October 12, 2007
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
Weekend of October 12, 2007
*Editor's Note: Eleanor Baird's Series, Links, This Week's Newsletter
*Opening Note: Sam Ford on Modes of Fan Engagement
*Glancing at the C3 Blog
*Closing Note: William Uriccho Provides a Media Historian's Look at the Current Media Environment, I of II
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Things are moving full-speed ahead here at the Consortium. With a new graduate team on the ground, we are up-and-running with a content analysis project of YouTube that seeks to discover some of the most prevalent uses of the video distribution site and give some context to the many types of video sharing behaviors that take place on the site. We are also in the planning stages of a project on viral media and viral marketing. Much more about both projects in the weeks to come.
We're also moving ahead with plans for the Futures of Entertainment 2 conference here, with speaker bios scheduled to go up on the site this week. Registration is almost full, and we look forward to seeing many of you here in Cambridge next month for our big event. Please let me know if you have any questions in the interim.
Eleanor Baird's series on valuing fan activities has generated some spirited discussion inside the Consortium, and we hope that you have found her proposal thought-provoking as well. We have noted in each of the first three installments that the series will be in five parts. Based on some of the feedback she has received thus far, Eleanor has decided to take that feedback into account in preparation of her final two pieces and will be providing parts four and five in the first two weeks of November here in the C3 Weekly Update. For those of you who might have had trouble accessing the PDF versions of the second and third parts of her series, which included charts that were not available in the text that actually appeared in the newsletter, the URLs to both pieces are provided below. If you were not able to access them over the past couple of weeks, our apologies:
This Week's Newsletter
While Baird's series is on hiatus, I am providing some of my own research on understanding modes of fan engagement with media texts through a case study of pro wrestling fandom in the arena setting. Baird mentioned my research as a source of her work in the second part of her series, so I thought it might be of interest to the Consortium to provide a draft of that essay. It will be available today in the "Resources" section of the C3 site, and a preview of that work is provided in this week's Opening Note.
The Closing Note is the first of a two-part series from C3 Principal Investigator William Uricchio, co-director of the Program in Comparative Media Studies here at MIT. Uricchio, a media historian, provides a piece looking at this moment of media transition and the need to learn lessons from the past. The first part of the series looks back to prior moments of media conversion, including the rise of film at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries and connects it with the present day, including questions about archiving material and the obliteration of the notion of a completed work in the digital age. The essay will be concluded in next week's Closing Note, where Uricchio looks toward the future.
As usual, the newsletter this week features all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
We are still in the process of ironing out bugs in the conversion to an HTML format, including testing out a new e-mail list. Please let me know if you had any trouble in receiving last week's C3 Weekly Update.
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 email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Pinning Down Fan Involvement:
An Examination of Multiple Modes of Engagement for Professional Wrestling Fans
By: Sam Ford
In her ongoing series for the C3 Weekly Update on creating a metric to help value fan activity, Eleanor Baird referenced my work in the second part of her series. That work was based on an interview series I did as part of my undergraduate thesis work in 2004 while a student at Western Kentucky University. I have since written my insights from this study as a piece looking at the ways fans engage with media products and am currently submitting it for publication with an academic journal.
In the meantime, however, since Baird made reference to the work, I wanted to share it with the Consortium partners and consulting researchers through the C3 Weekly Update. I am going to include a preview of the piece here in the Opening Note and follow it up with including the full current draft of the essay on the partners-only section of the C3 Web site later today. For those who are interested in reading it and don't readily have access to the cite, please e-mail me directly.
The work is based on interviews with 50 professional wrestling fans conducted at five different shows, including both televised event and "big-time" wrestling productions, as well as small grassroots-level independent wrestling shows as well, including one I participated in directly as a character. For those who don't know, I sometimes double as an evil character in pro wrestling shows, even though I don't have any great athletic prowess.
I conducted most of these interviews during pro wrestling shows, with the intent of discovering the multiple ways people engage with the shows. I have since grouped the behaviors I observed into five major categories and, after further reflection, I've added two other categories that would not be present in a live event atmosphere but which came up in the white paper I completed earlier this year for the Consortium called "Fandemonium!," which examined the activities of wrestling tape trading fans and how they influenced the active community behaviors seen in the online pro wrestling fan community today.
The seven modes of engagement I outline in my study were found through this specific case study, but I believe they apply more broadly to media fandom and the engagement questions we are currently trying to get to the bottom of and which many of the folks surrounding C3 has spent considerable time trying to understand.
Here are those seven modes of engagement:
1.) Fans as Spectators. At its most basic, fandom requires consumption. All of those I observed participating in wrestling events were, at the most basic, there to watch the show unfold. This is perhaps the least "active" mode of fan engagement, although that can be debated, but it is without a doubt the most essential type of involvement for a fan.
2.) Fans as Critics. Most of the fans who I observed watching the pro wrestling shows alive did not just follow the plot of the stories unfolding on stage but actively discussed and debated the quality of the storytelling, the believability of the performances, and the worth of the show as a whole. These fans move beyond engagement in the "willing suspension of disbelief" but engaged in meta-discussions about the show while it was ongoing.
3.) Fans as Performers. In the wrestling arena, the fans become as essential to the show as the performers on stage, and fans can make a performance good or bad depending on how they choose to receive and react to it. The dynamic may be different outside the live arena setting, but the effect is still the same: media effects are by their nature social, and fans construct performances of their own all around the text, through the dynamic of social viewing, through online and offline commentary around the show, through recaps and online parodies and fan videos, and a host of other behaviors that involve creative output from fans.
4.) Fans as Community. Fans create social bonds around media texts. In the wrestling arena, this becomes a community in a geographic sense, as people literally come together in the same physical space to watch wrestling events. However, media properties become an excuse for community-building in all media formats, through the formation of online discussion groups, communal viewings, live events like concerts and fan conventions, and friendships built around common media interests. The important way to look at these community-building processes is to emphasize that these social connections don't just exist for these media properties but rather successful media properties also exist because these community-building behaviors take root for them.
5.) Fans as Theorists. Thomas McLaughlin famously wrote about the "vernacular theory" of experts of a particular subject, how the realm of theorizing does not wholly belong to academics or industry veterans but are localized in those who have expertise in a field. This is very true of fandom, where the myths of inarticulate hero-worship of media properties and their creators and practitioners are betrayed by glimpses of articulate fans who ponder their own interest and relationship to one another around media texts, and to the texts themselves. In the wrestling arena, I often found fans engaging in this mode while talking to me about their role in the show, often while they were performing as part of the show themselves, chanting and cheering for what they know is spectacle rather than sport.
6.) Fans as Archivists. Often viewed as no more than copyright violators, fan archiving is a much richer process that involves active engagement on the fan's part and a desire to maintain and often even improve upon texts. In "Fandemonium!," I detail the ways in which fan archiving behaviors in the wrestling world added great value to what was previously considered ephemeral content. The archiving of fans predated the realization of the Long Tail value of wrestling content, and the behaviors that manifested through archivists gradually created the opportunity for new revenue streams for the media industries. Understanding how fans engage with media properties as archivists is key for moving beyond a strictly prohibitionist model of managing media prooperties and brands.
7.) Fans as Proselytizers. Finally, the role fans take as grassroots intermediaries to help spread the word about their favorite brands and media content cannot be understated. This is where the most basic of human marketing behaviors, word-of-mouth, comes into play. As I have detailed in C3 white papers "Fanning the Audience's Flames," "No Room for Pack-Rats," and "Fandemonium!," fan proselytizing behaviors are among the most valuable activities fans partake in and show how engaging with fans, and valuing the most active fan behaviors, can have impact on the long-term vitality of media properties and brands. These behaviors are about building community and performing fandom, to be sure, but the behaviors are distinct from these other categories in the desire this mode of engagement fosters for getting the uninitiated baptized into the experience.
The full case study will be made available later today on the C3 site, and I again urge anyone interested to contact you directly. I hope this both fleshes out the observations made in "Fandemonium!" and adds some further background for the current work Eleanor is conducting here in the C3 Weekly Update. Next week, I will share an overview of the insights for another chunk of my undergraduate thesis work relevant to the current discussion, looking at World Wrestling Entertainment as a key business model for how moving the business model to cater to more engaged fans through transmedia storytelling and utilizing archived content can help sustain a drop in casual popularity.
I look forward to any feedback you might have. Please feel free to contact me directly.
Sam Ford is the Project Manager of the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and a graduate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies. He is editor of the C3 Weekly Update and is currently doing further work on the soap opera industry, including preparing his thesis for publication, co-editing a collection of essays on the current state and future of the soap opera industry, and teaching a class in the spring on American soaps.
---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
If You Attended the Forrester Consumer Forum... Henry Jenkins provides a note from his blog after speaking at Forrester's forum in Chicago on Friday, highlighting some of the work of C3 and the upcoming Futures of Entertainment 2 conference, as well as some of the work from his blog.
Peacock on the Block? NBC Universal Faces a Post-Olympic Sale. Eleanor Baird looks at discussion about the selling of NBCU and who might be some of the most likely candidates for a buyout.
The Proliferation of Online Video Series. Sam Ford looks at the recent increase in the number of online television series and what it might mean for creating a viable model online for distributing serialized video content.
TV Sponsorship Model Becoming Increasingly Prevalent. The latest example of television sponsorship comes from Mad Men, reflecting a business model many FX shows have regularly adapted and what has become a viable new option for creating a business model for shows, or at least season premieres.
3D Daytime TV, Brought to You by Walgreens. The pharmacy is sponsoring a special 3D live edition of Live with Regis and Kelly, by promoting the episode in stores and providing viewers with 3D glasses for the special television event. What is the significance of this sponsorship deal, and what does this mean for 3D TV?
And Now, a Metric for Our Sponsors--New Metrics, Temporal Shifts, and Engagement (2 of 2). The second part of this series from Baird makes a proposal to weight audiences based on an estimate of their engagement level before the airing of the next episode.
And Now, a Metric for Our Sponsors--New Metrics, Temporal Shifts, and Engagement (1 of 2). C3 graduate researcher Eleanor Baird looks at the shift away from temporal metrics and how this influencs future conversations about viewer engagement and the market for TV advertising.
The Radiohead Revolution? C3 graduate researcher Ana Domb writes about Radiohead's decision to let listeners choose how much they want to pay for an album and the continuing experimentation with the music industry business model.
Hustling 2.0: Soulja Boy and the Crank Dat Phenomenon. C3 graduate researcher Xiaochang Li looks at the rise of Soulja Boy and the energy the artist has created on YouTube with the latest dance phenomenon, complete with the Program in Comparative Media Studies' own attempt to "crank that."
Jericho Fans in Waiting to See How Season Plays Out. Jericho is lined up to be a replacement series for CBS, but there are only a limited number of episodes in the queue. No one is quite sure yet whether the series will give fans closure or the hope for more episodes to come.
I Want Serials with My $130 Milk. C3 graduate researcher Lauren Silberman looks at her thoughts at Halo3 and her disappointment with lacking narrative, despite her Halo fandom.
Around the Consortium: Fan Studies, Geeks, and Nielsen. The Gender and Fan Studies discussion continues over at Henry Jenkins' blog, while Rad Tollett at GSD&M Idea City and Rob Kozinets writes about geek culture and The Extratextuals cover the Nielsens.
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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 ---------------
A Media Historian's Look at the Current Media Environment
I of II: A Look at Yesterday and Today
By: William Uricchio
Consider several recent New York Times headlines: "Labels Win Suit Against Song Sharer" (Oct 5); "In Radiohead Price Plan, Some See A Movement" (Oct 11); "Internet Company To Let Consumers Profit From Shared Videos" (Oct 11)...If one thing is clear, it is that business models in the digital era remain very much in transition.
Google's press releases about its various revenue plans for YouTube seem so 'last week' in light of today's reports about Blinkx' plans to turn a profit by linking users' videos with social networking. And the only sure thing about next week is that it will bring more announcements of contradictory movements in the music industry, in revenue models for television and internet services, and in the relative positions of producers/ consumers/ collaborators.
yesterday: missed insights
It is indeed a difficult time for venture capitalists and those charged with making binding decisions regarding one platform or another, one revenue model or another. Sure, things are changing fast, but, just as crucially, we lack clear reference points and precedents that might give us perspective and help bring order to chaos.
As a media historian, I'm struck by the paucity of information regarding some of our 'older' media revolutions -- information that has the potential to illuminate aspects of our current situation. And I'm puzzled by what seems to be a general indifference to improving the situation both in our present and for the future.
Take the motion picture industry, the dominant media business of the 20th century. For its first decade (1895-1906), the film world experienced problems with technical standards, piracy, distribution and exhibition policies, and a coherent business model. A plurality of approaches competed; considerable amounts were spent in litigation, and, by 1905, New York City still lacked any permanent sites for film exhibition. But something dramatic happened around 1906, with the result that, by 1907, Manhattan alone had in excess of 550 film theaters (nickelodeons); and, by 1910, instead of a few hundred thousand people visiting the cinema nationwide as they had in 1905, upwards of 40 million were attending weekly.
So what happened? There are competing accounts -- changes in distribution (renting instead of selling films), changes in film content (fiction instead of non-fiction), changes in admission prices (five cents instead of as much as a dollar or two when film was part of a larger music hall performance), changes in legal status and licensing, changes in industry organization, and so on.
We know that these various things happened, but, despite considerable research on the topic, we don't really understand the causal sequence that triggered the other pieces of the puzzle to come together. To this day, we still do not have a clear understanding of what transformed film from an incoherent set of possibilities into a thriving business.
Why? Because neither the industry nor the period's memory institutions were particularly good about keeping records, or, if kept, making them accessible. We have plenty of press hype and a good sense of how various players sought to position themselves at the center of things but very little evidence that sheds any real light on this remarkable transformation. As a result, we can certainly speculate about the pricing model, or piracy, or about the benefits of license sharing, or the roles played by certain types of content drivers. But any serious lessons that we might draw from the emergent film industry for today's developments remain elusive.
today: can the archive and the industry be friends?
What about today, and the media developments taking place all around us? Consider the case of email -- computerized versions of the physical letter (with some stylistic and formal differences) that, generally speaking, enjoy no systematic archiving or even technical standard. Future historians of the 'information age' will, ironically, face a gap in key evidentiary domains when attempting to make sense of their topic since most business archives are designed to account for paper records, but not electronic. And emails are a best-case scenario since they provide records and emulate an older media form...
Dynamic social media such as blogs, wikis, massively multi-player role playing games, music file exchanges, collaborative journalism networks, and various on-line social spaces that lack any homologies to traditional archival objects -- and lack a place in corporate preservation strategies -- face a far more difficult situation. In the case of social media, there are neither pre-existing archival categories nor memory institutes charged with collection, selection, restoration, preservation, and access. Indeed, there seems to be a very real debate about how to even think about these emerging media forms.
They do not adhere to the familiar 'mass' distribution of the traditional media (although their reach can be greater than many traditional media), nor are they as atomized as telephone calls and individual correspondence (although they can be uniquely person-to-person), nor is their textual identity necessarily stable and fixed in the way that we think of photographs or films or books (although they can inhabit a range of positions from dynamic, like games, to stable, like e-books). As with motion pictures 100 years ago, they fall outside of the interests of the producing (or distributing or exhibiting) industries, seemingly irrelevant to the bottom line. And they fall outside of the familiar limits of our cultural habits and expectations. Since all of these factors are involved in the business of creating and maintaining tradition, it's easy to see why these new forms are so awkward, so ephemeral, and so easy to forget.
These are, of course, vital issues particularly at moments of transition, where new constituencies are empowered to represent and circulate, or where people develop new technological affordances and new ways of using them. Such broad concepts as knowledge and the public are redefined and empowered at such moments. And while of great interest to cultural historians such as myself, these concepts also help to define the fabric of our daily lives.
Consider our changing relationship to the news. Once vetted and produced by trained journalists and centralized institutions with carefully cultivated ideological profiles and professional reputations, news has slipped onto the Internet, where it is often neither vetted nor contextualized and where it circulates at the speed of light. When there were well-established filters and a clear line of responsibility, one could agree or disagree, but the status of the information was known. Having 'seen it on the Internet' does little to pin down critical parameters or accurate sources of information. Yet, perhaps even more than rumor, such information can take on a life of its own, confusing public discourse.
As we now know about so-called misinformation campaigns, digitally altered photographs, and re-worked press releases, even the highest levels of some national governments have made use of the new media to manipulate the record and with it public perception and knowledge. The policy implications both for day-to-day politics and for the historical record couldn't be more profound. Here, too, is an area where systematic archiving of social media -- dynamic texts as well as circulation patterns -- could greatly assist the functioning of our political lives by allowing us to go back to the record and check instances of manipulation.
Decentralized, networked, collaborative, accretive, ephemeral and dynamic...the developments I've mentioned and others like them bear a closer resemblance to oral cultures than to the more stable regimes of print (writing and the printing press) and the trace (photography, film, recorded sound). Time-bound and contingent, they are at odds with the durability of the printed word and photographed image, et al. Spread from person to person, with the always-present possibility of manipulation and mutability, they differ in the large from the relative stability and uniformity of the traditional fixed media. And like oral cultures, they seem to evade the preservation frameworks that we have put in place in our institutions of memory, built as they are around tangible media. And yet, despite these conditions, these collaborative efforts also enjoy embodiment as digital text, image, and sound, and, as such. differ from oral culture. They can be apprehended, but the question is, at what point? What constitutes a sufficient 'capture' in a dynamic and fast evolving distributed network where any of the nodes is capable of change?
If we take an instance of social media such as the Wikipedia, we can see the benefits of collaboration and mutability. A reader-edited and written encyclopedia, its entries change over time to reflect new developments, complications in and regional inflections of meaning, and the lively debates among its contributors. Its entries evolve, and as such are responsive to the latest undulations of scholarship.
Yet, for all of the Wikipedia's value as a documentary history of changing cultural conceptions and definitions, it confronts the archivist with a problem: what point is the right point to fix and hold for posterity? Social networks such as Friendster and Flickr will offer future researchers invaluable information about the construction and functioning of our society. Not only are they as textually dynamic as the Wikipedia, but the fabric of thematic tags and the patterns of links are themselves valuable data. Indeed, the textual data only acquires meaning, thanks to these other parameters. Again, what is the archivist to do? It's as if we expected librarians not only to keep books but to track their circulation as well. Yet, with social media, circulation is a crucial and defining measure of meaning and import.
A third complicating parameter is introduced by on-line games, for example MMORPGs (massively multiplayer on-line role playing games), in which the texts are extraordinarily dynamic, the social networks crucial to the substance of the game, and the interactions of players with one another actually constitutive of the gaming experience. Pity the archivist! Yet these games occupy a significant amount of cultural space, have social implications, and provide voice to their users on a variety of topics. America's Army not only offers an interesting text against which to read US involvement in Iraq, but it includes remarkable debates among its users over issues that range from the political to the tactical, and offer informed readings from voices that researchers rarely have access to. In some cultural settings, South Korea for example, the penetration of virtual worlds is enormous and growing (South Korea Telecom's Cyworld includes nearly half of the population).
Is this something that we can afford to ignore, fixating instead on the extension of traditional 19th and 20th century cultural forms in our digital and networked present? And even beyond heritage arguments and the somewhat more pragmatic issues bound up in social norms and protocols, as I suggested with the example of the early film industry, there are also acute implications for those of us at the forefront of media change.
How can we understand our day-to-day practices? How should we frame the decisions that we are called upon to make? And, of the many developments percolating in the field, which should we attend to and why? Raw self-interest, if nothing more, should provide compelling grounds for those in the industry to attend to these emerging forms and the data they produce. And, if attended to, this data presents many of the same practical problems to those in the industry as it does to those in the archive (a fact that argues for the benefits of collaboration). From a forward-focused business perspective, can we miss the opportunity to assess our performance, using it as an instrument to refine our future activities?
In next week's Closing Note, Urrichio concludes this piece by looking forward to tomorrow based on these historically grounded insights and provides some conclusions for what this means for the current state of media scholarship and practice.
William Uricchio is a faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is also Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, in addition to professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Uricchio studies comparative national constructions of media, trans-national content flows, the way the media are drawn upon for identity purposes, and the transfirmation of media technologies into cultural practices.
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