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November 18, 2006

FOE: Fan Cultures

Fan Cultures
Biographical information for each panelist is available here.

Diane Nelson, President of Warner Premiere for Warner Brothers. Diane talks about her role with digital content production and her work over the past six years managing the Harry Potter franchise for Warner Brothers and the implications of fan communities on global brand management. She also discussed the fascinating global and cross-platform characters the company deal with like Batman, Superman, and Willie Wonka. "As new as everything going on in media and technology is, it's all very much the same." She said the underlying themes for discussing fan communities is understanding the consumer as people and their motivations in using the brand and the need to respect them. "Respect is the single biggest word I would use in relation to fans or any consumer, for that matter." Using her work with Harry Potter as an example, she said that fans begin to feel a sense of ownership over property once they become involved. "How deeply that shows itself is a wide spectrum," she said, from fanatical expressions or just expression in purely economic forms. "Who they are and what's driving them particularly is important if we want to speak to fans with any relevance and authenticity."

Molly Chase, Executive Producer of New Media Department, Cartoon Network. Molly discussed her work with the Cartoon Network site and its Hispanic equivalent for its Hispanic-American fans. She emphasized that her employees are definitely fans of the media they promote, which they feel sets them aside from some other networks. She said that she feels that respect is a theme in dealing with fans. For Molly, the idea of respecting fans and respecting content is closely intertwined, in language that positions the fans close to the content. By correlating the fans with the content, it creates a distinction where fans seem to have some autonomy and power in relation to understanding and managing content. She also talked about creating a range of experiences for a particular show, that would allow someone to play a simple game for five minutes as content online or a yearlong game that expands over time, depending on how deeply one is a fan of the entertainment property.

danah boyd, UC-Berkeley Ph.D. student and social media researcher for Yahoo! and Annenberg School fellow. She discussed her work in doing ethnographies for social networking sites, most recently with MySpace, through the sites' presences in both U.S. and global spaces. She looks in particular at the types of fan behaviors and how that disrupted what was intended in the beginning to be dating sites, and now what types of teen practices have shocked parents with MySpace in particular. "For me, it's about looking at the way collective processes are happening and the way outsiders get to see this because of the popularity of the phenomenon." danah talked about ownership and the agency that fans have to take entertainment properties and making it part of their own identities. "Why do we go out and shop and play with brands and mix and match and come out with clothing that expresses ourself? One of the cool things you see with digital embodiment, such as the notion of profiles, is to take cultural artifacts that you see as part of your life into a digital form to share something about who you are." She discusses the feeling of empowerment that comes along with mastering this material. For instance, she sees the kitsch blending of various brands and images of MySpace profiles as being much like the average teenager's room. danah's writings are available on her site.

Also, see Rachel Clarke's post about this panel with more detailed transcripts of the event. You can also see Erica George's notes at Writing in Clay.

Understanding Who Fans Are.
danah brings up the "freaks, geeks, and queers" who first used Friendster and how the company eventually responded. Since it was conceived as a site that would be used for "hooking up" in a dating sense, bands began to appropriate it and try to use these sites to start reaching out to potential fans. She said that Friendster flipped out when it wasn't used in the way intended and started killing off profiles of the people who were misbehaving, calling them Fakester profiles. More of danah's work on Fakester is articulated here. She said that this is what empowered MySpace because they worked with fans in many ways. MySpace launched with Korean, Hawaiian, and L.A. hipsters. While Friendster was persecuting bands for using their site for marketing, MySpace catered to them, so the popularity of MySpace launched along with a music culture. She said that it initially drew in a lot of hardcore indy rock fans who then sent their friends invites. The friends may not have necessarily been as ardent rock music fans, so they started using the site for their own purposes once they join. "Music served as the cultural glue for MySpace because even those who wouldn't think of themselves as fans could participate in different ways," she said.

Molly said that fans often use one's site in ways they didn't original anticipate. She discuses a digital card trading community Cartoon Network created in which players were able to seek out a specific person to play them, through hundreds of thousands of players. However, fans weren't interested. "My Spidey-sense was going crazy because this wasn't what we expected," she said. "We were missing something huge. So we got the team together to help figure out what we are missing. We decided that maybe they didn't care who they were playing against." They figured that the IMing and other social networking options available to players meant that they weren't coming to this site for those types of opportunities. Instead, they added an instant match option to where you could immediately play, and the usage went up 20-fold. She said that it emphasized the importance of keeping fans involved throughout the process of developing a prototype.

Diane points out that the Internet is used for reaching out to people, not isolating one's self. She said that it's important to realize this social space of fan communities and that, when a product is released to the masses, consumers begin to engage with it and feel ownership. "You can't and you don't want to turn that off, but it is difficult to deal with it," she said. She discussed the complications with slash fiction and Harry Potter. In this case, with a brand developed around a child audience, she said that the question gets tricky with sexual stories about the characters in the Harry Potter universe. "Where is the responsibility with the media company and the creator who knows that the primary audience is children, or that a meaningful part of the audience is children?" she asked. "Is it okay to allow those children to inadvertently wander into areas that are another expression of fandom?" She said that Warner Brothers learned the hard way that the answer isn't making it black and white and trying to shut down unappealing aspects because ownership of products is a meaningful activity for fan communities. She said they generally say that, while they know it is happening and that they aren't going to tell slash writers not to do it, they are not condoning that behavior and are careful not to create the perception that it is official or linked with the property, especially since they are trying to draw the broadest audience possible.

Eric Fleischer from WWE asked the question about the dangers of relinquishing control especially when people are making inappropriate contact under the guise of being a personality owned by a company they are not, such as MySpace profiles of professional wrestlers who organize fake autograph signings and send around invites. "What sort of controls are put in place in the communities you know about to keep a handle on these things?" he asked. "Those fake profiles are tremendous for fans and encourage that kind of fan behavior. But we want to have a level of control on it," he said, pointing particularly to the dangers of fans going to meet people for autograph signings or events that are not real and the questions of what is being advocated under the guise of the company's name or a performer's name. danah boyd points to all of the positive aspects of these behaviors as well, while Diane says that, rather than thinking about controlling the users who are misbehaving or who are using taking on a persona in a negative way, companies should develop a connection with the fan community and then inform them when people are doing something wrong in the community. She said that fans generally work together to keep someone from victimizing others or using the brand inappropriately. She also gave an example of the script leaking for the last Batman movie, only to have fans suppress the distribution of that document. Molly pointed out that wrestling was something she enjoyed and that she even created a Web site for the Nitro girls when WCW was a Turner property.

Henry Jenkins pointed out that the whole concept of pro wrestling is about the blurred line between fantasy and reality and how ironic that the question about distinctions between real and unreal was coming from a WWE representative, although he acknowledged the legitimate safety concerns implied in the questions. He brought up that part of the audience's desire to participate in the first place is to be in-the-know and to perform as an audience member, pointing to CMS student and C3 researcher Sam Ford's work in the pro wrestling world. Sam's research on wrestling fan behaviors is reflected in a recent post here, and his other work on pro wrestling has appeared on this blog multiple times, such as here and here and here.

Legal Distinctions
Building off of Eric's concerns, Molly brings up problems when groups are legitimately using brands in inappropriate ways or explicitly trying to make money off a brand, such as a cartoon product that distributes cartoon pornography but making its URL in a way that it is trying to catch people looking for the Cartoon Network site. "While these are fans who have obviously taken their time to create something and I appreciate their artistic expression, but there is a difference between fans and opportunism," she said. "In this case, we would send a cease-and-desist letter." She said that this case, though, is much less ambiguous than others. She points to another case in which they had characters and catch phrases to generate promos that they decided to put up on YouTube. Then, the legal department, who was completely separate from them, sent out cease and desist letters that ultimately came back to the marketing department. "Putting the content out there consciously is something we want to do, but we have to communicate that very well internally," she said. As Diane said, it is a point of people trying to be opportunists and financially exploit brands rather than thoughtfully engage or express their interest in them.

danah pointed to MySpace's initial concerns about YouTube as a place to distribute pornography and briefly banned YouTube on MySpace but eventually came around. That's when YouTube numbers really began to take off, when they put an announcement up that they were allowing YouTube sans pornography on member sites. Diane said that, even with her reservations, she ultimately is hard pressed to think of ways in which fans devalue a property. "I don't see any of these behaviors as devaluation," she said. "When people are invested enough to spread property and increase and create new forms, any media producer should be thrilled to have it." She says that the real value of any product is determined by its cultural cache. Molly pointed to Stephen Colbert's driving viewers to naming an Hungarian bridge as a particularly good example, with all types of names submitted for this bridge. "I was just saying, 'Please let Cartoon Network be represented!' To be on that list is to be culturally relevant. And we were on there, but unfortunately so was SpongeBob."

Understanding Fandom
Molly said that fans often communicate and support things with grassroots movement because they want to encourage good behavior on the producer's behalf. "Fans have said that they want to reward Cartoon Network for what they've done," she said. "They are making a conscious effort to say thank you." And she says fans are motivated to this behavior because they want to encourage more good behavior from the producers. "Usually when fans contact you, either it is to say, 'I want more' or 'Here's all the reasons why you have destroyed what I love,'" she said. "To get unabashed, highly positive feedback, we understand that fans are saying they want more."

danah speaks to the idea of a misguided separate but equal policy, dividing adult users from child users, for instance. She also talked about viciousness within fandom and how to handle these situations when certain fans don not have the best of intentions at heart. Finding that balance between a collective environment and an anarchistic environment is not always easy. Diane discussed the Catwoman film and the massive negative reactions to the cat suit when the visuals were first released. "I think we did ourselves a disservice in two regards with Catwoman," she said. "One is that the film wasn't very good, so that cat suit became a representation of a story that under-delivered for fans and general consumers. But some of our producers were so paralyzed by fear with the negative reaction to the cat suit that it was pulled back and not shown anymore."

danah went back to the comparison of Friendster's genocide of grassroots personalities to MySpace's embrace of bands and fake profiles. She said that an expansion of the Top 8 into a Top 16 or Top 24 was the number one request, and they offered it to anyone who added the X-Men as a friend in promotion for the new movie over the summer. She talked about how adding these corporate friends leads to all of their bulletins as well, though. "This is where MySpace becomes a marketing device," she said. "once you convince the user to be friends with you, when you post your message to the bulletin, they receive it. The first 100 companies who figured this out were golden, but most of them were small niche companies. Now, everything has a MySpace profile. It is used as a marketing tool that erveryone now ignores." danah suggests that there is a level to which fans like this type of marketing because it seems to help them show their identity or fun and interesting, but many can start to feel manipulated when it becomes systematic and organized marketing. "MySpace is now in a precarious position," he said. "About half of the population using MySpace is under 18, and the majority of the rest are under 35, and there are other populations here who hold powers over most of the MySpace users--parents, bosses, teachers, police officers--and then those who have desires to manipulate and abuse them--marketers and pedophiles."

The panel also discussed the global impact of fan communities and designing products for multiple fan communities from different cultures, as well as the combination of a few major sites that drive traffic and the vast majority of tiny sites that drive traffic to places for their 10 or 15 readers, the fan relationship with advertising, the Revver model, and more.

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