Life Online Means More Life Offline

In class this week I showed Stephanie Tuszynski’s recent documentary “IRL In Real Life” about an officially-sanctioned online community that formed around Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The film raises a number of issues about how the cast and production team (not least Joss Whedon) interacted with the fans. For instance, there is tremendous excitement when they show up at the first party fans have organized, which turns to irritation as the parties are overrun by those who want a glimpse of the celebrities but are not participants in the community, and then a sense of betrayal when promises to give the fan site a new home after the show switched networks are not kept.

But what got my students going was a concern that engagement in this group would increase the fans’ social isolation. Those she interviewed talk about having no one around who’s into the show, about not relating to people at work and therefore socializing on the board instead of around the coffee urn, and about many or even most of their “real” friends now being people they met through the board. Justifiably, I think, my students asked if their use of the board was preventing them from going out and meeting people they could relate to in their local communities.

Conveniently enough, the topic scheduled for the next day dealt with just this issue: Does use of the internet impact people’s engagement with offline community. There have been several studies that deal with this, including ongoing work by the Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, Jeff Cole’s World Internet Project, the Carnegie-Mellon Homenet Project, Katz Aspden and Rice’s Syntopia Project, Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s Metamorphosis Project, John Robinson’s time use studies, and others.

The evidence is not 100% clear, but there’s a consistent finding that time spent online does not lessen time engaging others face-to-face in one’s local community. It may lessen the time spent with members of the household, by very small amounts, although that may be an artifact of people who use the internet a lot being home less often to begin with. All in all, in comparison to people who use the internet very little or not at all, people who use the internet seem to be more likely to socialize with friends and family members outside the household in person each week, to have more conversations and phone calls with more people, to attend more cultural events, to belong to more religious organizations, to be at least as and sometimes more involved in clubs and civic organizations, and to be more engaged with politics.

The evidence to support the fear that people who are into the internet, including spending time in online fan activities, are somehow dissociating themselves from more meaningful offline life is just not there. The differences aren’t big, but if anything, people who spend more time online are less socially isolated and more socially engaged with the people around them than those who spend little or no time online.

Hooray for Charitable Fans!

I’ve been known to rant before about people assuming that others who spend time online being enthusiastic about a TV show can’t possibly also be active forces for good in the world (see the Slashdot reaction to the Jericho fans’ efforts to save the show). Fans are quite capable of doing both, and I got to see a very nice example of it live and in person this weekend.


Fandom-Rocks is a fan site set up by three fans of the TV show Supernatural with the sole aim of organizing the show’s fans to raise money for charity. The show centers on two brothers who are from Lawrence, Kansas. So when they voted on 2 charities to choose as recipients of their first fund drives, they chose one in Lawrence. That the fans have chosen to give money to my community — a place none of them lives — is really moving. On Sunday, Dana Stodgel, one of the 3 site founders, drove from Champaign Illinois to Lawrence (a dreadfully boring drive, let me tell you!) to present the Lawrence Community Shelter with a check for just over $1000 raised by about 70 people in 11 countries (click for a newspaper article that also features a video interview with Dana).

Dana and her two cohorts, Rebecca Mawhinney and Brande Ruiz were inspired by fans of the Joss Whedon shows who’ve raised thousands of dollars for Equality Now, Whedon’s charity of choice. The Supernatural fans wanted their giving to follow the fans’ directive rather than the producers’. Though the Supernatural producers are aware of their efforts, they have not responded (though I’m told they are very nice to their online fans, even inviting bloggers to their set at their expense).

I have known Loring Henderson, who runs this shelter for the homeless, for a couple of years. He is the kind of person who radiates enlightenment. He is calm, centered, grounded, amiable, and phenomenally giving of spirit. I once heard him say that when he was a child he saw a movie where a person was serving food in a soup kitchen and he knew right then and there that was what he wanted to do with his life. He asked me to come along because I had some clue what the heck a fan site was. To see how he shone when he said that out of the blue this ‘fan club’ had contacted him to say they were donating such a large sum was a beautiful beautiful thing. And it will be even more beautiful when he puts it to good use.

I just met Dana this weekend. She’s got a degree in Civil Engineering and works in IT at the University of Illinois. She seemed great. Here she is with Loring, who bought a nice new shirt for the occasion:


Fandom Rocks fans have voted on the recipients of the next round of fund raising to come, and the Lawrence Humane Society is one of the winners. My cat, Lola, who spent her early kittenhood there, and I thank them in advance.

Lola the Comfortable

I think it would be really cool if someday, Dana and the others expanded their wonderfully-named site so that any group of fans could raise money through it for the charity of their choice. But if they stick with Supernatural fans, that’s pretty awesome too.

See here for a story about boxing fans organizing for charity.

Usync: A music fan relationship management site

I’ve written before about sites like ReverbNation, Urbanited, and FanCorps that are providing tools for bands to organize street teams directly. Australian site Usync, one of 8 finalists at the Popkomm Innovation in Music & Entertainment Award (IMEA), seems to be taking this even further. Their rhetoric couldn’t be more like my own, very heavy emphasis on recognizing the value of direct relationships with fans and fan bases and figuring out how (or in this case, providing the means) to work it.

Usync looks very slick, and wonderfully customizable (more Virb than MySpace) so every band can have their own look, feel, system on there. One of ReverbNation’s very clever insights has been that you can’t tie the bands or the fans to their URL, so they’re big on providing exportable content, widgets and the like, so that bands can use it as a base to reach fans all over the place.  While Usync looks like they’ve got a great set up on their own site –everything from posting (and selling) merchandise to organizing street teams to blogging — I am not clear on whether the expectation is that fans sign up on Usync and spend their time on there to hang out “backstage” (to use their central metaphor) with the band or if it’s more of a base for wider distribution like ReverbNation. If it’s the former, I don’t think it’s gonna fly on a large scale in the long run. Fans have favorite haunts, but they just aren’t hanging out in one place anymore.

I am all for this notion that bands (and everyone else who has fans) need to understand the power of direct relationship with fans, but I also feel some concern about the top-down version of events sites like this impose. We mustn’t lose sight of the importance of fans building their own spaces around the things they love, or of the value of reaching out to fans through fan-built spaces. The internet disrupts the hierarchy where the artists have total control. Part of learning to work the fan-artist relationship is learning how to give fans power and like it. There are by definition limits on the extent to which that can happen in a space that the artist controls. Artists should use their own spaces to relate to fans, but they should encourage fan-built spaces too.

Have any readers spent any time with Usync? I would love to hear feedback from users or explorers.

The New Shape of Online Community

I’ve got an article just published in the new issue of First Monday called The New Shape of Online Community: The Example of Swedish Indie Music Fandom. It’s two things — a documentation/description of how this particular fandom is organized, and also an argument that the days of thinking of online community as associated with single domains is over. Instead, I argue that fans are organizing themselves across multiple sites, not just as individuals, but as distributed groups. This has implications for everyone from fans to scholars to site designers. As I summarize in the conclusion:

The Swedish indie fans practice what might be called “networked collectivism” in which loose collectives of associated individuals bind networks together. On the one hand, this means that groups can avail themselves of many mediated opportunities to share different sorts of materials including text, music, video, and photographs in real time and asynchronously. On the other hand, this creates many problems, particularly with coordination, coherence, and efficiency (i.e., the same materials must be distributed in multiple places, and sometimes there are many replicated efforts).

For those seeking to study online communities, this sort of social formation poses the methodological challenge of how to bound the object of study. It has long been the norm to go to an online space and study it. We have countless studies of particular newsgroups, Web forums, social network sites, and blogs. We have few studies that explore the connections amongst these disparate online platforms, despite the fact that people’s online activities are almost always distributed across multiple sites. It is no longer clear that going to a site is an appropriate strategy for studying community on the Internet.

One might liken the problem to that of a “pub crawl” in which a group goes from bar to bar drinking. One can do a fine study of any one of those pubs, and likely find something resembling community at play. Yet a slight shift of perspective from the space to the patrons reveals that for them, whatever community might be happening at that pub cannot be understood without reference to other spaces in which those people also meet.

From a practical perspective, this form of social organization poses problems for both individuals and those who want to connect and be connected with them. When a community is spread across multiple online spaces, it requires more time and effort for people to figure out what there is and to what extent in which spaces they will develop a community–specific identity. The analysis presented here suggests that with so many places to have discussion, it may be hard to reach the critical mass necessary to sustain ongoing conversation anywhere, with potential negative consequences on the development of shared meanings within groups.

Developers face the practical problem of how they can make sites that serve as both locations of activity and which can be exported to other sites in order to build connectivity across locations.’s exportable charts are one example of responding to this emerging demand, as is Virb’s built–in capacity to import blogs and photo feeds from other sites into one’s profile.

At a time when organizations from rock bands to public health services are increasingly turning to the Internet to reach their audiences, it is not enough to create one’s own site or to get on MySpace. Like the community members, they need to immerse themselves in this ever–more distributed and complex terrain in order to understand which online sites to target and how.

I’ve got at least one more paper on the topic of Swedish indie fandom in the works, so am quite interested to hear any feedback on this paper. And I hope you find it useful or at least fun to read.

I get my kicks on Route 36… and 18

The easiest way to get from east Kansas to central Colorado is to hop on I-70 and just drive. It’s also so boring it makes your heart sink down to your toes, out the floor of the car, and wind up as roadkill somewhere around Colby KS (perhaps at the Colby Oasis where one can find huge fake palm trees and a Starbucks). So coming home this time we took the backroads. Takes longer, but way funkier. And along the way, we saw lots of signs of highway fandom — messages in our guidebook that if we went north a few miles then west another mile we could see the sign for the Old Old Highway 81, for instance. Those old roads are a funny mix of rural tranquility and sad decay, but they sure have their fans. So I’ve been looking for road fandom sites.

Most are either informational sites or travelogues rather than interactive discussion spaces, which seems a bit of a shame since it makes it hard for the buffs to cohere. It seems like the east has the best sites:

New York City Roads

Scenic Highways of New England

Philly Roads

But I found some nice midwestern ones too:

The Indiana chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association

And, hooray, Highway 36 across Colorado and Kansas, which really does look like these pictures.

And some nice art photography sites based on lost highways:

Ghost Highways and Stations

Edgar Praus’s photoblog

Route 18 in Kansas doesn’t seem to get a lot of web-loving, though, so here’s a contribution or two:

Zurich, Kansas:

Zurich, Kansas

Paradise, Kansas:

Welcome to Paradise

Cornfield in the middle of nowhere, Kansas:

Dragon on the Plains

If you know of any outstanding highway fandom sites, send them my way!