March 18, 2009

The Fallacy of Free (part 2/2)

This is a continuation of part 1

The fallacy of "free" therefore, comes down in many ways, to a problem of language. However, as we showed in "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead" with the use of the term "viral," language is never a small matter because it both describes and enacts power. That is to say, the words we use to describe things also influence how we understand them. In the case of "viral" marketing, as we persisting in talking about it as such, we continually obscured user-agency in the passing of content, which prevented people from asking the crucial question of why and for what purposes content circulated. Similarly, if we continue to talk about these systems as "free" or "give away," we perpetuate the perception that there is nothing being given back, that there is no exchange. In short, it makes it difficult to analyze the changing terms of transactions between businesses and users in so-called "free" models if we persist in speaking as if there is no transaction taking place.

Continue reading "The Fallacy of Free (part 2/2)" »

The Fallacy of "Free" (part 1/2)

This is part 1 of a small piece looking at the discourse of "free" and "give away" policies and services online. It is part of the ongoing research I'm currently working through in examining the nature of value exchanges in a spreadable media environment.

"The idea of a pure gift is a contradiction." -- Mary Douglas

"Free" is a term that has come into vogue in recent years to describe many of the systems of information and services made available in the so-called new media landscape. In 2008, editor Chris Anderson proclaimed "free" to be "the future of business" (Anderson 2008) on the web. But the word "free" means to be exempt from something, so in calling these things free, we need to be able to answer the implicit questions of what, exactly, are they free from?

"Free," in many cases, has been conflated with "no-cost," with the suggestion that the web is rife with free goods and services -- free email, free social networks and video hosting sites, free content and information -- because we don't have to pay for them. The Free Software movement is a great example of a thoroughly-considered use of the term that addresses its multiple implications, both economic and ideological. But for the most part, "free" in popular marketing discourse is commonly assumed to be a measure of monetary value. And though the specific uses of "free" deployed by Free Software is outside the focus of this piece, there's certainly an important lesson to be learned from an old joke amongst users of Linux: it's only free if your time isn't worth anything. This joke gets to the heart of why the term "free" is problematic for describing the new economic and social models emerging online: to continue to call these things "free" implies that money remains the only thing of value to be given or gained, a proposition that runs counter to how most of these systems are regulated.

Continue reading "The Fallacy of "Free" (part 1/2)" »

March 13, 2009

Research Update: Platforms, Audience, and Television's Shifting Landscape

Lately, my research at C3 has been making me think of that Nissan commercial with the tagline, "A shift has been made." Thanks to the passive voice, we don't know who made the shift or why. We only know that it happened and that it's trying to sell us a car. Of course, I'm thinking about television.

The way we understand the "time and space" of the television viewing experience has shifted. Networks once dictated when viewers saw television content, but new technologies now allow viewers to "watch TV" on their own schedules. Similarly, content once existed only on television sets, but now "watching TV" can happen on a phone or computer just as easily.

Continue reading "Research Update: Platforms, Audience, and Television's Shifting Landscape" »

March 9, 2009

The Value of "Free" Content: Youtube Silences Music Videos in the UK after Licensing Dispute

Strange news from across the pond: due to a dispute over licensing, the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK, YouTube is no longer going to host music videos in the UK. For a more detailed breakdown of the situation, cnet as a thorough write-up, but gist of it is that PRS want more licensing fees for the right to host the material, the costs of which YouTube considered "prohibitive." There is also reported to be a lack of transparency about what content will be included in the licensing deal. Meanwhile, the PRS suggested that YouTube is not paying a fare share of their revenue.

It's somewhat unclear as to what stands at the heart of the controversy, whether it is centrally a question of IP or of revenue share, though it does speak to the struggle and difficulty of finding models ownership and compensation in the digital space and takes us towards a much more complex problem of how to determine whether content drives people to YouTube or if the social relations on YouTube drive the circulation of content. According to the cnet article, there is also the question of if record companies are profiting from having their content on YouTube. Putting aside the issue of whether or not YouTube is sharing enough of its revenue, this issue of the "profitability" of putting music videos on YouTube seems, in my mind, to miss the point.

Continue reading "The Value of "Free" Content: Youtube Silences Music Videos in the UK after Licensing Dispute" »

March 6, 2009

The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga

This is a post Henry wrote for his blog in early February that touches on a number of key issues the Consortium engages with. I thought it might be worth revisiting "The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited)"

The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga
by Henry Jenkins

Writing in 1991, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio (the co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program) used the Batman as an example of the kinds of pressures being exerted on the superhero genre at a moment when older texts were continuing to circulate (and in fact, were recirculated in response to renewed interests in the characters), newer versions operated according to very different ideological and narratalogical principles, a range of auteur creators were being allowed to experiment with the character, and the character was assuming new shapes and forms to reflect the demands of different entertainment sectors and their consumers:

Whereas broad shifts in emphasis had occurred since 1939, these changes had been, for the most part, consecutive and consensual. Now, newly created Batmen, existing simultaneously with the older Batmen of the television series and comic reprints and back issues, all struggled for recognition and a share of the market. But the contradictions amongst them may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans' lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman's continued success.

(See The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media)

The superhero comic, they suggest, may not be able to withstand "the tension between, on the one hand, the essential maintenance of a recognizable set of key character components and, on the other hand, the increasingly necessary centrifugal dispersion of those components."

Retrospectively, we can see Pearson and Uricchio as describing a moment of transition from continuity to multiplicity as the governing logic of the superhero comics realm. Rather than fragmenting or confusing the audience, this multiplicity of Batmen helped fans learn to live in a universe where there were diverse, competing images of their favorite characters and indeed, to appreciate the pleasures of seeing familiar fictions transformed in unpredicted ways.

Continue reading "The Many Lives of The Batman (Revisited): Multiplicity, Anime, and Manga" »

March 4, 2009

Branding in Bahia: camarote T-shirts and Spreadable media made (literally) material

For details about how Carnival works in Bahia, please refer to Ana Domb's post.

It's fitting that we're closing in on the end of our Spreadable Media white paper series on the blog just as Ana and I begin to discuss our experiences and research in Brazil, beginning with our time spent in Salvador for Carnival. In Spreadability, we propose a model of thinking about media brands and properties as not only consumer products, but as symbolic goods that circulate and thrive due to the adaptability and customizability of their social value. That is, media is spread when we can make personal and social use of it.

In addition to being an unparallel social and cultural event, it was evident from the 500% hotel mark-ups and tightly and intricately produced events that Carnival is also very much an industry, especially in Salvador. And much of that industry has to do with event-based advertising and sponsorship. Thus, advertising at Carnival serves as a provocative example of precisely this hybrid social/commericial space, as Ana suggested in her post with the notion of "brand syncretism," in which brands provide rich materials for cultural expression and the articulation of community or loose social affiliations.

Continue reading "Branding in Bahia: camarote T-shirts and Spreadable media made (literally) material" »

March 2, 2009

Skittles, Spreadability, and the question of social media authorship

[Note: this was originally written for and posted at]

A funny thing happened on my way to check out the new Skittles homepage-as-social-media-experiment that's been generating all sorts of attention over my twitter feed. I went to the homepage, and in my sleep deprived idiocy, entered today's date in their terms of service agreement instead of my birthdate.

And since Skittles decided to take my word for it that I was born today, it deemed me underage and thus not the appropriate audience for it's free-for-all social media aggregation scheme.

While it was indeed my own oversight that got me blocked from their page, the block speaks to the underlying problem with this stunt, which is that while the idea seems interesting, the execution and practical application might fall somewhat short of potential.

There is, of course, the technical side in which their terms didn't manage to catch that I'd entered an impossible birth date. But beyond that, there are other practical issues, such as the overlarge navigation console pointed out by Stan Schroeder at Mashable. Moreover, as Christopher Carfi astutely observes in his blog, with no way to regulate the signal/noise ratio, the site runs the risk of people loosing interest because of the sheer volume of content.

However, what interests me is that my mistake this morning presents a dilemma that has yet to be discussed in the first flush of interest and excitement over's new strategy. For all intents and purposes, in aggregating this content through their site, and thereby putting it under their terms of service, they are effectively taking content that is otherwise open to and created by the public -- what is essentially public discourse -- and branding it, then resetting the parameters for access.

Continue reading "Skittles, Spreadability, and the question of social media authorship" »

Add to Technorati Favorites