February 18, 2008
Fandom, Dialogue, and Independence

We spend quite a bit of time here on the Consortium's blog writing about and thinking about the relationship between producers and consumers, particularly in the media and entertainment space. As regular readers know, my own Master's thesis work at MIT dealt with how this relationship manifests itself today in the soap opera industry in particular (see here, for instance), and the energy of the Consortium and many people surrounding the CMS program here at MIT are often dedicated to these questions.

While I hold fast to the idea that companies must treat their fan communities with some esteem and pay attention to the discussion taking place around their product, perhaps even communicate directly with those fans, we also see that this desire to get closer to fan communities can quickly become a desire to control communities in many cases. It's quite a mistake to think that all fans want, through the social connections they form online around brands and media properties, is to get closer to the official productions of these shows. After all, that's one of the biggest misconceptions that caused some of the controversy surrounding Fanlib.com, which we wrote about several times in the past year (see, for instance, here).

This is one of the problems with the "community management" model that C3 Consulting Researcher Robert V. Kozinets wrote about last month as well. (I wrote about this post briefly earlier this month). Rob responds to a comment on his blog in which user Ron describes the role of the online community manager as one who guides, "at times with an iron fist, but only so long as their actions can be accepted and seen by the community as good for the community. It's very much a case of leading by running slightly faster than the others, only with a handful of bright shiny objects to occasionally use for course correction as well as an ultimate authority to basically boot anyone who gets too far out of line."

Kozinets replies:

Now, as Ron points out, this is control for the greater good. The greater good being The Company's greater good. Corporate community managers are beneficent rulers, online baron landlords with velvet gloves as well as "iron fists." But even they have limits to their jurisdiction or credibility. Can't push the people too far. [ . . . ] Although I’m having fun here, there’s really nothing I disagree with of Ron's statement, except the notion that all communities can or should be managed. In fact, when you pose the question like that it sort of seems ridiculous.

Now this doesn't mean that companies like Communispace have it all wrong. Rather, it means that a holistic understanding of communities built around shared fandom must understand the need for both communication between producers and consumers, as well as the need for fan conversations independent of any mediation with "TPTB."

This takes me to a recent post from Nancy Baym, whose work I have referenced here on the C3 blog in the past (see here, for instance), in which Baym responds to a comment from Russell T. Davies of Doctor Who, who says that science fiction producers are "way too engaged" with their fandom.

Baym writes:

One of the key points I find myself coming back to repeatedly is the importance of letting fandoms have their independence -- providing enough information, goodies, and attention to nurture it, but letting it belong always to the fans who create it. When fandom is a subsidiary of the production company it sets everything up for power struggles, for self-censorship, for legal-enforcement dilemmas, for feelings of accountability and betrayal that are beyond the bounds of duty on both sides. Fans need their own spaces to do their own things.

I've never thought that official fan sites hold candles to the ones fans build themselves. If I were one of the thirty zillion Dr Who fans traipsing about the internet, it's hard for me to believe the BBC would really offer the best fan discussion, even if Davies allowed it.

Be sure to give it a full read if you're interested in this subject because I think it further clarifies the need for greater understanding the many different purposes communities come together around media properties, brands, topics, and issues online.

Any thoughts on our work on the issue? E-mail me at samford@mit.edu.