April 28, 2006

Afternoon's Brainstorming at C3 Conference

We're currently wrapping up here at the C3 conference with a tremendous brainstorming session of our own research priorities as we look toward a second year of research for the Convergence Culture Consortium. Of course, the nature of that aspect of our work remains internal, but our thoughts are greatly influenced by an illuminating series of speakers this afternoon.

Joshua Green, a post-doc at CMS who will be taking over the position of research manager for the consortium in the coming year, looked at how American programming was marketed in his native Australia, particularly what did and did not work and why.

This was followed by a session looking at business opportunities in multiplayer game worlds featuring C3 business manager David Edery, Harvard Business Review's Paul Hemp, C3's Ilya Vedrashko, and Chris Weaver, a visiting professional and professor here at the Comparative Media Studies program and a faculty member with C3.

The nature of convergence culture and the current state of the media industry is in flux right now, and the type of engagement and discourse we have had here on the blog and within C3 is refreshing, considering how little time there is to stop and think about the implications of what is currently happening in the industry and the possibilties for the future.

While in this reflective mode, we would likewise like to see any feedback readers might have regarding our focuses here on this public face of the Convergence Culture Consortium. We are grateful for those of you who engage in our dialogue. Feel free to e-mail us or continue in our public dialogue on these issues as you are. In true "convergence culture" form, we want this site to be a forum of discussion, not just a top-down message from us to you but a true discourse.C

The Morning's Sessions Here at the C3 Conference

We are currently engaged in an in-depth discussion of teasing out particular issues of media convergence this morning and have just broken for lunch. And the morning's sessions has provided a lot of food for thought that people are mulling over while consuming their actual foodright now. Our four speakers this morning have provoked a lot of discussion, both from the academics gathered here today and the folks from Turner Broadcasting and GSD&M who are visiting today, as well as the C3 team.

We began the morning with a great discussion of Web 2.0 by Shenja van der Graaf. Shenja, an associated academic member of the Convergence Culture Consortium currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, is examining the shift, both culturally and technically, in the way the Web is utilized and what it means for the current media climate.

Anthropologist Grant McCracken, another member of C3 and one of our most active off-campus asscoiated faculty members, engaged everyone in an in-depth discussion of the history of the concept of entertainment and its current fate today. His discussion merged his very conceptual analysis of the very idea of entertainment with a business-focused "where are we now?" question that turned into a great conversation with both the academic and industry communities in the room.

Recent MIT Media Lab graduate and new Comparative Media Studies post-doc Hugo Liu, who will be engaging in work with C3 in the future, made a fascinating presentation about using tools to filter, recommend, examine, and organize cultural and social preferences. Considering the endless amount of content online, the way these tools allow us or could allow us to navigate, interpret, and come to develop an undersatnding of what's going on is a rich area to think about as we move into an unparalleled age of information online, thinking back to Shenja's presentation earlier in the day.

Finally, John Edward Campbell presented on his in-depth work of online gay communities and understanding these forums as a forum for political discourse. His work looks at how these sites bring to the forefront debates about free speech, concern for liability for sites hosting these debates, and the divide between consumer and citizen on online sites.

While the power of this week's retreat seems to be the intimate discussion we are having here while brainstorming as a team, and a lot of the content of those discussions aren't available for public consumption because much of the research we do is specific to the interests of our faculty and corporate partners, I feel that the general theme of these presentations and the discussion is very much open for public debate by all of you that follow this branch of C3. And, for those of you who are here at the conference who read this, feel free to comment on or complicate what I have taken away from the morning's presentations.

C3 Retreat's First Day

We had very productive conversations yesterday at the first day of our Convergence Culture Consortium (C3) conference/retreat for several of our associated faculty and representatives from some of our corporate partners as well. We've been talking about the nature of convergence culture and how it affects the media industry, fan communities, and those studying the media.

What's great about this environment, where distinguished academic minds from around the world come together with some of the most innovative thinkers in the media industry, is that a genuine dialogue bridging the gap between academics and the industry we are studying begins to take place. Sure, as Henry Jenkins pointed out in our introductory notes yesterday, business people have a language of their own, and academics often speak a language that seem to have little to do with English, but we have seen those linguistic obstructions to be hurdled throught the past day.

Henry's comments and William Uricchio's insights about historic media in transition, one of his areas of specialty that he has published on several times, set the stage for an illuminating panel that was open to Comparative Media Studies students, in addition to conference attendees, here at MIT last night. Since that session was open to the public--whereas the earlier sessions and all of today's sessions are private for our C3 team members, we can go into a little more detail about the nature of yeseterday evening's presentations.

Ian Condry, an anthropologist on the faculty here at MIT, joined Rob Kozinets, marketing professor at York University in Toronto, participated in a discussion with Henry Jenkins about some of the current meanings of convergence for both fan communities and brand communities. Both Ian and Rob are associated faculty with C3.

Ian's presentation looked at fan subtitling of anime that has not yet been marketed in the United States. Ian has been researching this community and the anime industry in general for several years.

Rob focused on the changing nature of looking at brands in the experience economy, tied to his in-depth research on Burning Man, the annual celebration of art and humanity that takes place out in the Nevada desert.

What was interesting was in seeing how attitudes in fan communities and brand communities, as presented by Ian and Rob, both converged and collided, and the discussion that ensued about how the existing media industry can learn from and make decisions based on these communities and activities.

Both Ian's and Rob's sites point to their related published research on these topics, but they started a vibrant discussion last night that has everything to do with what we blog about every week here on the C3 site, and we'd like to extend this discussion to our extended C3 family here on the site, if anyone has any thoughts on these issues...

Convergence in the Academic Realm

For those of you who follow this blog regularly from the academic world, you all know the struggles of interdisciplinary interests in academia. And for those of you from industry or from fan communities or just with a general curiosity, you can imagine how the idea of convergence at it is taking place in the media industry is in some ways being mirrored in the academic realm.

Where do you study media studies? Where do you study popular culture? Is it sociology, anthropology, literary studies, history, communication, broadcasting, etc.? At MIT, we have a department dedicated to interdisciplinary study related to the media--Comparative Media Studies. But, of course, we only have a handful of faculty that works full-time in our department and then a plethora of associated faculty in most of these other areas, who are officially parts of anthropology or literature departments.

On April 14, I was a member of a four member panel at the National Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Atlanta, where we discussed these very problems, of how academia can reflect these changes and can adapt outdated molds of distinctive "disciplines" that never meet and that define themselves often by being "NOT" the other disciplines, with specialized argot and academic rules to keep boundaries clear.

My presentation was about "breaking those walls down," but...as people wonder with convergence, whether in the media industry or in journalism (both of which are talking about convergence endlessly), if we break those walls down, what do we have left?

Henry Jenkins, in his new book Convergence Culture, warns about what is called "The Black Box Fallacy," where people believe that everything will just become one. Journalists fear the "uberjournalist," that corporations are going to try to make one person do broadcast, print, Internet, etc. But these situations are not what convergence is, and the same is true of academia. Blurring distinctions doesn't mean that the anthropologist, the literary critic, or the historian doesn't exist. It just means that we will have a more open flow of communication.

We had about 25 or 30 people present for an hour and a half discussion, a great turnout for an academic panel. My colleagues from Western Kentucky University, Ted Hovet and Dale Rigby, and my wife Amanda Ford, all participated in the panel, and we discussed how academia needs to make these interdisciplinary links by reconceptualizing the way that the idea of "disciplines" work.

Does anyone have any thoughts about how this idea of "convergence" affects the academic world in terms of disciplinary boundaries?

April 27, 2006

Preparing for C3 Retreat: An Eye Toward Transmedia, Archive Distribution

Today begins our retreat for both faculty and corporate partners of the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3). We'll be discussing many of the issues that we look at in the consortium and discuss here on the weblog. A lot of the time will be spent as a private brainstorming session for partners at C3, but we hope to include some of the relevant insights available for public consumption here on the blog.

As a precursor to today's events, though, I've been traveling a lot in the past several weeks I've met with members of research and development at Turner Broadcasting and MTVN, two of our partners, along with World Wrestling Entertainment and some of the folks working with As the World Turns, at CBS and at Procter & Gamble Productions, in addition to members of the actual ATWT team.

What I've found is a growing industry awareness, at least in the areas I'm interested in, both in the importance to current story and product to promote past shows in the archives, and a related need to find more ways for fans to immerse themselves in the world of the entertainment. Herein lies the place for digital distribution of the archives in true Long Tail form, the place for transmedia storytelling, and the perfect platform to launch into new media. I've demonstrated recently here on the blog how this can work both in new media forms, such as the WWE's mobile service, and in a very old media form, such as Oakdale Confidential.

I hope what we're seeing right now is signalling a focus on these factors, that new technologies won't end up being used just to make new ancillary content that adds no real meaning to the main product or else just a dumping of old content without any thought given to how it relates to current products. If producers keep their eye on refining their goals and methods, they may serve to expand story worlds in ways that are both profitable for the company and meaningful for fans.

Do you all have any thoughts?

Channel Frederator and Fan-Generated Content

Today's Metro here in Boston had a great story on Channel Frederator, which lists itself as "The World's Original Cartoon Podcast." The site, for "mature audiences only," produces cartoon programming for adults, a market that founder Fred Seibert feels remains unjustly underserved.

What's so interesting about the podcasted cartoons is that they not only produce their own work but also accept work from amateurs, which--if good enough--becomes distributed by Channel Frederator, making it a true community of production where the line between cultural producer and fan becomes a little hard to distinguish. The editorial function remains with the producers, who decide what does and what does not get distributed, but Channel Frederator seems to get that fans want content generated by them to not just be considered ancillary but to be featured as well, at least the best of it.

Amber Ray's story in the Metro, "Fan-cast-ic," mentions that some viewers of the site complains about the sometimes-amateurish quality of some of the fan-generated content, but the founder retorts by pointing out that the drawing quality of great animated series such as Beavis and Butthead and South Park does so on much less "beautiful" pictures as cartoons like Looney Tunes.

April 19, 2006

Target Marketing--Fox Faith

The weekend edition of USA Today had an intriguing front-page article about the resurgence of faith-based films specifically targeted at the Christian community in America.

The article, written by Scott Bowles, touches on some of the aspects of grassroots marketing in Christian communities that I have posted about before in relation to Christian marketing and debate surrounding C.S. Lewis, which was utilized effectively in marketing the recent Narnia film.

Christian communities have powerful methods for word-of-mouth, with preachers and outspoken church members spreading the word about products. Christian bookstores are another powerful way to target the Christian community, and products from the Left Behind series to Veggie Tales have had strong support from Christian consumers, not to mention The Passion of the Christ.

The article details moves by companies such as Fox, who have created Fox Faith as a division of the company marketing to the Christian consumer. The site even includes materials for church disucssion on Fox Faith films, serving the all-important Christian literature market that bible bookstores are run on.

Fox Faith serves as an important reminder not to forget about the power of concentrated marketing and the unaparalleled grassroots power of American Christianity.

April 18, 2006

Is There Room for a New Way to Plan Media?

TV Commercials, print ads, billboards, Google Ad words, RSS ads--all kinds of advertisements--are ways for brands to reach customers. Each media has particular attributes, pros, and cons for their use as an advertising medium. The variety of places to advertise is overwhelming.

The people in an ad agency who make the decision on what ads to place where are media planners. They decide the best mix of media, how much of each, and the proper rotation to meet each client's particular objectives. Media planning is a discipline based upon objectives, budgets, reach, frequency, and meetings/lunches with media reps trying to convince the planners to use their media.

The end result is a schedule of all media that will be purchased for a campaign with the resulting audience delivered. Hopefully, the audience actually buys something from the company so that the investment in media dollars ends up making good business sense.

But of all the media choices, how do planners and clients know that the final media plan will actually deliver the best results for the dollars spent? Planners will tell you that's what their expertise does for their clients.

But is there another way?


The answer may lie in James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds.

Surowiecki's thesis is that given the proper conditions, crowds can make excellent decisions. Examples of prediction markets include the Iowa Electronic Markets, which have predicted the outcomes of US presidential elections more accurately than polling since 1988; the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which correctly predicted 35 of 2005's 40 big-category Oscar nominees and 7 out of 8 top category winners--and sells their data to movie studios; and newcomer Hedge Street, which seeks to predict future economic events.

In these markets, anyone can buy and sell shares of actors, directors, movies, and film-related options, in the case of the Hollywood Stock Exchange, and presidential nominees, in the case of the Iowa Electronic Markets. The idea is that a diverse crowd of people can make better decisions than one or two experts.

According to Surowiecki, there are three conditions needed to harness the Wisdom of Crowds:
1) The audience is diverse.
2) Everyone makes decisions independently of each other. In other words, there's no peeking.
3) There's a mechanism for aggregating everyone's decision.

Violate any of these conditions and the Wisdom of Crowds turns into the Madness of Crowds. Crowds that are homogenous tend to make similar decisions; crowds that can see what decisions other people are making tend to act like a herd of sheep, following the leader; and crowds that can not communicate their decision do not end up making one.

So, why can't we harness the Wisdom of Crowds in media planning?

The idea would be to develop a predictions market for media plans. Say, medium sized brand like Bianchi Bicycles, for example, needs a media plan. They post their requirements on the Media Planning Prediction Market (MPPM) website. Then, anyone can create a plan that they feel would meet their objectives and anyone can vote on everyone's plans. To maximize the quality of plans submitted, planners pay a modest amount for each plan they submit; a pay to play fee. Votes cost a modest sum, too. This provides incentive to choose wisely.

At the end of a predetermined amount of time, the plan with the most votes wins and Bianchi pays the planner for the plan. Winners receive a cut as well.

Note that anyone can create a plan and anyone can vote on a plan. To work best, the market need not be limited to people in the media industry, which satisfies Surowiecki's rule #1.

How will the media planning industry react? I predict most will think the idea won't fly. It minimizes individual's expertise in favor of a crowd. They'll concentrate on the Madness of Crowds, rather than the Wisdom of Crowds, ignoring Surowiecki's criteria for wisdom. But a few brave, smaller brands will take the plunge. Maybe they'll be Web 2.0 companies, who understand this Wisdom of Crowds thing in their bones. Maybe it's smaller brands that feel they have nothing to lose; maybe it's a band, or other entertainment property, that sees the PR value in being the first. I don't think it'll be a traditional business. But aside from the newness of the experience, I think the biggest objection will be from companies not wanting to put their objectives on the web for all to see. But doing so will be critical if they are to benefit from media plans that actually meet their objectives.

After a few successes, I believe the Media Planning Prediction Market will make room for itself in the marketplace and become a viable business. It won't take over the industry, but it may be a nice alternative, especially for smaller brands. The media planning industry is ripe for a prediction market; planning has many variables because of all the advertising choices, so complexity is part of its DNA. A Media Planning Prediction Market would roll up all the complexity into the decision of which is the best media plan out of the choices available. Crowds would help make the best decision.

Who 's with me on this?

April 17, 2006

McDonald's Breakfast Fanfic

Burger King may be entering the game space, but as reported via BoingBoing, McDonald's breakfast sandwiches now have their own fan fiction community:

This is a LiveJournal community for writers of McGriddle Fan Fiction, Breakfast Fan Fiction, and McGriddle Creative Writing. While our primary focus is on Fan Fic involving the McDonald's McGriddle, we extend membership to writers of any sort of breakfast food creative writing (i.e. McMuffins, Bagel Sandwiches, Pancakes, etc).

38 members so far, though -- as BB suggests -- I suspect this community is at least partly satirical. That said: would McGriddle/Croissanwich stories constitute breakfast slash fiction?

April 15, 2006

The Beatles Offer Songs for Legal Download

The top story in Friday's USA Today Money section focuses on the announcement that not only are the surviving members of The Beatles participating in a remastering of all of The Beatles' CDs but also that those remastered tracks will be made available for legal download once they are finished.

According to the story, the group's music has been held off from the the legal download market because they did not want to push their old tracks out when they were in the process of creating aesthetically superior work that better reflects the music.

The story, by Jefferson Graham, includes statistics from the Beatles/Cirque Du Soleil performances in Las Vegas that claims that the Beatles "are bigger than ever," according to Martin Lewis, a "Beatles expert" who hosts a Beatles show on Sirius radio.

The story discusses the frustration of Beatles fans of having only one recourse to have digital copies of Beatles' music--buy the CDs and then transfer them onto the hard drive and then onto the iPod--which has led to estimates of "hundreds of millions" of illegal downloads of Beatles songs.

Of course, plenty of people will be downloading the music for free even after these are made available, and it could be too little too late, but the promise of quality tracks being released may make enough people, especially Beatles fanatics, to be willing to chip in to buying the remastered CDs or the new tracks.

Is it "too little, too late" for The Beatles? Have they lost too much profit already? Or does the promise of owning the music legally and remastered copies make this a shrewd move? I am wondering if the wait for the remastered copies was worthwhile, considering the profits lost in the meantime. And, will the average person be willing to pay to download Beatles music they already own to have the remastered copy?

Either way, the reprecussions of this release should greatly shape how other music currently held in the archive is viewed...what is the value of remastered copies, when it comes to digital downloads? If The Beatles fare well, it will probably encourage even more growth in remastering old tracks for digital distribution. But, if The Beatles' doesn't do well in the digital realm with remastered songs, can anyone?

Surge in Online Game Spending

The top headline in Wednesday's USA Today looks at the way cable companies are looking toward online and cable game profits--online profits alone are projected to reach $3.5 billion by 2009.

In the story, David Lieberman looks at the buzz in the annual cable operators convention in Atlanta centering on pay-for-play broadband games, noting that if cable doesn't jump on the bandwagon to do everything possible to support online game play for PCs and for digital cable, that telephone companies won't hesitate to fill the need for the service.

Already, multiple cable operators are rushing to provide customers with extensive backlists of titles. In the story, Cox, ReacTV, and Comcast are quoted. While I'm in town here in Atlanta for the PCA conference, I was able to learn more about Turner's initiative. While the newest games are not being made available for such services for fear that it would cut the need for people to purchase the titles for themselves, the services are already proving that a lot of games can be pulled from the archives and provided to players, who are interested in the games for nostalgia, to grasp the history of gaming, and...the biggest reason of course--because they are intriguing games.

But the question is what the buzz is from the other side--the people who are jumping on board these subscription-style services or the on-demand pay-for-play services. Is this a fad, something exciting for technology's sake but whose power will taper off once people get used to the service? Or is this the beginning of the new way to play games? And what does that mean for those who provide the platforms or who benefit most from retail sales of games, as these services begin to introduce other possibilities?

Of course the cable industry is very high on the idea--they have the most to win, providing a product for a niche that is currently not being served. But, for other players, what is there to lose? What is there to fear? And, most of all, what does the consumer want? For those of you who are hardcore gamers, is there something special about "owning" the game versus playing it through a subscription service? And, as these services become more elaborate, will there come a day where interest in owning your own game is minimal?

April 13, 2006

Play It Your Way? (The King Goes 360)

Two appearances for the XBOX on the C3 blog in as many days: Water Cooler Games reports that the King will be a playable character in several new promotional games:

Market research company Greenfield Online is preparing a plan for Burger King to sell promotional Xbox 360 games in their stores. The games would apparently riff off 'the most popular game types,' adding the super-creepy Burger King character to an action, fighting, and racing game; customers would have the option of purchasing one for $4 with any Value Meal.

Now, given that the only thing that has intrigued me about the XBOX 360 thus far is the presence of the Burger King in the photo-realistic Fight Night: Round 3, this is an interesting tactic.

On top of which, given the price of XBOX 360 games, who's really going to pass up games -- even ones that are almost pure advertising -- at $4 a pop?

Update: Apparently there was some concern that this was an unsubstantiated rumor, but the cease-and-desist that Kotaku received seems to confirm it.

New Mobile Service will Further Storylines

World Wrestling Entertainment has started their own Mobile Alerts service that will send fans regular text messages of late-breaking news from the company, as well as polls and trivia. The news portion of WWE Mobile Alerts blends both legitimate updates--wrestlers who are suspended, hired, or fired, for instance--with the capability to use the service as a way to extend the storytelling world.

WWE is uniquely situated by being able to combine what many sports franchises are already doing in the realm of sports reporting--sending game score updates, for instance--with the WWE's fictional world because wrestling is one version of television entertainment that predicates on being a part of the "real world" in a way most other fiction shows don't.

The service costs $3.99 a month. We'll see in the next few months how many fans decide to plunk down the modest fee to be on the cutting edge of the WWE's storylines. If they get a hardcore fan base developed around Mobile Alerts, it could become an essential part of the storytelling device, similar to how the company is using its Web-only video programming to supplement the televised shows.

Does anybody know of similar instances where a "news reporting" mobile service is employed develop a fictional storyworld on a regular basis?

As the World Turns Novel a Success

For those of you who saw my previous post about Oakdale Confidential, here is a brief update now that the novel is out. During my recent travels, I've had a chance to read it, and I've even weighed in on the book myself on some of the soap opera message boards.

Oakdale Confidential is standard fare as a quick-read murder mystery, but the way it has been woven into the plot of the show makes it a more valuable purchase for ATWT viewers. On television, then novel is treated as a fictional story that nevertheless reveals some secrets about people in town--and people that are not exactly public figures. So the book and the identity of its author has become an Oakdale town scandal.

The mystery on the show is who wrote the book, and everyone is walking around with their copies, while viewers are also able to buy the book and read it, not just to enjoy for the sake of the story in the novel--which could be readable for a non-ATWT fan but likely not nearly as enjoyable--but even more so because the book gives you clues about who wrote the book and gives you the chance to directly own and consume an artifact from the story world.

What makes the book most intriguing is that viewers are looking through the text and examining shows carefully to get clues as to who authored it. There are several factual discrepancies in the book from what we have actually seen on screen that are illuminating for close watchers of ATWT, and my thoughts on the message board look into those parts of the text that stray from the "truth" we've seen on the screen in detail to get a better sense of who might be the author and why they may have either gotten facts wrong or deliberately chosen to omit certain things in their rendering of the story.

From a transmedia storytelling standpoint, the attempt has been a great success. Oakdale Confidential is currently ranked the #7 book on Amazon, up from #10 two days ago but down from #5 yesterday (the numbers are updated hourly). Message boards have come alive with debates about who wrote the book, and we have yet to see if Nielsen numbers reflect a surge in viewership based on part-time fans having an interest in the book or even new readers becoming interested in the show through picking the book up (and, if the Nielsen numbers don't reflect a major difference, is this really an indicator that it isn't happening?)

While the experiment shows how much more coordination is needed between the real author of the book and the television writing team to really exploit all the possibilities of taking the story from one medium to the other, the one thing that Oakdale Confidential has demonstrated quite powerfully is that such an attempt at transmedia storytelling is becoming more and more profitable and that viewers are eager to join into a deep transmedia experience. I am hoping that the experiment not only shows the people at ATWT that this was a good idea but also what to do better the next time around.

Burger King/Xbox FAQ: Poor Security or Viral Marketing?

Joystiq has linked to an FAQ on the partnership between Burger King and Microsoft's Xbox division, which has had rumors swirling around the web. The FAQ has the appearance of an internal document, which led Joystiq to speculate about sloppy security on the part of Equity Marketing's server administration, but it could just as easily be a deliberate leak aimed at promoting online awareness of the upcoming promotion.

Poor 'net security, or deliberate viral campaign? It's so hard to tell these days, and it'll probably only get harder...

April 11, 2006

Future of Television II: The Multiplicity Play

Continue reading "Future of Television II: The Multiplicity Play" »

April 6, 2006

No One Watches DVR Ads?

Via Lost Remote, MediaDailyNews has posted a news article claiming that Nielsen's minute-by-minute data and "commercial ratings" (i.e. ratings during commercial breaks) indicate that almost no one watches ads when a show has been recorded on a DVR.

While this conclusion falls nicely in line with my preconceptions (I wrote a white paper on product placement as a way of sidestepping DVR ad-skipping last semester), the evidence as laid out in the article doesn't provide much support for the argument it lays out:

"American Idol" posted a 12.1 in "live" numbers during commercials and a 12.2 in "live plus seven day," meaning that less than 1 percent of DVR viewers stopped for the ads. The same tiny increase goes for "Desperate Housewives," which saw a 10.2 during commercial breaks in "live" viewing and a 10.3 in DVR viewing.

Note that, as I understand ratings points, this is a deceptive claim. A 0.1 ratings increase indicates that only 1 in 1000 TV-watching households in the US watched the "American Idol" ads on DVRs... but that has no connection to the percentage of DVR viewers who skipped the ads when watching "American Idol" on their DVR. To get that number, we would need to divide the # of "American Idol" viewers who watched the ads on DVR by the total # of viewers who watched the show on DVR (and multiply by a hundred). Perhaps MediaDailyNews' source material actually did this math. I don't know.

The problem, however, is that you can't tell whether the "less than one percent" statistic quoted is legitimately derived from the information in the article. I'd prefer it if I could back up my position with hard numbers on a sensitive issue like this, instead of being fed (potentially) bogus interpretation by a news outlet. Until we get some better sourcing on a statistic like this, I'd strongly suggest that readers challenge anyone who claims that less than 1% of DVR users watch ads.

Death to User-Generated Content?

My friend Derek Powazek is the founder of {fray} amd JPG Magazine as well as the author of several books, including the excellent Design for Community. As a result of this, I tend to respect just about everything that comes out of his mouth. This week, however, I took issue with one of his weblog posts, which he'd titled "Death to User-Generated Content":

Can I make a suggestion? Let's all stop using the phrase "user-generated content." I'm serious. It's a despicable, terrible term. Let's deconstruct it.

User: One who uses. Like, you know, a junkie.

Generated: Like a generator, engine. Like, you know, a robot.

Content: Something that fills a box. Like, you know, packing peanuts.

So what's user-generated content? Junkies robotically filling boxes with packing peanuts. Lovely.

Calling the beautiful, amazing, brilliant things people create online "user-generated content" is like sliding up to your lady, putting your arm around her and whispering, "Hey baby, let's have intercourse."

When I read this opener, I naturally bristled. Much of C3's research this year has been dedicated to user-generated content, so to hear Derek blow it off so easily made me a little annoyed. However, Derek continues:

Lately the notion that the web is about "user-generated content" has been getting more traction. With the success of MySpace and Flickr, pundits are looking for a trend. And they've found one in this hateful phrase. But "user-generated content" is nothing new online. In fact, it's what the network was designed for.

So let's not give in to the buzzphrase du jour. Let's use the real words. Those people posting to Amazon pages? They're writing reviews. Those folks on Flickr? They're making photographs. And if we must have an umbrella term to describe the whole shebang, I have a suggestion. Try this on for size: Authentic Media.

Which, of course, is perfectly correct. However, it's not exactly what we mean when we say 'user-generated content'. To clarify, I shot him the following reponse:

The trouble is, there really is such a thing as user-generated content -- things like people designing furniture for The Sims and clothing in Second Life, which is then circulated online. It's not "authentic media", it's users generating content for a specific system. A user that spends their time replicating IKEA furniture that they'll then upload to the Sims website for other users to download isn't a furniture designer. They're a user generating content for the Sims environment.

I think the problem isn't the term, it's the rampant misuse of the term. Anyone who refers to the photos uploaded to Flickr as "user-generated content" isn't looking at Flickr the right way -- Flickr isn't primarily an art environment like a museum or a visual entertainment system, it's primarily a tool, like Blogger or Movable Type. Users aren't generating content for a system, users ARE the content of the system! Or, more specifically, the USE is the content of the system. To say these photographers are 'generating content' for Flickr is like saying that webloggers are content generators for Blogger, which is utter malarkey; you can navigate weblogs through the "recently posted" list as easily as you could surf Flickr, but no one's going to view Blogger as some kind of massive zine. The same should be asserted when dealing with MySpace, Friendster, and so on.

Derek's reponse:

Ask the person (not user) who is designing furniture for The Sims what they think they're doing. The answer is going to be "designing furniture" - not "generating content." ;-)

Which got me thinking. In a seminar tonight most of the C3 grad student researchers spent some time examining fan fiction, and while watching an interview with someone who writes fan fiction I found myself wondering if she thought of herself as a writer or as something else. Derek's right: studio heads at Paramount would view any fan fiction written about Star Trek to be either a copyright violation or 'user-generated content', and I doubt that the fans who create fan fiction think of themselves would bill their creations as such. So should there be another name for someone who generates IKEA furniture for Second Life or writes slash fiction about Kirk and Spock? Are you a furniture designer if you're just rearranging pixels to resemble existing furniture? Are you an author if you never create your own characters or worlds? Or are you just a user generating content?

April 5, 2006

Blending of Academic and Commercial Conference Logic

Two weeks ago, Electronic Arts Europe and the Technical College, Cologne organized a conference on "games and social reality" which is conceived as the first in a series of annual meetings. The impressions from the three-day conference were ambivalent but interesting nonetheless.
In Europe (and specifically Germany because of its focus on violence in games), Electronic Arts is the first big publisher which draws on the self-proclaimed group of 'game scholars' to improve the reputation of the games industry in public discourse which can be both boon and bane. The imbalance of the two partners was pretty obvious during the conference and showed through in various ways.
The whole CI of the event which was exclusively advertised as an academic conference (and open to the public) directly reflected the logic of sales shows, including large-scale ad banners, extreme press coverage, surprisingly stylish service staff, free give-aways, food and drink as well as game console terminals where visitors could play the latest EA games.
At the same time, however, the whole things was far more hierarchically structured than regular academic conferences. There was no call for papers, all contributors were hand-picked by EA from a small group of scholars who represent the German game studies discourse in a semi-institutionalized form. (with a few exceptions of international speakers) There was a series of VIP get-togethers which stabilize those social structures and Espen Aarseth did a presentation on the 'future of game studies' and was both welcomed and presented like a rock star whose glamor was first and foremost supposed to create a buzz for the media (it was a pretty good presentation, anyway), with no questions from the audience allowed.
I don't mean to describe this in a judgemental way but I think it is a good indicator of both the German stance towards games and game studies and of possible forms of upcoming ventures stemming from a closer cooperation between academia and the industry.

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