'You've got fifteen seconds. Impress me.'
(1) new tools and technologies enable consumers to archive,
annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content
On-line fan communities might well be some of the most fully realized
versions of Levy's cosmopedia, expansive self-organizing groups focused
around the collective production, debate, and circulation of meanings,
interpretations, and fantasies in response to various artifacts of contemporary
popular culture. Fan communities have long defined their memberships
through affinities rather than localities. Fandoms were virtual communities,
'imagined' and 'imagining' communities, long before the introduction
of networked computers.(2) The history of science fiction fandom might
illustrate how knowledge communities emerged. Hugo Gernsbeck, the pulp
magazine editor who has been credited with helping to define science
fiction as a distinctive genre in the 1920s and 1930s, was also a major
advocate of radio as a participatory medium. Gernsbeck saw science fiction
as a means of fostering popular awareness of contemporary scientific
breakthroughs at a moment of accelerating technological development.(3)
The letter column of Gernsbeck's Astounding Stories became a
forum where lay people could debate scientific theories and assess new
technologies. Using the published addresses, early science fiction fans
formed an informal postal network, circulating letters and amateur publications.
Later, conventions facilitated the face-to-face contact between fans
from across the country and around the world. Many of the most significant
science fiction writers emerged from fandom. Given this history, every
reader was understood to be a potential writer and many fans aspired
to break into professional publication; fan ideas influenced commercially-distributed
works at a time when science fiction was still understood predominantly
as a micro-genre aimed at a small but passionate niche market. The fan-issued
Hugo award (named after Gernsbeck) remains the most valued recognition
a science fiction writer can receive. This reciprocality between readers,
writers, and editors set expectations as science fiction spread into
film and television. Star Trek fans were, from the start, an
activist audience, lobbying to keep its series on the air and later
advocating specific changes in the program content to better reflect
its own agendas. Yet, if fans were the primary readers for literary
science fiction, they were only a small fraction of the audience for
network television. Fans became, in John Tulloch's words, a 'powerless
elite,' unable to alter the series content but actively reshaping the
reception context through grassroots media production.(4) Star Trek
fandom, in turn, was a model for other fan communities to create forums
for debating interpretations, networks for circulating creative works,
and channels for lobbying the producers. Fans were early adopters of
digital technologies. Within the scientific and military institutions
where the Internet was first introduced, science fiction has long been
a literature of choice.(5) Consequently, the slang and social practices
employed on the early bulletin boards were often directly modeled on
science fiction fandom. Mailing lists focused on fan topics took their
place alongside discussions of technological or scientific issues. In
many ways, cyberspace is fandom writ large. The reconstitution of these
fandoms as digital enclaves did not come without strenuous efforts to
overcome the often overtly hostile reception fan women received from
the early Internet's predominantly male population. Operating outside
of those technical institutions, many female fans lacked computer access
and lacked technical literacy. Heated debates erupted at conventions
as fans were angered at being left behind when old fan friends moved
online. At the same time, as Sue Clerc notes, fan communities helped
many women make the transition to cyberspace; the group insured that
valued members learned to use the new technologies, since 'For them,
there is little benefit to net access unless many of their friends have
it.'(6) Fan women routed around male hostility, developing web communities
'that combine the intimacy of small groups with a support network similar
to the kind fan women create off-line.' Discussion lists, mailing groups,
webrings, and chatrooms each enabled fan communication.
Soap talk, Baym notes, allows people to 'show off for one another' their various competencies while making individual expertise more broadly available. Fans are motivated by epistemaphilia - not simply a pleasure in knowing but a pleasure in exchanging knowledge. Baym argues that fans see the exchange of speculations and evaluations of soaps as a means of 'comparing, refining, and negotiating understandings of their socioemotional environment.'(10) Matthew Hills has criticized audience researchers for their preoccupation with fan's meaning production at the expense of consideration of their affective investments and emotional alliances.(11) Yet, as Baym's term, 'socioemotional' suggests, meanings are not some abstracted form of knowledge, separated from our pleasures and desires, isolated from fandom's social bonds. When fans talk about meaningful encounters with texts, they are describing what they feel as much as what they think. Fandom is held together as much through those shared expressions of emotion and desire - by what Sue Clerc, drawing on fan slang, calls 'drool' - as through the exchange of program specific information.(12) Yet, at the same time, conflicting assumptions and interpretations, competing ways of knowing can become the basis for deeply felt antagonisms, with 'unforgivable' lapses resulting in social rifts. Fan speculations may, on the surface, seem to be simply a deciphering of the aired material but increasingly, speculation involves fans in the production of new fantasies, broadening the field of meanings that circulate around the primary text. For example, in the early 1990s, I documented the activities of alt.rec.arts.twin-peaks, a group devoted to discussing David Lynch's cult mystery/soap opera series.(13) Their stated goal was to 'break the code and solve the crime,' that is, to successfully predict future revelations about the Laura Palmer murder and thus to arrive at the 'truth' of the series. But as each member mobilized and interpreted the series 'evidence,' they introduced a range of different potential narratives, centering on alternative assumptions about 'who done it' and how Laura's death fit within larger schemes. Fan speculations were, in fact, more original and complex than the solution the series ultimately provided. Their ability to recognize previously undiscovered narrative possibilities enlarged their pleasure in watching Twin Peaks and the group actively sought to recruit new members in order to expand the range of possible interpretations in play. Levy contrasts his ideal of 'collective intelligence' with the dystopian image of the 'hive mind,' where individual voices are suppressed. Far from demanding conformity, the new knowledge culture is enlivened by multiple ways of knowing. This collective exchange of knowledge cannot be fully contained by previous sources of power - 'bureaucratic hierarchies (based on static forms of writing), media monarchies (surfing the television and media systems), and international economic networks (based on the telephone and real-time technologies' - which depended on maintaining tight control over the flow of information. The dynamic, collective, and reciprocal nature of these exchanges undermines traditional forms of expertise and destabilizes attempts to establish a scriptural economy in which some meanings are more valuable than others.(14) The old commodity space was defined through various forms of decontextualization, including the alienation of labor, the uprooting of images from larger cultural traditions so that they can circulate as commodities, the demographic fragmentation of the audience, the disciplining of knowledge, and the disconnect between media producers and consumers. The new information space involves multiple and unstable forms of recontextualization. The value of any bit of information increases through social interaction. Commodities are a limited good and their exchange necessarily creates or enacts inequalities. But, meaning is a shared and constantly renewable resource and its circulation can create and revitalize social ties. If old forms of expertise operated through isolated disciplines, the new collective intelligence is a 'patchwork' woven together from many sources as members pool what they know creating something much more powerful than the sum of its parts.
HOW COMPUTERS CHANGED
KNOWLEDGE CULTURE MEETS
The horizontal integration of the entertainment industry - and the emergent logic of synergy - depends on the circulation of intellectual properties across media outlets.(36) Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows. Such marketing strategies promote a sense of affiliation with and immersion in fictional worlds. The media industry exploits these intense feelings through the marketing of ancillary goods from t-shirts to games with promises of enabling a deeper level of involvement with the program content. However, attempts to regulate intellectual property undercut the economic logic of media convergence, sending fans contradictory messages about how they are supposed to respond to commercial culture.(37) Rosemary Coombes and Andrew Herman have documented intensifying legal and political skirmishes between corporate lawyers and consumers. Many fan webmasters post their 'cease and desist' letters in order to shame the media industries: shutting down grassroots promotional efforts results in negative publicity.(38) Often, the conflict boils down to an issue of who is authorized to speak for a series, as when a Fox television executive justifies the closing of Simpsons fansites: 'We have an official website with network approved content and these people don't work for us.' It is perhaps symptomatic of this highly charged legal culture that fandom.com, a company created to support fan community activities and thwart 'cyberbullying,' almost immediately began issuing 'cease and desist' letters to other sites which used the term, fandom. Ultimately, fandom.com was forced to back down but only after it had totally undercut its claims to be 'by and for fans.' Levy sees industry panic over interactive audiences as short-sighted: 'by preventing the knowledge space from becoming autonomous, they deprive the circuits of commodity space of an extraordinary source of energy.' The knowledge culture, he suggests, serves as the 'invisible and intangible engine' for the circulation and exchange of commodities.(39) The on-line book dealer, Amazon.com, has linked bookselling to the fostering of on-line book culture. Readers are encouraged to post critical responses to specific works or to compile lists of their favorite books. Their associates program creates a powerful niche marketing system: Amazon patrons are offered royalties for every sale made on the basis of links from their sites. Similarly, the sports network, ESPN, sponsors a fantasy baseball league, a role-playing activity in which sports fans form teams, trade players, and score points based on the real world performance of various athletes. Such activities give an incentive for viewers to tune into ESPN for up-to-the-minute statistics.(40)
Attempts to link consumers directly into the production and marketing of media content are variously described as 'permission-based marketing,' 'relationship marketing' or 'viral-marketing' and are increasingly promoted as the model for how to sell goods, cultural and otherwise, in an interactive environment. Jupiter Communications notes that 57 percent of consumers visit a new site based on word of mouth.(41) As one noted industry guide explains, 'Marketing in an interactive world is a collaborative process with the marketer helping the consumer to buy and the consumer helping the marketer to sell.'(42) Researchers are finding that fandom and other knowledge communities foster a sense of passionate affiliation or brand loyalty that insures the longevity of particular product lines.(43) In viral marketing, such affiliations become self-replicating as marketers create content which consumers want to actively circulate among their friends. Even unauthorized and vaguely subversive appropriations can spread advertising messages, as occurred through internet spoofs of the Budweiser 'whazzup' commercials.
Building brand loyalty requires more than simply coopting grassroots activities back into the commodity culture. Successful media producers are becoming more adept at monitoring and serving audience interests. The games industry, which sees itself as marketing interactive experiences rather than commodities, has been eager to broaden consumer participation and strengthen the sense of affiliation players feel towards their games.(44) Lucas Arts has integrated would-be Star Wars gamers into the design team for the development of their massively multi-player on-line game. A webpage was created early in the design process and ideas under consideration were posted for fan feedback. Kurt Squire describes the benefits of this 'participatory design' process: 'Ordinary users, who are ordinarily left out of the design process, can bring their expertise using products to the conversation, and help ensure more usable products. This ends up saving money for the designers, who can spend less energy in user/customer support. And, of course, this process results in more usable products, which benefits everyone.'(45) Game companies often circulate their game engines as shareware, seeking to unleash the creative potential of their consumers. In some cases, fan designed "mods" or game worlds (such as Counterstrike) have been integrated into the commercial releases. Maxis, the company which manages the Sims franchise, encourages the grassroots production and trading of 'skins' (new character identities), props and architectural structures, even programming code. Sims creator Will Wright refers to his product as a "sandbox" or "doll house," viewing it as an authoring where consumers can play out their own stories, than as a "hard-rails" game. Ultimately, Wright predicts, two-thirds of Sims content will come from consumers.(46)
It remains to be seen, however, whether these new corporate strategies of collaboration and consultation with the emerging knowledge communities will displace the legal structures of the old commodity culture. How far will media companies be willing to go to remain in charge of their content or to surf the information flow? In an age of broadband delivery, will television producers see fans less as copyright infringers and more as active associates and niche marketers? Will global media moguls collaborate with grassroots communities, such as the anime fans, to insure that their products get visible in the lucrative American market?
FROM JAMMERS TO BLOGGERS
Dery's essay records an important juncture in the history of DIY media. Over the past several decades, emerging technologies - ranging from the photocopier to the home computer and the video cassette recorder - have granted viewers greater control over media flows, enabled activists to reshape and recirculate media content, lowered the costs of production, and paved the way for new grassroots networks. Recognizing that their revolution would not be televised, the 1960s counterculture created an alternative media culture, using everything from rock to underground newspapers, from poster art to people's radio, to communicate outside the corporately controlled media, and in the process, student leaders proposed theories of participatory culture that would influence subsequent activists. The DIY aesthetic got a second wind in the 1980s as punk rockers, queer activists, and third wave feminists, among others, embraced photocopied zines, stickers, buttons, and t-shirts as vehicles for cultural and political expression.(48) These groups soon recognized the radical potential of videotape for countersurveillance and embraced the 'digital revolution' as an extension of earlier movements towards media democracy.(49)
Many of the groups Dery describes, such as Adbusters, ACT UP, Negativeland, The Barbie Liberation Army, Paper Tiger Television, and the Electronic Disturbance Community, would happily embrace his 'culture jammer' banner. Yet, Dery over-reached in describing all forms of DIY media as 'jamming.' These new technologies would support and sustain a range of different cultural and political projects, some overtly oppositional, others more celebratory, yet all reflecting a public desire to participate within, rather than simply consume, media. Dery, for example distorts the fan community concept of 'slash' when he uses it to refer to 'any form of jamming in which tales told for mass consumption are perversely reworked.' Unlike the other jammers he discusses, however, fans do not see television content as 'ugly, dull and boring' or necessarily see themselves as acting in opposition to dominant media institutions. Fans would strongly disagree with Mark Crispin Miller, who Dery quotes sympathetically as explaining, 'TV has no spontaneous defenders, because there is almost nothing in it to defend.'(50) Culture jammers want to opt out of media consumption and promote a purely negative and reactive conception of popular culture. Fans, on the other hand, see unrealized potentials in popular culture and want to broaden audience participation. Fan culture is dialogic rather than disruptive, affective more than ideological, and collaborative rather than confrontational. Culture jammers want to 'jam' the dominant media, while poachers want to appropriate their content, imagining a more democratic, responsive, and diverse style of popular culture. Jammers want to destroy media power, while poachers want a share of it.
'The territory mapped by this essay ends at the edge of the electronic frontier,' Derry wrote, expressing optimism about the emerging political and cultural power grassroots media activists might enjoy in a context where media flows are multi-directional.(51) Yet, he also cautions that the media industries will find alternative means of marginalizing and disenfranchising citizen participation. Such a new media culture might finally respond to the jammers' 'dream of community... and yearning for meaning and cohesion.' Returning to this same terrain at the end of the decade, it is clear that new media technologies have profoundly altered the relations between media producers and consumers. both culture jammers and fans have gained greater visibility as they have deployed the web for community building, intellectual exchange, cultural distribution, and media activism. Some sectors of the media industries have embraced active audiences as an extension of their marketing power, have sought greater feedback from their fans, and have incorporated viewer generated content into their design processes. Other sectors have sought to contain or silence the emerging knowledge culture. The new technologies broke down old barriers between media consumption and media production. The old rhetoric of opposition and cooptation assumed a world where consumers had little direct power to shape media content and where there were enormous barriers to entry into the marketplace, where-as the new digital environment expands their power to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media products.
This essay has used Pierre Levy's concept of collective intelligence to examine the transformed role of the audience in this new media economy. Levy rejects any notion that the new knowledge communities should be framed in terms of their resistance to the power of the culture industries, even if he also rejects the idea that their activities can simply be subsumed to corporate interests. Levy describes a world where grassroots communication is not a momentary disruption of the corporate signal but the routine way that the new media system operates: 'Until now we have only reappropriated speech in the service of revolutionary movements, crises, cures, exceptional acts of creation. What would a normal, calm, established appropriation of speech be like?'(52)
Perhaps, rather than talking about culture jammers, we might speak
of bloggers. The term, 'blog,' is short for weblog, a new form of personal
and subcultural expression involving summarizing and linking to other
sites. In some cases, bloggers actively deconstruct pernicious claims
or poke fun at other sites; in other cases, they form temporary tactical
alliances with other bloggers or with media producers to insure that
important messages get more widely circulated. These bloggers have become
important grassroots intermediaries - facilitators, not jammers, of
the signal flow. Blogging describes a communication process, not an
Bloggers take knowledge in their own hands, enabling the successful navigation within and between these emerging knowledge cultures. One can see such behavior as cooptation into commodity culture in so far as it sometimes collaborates with corporate interests, but one can also see it as increasing the diversity of media culture, providing opportunities for greater inclusiveness, and making commodity culture more responsive to consumers. In an era marked both by the expanded corporate reach of the commodity culture and the emerging importance of grassroots knowledge cultures, consumer power may now be best exercised by blogging rather than jamming media signals.
1. Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace (Cambridge: Perseus, 1997), p.217.
2. The phrase, "imagined community," comes from Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on The Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991). Anderson argues we feel strong affiliations with nation states even though they are too large for us to have personal contacts with all of the other citizens and cites the role media plays in providing the social cement between these scattered populations. Levy, p.125, introduces the concept of an "imaging community" to describe how a sense of affiliation emerges from an active process of self-definition and reciprocal knowledge transfer.
3. A fuller account of Gernsbeck's role in the development of science fiction fandom can be found in Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits (New York: Verso, 1991). For a fuller account of contemporary literary SF fandom, see Camile Bacon-Smith, Science Fiction Culture ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
4. John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek (London: Routledge, 1995).
5. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self : Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Touchstone, 1984) provides some glimpse of the centrality of science fiction in that early hacker culture, as does my study of Star Trek fans at MIT in Tulloch and Jenkins, ibid.
6. Susan J. Clerc, "Estrogen Brigades and 'Big Tits' Threads: Media Fandom Online and Off" in Lynn Cherney and Elizabeth Reba Weise (Eds.), Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace (Seatle: Seal, 1996).
7. Nancy Baym, "Talking about Soaps: Communication Practices in a Computer-Mediated an Culture," in Cheryl Harris and Alison Alexander (Eds.) Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity (New York: Hampton Press, 1998).
8. Levy, p. 20 .
9. Baym, pp.115-116.
10. Baym, p.127.
11. Matthew Hills, Fan Cultures (London: Routledge, 2002).
12. Susan J. Clerc, "DDEB, GATB, MPPB and the Ratboy: The X-Files Media Fandom, Online and Off," in David Lavery, Angela Hague and Marla Cartwright (eds.) Deny All Knowledge: Reading the X-Files (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).
13. Henry Jenkins, '"Do You Enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid":alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author and Viewer Mastery" in David Lavery (Ed.) Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995).
14. For a useful discussion of the ways that the net is challenging traditional forms of expertise, see Peter Walsh, "That Withered Paradigm: The Web, The Expert and the Information Hegemony," http://media-in-transition.mit.edu.
15. Hills, op. cit.
17. For an overview of anime and its fans, see Susan J. Napier, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (Pallgrave, 2001)
18. Kristen Pullen, "I-Love-Xena.Com: Creating Online Fan Communities" in David Gauntlett (Ed.), Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age (London: Arnold, 2000). See also Sharon Cumberland, "Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women, Desire, and Fan Culture," http://media-in-transition.mit.edu.
19. Fan Fiction on the Net, http://members.aol.com/KSNicholas/fanfic/slash.html
20. The phrase, "Week End Only World," is discussed in the concluding chapter of Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1991).
21. Andre McDonald, "Uncertain Utopia: Science Fiction Media Fandom and Computer-Mediated Communication" in Cheryl Harris and Alison Alexander (Eds.) Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity (New York: Hampton Press, 1998).
22. Nancy Baym, Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom and Online Community (New York: Corwin, 1999).
23, Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and The Politics of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997).
24. Elena Garfinkle and Eric Zimmerman, "Technologies of Undressing: The Digital Paperdolls of KISS,' in Katie Salens (Ed.), Beyond the Object, Zed.5, Center for Design Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University,1998.
25. Katie Salens, "Sc4attergun Edit: Telefragging Monster Movies," in Bart Cheever and Nick Constant (eds.), Dfilm (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).
26. For a fuller discussion of fan video practices, see Textual Poachers. For a larger context on amateur media production, see Patricia R. Zimmermann, Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).
27. Henry Jenkins, "Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence and Participatory Culture," in Bart Cheever and Nick Constant (Eds.) Dfilm (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001).
28. Levy, p.121.
29. Levy, p.123.
30. Kurt Lancaster, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performances in a Media Universe (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001).
31. Levy, p. 125.
32. Amelie Hastie, "Proliferating Television in the Market and in the Know," Console-ing Passions, Bristol, 6 July 2001.
33. Lancaster, p. 26. See also Alan Wexelblat,"An Auteur in the Age of the Internet" in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (Eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).
34. Allison McCracken, "Bronzers for a Smut-filled Environment: Reading Fans Reading Sexual Identity at Buffy.com," Console-ing Passions, Bristol, 6 July 2001.
35. David Spitz, Contested Codes: Toward a Social History of Napster, Masters Thesis, Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT, June 2001.
36. See, for example, Eileen Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!": The Political Economy of a Political Intertext" in Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio (Eds.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991).
37. This formulation of the issue was inspired by Sara Gwenllian Jones, "Conflicts of Interest? The Folkloric and Legal Status of Cult TV Characters in Online Fan Culture," Society for Cinema Studies Conference, Washington DC, 26 May 2001.
38. Rosemary Coombes and Andrew Herman, "Defending Toy Dolls and Maneuvering Toy Soldiers: Trademarks, Consumer Politics and Corporate Accountability on the World Wide Web," presented at MIT Communication Forum, 12 April 2001.
39. Levy, p. 237.
40. For example, see Amy Jo Kim, Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities (Berkeley: Peachpit Press, 2000).
41. Jupiter Communication, as cited in "Just Exactly What is Viral Marketing?," http:marketsherpa.co.uk.
42. Don Peppers, Introduction, in Seth Godon, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers (NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 1999), p.12.
43. Robert V. Kozinets, "Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meanings of Star Trek's Culture of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, June 2001, http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/JCR/journal/
44. See, for example, Elizabeth Kolbert, "Pimps and Dragons: How an Online World Survived a Social Breakdown," New Yorker, 28 May 2001.
45. Kurt Squire, "Wars Galaxies: A Case Study in Participatory Design," Joystick 101, www.joystick101.org, forthcoming.
46. Personal interview, April 2001.
47. Mark Dery, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the
Empire of Signs (Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1993) http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/~mlaffey/cultjam1.html
48. For a useful overview of media activism in this period, see Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture (New York: Ballatine, 1996).
49. Philip Hayward, "Situating Cyberspace: The Popularization of Virtual Reality," Philip Haywood and Tana Wollen (Eds.), Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen (London: British Film Institute).
50. Mark Crispin Miller as cited in Dery.
51. Dery, op cit.
52. Levy, p.171 .
53. Levy, pp.36-37.