Last summer I saw a talk sponsored by the Aspen Institute on “The Digital Future” with Mark Cuban. For those who don’t know, Cuban made one of his fortunes by selling his media streaming company Broadcast.com to Yahoo way back in the 1990s. He’s now the owner of HDNet, the first all-high definition tv network and, more famously, the Dallas Mavericks. He’s also got a number of side projects like his movie theaters, his investigative stock report, and his blog aggregator. It was the first time I’d heard Cuban, and I came away with the impression of a man who’s really smart, knowledgable, and who’s got an integrated vision of how it all fits together.
He’s written on his blog that convergence is over, everything is already digital, and he argues that media content ought to be available in any form the consumers want it. My favorite line of the night was his summary of this position: “bits are bits, I can deliver. I’m agnostic, I don’t care how it gets there.” But, other than the need to provide them with a variety of delivery platforms, there was very little said about media audiences in the talk, and I wondered what Cuban would have to say about the changing role(s) of the media viewers as fans also get more control over bits and bytes and make their own products, connections with one another, and so on.
So I shot him an email and asked, and (with his permission to reprint), here’s what he had to say:
Its nothing new. Its been going on for years. From fan clubs to high school clubs to CompuServe and Prodigy forums and usenet groups and AOL discussion groups and chat rooms to IRC rooms. People contract their sphere of connections to where they can either feel smart/important, feel comfortable as part of a group, or can improve their communications. Today they call that social networking and it happens on discussion forums for sports teams, on myspace, friendster, xanga and many other sites.
Youtube is an old concept. The only difference between what they have been able to do and others is that the copyright police didn’t shut them down. Two years ago they get closed down faster than you can say RIAA.
You are right, there is no question that fandom and online community has increased, but I think it can be traced back to digital content organizations giving social networking a pass rather than shutting them down.
Youtube is a perfect example. All the people putting up their favorite songs on their myspace pages is another. No way the RIAA lets that happen 2/3 years ago. If they did, all the old hosting companies like geocities would have thrived and evolved rather than devolved.
The concept of friends is just a better implementation of website rings. Blogs are just templates for daily entries on websites.
Broadband made it more fun to be online, faster to participate and enabled the faster, smoother use of media/video/audio.
When I bought the mavs I got on discussion groups to answer questions, most are the same today.
When I started my blog, it just made it easier than updating a page on the Mavs website.
Putting up trailers on sites is old news, as is downloading movies. For all the discussion about progress, look back 5 years and ask just how much broadband progress has been made. Broadband has gotten marginally faster, but dramatically cheaper from competition.
I guess what Im saying, its just business as usual. Like the fashion world, pants are pants, shirts are shirts, they just seem cooler when they are first coming out in new styles, but when we look back, we realize it was no big deal.
I appreciate the perspective he brings here, that fandom has been going on for a long time and that its boom right now may be triggered more by changes in the legalistic environment than by real transformations of technological capability or ways that fans engage the media and one another [rumour has it Universal Music Group is going to sue MySpace and YouTube for copyright infringement]. When I look at online fan groups now, I certainly see a lot of the same dynamics and processes I was seeing when I started writing about them in 1991.
At the same time, I’m not sure it’s really “business as usual.” Audiences may have been doing these things all along, but they weren’t getting noticed as they are now, and they weren’t getting addressed and engaged directly by the objects of their fandom in the way they are now. I think those create real changes in the expectations fans develop about the people behind the teams/music/shows/movies/etc that they love, and in how those people need to behave toward fans to make the most of what they’re doing. Technological capabilities and fans’ uses of them may not have changed much, but the social/commercial environment in which these things happen has.