Fan Labor: Exploitation or Empowerment?

Hi there. Remember me? Ok, so I’ve been an epic blogging fail lately. But there’s a good reason! I’ve been writing full length things. Like the 2 papers I’m about to share here.

This coming week I’ll be in Copenhagen presenting at the Association of Internet Researchers’ ninth annual conference (Internet Research 9.0). I’m giving two papers, one about Swedish indie fans online and one about friending on

Here is the paper about Swedish indie fans. My collaborator Robert Burnett and I interviewed a number of mp3 bloggers, archivists, indie label guys and musicians. In this, we demonstrate the importance of the (unpaid) work fans do in spreading this music beyond the border of Sweden, making it a globally accessible and appreciated commodity, and we pose the question of whether this is exploitation or empowerment.

There is a critique of Web 2.0 that argues it is based on free labor done by users from which others profit. We argue that this critique has some merit, but undervalues the rewards fans get from doing this kind of work. We identify the costs fan laborers pay and the rewards they receive. In the end, the tension between empowerment and exploitation is one that each fan laborer has to manage on his or her own. We identify three strategies through which they do this: distancing themselves from the scene as outsiders, viewing themselves as peers of those they ‘work’ for, and viewing their work as an investment in a future career.

You can download the paper here.

Come back next week for the paper.

Nike McFly Update

One of the most read posts I ever wrote was this one about sneaker fan efforts to get Nike to manufacture the McFly seen in Back to the Future II.

They got their wish. Kind of:

…the guys that run the McFly 2015 Project, a grassroots movement that has been trying to drum up support for Nike to make this shoe aren’t satisfied.

“The Nike Hyperdunks might be inspired by the McFly 2015’s, but the Nike Hyperdunks are not the McFly 2015’s” said Michael Maloof, who with his brother Charles launched a Web site last year in order to push for the futuristic sneakers. “We strongly encourage each and everyone who wants the ‘real’ McFly 2015’s to sign up on the official McFly 2015 project Web site.”

Sure enough, they don’t really look THAT much like the McFlys and, perhaps most importantly, they are not automagically self-lacing.



But it does look like someone at Nike is listening to the fans.

Guest Post: Industry groks geeks? Producers, fans, and an era of sudden interactivity

My student at the University of Kansas, Ryan M. Milner, recently finished an excellent Masters Thesis about fans of the game series Fallout and I’ve asked him to write up some of its many insights to share with you. Here’s his first of what I hope will be a short series of posts from him:

Geek, it seems, is in.

At least on some level. The very fact that another disc of Lost just arrived at my house via indicates as much. I’m young but I’ve watched enough Nick at Nite to suspect that a show like Lost (or Heroes or Alias) is the product of a market that recognizes the value of fans. There’s no getting this show if you haven’t watched every other episode. You could pick up with Dragnet or Full House midstream and be fine. But Lost requires a more devoted viewership. One that rewards producers with a niche group to market DVDs and digital games to (or in the case of Heroes, sell Nissans to), and rewards consumers with a full universe to expand on and explore, and a deep story to enjoy, one full of self-referential mysteries and clues. Therefore, this enjoyment may be directly correlated to the knowledge one has of the universe.

But this puts producers in a touchy spot, and a tenuous relationship can often develop. Fans, by definition of their investment, are more active, and demand more from a media text than the standard channel-surfing consumer. A slip up in the style, narrative, or plot of The Office, and my friends are all over it. The next time we see each other the debate is on. Deep, nuanced views on character, story, or tone are discussed at length, often with as many unique perspectives as participants.

The popularization of internet has allowed these discussions to widen in voice and reach. This is where things can get especially touchy for producers. If enough fans are displeased enough, and are vocal enough, that’s negative buzz. And it can be cancerous in this cluttered media marketplace. So it’s up to producers to interact with fans and find a balance between diverse interests and goals. Even if producers choose not to engage with fans, that sends a message of its own. And the messages producers send to fans are increasingly consequential in a marketplace where geek is in.

So how do producers and fans of media texts relate in this era of sudden interactivity?

That was what I wanted to understand as I began to examine how a specific group of digital-game fans engaged with producers and each other during a period of tension over the next installment of the game series. Fans of the digital-game series Fallout were active in voicing concern for the upcoming title Fallout 3 (set to release this fall), and did so on the forums of the game’s production studio, Bethesda Softworks. The heart of the tension was that Bethesda wasn’t the developer of Fallout 1 & 2, and was making drastic gameplay and narrative changes to Fallout 3. Analyzing forum interactions made for great study, since I had never seen research document regular producer/fan interaction so deeply, never mind the bombastic beauty of the forum’s confrontations. I’ve never seen such eloquent flames.

A few things impressed me. One of the first things I noticed was that even in a marketplace where geek is in, the producers still seemed to hold all the cards. It was Bethesda’s game. It was Bethesda’s site. It was their vision of Fallout that, whether valid or invalid, would hit the shelves. Fans, recognizing a lack of official ownership or control, acted as lobbyists and watchdogs, attempting to indirectly influence the integrity of Fallout 3 through pleas and petitions spread across thousands of forum posts. Bethesda employees, fittingly, treated fans like outsiders in their responses. Whether cordial or hostile (and different producers interacted in different ways at different times), the undertone was clear: we are the organization, you are the public. We’ll let you suggest, but we will decide. The text is ours.

Even more impressive, fans seemed to happily accept their role in the process. Despite many scholarly concerns over the exploitative side of fan labor, when fans on the official Fallout 3 forum lobbied, suggested, and expanded they did so recognizing that this was their most effective way to influence the integrity of Fallout 3. Exploitation was trivial in the face of such purpose. One poster summed up the general fan perspective on their role in the game development process:

Fallout 3 MUST be like Fallout…the best answer for every question on this forum besides “I have the holy sacred duty to watch over my beloved game”

So the idea that geek is in may not be as empowering to the geeks as I had originally believed. Sure, the internet has afforded fans voice and reach in the development process of the texts they esteem. Sure, many producers are actually listening to the suggestions of fans, and others (especially in the digital-games industry) are incorporating fan feedback and production into the official text. But the tone on the Fallout 3 forum seems to mirror the tone of many media producers. Fans are a great niche market to sell things to, and a ready-made audience to focus-group and beta test. But they are not productive partners in the development of media texts. They are still a rung down on the production ladder. I have to wonder what the media market would look like if producers forgot the words “audience” and “consumer” and began to think of fans as co-laborers in a community of enthusiasts.

Then, I think we could definitively say geek would be in.

War of the Concepts: Virus vs Spread

Last Thursday and Friday I had the pleasure of attending a retreat of the Convergence Culture Consortium, an alliance between a core group led by Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, industry partners, and consulting researchers made up of people like myself looking at issues around participatory audiences, media convergence, and all that good stuff.

There were more interesting things than I can begin to recount here, but one that resonated a lot with me was an argument in the presentation Henry Jenkins, Ana Domb, and Xiaochang Li gave where they (among other things) critiqued the concepts of viral and sticky, pitching spreadable as a better alternative.

They said, and I agree, that the goal of creating “sticky” internet sites — sites that hold people’s attention, provide a unified customer experience, provide only top-down information and so on — needs to be (or is being) replaced with the goal of “spreadable content” which circulates among diverse, dispersed people as they participate in social networks and engage in grassroots activity. I’ve talked about this in the context of providing fans with widgets they can export to sites of their choosing in order to spread word of (keyboard?) about whatever it is they’re into.

They also went after the notion of “viral” with its biological language of infection. When something spreads virally — take, for example, the flu — people receive the virus without realizing (and sometimes never even manifesting) it. They pass it on to others without any effort — indeed, if they realize they have it, they have to put effort into NOT spreading it. From a marketers perspective, if you can engineer the perfect “viral” campaign, the people will be powerless to resist. They’ll be diffusing your ideas before they know what hit them.

This creates an illusion of control — a viral campaign will work if we design it right — and therefore feeds into what I see as a dying model of media control in which the big content providers get to manage everything from the top down (see “stickiness” above).

In fact, people are active. We spread things “virally” not because we can’t help it, but because we think it’s cool enough that we want to tell others. It resonates with us, we think it will resonate with others, we are socially engaged with others, we talk about it. We make choices and we enact behaviors in order to spread the things we like around, we don’t stand idly by while the virus travels through us to other destinations.

That said, there is one piece of the viral metaphor that works for me in a way that spreadable does not, and that is the truly physical feeling I experience when I am sucked into a new record I love. This doesn’t happen all that often, once a year if I’m lucky. It happened a few weeks ago with The Last Shadow Puppets. It happened with The Fine Arts Showcase’s “Radiola.” Bigtime with The Wrens “The Meadowlands.” Needless to say it’s a near-continuous state with Madrugada. And when it happens, that music gets inside of me and consumes me in a way that really does feel like biological infection. I am compelled to listen to it. I ache for it. I ache while I listen to it. I don’t listen to anything else. I talk about them incessantly while my ever-humoring husband laughs at me. And it runs its course, just as viruses do. Gradually, after anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months, it lets up and I’ve built up enough resistance that I am no longer completely distracted. It doesn’t feel in those times like I have any power to resist at all. And what’s more, if I had power to resist, I wouldn’t.

In the end, though, when I write posts about it, or talk about it with friends, or send links to people, or twitter, or whatever I do to spread the word about that music, I’m making active choices that are deeply embedded in the social structures and connections I create through my everyday relational behavior. Even in the throes of the most infectious pop of all, the further spreading from me to the people I know depends on my making strategic decisions about what to communicate to whom and how.

Coldplay vs. Judas Priest -or- The Benefits of Widgets

Last week, Coldplay made their new single “Violet Hill” available free for one week (one week? lame) for download from their official website. tracked its listens and what a lot of them there were:

10,000 times in the 5 hours since the track was released. That’s 1 play every 2 seconds. Apparently the last time a track was listened to this intensively on Last.fFM was ‘15 Step’ from Radiohead’s free In Rainbows album, which clocked up close to 22,000 listens in 12 hours.

Not to be outdone, the somewhat-less-popular these days Judas Priest took another route to the release of their new single, “Nostradamus”, via ReverbNation widget (for more about what I think is the coolest widget out there for bands, read this).

According to ReverbNation COO Jed Carlson, they initially placed the widget that streams their song on 4 sites, but since the widget can be grabbed by fans and embedded wherever they want, it spread rapidly to more than 500 websites.

Everytime a song is streamed through a ReverbNation widget, they get tracking information back. The result? According to ReverbNation:

The track was streamed once every two seconds during the first 24-hour period. Fans who listened or received the download were directed to the Judas Priest website where they could pre-order the album, scheduled for release on June 17th.

Color me naive, but when a Judas Priest single can get as much play as a Coldplay single without the media going nuts over a Hot Big Mega Band Being Creative And Wow with the internet buzz, I’m impressed. What I love, to no one’s surprise, is that most of the places where people were able to stream the song were places it had been placed BY FANS WHO WANTED TO SPREAD IT. Henry Jenkins talks about “spreadable media” (a topic I’ll be hearing more about at the Convergence Culture Consortium retreat over the next few days). This is a great example of how it works.

Now I want to see Rob Halford face off against Chris Martin. Oh, Rob’s not in the band anymore? Nevermind then.