MIT C3 Retreat 2008: Some Comments and Remarks

Last week on May 8-9, 2008, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd annual retreat of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the MIT campus. I’ve been involved with the C3 group since their inception as a “Consulting Researcher” (and affiliate faculty member in the department). C3 was founded with Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins’ vision of bringing companies and academics together in a forum that would make idea exchange easier. A number of great people from major corporations were involved this year, including people from Fidelity Investments, Yahoo!, MTV/Viacom, and Turner Broadcasting. Industry speakers included Brian Haven from Keith Clarkson from Xenophile Media, Matt Wolf from Double Twenty Productions, Forrester Research, and Judy Walklet from Communispace. And for me, it was a thrill to meet a who’s who of fan community researchers—people who were absolutely fundamental to my thesis work and who built the universe of fan studies. These included Nancy Baym, Lee Harrington, Jonathan Gray, and Jason Mittell. I also had the opportunity this year and in the past to meet some excellent new scholars in the area, whose work is sure to open up many exciting new avenues of opportunity and insight. This people include Kevin Sandler, Derek Johnson, Gail Derecho, Aswin Panathambekar, Geoff Long, Sam Ford, and Ivan Askwith. And of course it was genuine pleasure to see my friend the esteemed marketing anthropologist and consumer culture icon, Grant McCracken, whose contributions are always elegantly-phrased and thoroughly thought-provoking.

I was asked to give a few opening remarks for the session on Friday morning entitled “Understanding and Managing Audiences as Communities.” I wrote a few notes to present to the group, some of which made it into my opening spiel, some of which I fit into later responses and ideas, and some of which remained as scribbles on paper until I typed them into the computer today. For what they are worth, I am happy to share them with you here:

I began this work in 1995 with a proposition that sounded more than a little bit strange at the time: that we could learn a lot about brand loyalty by studying the consumption of fan communities. It’s perhaps even stranger, but I never saw media brands and other brands as all that different at all.

I was young and naïve—an academic newbie. And I was relying on little more than faith and a few solid pieces of evidence that I’d noticed and held onto as a long-term members of early online communities on CompuServe and then Mosaic and Netscape. But I believe in my heart of hears that the same sorts of passionate communities that gathered for Star Trek, Star Wars, and Green Day would tell us a lot about the kinds of passionate following that could be inspired for Sony, Nike, and Campbell’s Soup.

Essential to my understanding was an early etymologizing of online communities that split out two fundamental motivational orientations in order to segment members’ styles. Those two orientations were how connected the community members were to the consumption activity and how identified they were with the community itself. This yielded a classic MBA 2 X 2 matrix with 4 ideals types: the tourist, the mingler, the devotee, and the insider. It has been found to be useful and explanatory—it serves as the cornerstone of most textbooks’ approaches to the types of online community that exist. In a coming soon blog, I plan to post an updated, complete, and completely revised version of the paper in which I introduced this typology, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next year.

In the ensuing years, the notion that people can be “fans” of a grand, and that online communities composed of these brand, product and categories fans has ceased sounding quite so weird, and begun diffusing into marketing awareness, led by several stark realizations about the storied, mediated, mythic natures of brands.

I barely even differentiate between media fans and brand and product fans anymore. Was the Cadbury gorilla a media phenomenon, or a CPG (consumer packaged goods) marketing one? What about Dove and The Evolution of Beauty and its entire Real Beauty campaign? Coca Cola in Second Life? Is that media, fandom, community, product, brand? Or all of them intermixed? There are so many different types of enthusiastic, expressive, lifestyle communities online to study: cooking classes on YouTube, shoe design forums on Niketalk, fashion communities, book communities, technology communities. Are they media, community, consumption, or fan phenomenon? The answer is yes. They partake in all of these elements.

So since 1995, I’ve been developing and expanding the technique that I call “netnography”—a systematic approach to conducting ethnography over the Internet. I’m pleased to find that it has been widely adopted. I’m now adapting it for use in rich new media like blogs, and vlogs, and for different types of social experience like SNS.

Last year, Bernard Cova, Avi Shankar, and I released a volume called Consumer Tribes that looks at this communal phenomenon through the anthropological lens of the tribal, a view that has been influenced by the postmodern philosopher Michel Maffesoli—who we tapped for a new chapter that appears in our book. In the introductory chapter to that book we wrote that there are inherent cultural tensions that the tribal movement (what I’ve been calling “etribes”) seek to negotiate, these are “tensions between consumption and production, between primitivism and postmodernism, between the commercial and the communal, nature and culture, past and present, oppression and liberation, conformity and transcendence.” We’ve found that tribes seek to hybridize and combine these elements in many serious and playful ways.

Four of the different style and activity modes that we found online communities (or, more generally, consumer tribes) using as they developed in the 21st century were: activation and plundering (which were different approaches to the appropriation of commercial marketplace cultural elements), and double agent or entrepreneurs (which were different approaches to how they regulate the flow of power and resources that comes with as combined consumer/producer role). This last role of the entrepreneurial tribes is extremely interesting to me. I believe it is the area of much growth in coming years as consumer will use the networking power of the Internet to gather into powerful social groups that will seek to contribute to the current social and moral issues that concern them, issues that include:” business ethics, the degradation of the environment, multicultural relations, wealth and technology sharing, and education.

Recently, we’ve seen a number of books written by people from the media industry decrying the rise of online communities and fundamentally misapprehending their nature. I’m going to review one of those books in an upcoming blog entry, but I’ll summarize here by saying that in general these books tend to see blogs, vlogs, YouTube, and the rise of Internet New Journalism and New Media creation as a serious threat to traditional media, traditional media being transplanted by a weak, poorly-made, dumbed-down alternative with crummy production values. A dilution of quality and a serious confusion of the standards of quality that results in, say, Reality TV replacing “real” quality TV.

In my estimation, we actually know very little about this phenomenon of online communities, online media creation, and online-inspired shifts in popular taste. That is why we need collaborations like this one—the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium’s blending of corporate interest and sponsorship with that of relevant academics from around the world—to continue and intensity. We need to get grad students working with companies in projects that help them hone their learning, and contribute to companies’ changing needs. We need companies to think closer about the role, availability, and presence of quality academic work. We need companies to inspire more of the types of questions that academics work on. Companies need to look at some of the wider social effects of these changes, and conceptualize how they are changing communities and society as they act. Academics need to turn to more topical, current, socially relevant questions, moving from abstract theory to actionable premises. Rather than leaving thinking about the implementation issues to others, academics needs to explore the “so what” questions themselves—investigating and answering what managers are supposed to do with their research results.

Some of the areas in online communities that we still know very little about, and which need a lot of further investigation are:

  • The different types of communities
  • The role of incentives in communities (when is it corrosive? When is it helpful?)
  • How big communities are different from smaller ones
  • What is the flow of social, cultural, and economic capital across different communities?
  • What is the life cycle of communities (they are a dynamic form)?
  • How are online communities as a phenomenon, and their dynamism., changing over time (the form of the form itself is changing)?
  • What is the relationship between communities as one form of network to other forms of communal reaching out—for example, people post their profiles on an SNS page, then link to their blog, and the blog cite an entry they noticed or made on a bulletin board, and the board post is about their YouTube video….we know very little about this type of communal flow of interrelations, some of which is captured in new social aggregators like Friendfeed

So there is a lot to do. I want to open up this discussion by saying that this is a very energizing time to be studying this phenomenon of online community. There has never been more action, activity, and opportunity in it, both as a phenomenon that is evolving, growing and changing, and in the world of business and academia.

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