February 20, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Five): Communities of Users

This is part five of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting.

Communities of Users

Rethinking the Individual Consumer
So, does it make sense any more to speak about media audiences or for that matter, consumers in this brave new world of spreadable media? Probably not. Witness the profusion of new terms which seek to describe "those people formerly known as the audience." (Rosen, 2006) Some call them (us, really) "loyals," (Jenkins 2006) stressing the value of consumer commitment in an era of channel zapping. Some are calling them "media-actives," (Frank 2004 stressing a generational shift with young people expecting greater opportunities to reshape media content than their parents did. Some are calling them "prosumers," (Toffler 1980) suggesting that as consumers produce and circulate media, they are blurring the line between amateur and professional. Some are calling them "inspirational consumers" (Roberts 2005), "connectors" or "influencers," suggesting that some people play a more active role than others in shaping media flows.

Recently Facebook was struggling with definitions such as these. In an aim to separate the users from the businesses, Facebook created a new profile category called 'pages'. When relating with a business' page, instead of becoming a friend, in usual Facebook fashion, the user becomes a fan. Six months after Facebook launched this new category, the terms are already starting to become murkier, and now in the users profile it no longer says "Jane is a fan of" but "Jane's Pages", the term is more open yet also more ambiguous. Andrew Lockhart, at the Thinking Interactive blog, suggests that companies might want to allow the user to define what type of relationship they want to have, between, for instance, fan, advocate, friend, coworker. Such a move would also give businesses a better understanding of how these users want to engage with them. Sometimes we just want to buy things which are adequate to the purposes we want to use them for but not so vital to our sense of ourselves that we want to proclaim them to other people. The Facebook interface offered too limited a range of options for expressing our diverse affiliations with brands. Even where consumers actively seek to spread your content or advocate for your brand, they want to do it on their own terms and may be very particular about the kind of language they use to describe this relationship.

For some time now it was thought that the way to insure this success was by reaching the so-called "influencers", this term comes from Malcom Gladwell's (2000) book The Tipping Point. As Gladwell puts it, "What we are really saying is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others." Gladwell's "influencer" model has become almost an article of faith in most discussions of viral media. The most widely quoted example is the comeback made by Hush Puppies shoes, according to Gladwell, due to their adoption by specific Williamsburg tastemakers. He bases his theory on Stanley Milgram's 'Six Degrees of Separation' study, where 160 Nebraskans were instructed to send a letter to a particular stockbroker in Boston by giving it to someone they thought was socially closer to that person. As is now widely known, it took roughly 6 people for each letter to reach its destination. When Gladwell analyzed the study he discovered that it was the same three friends of the stockbroker who provided the final link, and this is where the "influencers" theory comes from, determining that certain connectors are more important than others.

For the past seven years, network-theory scientist Duncan Watts (Dodds, Muhammad and Watts, 2003) has been studying these results and running other experiments of his own. After testing Miligram's theory with 61,000 people he confirmed the average length of the chain was in fact six links, but he did not find any evidence of "influencers". There were as many chances for a message to get passed by a "super-connected" person than by an average one. Messages move through society from one weakly connected individual to another. So the question now becomes, not how to reach the influencers, but how do individuals choose to behave in a networked society and what kinds of social structures best support the spread of content.

Yochai Benkler (2007) argues:

Human beings are and always have been diversely motivated beings. We act instrumentally, but also noninstrumentally. We act for material gain, but also for psychological well-being and gratification and social connectedness.
This seemingly simple statement further more complicates the idea of a networked society and hinders attempts to predict the way communities of users will act. On the other hand, this more nuanced vision allows us to have a deeper understanding of the diverse online behaviors. For instance, there are countless explanation for why people might join a particular social network or make the decisions they do when they come there.

According to Benkler, this shift into a networked information culture does improves the practical capacities of individuals in that:

  1. It improves their capacity to do for and by themselves.

  2. It enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others.

  3. It improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere.

It is because of these empowered individuals, their new capacities, and their desire for social interactions that spreadable media is possible. If the technology was available, but society hadn't undergone any cultural changes, we would still be operating exclusively under a sticky model. Benkler has observed that this new society gives "individuals a significantly greater role in authoring their own lives, by enabling them to perceive a broader range of possibilities and by providing them a richer baseline against which to measure the choices they in fact make."

Consumers are choosing to be part of participatory culture in diverse and fluid ways. Forrester Research has developed a useful taxonomy of the types of participation that occur in networked environments; it starts with the most passive users and finishes with the most active participants that publish their own content at least once a month. It's important to note that while this ladder helps us visualize a complex process, users don't necessarily adhere permanently to these roles, and more than likely, behave in different manners within different communities. Moreover, seeing it as depicting a process of ever more intense engagement with media content may mask the degree to which it also describes an economy, with each rung of the ladder performing tasks which are needed to support those below and sometimes above them. So, even some one who is a lurker may provide a sense of empowerment to contributors by expanding the scale of the community and thus motivating them to put more effort into their work. Someone who is a critic may create value for creators but so may someone who collects what the creators create. And the interplay between these different kinds of cultural participants creates opportunities for communication to take place and thus for content to be transmitted.

Rethinking Communities

Such communities are also quite diverse in themselves. In fact, games scholar James Paul Gee (2004) has defined some of these groups as "affinity spaces," affinity that is, for a common endeavor. He argues that the romantic notions of community do not apply here as engaging with one another is a secondary objective, if it exists at all, in some cases, though it may be a primary objective in others. Gee is interested in the kinds of informal learning which takes place in the cultures of gamers, for example, which depend heavily on the sharing of knowledge towards common if sometimes contradictory goals. Such "affinity spaces" can provide greater motivation for the production and circulation of information, may offer a "hothouse" context where new ideas may emerge, may offer motivation for people to intensify their participation. We form non-exclusive relationships to these kinds of "affinity spaces": we may have multiple interests and thus we may engage with multiple different "affinity spaces" in the course of any given day. Older notions of community often started from assumptions of exclusive memberships, whereas this focus on social mobility and multiple commitments helps us to understand how content might spread quickly between different "affinity spaces" as members trade information from one site to another. Not all "affinity spaces" operate according to the same social dynamics. Lara Lee, from Jump Associates, has offered a promising typography for thinking about the social structures of different kinds of communities:

  • Pools: Here people have loose associations with each other, but a strong association with a common endeavor or with the values of the community. Most brand communities are pools, so are most political organizations.

  • Webs: Webs are organized through individual social connections, so the ties with each member are stronger and they operate in decentralized manner.

  • Hubs: In a Hub, individuals form loose social associations around a central figure, as in the case of fan clubs. Hubs may form around brands but they are more likely to form around dynamic figures who embody the values of their company -- a figure like Microsoft's Bill Gates, say, or Virgin's Richard Branson. Such strategies only work when there is a clear connection between the brand's values and the personality of this central figure.

Each of these social structures may be valuable from the point of view of a brand or a media franchise. Hubs are most likely to be influenced through dominant figures, whereas the other two may be shaped by any member. Media content which supports shared activities is most apt to circulate through pools, while that which sustains social connections is most apt to be valued within webs.

Lee's taxonomy seek to understand what motivates our membership in particular kinds of shared social spaces. Others have sought to explain the different barriers to entry which shape alternative kinds of communities:

  • Open: These spaces do not require any registration in order to participate. Users can leave anonymous posts, as is the case on some kinds of blogs or online forums. However, without some form of reputation system, the possibility of engaging in a common endeavor is more limited, resulting in short lived communal experiences. Members feel little or no strong emotional ties to such communities which they enter and exit on a whim. They may move through many such social spaces in the course of a single session online.

  • Free registration: This is the most common way of implementing a space for a community exchange, it's present in the majority of social networks (the ones that operate by outside selection are the exception) and most blogs and message boards. This model has given sites like Amazon the necessary data to customize itself to its community's and individual user's needs. It's in these open and free communities where the spread of media is possible and successful.

  • Purchase: These spaces function within the logic of a sticky model. They operate under the assumption that once you buy your way in, you will stay in. Evidently most of the content within these spaces is proprietary and its spread is limited. The transmission of desired content beyond its borders poses a threat to its subscription model, though closing off that content from wider circulation often makes it harder for potentially interested consumers to determine the value of what it has to offer. These spaces tend to be hubs with very little interaction between the users and it is this lack of strong social ties which has led to growing skepticism about so-called corporate communities.

  • Outside Selection: These are closed spaces with gatekeeper. Their value is in their exclusivity and specificity, but due to their closed off nature, they don't encourage the spread of media, although they might generate buzz.

Although we've used the concept brand communities a couple of times, it's important to reiterate that communities aren't created, they are courted. Most brands will need to court a range of different communities and travel across pools, webs, and hubs if they want to reach the full range of desired consumers. To achieve that, they must embrace what filmmaker Lance Weiler calls "The Scattershot Approach." The idea is to be available for your users in whichever way and every way they deem appropriate, be it through a web site, widget, RSS feed or embeddable video, making the process of finding and communicating with you as easy and enjoyable as possible. That may be the strongest incentive for shifting from a sticky paradigm, which often is a one-size-fits-all model, towards a spreadable paradigm, which allows consumers with diverse interests to retrofit your content to serve their local needs and interest. Your job is to make it available to them in a form where they can deploy it and often to provide them with the tools or widgets required to make it accessible to others within their communities.


Benkler, Yochai (2007). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Networks Transform Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dodds, Peter Sheridan, Muhammad, Roby and Watts, Duncan J. (2003) "An Experimental Study of Search in Global Social Networks." Science, 301(8), pp. 827-829.

Domb, Ana. (2008) "Bringing Awesome to Self-Distribution," Convergence Culture Consortium Blog,

Frank, Betsy (2004). "Changing Media, Changing Audiences." Remarks at the MIT Communication Forum, Cambridge, MA. April 1.

Gee, James (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things can make a Big Difference. Boston: Little Brown.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lee, Lara. (2007) "Lara Lee on brand Community Pioneer Harley-Davidson." Boston University.

Lockhart, Andrew (2008). "The 9 Types of Brand Community Expanded." Thinking Interactive.

Roberts, Kevin (2005). Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands. New York:Powerhouse.

Rosen, Jay (2006). "The People Formerly Known as the Audience." PressThink, June 27.

Toffler, Alvin (1980). The Third Wave. New York: Morrow.