January 26, 2007

Weekend of January 26, 2007

*Editor's Note

*Opening Note: Alec Austin on the Origins and Untapped Potential of User-Generated Content

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Robert V. Kozinets on Prosuming's Final Frontier from "Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia--Part I of III.

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.

This week's update features an opening note from C3 Media Analyst Alec Austin, who writes about how we have only scratched the surface of understanding the uses of user-generated content, while C3 Affiliated Faculty Robert V. Kozinets presents the first of a three-part preview from the forthcoming book Consumer Tribes, for which Kozinets is a co-editor.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

The Origins and Untapped Potential of User-Generated Content

By: Alec Austin

The last few years have seen a growing interest in the idea of user-generated content, both in games and elsewhere. The appeal of the idea is obvious--instead of having to generate all of the content needed to support a game internally, game developers can draw on the creativity of their audience, effectively outsourcing content creation without having to pay for it. While only a fraction of the user-created content may be of professional or near-professional quality (Bioware's Kevin Barrett cited a figure of 1% at the 2006 Futures of Entertainment Conference), even if only 20,000 players use the creation tools to create their own content, that means 200 of them have produced something worth redistributing.

Despite its recent rise to prominence, this idea (that user creativity can generate value for a franchise) is not at all new. In the tabletop gaming industry alone, it was pioneered in different ways by two different game genres: The tabletop role-playing game (exemplified by Dungeons & Dragons) and the collectable card game (exemplified by Magic: the Gathering). Both of these game genres essentially require user-generated content to be playable: role-playing games through their requirement that players must create the characters that they will portray, as well as imagine the world in which they will have adventures; and collectable card games through their requirement that players assemble the decks with which they will play from their card collection.

The interest and appeal of these games does not derive from a single authorial vision that is imposed upon them from on high, but rather emerges from the complex and creative interactions that are enabled by the frameworks which the games* rules provide. Without user-generated content, and the engagement that drives the creation of that content, neither tabletop RPGs or CCGs would have endured for as long as they have.

Why, then, did it take so long for the idea of leveraging user engagement to reach the electronic sector of the games industry? One factor was undoubtedly user interface: While the tools to create custom maps and modify game rules began shipping with games in the mid-nineties, most of them were either quite hard to use (e.g. Doom's level editor) or too simplistic to be very interesting (e.g. Warcraft II's map editor). While some games, like Civilization II, allowed players access to files which allowed them to alter the underlying rules of the game, it often took detailed knowledge of the game's architecture to make changes more significant than creating statistics for unused unit icons and making them playable. The tools to create user-generated content and make it available to others were there, but only the most dedicated and educated users could take advantage of them.

The rise of more powerful and user-friendly content-creation tools (such as the Neverwinter Nights area editor and more recent toolsets that have been made to enable machinima in games like Halo 2 and The Movies) is what finally catapulted user-generated content into the spotlight... although not always in a good way. For example, the ESRB's decision to re-rate The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion as an M-rated (for Mature) game instead of a T-rated (for Teen) game came as the result of users using third-party software to alter the PC version of the game so that certain female characters would appear topless. While this was not achieved with the (extremely powerful) development toolset which Bethesda Softworks shipped with the game, it was undoubtedly enabled by information that was meant to enable other kinds of graphic customization on the part of end-users. While Bethesda has gained significant dividends from releasing its development tools to its player-base (including user-generated content and a pool of new hires who are familiar with its dev tools), the greater the ability to customize one grants to end-users, the greater the risk that inappropriate content will be created. While Bethesda suffered consequences from this incident, the fact of the matter is that most such content will be ignored.

While the recent success of user-generated content is encouraging, there are still lessons about the potential of such content to be learned from tabletop games. While Neverwinter Nights and its sequel have been quite successful in mapping the experience of D&D into electronic form, the power of the rules-framework as a generative model is as yet largely untapped, save in seemingly unconnected spheres, such as social networking software like MySpace or Livejournal. And while CCGs like Magic: the Gathering have profited by moving online and selling players virtual cards at prices comparable to those paid for them in the real world, their audience appears to be mostly players who already play offline, or who lack easy access to an offline playgroup--though it must be admitted that many of those players spend far more money on virtual cards in a year than the $180 or so they would on an MMOG subscription.

I suspect, based on my observations, that user-generated content is currently being understood too narrowly. Many companies have chosen to view user-generated content solely as a means of generating supplemental content or extending the shelf-life of a game, instead of grasping its many different applications. For instance, the role of users in generating the play environment in CCGs deepens the personal investment that each player has in the game, as their success depends on their own abilities, either as a deck builder or as an analyst and user of another player's creation. An open and easy-to-use framework for user-generated content can also produce valuable information about what kinds of content users are creating, and what forms of play and content they prefer, effectively producing market research for the next generation of products. All in all, user-generated content has the potential to be much more than a marketing tool or a source of supplemental material: it could form the foundation of a new paradigm for interaction between audiences and content providers.

Alec Austin is a media analyst with the Convergence Culture Consortium and a graduate student with the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. His work focuses on how commercial concerns, ads, and product placement affect the content of (and audience reactions to) TV, movies and new media such h as video games and blogs. His work has been published in The New York Review of Science Fiction and Web sites such as Strange Horizons and Savanti>, the latter of which he was a co-founder.

---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

Proceed and Permitted: Second Life's Response to Parody Site. The site Get a First Life, from Darren Barefoot, receives an interesting legal letter from Linden Labs, granting permission for the parody rather than asking for the site to pull material down. By explicitly granting the use of company images, etc., for a parody, Linden protects its own assets while also presenting a collaborative alternative to the usual prohibitionist stance of media companies regarding their intellectual properties.

Nielsen's Compromise: Six Streams of Commercial Data and Let the Industry Sort It Out. The latest chapter in the battle of commercial Nielsen ratings sees the company all but wash its hands of the argument and instead send the raw data for ad buyers and networks to continue arguing on their own.

Reviving the Fairness Doctrine? Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is talking about reviving the Fairness Doctrine, but what does fairness actually mean and what are the underlying questions behind reviving such a governmental regulation?

Online Video Distribution Transforms the Sundance Film Festival. The Times recently pointed to one Sundance film that gained significant momentum through YouTube prior to the festival and another that followed up its Sundance premiere with a Second Life premiere as well.

Siklos on Antisocial Networking and Big Media's Crush on Social Networks. The NY Times columnist recently wrote about his experiences in social networks, and Sam Ford responds with some firsthand accounts of his own, as media companies continue to look to social networks as the way to connect with consumers in the modern media environment, i.e. Oxygen's new social networking initiative, Oomph.

Comcast Positioning Itself Through VOD in Competitive Media Landscape. A recent New York Times profile on Comcast focuses on the company's use of video-on-demand and other new innovations to remain competitive as telcos and satellite companies join the regular cable competition to vie for customers.

General Hospital Borrows from 24 in Real-Time Storyline During Sweeps Month. The soap opera will show the 16 hours leading up to an explosion in much the same way 24 would cover an event, but the question remains whether, through the gimmick, the writers will be able to capture what soaps are good at amid the real-time format or whether it will just be a short-term gimmick for sweeps month that falls short of its potential.

Guiding Light Celebrates Its 70th Anniversary with a Look Back at Its History on Radio, Television. The 70th anniversary of America's oldest soap opera brings to "light" the constant flux of the media industry in the 20th Century through a tribute to its own history and brings into questions the show's own future amid continuing change in daytime programming for the networks.

Broadband Video Sites Veoh and Brightcove Continue to Expand. Veoh has struck a deal with Us Weekly for an online celebrity news and entertainment show that will also incorporate user-generated content, while Brightcove receives another significant round of funding.

User-Generated Content Expected to Continue Growing While Corporate Revenue Surrounding It Questionable. A study from Screen Digest predicts that, by 2010, 55 percent of the video content viewed online will be user-generated, but the study questions how commercialized this user-generated space can become.

Netflix Expanding Beyond Postal Delivery? The Futures of Renting Movies? Netflix is transferring their brand onto digital renting services, with 1,000 television shows and films initially available at no additional charge to current Netflix subscribers.

Cable Companies and Their Little Black Boxes. Cable companies are striving to find new features to add to their cable boxes as third-party sources for time-shifting and a variety of other resources are prying control away from the service provider.

--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia, Part I: Prosuming's Final Frontier

By: Robert V. Kozinets

The following is the first of a three-part series that is an adapted portion of Kozinets' essay "Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia," from Consumer Tribes, forthcoming this year from Elsevier Press and edited by Bernard Cova, Kozinets, and Avi Shankar. The second piece in the series will appear next week here in the Weekly Update.

As Russ Belk and I have noted in numerous other articles related to videography in consumer and marketing research (see also Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture), technological and manufacturing advances in digital camcorders and digital video production and editing software have enabled amateur movie-makers to create professional-looking videographic works that would have been prohibitively expensive even a decade ago. These technologies have freed up the art and craft of video making so that they are accessible to almost anyone with some ingenuity and access to a budget of a few thousand dollars. The increasing pervasiveness of Internet access and broadband connections has simultaneously made distributing these films easier than ever before. Fans had been making their own small-budget films for many years. But fan creations have reached new heights of professionalism and pervasiveness and, as in many other spheres, Star Trek fans are leading the way.

According to a recent article, several dozen fan-made 'Star Trek' projects are in various stages of completion, in countries such as Holland and Belgium. And according to various FAQs posted on web sites and quotations in various articles covering the phenomenon, Paramount, the studio that owns the rights to Star Trek has been tolerant, and its executives have consistently declined comment on these developments. As long as fans do not sell or profit from their work (an established fan community standard), Paramount allows them to continue creating and distributing new episodes of Star Trek.

In the good old days, fans would write fiction in the form of written text. The fan effort that previously went into the production of printed written fiction ("fanfic") and convention organizing is now being channeled--and it even seems amplified--into efforts to create a stunning variety of Star Trek-based entertainment product. Star Trek fans create their own podcasts and radio broadcasts. They have produced animated series such as the humorous Finnish "Star Wreck" and the Flash animation series "Stone Trek" which hybridizes Star Trek's world with that of The Flintstones. There are fanmade Star Trek music and rap videos, Star Trek novelizations, Star Trek protest trailers, and films--even a parodic Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the official (and reviled) Star Trek V feature film. This is a burgeoning enterprise existing in a legal vacuum. As Jenkins (2006a, p. 255), emphasizing the role of fans, rightly notes, "we might think of fan fiction communities as the literary equivalent of the Wikipedia: around any given media property, writers are constructing a range of different interpretations that get expressed through stories."

We are in new conceptual terrain and lack terms to describe what has happened to Star Trek as a media property. Star Trek has gone native or, better yet, it has gone wiki--it is now "wikimedia." Fans add to Star Trek and correct one another just like Wikipedia encyclopedia contributors add to the famously expansive universe of the online encyclopedia. By the term "wikimedia" I mean to describe a distinct media content form that has, either deliberately or unintentionally, gone open source and begun spawning new content through the efforts of non-profit, do-it-yourself, collaborative media creators acting outside of the structure of corporate, institutional organization or sanction. The existence and notioning of wikimedia has major implications for our understanding of contemporary consumer culture. But it is still almost entirely unexamined by academics. It also may have major implications for marketing strategy, as this chapter will only begin to unpack further on. The following section begins this undertaking by proceeding to the centerpiece of this chapter: a look at the production of new Star Trek episodes by fans.

I must admit that when I began investigating this story, I was skeptical about what I would see in these episodes. But as I began viewing them, in all of their diverse quality, I got a strange rush. Although they were far from perfect, these episodes had verve, style, humor--there was a freshness and a primal energy about all of them that came from their sheer authenticity as major undertakings presented as communal gifts. Lately, with a New Voyages episode that stars Walter Koenig in his old Ensign Pavel Chekov role, and has a stunning surprise end, I am hooked on the quality. Other Star Trek fans posting on popular newsgroups seem to have related impressions.

Matt: Disturbingly this is more or less as good as any TOS episode, though the acting is below the TOS [The Original Series] standard (some will ask if that's even possible), the effects, sound, and other production values are pretty good. Actually if these guys had studio backing I can't imagine why they couldn't make an entire new TOS series around the [Starship] Exeter [online series]. (posted on < alt.tv.star-trek.tos > August 18 2003)

Ron: I gotta say it. That was excellent. The first new TOS episode in what, 34 years? These people did a fantastic job. Someone at Paramount needs these guys. Considering the limits on their production I am amazed by how incredibly well this compares to real TOS and present production Enterprise. Thank you for the link. (posted on < alt.tv.star-trek.tos > August 18 2003)

I have dozens of other laudatory postings--nit-picking in places, but overwhelmingly grateful and exhilarated in tone. Star Trek is back and it's ours, they proclaim with pride. The U.S.S. Farragut (www.ussfarragut.com) and Starship Exeter (www.starshipexeter.com) series are situated in the original, Classic or TOS ("The Original Series") Star Trek universe, filmed in digital video on reconstructed sets (whose online descriptions ring with overtones of care, precision, and authenticity). The series feature starship space scenes rendered with exquisite special effects that surpass the original series, but introduce us to new starship crews composed of amateur actors, who act out new scripts penned by Hollywood unknowns. Fans write, film, edit, score, produce, and distribute these new episodes. Empowered by affordable new technologies and the mass distribution of the Internet, these new fan-made shows seek to play with the original format of the series, but not alter it in any material ways. But that same careful tendency to not rock the starship is not universally present, as the next section attests.

The second portion of this essay will appear in the Weekly Update next week, and for the full version of the essay and a variety of related work, Consumer Tribes will be available later this year.

Robert V. Kozinets is a Faculty Advisor for the Convergence Culture Consortium and Associate Professor of Marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. His research areas include branding, virtual communities, technology consumption, communal markets, themed retail, entertainment marketing, new product development, and postmodern consumer behavior.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)

You are receiving this update as a member of MIT C3.

To subscribe or unsubscribe, send a request to samford@mit.edu.