Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

January 25, 2008

Should All Communities Be Managed?

Filed under: Communities and Tribes,Entertainment Marketing,Fandom,Netnography,Technology — Robert Kozinets @ 11:02 am


This blog has been getting a lot of interesting comments lately, and those comments always spark further rumination. Ruminate. Ruminate. I may not always respond right away, but you should know that I’m ruminating on them.

Recently, Ron “humbly submitted” (hey, I recognize another Twilight Zone fan when I hear one), “that there are a couple pieces here that the industry, or the profession [of community management teams] has down much better than academia [because] we’re in this stuff up to our necks every day.”

I agree we always have a lot to learn from the people in the trenches. Problem in the trenches is, it’s a lot about problem-solving, sometimes not so much about understanding. Ron said that “community managers” are a special breed. They are engaged in an honest, open dialog with the community”jointly engaged in a long-term relationship,” acting, ideally, as “an authority in good standing.”

Ron says that”the whole gig” of being a community manager “is to maintain a trusting relationship with the community.” Sounds like the idea of being a brand manager. But in other words, the community manager is both part of the community, and a leader of it, an authority figure, at a higher lever in the hierarchy because she controls the resources.

Here’s what Ron had to say:

“The community manager guides it, 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.”

I like the Pavlovian feel of “bright shiny objects,” “iron fists,” and course corrections. They have the carrots and they’re not afraid to use them. “Well done, Jeffrey, here’s a free membership to Wii-Monthly and a ticket to see “Aeon Flux: The 3-D IMAX Edition.” And the stick and the trapdoor. “You, you with the big potty mouth: Out!” The community manager is in charge. They are in control. Boo-yeah.

“There is nothing wrong with your community. Do not attempt to adjust the culture. We are controlling transmission . . . we will control the feedback. We will control the commentary… For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear… You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery that’s reaching from the Corporate Mind to… The Online Community.”

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.

In case of a disastrous event, they need to deal honestly and directly, “always with the view that the goal is prolonged positive relationship.”That’s interesting because it says to me that this community might outlast any particular company or any particular brands–especially true in online land, and in the world of entertainment offerings, like games. So it’s not just this particular community, maybe, in part, but it’s relationships with a holistic, pre-existing community that also matter. And so it is “a very active and meaningful role.”

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. Should the Chinese-American community be “managed”? Well, not really. Should the Catholic community be managed. That’s interesting. How about the African-American community? Well then why would you want to “manage” the science fiction or RPG or MMOG or young mom or low-carb dieting or Cola-drinking community? The question of course is managed by whom, for what ends? And why the heck wouldn’t you just let the community manage itself, while you interact with it? You: emissary, ambassador of corporate community. Them: receptive-but-at-times-understandably-skeptical consumer community. Not necessarily Leader of the Communal Charge, Chief Online Overlord, Corporately-Appointed-Ruler of This Hear Brand Coh-munit-tee.
The key of course is what Ron is talking about in relation to what I’m talking about. We’re actually comparing mangoes and pomegranates. My big interest is in these grassroots, self–managed, organic, naturally-occurring gatherings, often based more on a group of individual’s common structures of interest than a particular brand or corporation’s interests.

But Ron says it himself: what he is talking about is “online community in a site, a social setting, built around and hosted by the corporation (this is not etribes, this is a community dedicated to an ongoing relationship with a game, product, brand, etc.).” Not etribes. Managed brand communities. It’s a social site, but it is built around and hosted by the corporation. That’s why they control transmission. That’s why community managers can dish out bright shiny objects (“Would you like to win an Underdog Pez for your suggestion this week?”). That’s why they have their hands on the trapdoor level (“Away with you, Foul Potty Mouthed One! An Never Return!”). They control the resources, therefore they are in control.

And so this was a response to my blog about Dean Devlin and the Godzilla board, definitely a corporate run site. But it could also have been in response to my many other blogs about Communi-space and the idea of managed, created, community. And that’s where I like to draw some differences and maybe a few lines in the communal kitty litter.

I’m back to a particular metaphor that I like, which is the managed community metaphor. Kinds of works with online and offline communities equally well. I think that managers have been working with the idea of the manager as Good Cowboy. As I’ve explained it in a number of presentation, the community of consumers is conceptualized pretty much in this way:

  • As A Community of Consumers Needing to be Directing
  • Community Needing to be Controlled (for their own good)
  • Community Needing to be Owned (if we don’t Own them, our Competitors Will!)
  • Communities Needing to Fed (if we feed them, they we like and trust us; and need our food)
  • Communities Needing to be Weeded (mangy unkempt things!)
  • But always Managing Community to keep consumers happy
  • Happy, happy consumers

Mooo. Yeee-haw! Come on, Bessie. Move em out!

Yes, we’re “joint participants” in this community, but I’ve got the stick, the horse, the pen and the gun and it’s your job to eat the hay and make the milk. Or make the Wool and lie down and get shorn when we tell you to. Pick your metaphor. Don’t matter much to me.

Okay, that’s extreme. My point is that community is ALSO an emergent phenomenon. The E in eTribes Stands for Emergent. They emerge on their own. They are a phenomenon of Self-Organization. That doesn’t at all mean that they don’t have anything to do with managed communities. Of course they do. They are both manifestations of culture world and online world, two permeable, connection-seeking realms that dissolve boundaries. They merge, combine, and hybridize in all sorts of interesting ways.

An interesting example of this hybridizing just given in a BusinessWeek article about, the online photographic service. It’s a family run business, but where did they hired their additional 22 workers from who weren’t family? They recruited them from their message forum, Digital Grin ( They found people they knew, people they could trust, fellow members of their interest community, their affinity group, who already had an affinity for their service, brand, and company, and they helped them turn their hobby into a career (just as the owners had done). I saw the same sort of fan-amateur to professional evolution happen all the time in the fan community. Those are very permeable borders, and in the past I’ve called fandom a breeding ground for professionals. Why wouldn’t it be? And the same thing holds true oftentimes for online communities.

But Emergent etribes are different from the managed herd that Ron and the Communi-space people talk about, lead around, and experiment with. There are lots of interesting real-world intersections between these two types of communities that we need to explore, but they seem like two distinct categories. The Exchanges are different. The Benefits are different. The Rules are different. And what might be nice to manage and contain in one situation might be much better left in its feral state in another. I know that the instinct in companies is to want to manage their environment: that’s what they do. But there are also phenomenon that are best left alone. Or, hey how’s this, PARTS or ASPECTS of the phenomenon that are best left alone.

So that raises an interesting question. What’s a good mix of Domesticated to Wild Community for a company to have? Two parts to One? Depends on types of company, brand, consumption, community, I’d say. Depends on the company’s goal. Depends on the history. But I do think we need to think more subtly about Communities and company’s and organization’s relationships with them. These categories are important, and they’re constantly evolving. And it’s our job to think about them, understand them, and figure out what to do.

January 16, 2008

Barack Obama, David Palmer, and the Hypermediation of the Political Realm

Filed under: Marketing News & Insights,Marketing Science — Robert Kozinets @ 1:44 pm


With this historic election year upon us, I’ve been pondering the connection between the candidacy run of Barack Obama and the role of the mass media in this bid for the position of Leader of the Free World.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about the first season of Fox-TV’s hit show “24,” which featured counter-terrorism super-agent James Bond, oops I mean Jack Bauer, trying to save America’s first -and very promising–African-American Presidential candidate from an assassination attempt.

“24″ has actually featured African-American Presidents (or to-be Presidents, or ex-Presidents) in every one of its six seasons, which strikes me as remarkable. The show gathers a considerable audience of about 13 million viewers and has had, according to many critical accounts, an impact on American culture. Not only has it reflected post-911 fears of terrorism and concern with National Security, it has also reflected difficult and conflicting attitudes about gender, race and “the Other.”

Writing in “Canon Fodder” in June of this year, Lucia Bozzola drew some similar links in a very insightful analysis that I quote from here.Bozzola asserts that 24

“has made the presence of an African American president not only normal, but also desirable. Take, for instance, how the presence of the dearly departed David Palmer, and in this season his brother Wayne is treated by the show. Their race isn’t a big hairy deal. It’s certainly not the point of the show. Contrast that to Hillary Clinton’s canceled TV avatar Commander in Chief. The presence of a female president was precisely the point of the show, because oh my God, isn’t that just so high concept weird?”

So a woman President was treated as the central point of CiC, highlighted, emphasized, but 24 just accepted an African-American president. See also this related blog on Palmer Obama.

Then there is the matter of the characteristics of this racially Other President. On 24, [the actor] “Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer is smart, charismatic, informed, judicious. . . One of the reasons a freshman senator from Illinois with only two years of D.C. experience under his belt is even in the mix, let alone a major player, is because Obama proved in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that he has the presence to be ‘presidential’” (Bozzola 2007).

It’s interesting to draw the link, as Zack Pohl does here, between Haysbert’s contributions to Obama’s campaign and the two Presidential images.

Bozzola speculates here:

“Could such a state of affairs translate to real world actions? It depends on one’s faith in the general population outside of the bluest blues that are allegedly more open to such things. Considering all of the noise year after year about the deleterious effects of TV sex and violence, not to mention negative stereotypes, it would be unwise to completely discount what one of our favorite TV shows has been telling us for most of the Bush presidency. Indeed, one writer noted that the cabal of older white men currently in the White House have done such a bang-up job that we finally might be over the knee-jerk assumption that anyone but a white Christian man wouldn’t be right for the presidency”

Part of my early research has concerned itself with the way that mediated representations of future realities had a way of slipping into reality, sort of like the sort of morphic crystallizations that scholar and thinker Rupert Sheldrake has written about and that have been taken up in paranormal metascientific discussions of the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon. Think about it. So many contemporary devices have been envisioned and named by writers before they were created in physical reality: rockets, space travel, submarines, robots, computers, communications satellites, mobile phones, table PCs, big-screen TVs, and so on. The list goes on and on. These are, to borrow a nice turn of phrase, “The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of.”

In past writing, I have coined the term “hypermediated” to try to capture some sense of the cultural influence of our pervasive mass mediated images and symbols. George Gerbner’s influential school of “Cultivation Theory” argues quite persuasively that the mass media acculturate particular perspectives, making things seem normal or prevalent. In our field of consumer research Tom O’Guinn and L. J. Shrum are our native experts in this field, and their award-winning work has shown how cultivation effects lead heavy mass media viewers to over-estimate such things as numbers of police officers or attorneys in the population, or amount of actual violence occurring.

Media theorist Tony Bennett (1990) consider the reality-creation role of the mass media. He explains that the mass media have often been described and studied as “definers of social reality,” and that this description has very important social effects in regards, for instance, to news reporting and the democratic political process. However, the idea that the mass media define social reality still partakes in the older notion that the mass media reflect social reality, and thus that social reality and media reality are separable. Bennett rejects this idea, contending that the media are agencies of mediation between thought and action, and provide frameworks for interpreting events that actually structure our consciousness.

As Sarup (1993: 165) puts it:

Media practices have rearranged our sense of space and time. What is real is no longer our direct contact with the world, but what we are given on the TV screen: TV is the world. TV is dissolved into life, and life is dissolved into TV. The fiction is realized and the real becomes fictitious.

I like this quote a lot. Dissolution, intermingling. We can’t tell one from the other. That’s the essence of hypermediation rather than cultivation. I’ll be writing more on hypermediation theory soon in this blog.

From there, it’s only a small stretch to think that the media images of an African-American President can become a strong cultural influence and accustom people to particular new forms of governance.

Is 24 helping to prime America for an African-American President by virtue of the fact and the way that this President has been fictionally portrayed? I think that my own hypermediation theory and Gerbner’s cultivation theory would say yes. The determining question is, is this effect widespread enough to show up at the polls? Is Barack the candidate going to be as charismatic as Palmer the fictional president? And what about the competition, not only from Hillary Clinton, who is running a historic campaign in her own right, but from the Republican party candidate as well.

Real world complexity complicates every attempt at social scientific prediction. But I think Obama’s chances are very good. And maybe he can thank Jack Bauer and his writers just a little bit for that.

January 12, 2008

Godzilla and the Electric Community Acid Test

Filed under: Communities and Tribes,Fandom,Netnography,Word of Mouth Marketing — Robert Kozinets @ 12:41 pm

godzilla_rk.jpg acid_test_sam.jpg

I gave a talk this week to a great company here in Toronto that does very interesting work in the communications industry. We got into a lot of very interesting discussions afterwards about online communities and the topics revolved, interestingly enough, about creating and controlling online communities. That seems to be an ongoing topic of conversation and concern wherever I speak these days. This tension between “real” emergent tribes (as I say in my talks, the e in etribes is for emergent) and the desire to “manage” online communities, their outputs, their experiences, to have some control over this phenomenon. To influence it, or even sort of own it.

One of the conversations I’m thinking went something like this. A person from the company came up to me after my talk.

Company Person: I was wondering if we should create our own community from scratch, or try to convert people who are already in a community.

Me: Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. What are you trying to do?

Company Person: We’re trying to build loyalty.

Me: Do you think you can implant loyalty with a created community? Or seed it? Or intensify it?

Company Person: Maybe start it by convincing the people in the online community, then it would spread to other people and communities online.

Me (being a little provocative): Like fooling some of the people some of the time? Then it become contagious in some way?

Company Person: Hmmm.

Me: The problem with a lot of seeded online communities is that they’re not the same as the kind of communities that emerge on their own. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The issue with emergent communities is that they tend to be brutally honest. They tell each other things that are totally out of your control. Are you willing to let them do that? If so, then I think that maybe you can create a space where people act like this is a real, emergent community that they can call their own.

Company Person: What do you mean are we willing to do that?

Me: Well, there’s a little story I like to tell my students about the Godzilla web-site. Here, let me tell you about it…(cue sentimental, ‘way back when,’ HuckFinnMarkTwainy music…)’

Way back in the early days of the Web, in May of 1998 t’be exact, a big-budget, shrouded-in-secrecy remake movie of the famous Godzilla series came out. You might remember its memorable penile tag-line “Size Matters.” Ah yes, those were the days. At that time the film’s producer and co-write, Dean Devlin, and its director, Roland Emmerich, has started a production company called Centropolis Entertainment, which helped to market the film and produced an official “Godzilla ” website to build hype and promote the film. The website was a decent one, and the film’s producers knew that there was a lot of word-of-mouth flowing among Godzilla’s active fan community about the film. So, of course, they provided an open forum for those fans to discuss the film amongst themselves.

As a complete sidebar here, weren’t bulletin boards and newsgroups always Web 2.0? I know Web 2.0 is supposed to be corporate in orientation. Big business using communal creativity and openness to make good. But can somebody who advocates the smooth evolutionary transition from Web 1.0 in the dark early years of the eighties and nineties to the brilliant stellar Web 2.0 phase of the early 2000s please fill me in on that one? And what about Compuserve and Prodigy and Usenet and all the zillions of b-boards that were out there in the eighties? Weren’t they almost Classically Web 2.0? They sure felt that way to me. Was AOL a Web 2.0 company?

Where was I? Oh yes, Godzilla, or Gojira as my Japanese friends and I like to call him. The long-time fans were the first ones in line and the first ones past the red velvet ropes to see the movie. And they hated the movie. Hated it bigtime. So when they had a chance to post their comments and contribute to their community–which was, after all, not a new invention of Misters Devlin and Emmerich, but a long-standing community with lots of existing fans, practices, and networks–guess what they did? Of course. They criticized. They moaned about what a butchering, unfaithful, horrid hatchetjob had been done to their iconic film and its proto-iconic icon. And they warned other fans and interested people to stay away. It was not only a bad Godzilla movie, they told everyone on the forum, it was just a bad, stinky, terrible movie in general. Blech, blech, pooey pooey.

Now, that’s a real test of commitment to community, isn’t it? As managers, Misters Devlin and Emmerich had some decisions to make. In particular, how should they handle this? Abort, retry, engage, fight back, ignore?

They didn’t have the benefit that we do of having some wise advice in this area widely available from luminaries like Alex Wipperfurth and Grant McCracken and Andy Sernovitz and Henry Jenkins and Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba and Don Tapscott. However, the Cluetrain Manifesto was already circulating in its early forms. Remember the Cluetrain Manifesto (available in much longer format in print as The Cluetrain Manifesto)? What an important document that was and still is! It talks about the need for companies to engage in open, honest conversations with the organizing networks of people who are their markets. In fact, it defines a company’s markets as a set of conversations. To his credit, Mr. Devlin did decide to engage these fans in conversation.


According to a Wall Street Journal article on the event (`Godzilla’ Web Visitors Terrorize A Touchy Hollywood Producer,” by Bruce Orwall, Jun 8, 1998. p. B.1), here’s what happened:

To one especially tough-minded fan he [producer and co-writer Dean Devlin] wrote: “Our movie did what it was supposed to do. We’re all happy about it. If you don’t like that, to hell with you.” To another who called the movie a flop: “Please tell me how you figure that a movie that will make the studio over a hundred million dollars in profit is a flop? Where’d you learn your math?” To the editor of a science-fiction magazine who had chided him, Mr. Devlin wrote: “And as for my ‘royalty’ check you refer to, since it’s larger than all of my other royalty checks on all my other films combined, I’m more than happy with it, thank you.” The cyber-howlings of a well-paid Hollywood producer didn’t find a sympathetic audience. “My God! It sickens me to hear a man go on like that!” one fan wrote. “You’ve got to get over the fact that a lot of people, for whatever reason, just don’t like the film.”

After a bit of back and forth jousting, taking heavy hits, enraging the online community, and setting a pretty stark quintessentially us versus them, me-big-capitalist Hollywood Producer you puny little consumer fanboy invidious hierarchized boundary dichotomy (that seems pretty heavily socially-classed, my sociologist friends) Centropolis made its decision.

Shut down the dissent. Shut the fans up. Shut the site down.

The “Acid Tests” were early psychedelic drug parties, quasi-religious San Fran celebrations that were in themselves celebrated and immortalized in Tom Wolfe”s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” novel about the Merry Pranksters. You had to drink the LSD-laced Kool-Aid and pass the “Acid Test” before you were “one of us.” Once you did, there were even “diplomas” that were bestowed upon you.

So here’s my “Electric Community Acid Test.” What would you, as a good brand or company manager do, if some of the members of your nice members of your nice created online community started telling other community members how terrible your product was, or insulting managers personally and by name, or exposing moral flaws in your production or marketing process, or listing solid reasons and then strongly advocating that people to buy from your competitors instead of you? What if you responded politely to them, and then they shot back at you with full force? Maybe you’d respond politely again, and then even more customers jumped on the bandwagon to attack you. They piled on. (Oh, I’ve got lots of examples in mind.) Maybe then you’d try to moderate the group, perhaps arguing that these are competitor “plants” and “moles” (and, heck, they certainly could be).

Would you shut it down? Or would you be able to go the distance? To let the bells of free speech ring, even in their loud and disharmonious tones?


I think the topic of “how do we create a community” or “how do we control our community” completely misses some essential points about communities. Some of the most exciting aspects of communities come from their grassroots nature and the fact that communities will tell you the truth. When people gather collectively into communities that care about products, lifestyles or consumption acts, they are empowered to act as truth-tellers.

But a lot of the time managers business-people just don’t want to hear the truth. “You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson screamed in A Few Good Men. I actually think companies can definitely, certainly handle the truth. But it’s messy. It creates new work. Work we’re not currently set up to handle. It’s difficult. It’s personal and human and unpredictable. And it’s not always that “validating” of the status quo and the way we usually do things around here.

Here’s a somewhat risky thought.

Why don’t we think about online communities as “electric communities” who are, in a different sort of way, experimental “parties” experimenting with their own newfound “electric” powers. What about the “Acid Test” they are forcing upon companies and their managers? Will it open up the Corporate Doors of Perception? What happens then? What is Corporate Enlightenment in the Age of Electric Community? How does this test reveal, just like LSD ASCs and access to higher realms of consciousness did for the neophyte Merry Pranksters and Pranksterettes, what you’re truly made of?

How does it reveal who drank the corporate Kool-Aid? And what that Kool Aid’s laced with after all?

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