Welcome to another edition of the C3 Weekly
Update. Aside from the usual hectic pace over at C3, this week we've also been very focused on politics. After realizing that there was going to be a debate, some of us got together at Henry Jenkins' house to watch it. These are intense times, and I've got to say that I feel lucky to be able to share them with analytical open-minded folks like those surrounding CMS, a place where popular culture and civic engagement can be one and the same. Boy, do our colleagues at the Center for Future Civic Media have a lot of work (and fun) ahead of them in the months to come.
As far as our newsletter goes, today we conclude Nancy Baym's piece on Swedish music fandom online. I was particularly interested in seeing how well her research fits with the idea of spreadability, but also, how it problematizes the concept of communities within this model.
We go to Africa with Jonathan Gray in our second piece. Here he describes the media consumption practices in Malawi. A descriptive and insightful piece. We couldn't be happier that Jonathan shared with us what he did on his summer vacation.
As always, we hope that you enjoy these articles. If you have any questions or comments or would
like to request prior issues of the Update, direct them to Ana Domb editor of the C3 Weekly Update, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In This Issue
Opening Note: Nancy Baym on online music fandom
Closing Note: Jonathan Gray on media consumption in Malawi
The new shape of online community: The example of Swedish independent music fandom (Part II of II)
Prepared for the 3C newsletter, adapted from Baym, N. K. (2007). The new shape of online community: The example of Swedish independent music fandom. First Monday, volume 12, number 8.
Over time, active fans will find that they bump into many of the same people wherever they go. Through this process, a sense of "community" may be formed. In this regard this new form of online community may have more in common with geographically place-based communities than previous online communities of interest. Few people visit every place in a town, but if they frequent a regular collection of shops, streets, restaurants, clubs, and so on, they meet the same people again and again. Some become friends, others acquaintances, some familiar strangers.
Swedish indie fandom exemplifies a new form of online social organization in which members move amongst a complex ecosystem of sites, building connections amongst themselves and their sites as they do. They avail themselves of multiple communicative platforms across the Internet: blogs, social networks, comments, discussion forums, private messages, shoutboxes, mp3 files, and videos.
Only a few make themselves visible on the sites dedicated to the topic of their fandom, but many make their identification with the fandom visible through their social network site profiles. The fans use these varied sites and platforms to get one another excited about relatively obscure new music, to share news, to compare perspectives through reviews and discussion, to create public identities as members of this fandom, and to form personal relationships.
This is an important new online social formation that raises many theoretical, methodological, and practical problems. How are these ecosystems organized and navigated? What are the consequences for social coherence if groups are spread through multiple sites, only some of which are explicitly linked to one another?
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 is a great deal of 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 an 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. Those wishing to reach audience communities are also challenged. It is nowhere enough to create one's own site or to get on a social network site. 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.
The relationships amongst fans, performing artists, and industries are changing. Labels and independent artists in scenes like this provide early models of how roles will be reshaped in this new ecosystem. Swedish indie recording artists and labels are actively engaged in this community, providing steady streams of music for free legal distribution, friending their fans and one another, and often acting as fans themselves. The success of the fan-authored sites, and their acceptance and encouragement by the Swedish indie labels and bands, points to important changes in entertainment industries. These fans are publicists, archivists, promoters, distributors, and sometimes friends. They are reshaping the global flow of a small country's creative industry.
Nancy Baym is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. She pioneered the study of online community and fandom in the early 1990s writing about how soap opera fans built relationships with one another while transforming television viewing into a collaborative endeavor. She is currently studying the "friend" relationship in the music-oriented social network site Last.fm and writing a book, Personal Connections in a Digital Age, about digitally-mediated community, relationships and social networks for Polity Press. She was a co-founder of the Association of Internet Researchers and served as its President. She blogs at OnlineFandom.com.
"New" Media Content in Malawi
In June and July of this year, I had the chance to visit Malawi, in South-East Africa. I spent the month studying how media is consumed there. Malawi regularly ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world, and it is not uncommon for a Malawian to subsist on $170 a year. Away from the expensive capital city, Lilongwe, even life for a foreign traveler is remarkably cheap – rooms for $5-20/night, meals at restaurants for $1-2, and so forth. High school graduates with a good job might make $5-7 a day, someone with a university degree might earn $10-20 a day, while most others make cents not dollars. Within such a context, the circulation of media changes radically. There is still a voracious appetite for media, but the prospects for profit are so low, the entire system working for very little money.
A small legitimate (i.e.: non-pirate) economy exists. Malawi has one local television station that usually plays sermons, news, and soccer games, but also a large number of music videos by local singers. The nation's multiple radio stations also offer local singers and foreign acts more venues for non-pirated circulation. Satellite brings in other content, with a strong emphasis on movies (African and American), music videos (African and American), sports, sermons, news, and Nigerian soap operas. American television shows are quite rare, unless by "American television shows," we mean CNN or God TV.
But the legitimate economy stops there. Radios are everywhere, but televisions, while not rare, are not altogether common in many areas. Satellite dishes tend only to be found at the fancier bars and restaurants, frequented by wealthier Malawians, or in the homes of wealthy individuals, who, I was told, often allow neighbors to come and watch, perhaps charging for a big event (such as a Chelsea-Man Utd game) every once in a while. So I severely doubt that the viewing numbers are high enough to allow anything but a rather paltry CPM, and I'm sure that satellite fees bring in little money.
Beyond this economy, then, music and film in particular circulate in pirated venues. Every town I visited had at least one music store or market stall, in which pirated CDs, VCDs, and CD-ROMs full of mp3s were sold. I was charged about $3 for a disc with 400 songs on it, and I know they over-charged me. These stores often sell pirated DVDs of Nigerian and American films too, and when waiting in a minibus at the station in larger towns, it's common to be approached by someone selling pirated DVDs or VCDs of both film and television (Prison Break and CSI seemed to dominate: don't ask me why!). Yet the hardware to play such things is sparse, and so sharing and communal viewing and listening is usually the name of the game. Indeed, films are more commonly seen in any one of a town's "video shows," where a 3c entry fee is charged to sit as long as one wishes in a dark room with planks of wood to sit on (and often hornet's nests and/or rats), and a small television set hooked up to a VCR.
Even if someone wanted to "clean up" the market, they'd fail. 3c for a film is reasonable in Malawi, as is $1-2 for 400 songs. But the kind of charges that any media corporation would want to charge for a CD, DVD, or film ticket would be way beyond the means of most Malawians.
With the profit margin so low, the spirit of newness that surrounds media delivery and consumption elsewhere is often wholly absent. Films at video shows, for instance, rarely if ever are recent. Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme still rule in Malawi. Occasional exceptions present themselves, but as with the presence of t-shirts for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Red Dwarf, or Jefferson Elementary School #67 that one sees in the streets of Malawi, it's easy to draw the line from the exceptions back to the random donations of visiting travelers.
Music, meanwhile, works at odd, differential speeds. Malawian, Zambian, and South African music is alive and well, though hardly profitable. One of my wife's researchers, for instance, was a Malawian music star, but he clearly needed a day job that paid $8 a day. Rap, hip hop, and R & B enjoy a lot of play on the radio, and thus tend to keep pace with America. But after that, the aura of newness as coolness rapidly disappears. Dolly Parton is huge, as is older country music in general, and Michael Bolton and Phil Collins are also big. Rock or any of its "alternative" variations are nowhere to be seen: Coldplay, the Stones, U2, REM, Springsteen, and co. simply don't exist. Newness is even unnecessary at a micro level, as favorite songs will be looped over and over for an hour or so at times (troubling, to say the least, when Celine Dion is being played!).
So, for a country where media companies stand to make little if any profit, the backbone of newness that drives media consumption and production in many other countries is often absent. Repetition of beloved films, stars, and songs is considerably more common. And with the cult of newness bringing in few converts, the cultural capital to be gained by owning the new is also largely absent, meaning that sharing and communal ownership of media is the norm.
Malawi has often been forgotten or outright ignored by foreign powers and big business throughout its history, owing to limited resources or geopolitical strategic value. So it was interesting to observe how the business of media works when there is no real business with a capital B, only market stalls, singers-by-night-social-demographers-by-day, CD-ROMS full of pirated mp3s, communal viewing of yet another Van Damme movie marathon, and so forth.
Jonathan Gray is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. He has degrees from University of British Columbia (B.A. in English), University of Leeds (M.A. in Literature from Commonwealth Countries), and Goldsmiths College, University of London (M.A. and Ph.D. in Media and Communication Studies). Jonathan writes at The Extratextuals.