, aims to be a central depository of all things Wii. It has attracted an audience of 1.2 million unique viewers, the company said. For the Wii-obsessed, it offers pictures by Yahoo’s Flickr photo service and links to articles and blogs about Wii. The Wii site will be “pushed” to places on Yahoo where Wii fans might be, Broady said.

Techdirt is down on the whole idea, offering this take:

So Yahoo is re-creating the fan site, plenty of which already exist elsewhere on the internet. Except that while those can draw their content from a wide range of sources, Yahoo’s sites will only have content from a select group of content providers with whom the company enters into deals. Basically, it sounds like Yahoo thinks it has a bunch of content that is somehow getting lost among all of its properties (not hard to imagine, since Yahoo has such a plethora of disparate sites and services), and it’s looking for new ways to draw traffic and sell advertising. Because these sites will be cheap to put up, and won’t require the company to create any original content, the economics of it doesn’t differ all that much from splogs, which throw up content on a site and hope to draw some traffic to it.

And of course they’re right, but that’s what makes it a good strategy on Yahoo’s part. The point about there already being loads of existing fan sites is dead on, but this could serve as an entree into fandom for new fans and I don’t see any danger of their replacing fan-driven fan sites that are almost inherently opposed to self-monitization. It will be interesting to see who these sites appeal to, and whether they will serve different niches than the fan-driven sites that already exist for any popular brand.

Yahoo’s interest in doing this is a recognition that passionate fans are not lifeless weirdos, but normal people with disposable income whom companies are better off cultivating than suing or marginalizing. I don’t have any problem with companies trying to make money off of fandom so long as there is a balance between the fans’ labor and the fans’ rewards. Because they are big players, I think Yahoo doing this is on balance a good thing.

From another vantage point, it’s also interesting to see the merger of “brand” and “tv show/gaming console/fill-in-the-blank-with-things-that-people-don’t-usually-call-brands.” When I first saw “Brand Universe” I thought this was going to be about Nike and Louis Vuitton, but it could just as easily be called “Fan Universe.”