February 25, 2009
Interrogating “Free“ Fan Labor [part 1]
By: Abigail De Kosnik
Over the last two decades, large swaths of the U.S. population have been engaged in copyright wars. On one side of the wars, copyright holders struggle to defend their property against what they perceive to be unlawful appropriation by millions of would-be consumers via digital technologies. On the other side, millions of Internet users fear or fight expensive lawsuits, filed by entities far wealthier and more powerful than they, that seek to punish them for sharing media online. In this combative climate, fans who produce their own versions of mass media texts – fan films and videos, fan fiction, fan art and icons, music remixes and mash-ups, and game mods, for example – take comfort and refuge in one rule-of-thumb: as long as they do not sell their works, they will be safe from legal persecution. Numerous websites publish the conventional wisdom that companies and individuals that own the copyrights to mass media texts will not sue fan producers, as long as the fans do not make money from their works. 1 In other words, the rules of the copyright wars seem to permit fans to give away the fruits of their labor for free.
“Free” fan labor (fan works distributed for no payment) means “free” fan labor (fans may revise, rework, remake, and otherwise remix mass culture texts without dreading legal action or other interference from copyright holders). Many, perhaps even most, fans who engage in this type of production look upon this deal very favorably. After all, movie studios, game makers, and record labels do not have to turn a blind eye to fan works; U.S. law is (so far) undecided on the matter of whether appropriative art constitutes fair use or copyright infringement,2 so companies could sue or otherwise harass fan appropriators if they chose. So far, it appears that fans are happy to circulate their productions for free in order to avoid trouble. But, even if both sides of the copyright wars consider the issue of fan labor settled, one aspect of the issue has not been sufficiently explored: Can, or should, fan labor be paid labor?
The Internet economy depends on free labor, as numerous cultural theorists and business writers have noted. In a 2003 essay, Tiziana Terranova writes:
Simultaneously voluntarily given and unwaged, enjoyed and exploited, free labor on the Net includes the activity of building Web sites, modifying software packages, reading and participating in mailing lists, and building virtual spaces on MUDs and MOOs. Far from being an “unreal,” empty space, the Internet is animated by cultural and technical labor through and through, a continuous production of value.3
To Terranova’s examples of free labor that animates and produces value for the Internet, we can add numerous forms of audiovisual and textual production, such as opinions, commentary, reviews, discussions, videos, songs, images, and all genres of fan production, that people publish every day on the Web. The foundational premise of the concept of “Web 2.0” is a dramatic rise in “user-generated content.” It is difficult to imagine what appeal the Internet would have without such content being contributed daily by millions of individuals. Terranova argues that
the Internet is about the extraction of value out of continuous, updateable work, and it is extremely labor intensive. It is not enough to produce a good Web site, you need to update it continuously to maintain interest in it and fight off obsolescence. And currently, the majority of the Internet’s updaters, those who create new content for websites, continually renewing interest in them and keeping them “fresh,” thus sustaining or even increasing their value over time, are unpaid.
Mark Andrejevic offers a specific example of a website whose popularity derives from the content supplied by both wage-earning and volunteer contributors in Television Without Pity. Writes Andrejevic,
Television Without Pity fans focus their attention on the lengthy recaps written by paid freelancers and on the ongoing discussions of fellow fans/critics in the forums. The show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor – some paid, some free – of recappers and forum contributors. About one third of the respondents [to Andrejevic’s survey] indicated that they watched more TV because of TWoP and a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps.4
The number of unpaid fans/critics who post their commentary on TWoP forums is far greater than the number of paid recappers, and Andrejevic proposes that the phenomenon of hundreds or thousands of fans donating their time and creativity to make TWoP entertaining (for others as well as for themselves) follows the overall logic of digital- era marketing, which is customization. Andrejevic argues,
Work that used to be the province of producers is being redefined as that of the active consumer….[T]he promoters of mass customization encourage us to take on the “duties” of consumer interaction in order, presumably, to help them craft a product that addresses our specific needs and concerns, and for which, not incidentally, we might be willing to pay more, essentially buying back the added value we contributed. Similarly, many TWoPpers suggest that the effort that they put into the shows they watch increases their own viewing pleasure.5
Here, Andrejevic is not suggesting that TWoP’s contributors literally pay to view the website that their commentary enhances. His larger claim is that, in the Internet economy, active consumers customize mass products, such as television, to better suit their interests and tastes, and thereby maximize the allure that mass products hold for them. People who post “snarky” and ironic commentary on TWoP voluntarily build a better television viewing experience for themselves and viewers who share their “savvy” sensibilities, thus reinforcing and deepening their participation in television’s commercial enterprise – becoming better consumers (of whatever television advertisers promote to them) in the process of becoming skilled producers.
And Andrejevic claims there is yet another way in which active consumption, or production by consumers, benefits the larger market economy: consumers who “freely” (with no constraints, and for no pay) express their opinions, their likes and dislikes, about various mass products on various websites, provide marketers and manufacturers with key information on their customer base. “[T]he information provided by viewers doesn’t just add value to the product, it also doubles as audience research,” Andrejevic writes.
Fan productions exemplify the unpaid value creation that Terranova and Andrejevic argue is endemic to the digital economy. Fan productions help to sustain awareness of, and interest in, mass media texts over time by continually supplying fresh commentary, videos, news, stories, and art, thereby fighting off the texts’ obsolescence. For example, between the release of a new movie’s trailer and the opening of the movie itself, or in the days, weeks, or months between new episodes of a television show airing, or in the years between the installments of a serial film or game franchise, any “new” content related to the original or prior text will likely be fan-made content. Fans’ ongoing discussions and expansions of the “universe” of a particular media production serve to advertise the production in these interim, or hiatus, periods; fans’ efforts keep the universe present to consumers in times when the official incarnations of the universe are absent from the marketplace. If fans of the original 1960s Star Trek had not continuously, publicly performed their investment in the Trek universe during the 1970s – by organizing Trek conventions, publishing Trek fan ’zines, making and trading Trek uniforms and memorabilia, and so on – it seems doubtful that Paramount would have thought to revive Trek in the 1980s, following the blockbuster success of Star Wars. Trek fan productions were crucial to maintaining interest in a media text that was, for all intents and purposes, dead for a decade, and when the marketplace favored reinvestment in sci-fi franchises, the fact that Trek was so alive, and well-known to so many, surely informed Paramount’s decision to re-start the universe. Fans’ abilities to augment and advertise mass media texts during periods of hiatus have become even more valuable in the Internet economy, as entertainment options have multiplied and any given media product or outlet can hold audiences’ attention only through constant renewal, as Terranova claims.
Notes for PART 1
 Here are a few examples of the circulation of this rule-of-thumb:
1) A thread dated January 6, 2009 on a discussion board for fans of
SEGA video games entitled, “Legality of fan projects,” in which one
fan asks whether s/he may create a product based on SEGA’s Sonic the
Hedgehog so long as s/he doesn’t seek to profit financially from it.
Responses to this query included: “[A]s long as it’s not being sold…,
you’ll be fine,” “SEGA doesn’t care as long as you don’t make any
money off of it,” and “As long as you’re not making a profit off of
your Sonic project, you’re fine” (accessed February 4, 2009).
 In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that commercial parody,
involving one artist (rap group 2 Live Crew) sampling the music of
another artist (pop singer Roy Orbison), could constitute fair use
(Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569), but the court warned
against the judgment being used as a blanket precedent for future
cases involving artistic appropriation: “The fact that parody can
claim legitimacy for some appropriation does not, of course, tell
either parodist or judge much about where to draw the line….[P]arody
may or may not be fair use.” In 2005, a case involving non-parodic
music sampling (Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d
792) was found by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to be a
violation of copyright law. The court’s decision reads, “Get a license
or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any
significant way.” However, the court explicitly stated that their
decision did not preclude future sampling artists from arguing fair
use in copyright infringement cases. Therefore, no firm interpretation
of copyright law with regards to digital appropriations, parodic or
non-parodic, has yet been made by U.S. courts.
 Terranova, Tiziana. “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.” Electronic Book Review, Original Post: 6-20-03 (accessed February 5, 2009).
 Andrejevic, Mark. “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Free Fan Labor.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Sheraton New York, New York City, NY, May 30, 2005. (Accessed at on February 5, 2009.
[END OF PART 1]
Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik is currently on faculty at Columbia College Chicago, in the Program in Cultural Studies. In Fall 2008, she will join the faculty of UC Berkeley as an Assistant Professor in The Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies. She researches intersections of minority discourse with artistic appropriations, especially digital appropriations such as sampling, online fan productions, game mods, and audio and visual mash-ups; Internet piracy and "torrent culture"; narrative serializations in digital contexts; and "techno- orientalism," or Hollywood sci-fi's equation of futuristic technologies with Asia and Asianness. In June 2008, she will be awarded her Ph.D. by Northwestern University's Program in Comparative Literary Studies and the Department of Radio/Television/Film. Her dissertation, "Illegitimate Media: Race, Gender, and Censorship in Digital Remix Culture" argues that digital remix was largely invented by African Americans and Anglo American women, and that Culture Wars- era debates over representations of race and sex severely constrained these nascent cultural forms. Her article "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction" appears in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, eds. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, and she is currently co-editing a volume on soap operas, Searching for Soaps' Tomorrow, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington. She can be reached at abigail.derecho at gmail.com.
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Innovation & Revolution in Brand-building: Using Spreadable Media to Help Consumers Advertise to Themselves
By: Stacy Wood
Marketing messages are thick on the ground these days. With new channels of communication and old, marketers can deliver a dizzying number of advertising messages to consumers—by many accounts, the average American sees between 3,000-5,000 ads a day. Yet, perhaps in response to this fusillade, consumers have learned to better armor themselves against the marketing messages they encounter. The Persuasion Knowledge Model (PKM) describes the extent to which consumers develop a radar-like ability to discern content whose aim is to persuade and, further, how they develop a set of skills to deal with such messages. From explicit attempts by store salespeople to more subtle attempts such as online product reviews or product placement in video games, consumers are increasingly critical audiences, attentive to the motivation of firms to engage them in marketplace dialogue. Some of my own recent research (with colleagues Adam Craig, Yuliya Komorova, and Jennifer Vendemia) uses fMRI technology to explore brain activity as consumers are exposed to potentially deceptive product claims. Our findings show that consumers’ deception-detection processes involve surprisingly rapid attention allocation—potential advertising lies seem to jump out of the marketing environment and rivet our attention like a snake on a woodland trail.
This is not to say that consumers now ignore all marketing messages as empty promises and egregious lies. Advertisements are often informative as well as persuasive—consumers know this and don’t dismiss ads out of hand. But, they do assess the extent to which they trust or are willing to use such information. First, and most critically, consumers seek to evaluate the credibility of a marketing message’s source.
Source credibility is the bedrock of trust that precedes persuasion. People judge a source to be credible if he or she (or “it” in the case of a firm or organization) shows evidence of being authentic, reliable, and believable. In the old days of marketing, firms sought to increase the source credibility of their ads by featuring the endorsements of doctors, scientists, and other authoritative experts. Once consumers became more aware that these experts were being paid handsomely for their testimony, the practice became less effective. Celebrity endorsers, who often were not product experts, provided warm affective responses, but little in the way of believable persuasive arguments. Consumers themselves are also important endorsers via word- of-mouth (WOM) messages. Our past understanding of WOM (when one consumer recommends a product to another) was that consumers perceived other consumers as highly authentic but of dubious reliability. As when one’s Uncle Joe touts the superior performance of the Brand X computer, the recommender is clearly a real person, but may or may not be knowledgeable enough about the product category to make credible claims. Now, with WOM increasingly occurring through spreadable media, it is more difficult for a consumer to assess both the authenticity and reliability of unknown recommenders. In the end, marketers have found that endorsers—expert, celebrity, or the guy next door (or next network)—are rarely the “whole package,” failing to convince consumers of their sincere beliefs, true knowledge, and unbiased motivation.
However, marketers may have stumbled upon the perfect endorser—the consumer himself. Who else can the consumer better trust? When a consumer feels positively about her product experience, she knows that her experience is real, is confident that it is correct, and can absolutely trust that she has her own best interests at heart. Who else could be as authentic, reliable, and believable? Thus, it is not surprising that the use of consumer-generated testimonials is a flourishing phenomenon—especially in online environments. Marketers have found creative ways to facilitate self-testimonials and to promote them to others as WOM. For example, a firm may offer its customers the chance to write about their experiences on the product website or to compose an essay or produce a video as an ode to the brand.
Brand managers encourage consumers in their target markets to write product-related testimonials because they believe, at least tacitly, that this form of promotion provides any of several benefits. First, testimonials provide addressable household information that can be used for data-mining purposes and provide text that can later be employed as copy input for advertising campaigns. Second, consumer testimonials promote brand involvement and drive positive word of mouth, especially through spreadable media. Finally, through the act of writing testimonials, there is the chance that participating consumers might be expected to strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand.
This last assumption, that the mere act of writing a testimonial might increase a consumer’s already positive attitude, offers a powerful premise. Terry Shimp, Laura Smarandescu, and I recently investigated this potential for consumer testimonials to serve as self-generated advertisements. The data from our research show that consumer testimonials can act as a surprisingly effective form of advertisement, significantly increasing consumers’ brand attitudes. The mechanism by which this works seems to be one based on self- perception theory—a psychological theory that posits that we infer our attitudes from our past behaviors. In essence, a consumer may ask himself how much he likes Brand X and, recalling that he once wrote a testimonial for the product, infer that he must feel especially positive about the brand.
However, the data also show evidence that, in some conditions, consumer testimonials can be a double-edged sword with the power to significantly lower brand attitudes. What are those conditions? Can firms safely use consumer testimonials or is the danger difficult to avoid? Our research found that the danger is easily avoided because the condition that leads to negative testimonial effects is one that the firm typically (and obviously unwittingly) creates itself. We found that prize-oriented incentives to participate in testimonial writing (e.g., contests, sweepstakes, and other competitions)—things firms commonly do in order to promote their collection of testimonials— create a situation where consumers are motivated to exaggerate their experience in order to increase their chance of winning the prize. Even with a chance-based prize (e.g., sweepstakes), consumers tend to believe that a lackluster testimonial will not be allowed to win. In such situations, and again in accord with basic self-perception theory, consumers infer that their positive attitude toward the brand is not a function of their true feelings but rather a function of the prize for which they are competing. This leads consumers to later discount their original positive attitude. In this case, when the consumer asks himself how much he likes Brand X, he will recall that he once wrote a testimonial for the product, but that he did so to win a prize. Thus, he is likely to infer that he must not feel especially positive about the brand.
What does this suggest to firms that want to benefit from the self- generated advertisements created by their consumers’ testimonials? First, this research says that the effort to encourage testimonials is well worthwhile—the testimonial writers are likely to find that their own attitudes become even more positive as they reflect on and publicly share their feelings. Second, firms must be careful to create a testimonial-giving space that is clearly not linked to prizes or other financial benefits, a space that highlights the voluntary nature of testimonial contributions. This acts a signal of credibility, not only to the testimonial writer, but also to other consumers who read the resulting testimonies. Finally, this research highlights a larger theme in persuasive messages and brand-building. As consumers become increasingly discriminating in their interaction with messages from brands—with a sensitive and effective radar that seeks persuasive intent—it may be that the words consumers find most persuasive are their own. This opens the door to a new and revolutionary perspective in brand-building. Firms may have to get used to the idea that in the future, the marketing messages that build their brands will increasingly be, not of their own construction, but in the consumer’s voice.
Stacy L. Wood is the Moore Research Fellow and an associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Florida. Her research focuses on how consumers react and adapt to change; her work investigates both individuals' processing of new product information, drivers of individual innovativeness, and consumers' emotional reactions to new innovations, media, trends, and rituals. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, and Journal of Retailing. She is a co-recipient of the 1997 H. Paul Root Award (for the article published in Journal of Marketing that was judged to have "made the most significant contribution to the advancement of marketing practice" and the 2005 AMA Louis W. Stern Award (for the "outstanding article on marketing channels and distribution" published in Journal of Marketing). She is a member of the editorial review board for Journal of Consumer Research and was named a Young Scholar in 2005 by the Marketing Science Institute. Dr. Wood has also won a number of teaching awards including, in 2007, the Mungo Award, the top undergraduate teaching award at the University of South Carolina.