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Fans, Brands, Geeks, and Communities

Building a strong product or brand community, especially online, has become a key part of marketing plans in the twenty-first century. That’s a big leap forward from a past where consumers were treated as solely individualist and isolated. But this emphasis on communities leaves practitioners and theorists at a loss. The idea of “building” communities is a very new and somewhat radical idea. Let’s think about it for a minute.

What might be one of the big keys to building strong communities?

What if I said the answer was exclusion? What if I said it was about building external boundaries that glorify those who are “in the know” and keep out the riffraff? What if I said it’s about having a strict, challenging hierarchy with lots of levels, where people have to struggle for glory and recognition and are constantly being pitted against one another. It seems to work for Coke and Pepsi. For Apple and Microsoft. For Star Wars versus Star Trek fans.

In fact, a lot of the competitive positioning we see, in this world dominated by global and local oligopolies, is all about favoring us versus them, about hierarchies within hierarchies.

One of my Ph.D. students, Andrew Feldstein of Pace University in NYC, just sent me a great link to a fan-based insight on this topic of boundary setting and hierarchies. Check out this terrific chart, which I reproduce here from its source at Brunching Shuttlecocks

Check out the original chart here.

You can’t really read it here, but it is hilarious, and also pretty true. The fan community is filled with hierarchies that they chart here. Not so much who is cooler than whom (that goes without saying) but who is less geekier than whom (that’s the true content for debate). At the bottom of the char, the very bottom, are “people who write erotic versions of Star Trek where all the characters are furries.” Slightly above them are “erotic furries” and above them are just “furries.” Funny, the same chart could probably already be drawn up in Second Life. Second Life has lots of furries.

Now, only slightly above furries are “Trekkies who get married in Klingon garb.” Um, that should read Trekkers, but nevermind. This group is roughly equivalent to “13 year old gamers of all sorts,” “Pokemon fans over the age of six” and people who collect expensive replicas of famous fantasy swords. And so it goes, with “Trekkies” higher in the right-to-brag foodchain than “Trekkies who speak Klingon” all the way up to the penultimate high culture category of “Science Fiction and Fantasy fans.” This last category is only trumped by published SF and Fantasy authors and artists.

I have to say, with significantly puffed-up pride, that I would make it to the topic of this little org chart of geekdom. Yep, as this link proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am a published science fiction author. Go look it up, if you dare. One day maybe I’ll share the story on this blog. I may even try to publish some more one day (you’ve seen one of my past efforts here).

But the Sad Truth is, there are even hierarchies above the top category of published SF or fantasy author (which is Olympian to SF fans according to the geek chart).

  • Published only one story is trumped by published several stories.
  • Published in a second-tier, long-defunct magazine like Aboriginal is trumped by publishing in a top-tier, still-thriving mag like Asimov’s.
  • Writing a novel versus a short story.
  • Writing a best-selling novel.
  • Writing a string of best-selling novels.
  • And, to top it all off, writing academically and critically deconstructing about an author’s string of best-selling novels (yeah, right).

So, all humor aside (for the moment), what’s the significance of this? Not only in my research, but in research published on all subcultures and communities, including the influential brand community work by my colleagues Al Muniz and Tom O’Guinn, people in communities were found to differentiate themselves from outsiders by structural boundary rules and conditions. We love the Mac and Apple but we despise all things Microsoft and Bill Gatesian. We love Coke, how can you like Pepsi? We love rock, but we hate country, or classical, or whatever. Insiders versus outsiders. Welcome to the human condition, capitalist-style.

I love the visual representation of geekdom in this Flickr photoset by Scott Johnson. After looking through his set of 56 geeks it dawned on me that this was humanity in all its silly splendor. How lovable and wonderful: we’re all geeky through and through, in our emotions and our passions and our inner childishness.

As an anthropologist, I have to say that this is of great interest, but that social hierarchies being used as corporate tools also concerns me. Anthropology has in the last 20 years at least championed a renewed respect for “the Other” (yes, it sounds like a ‘50s sci-fi movie, but that’s the term used in anthropology circles, honestly). That new respect is an attempt to transcend cultural anthropology’s objectivist and colonialist past.

“The study of culture tends to produce bounded entities and, in so doing, it produces human separation if not, progressively, hierarchization and invidious comparison.” (Fernandez 1994: 162). Fredrik Barth (1995), writing in the Journal of Anthropological Research, contends that culture tends to be used to refer to differences in customs, which leads to exoticizing and depersonalizing groups and identities. The idea of brand communities having distinct “rituals and traditions” comes immediately to mind.

It’s not just the study of culture, but now the study of brand and product communities that is furthering these boundariers. The idea of culture as “an integrated, locally shared way of life” leads to an image of culture with a “geographical locus and boundaries”, and turns “physical persons and their behaviors into cultural specimens” (Barth 1995: 66).

We can say the same thing about brand and product communities and, to a similar extend, online communities, like the “virtual communities of consumption” and the “e-tribes” I’m pretty fond of studying and writing about. Barth (1995) argues that these biases are lessened when we stop classifying people into cultural categories and adopt a more cognitive perspective that recognizes what they actually know or don’t know. Knowledge then becomes the major modality of culture.

I also believe that in our writing and research we should be attempting to harmonize Self and Other. Full participation has always been a big theme in my methodology explanations. I believe very much in the anthropological standard , of the researcher being fully accepted as a cultural or community member, and psychologically accepts her or his membership in the culture or community.
Researcher introspection of one’s own thoughts then becomes another source of cultural data, as the cultural legacy is internalized and understood from the most authentic vantage point possible. The point is not that an ethnographer can live the lives of Others, but that she can live them close enough to begin to understand how their worlds have been constructed. Thus closeness and intimacy with the Others’ perspectives and lives are what is required in the post-crisis age of ethnography.

Critiquing the earlier, primarily observational, practice of ethnographic fieldwork, Van Maanen (1988: 9) says that

fieldwork is not of an ethnographic sort when it is pursued by a team of social researchers as a sort of expedition or Foucault-like panopticon observation-and-interview project. Fieldwork of an ethnographic kind is authentic to the degree it approximates the stranger stepping into a culturally alien community to become, for a time and in an unpredictable way, an active part of the face-to-face relationships in that community.

In marketing, full participation in ethnographic inquiries has been inconsistently and rarely applied. John Schouten and Jim McAlexander joined the Harley-Davidson biking community and subculture in a long-term immersion project in order to research and write about it. Their work is iconic in our field. Overall, however, marketing ethnographies seem to emphasize the observational element of participant-observation. The participative element gets mighty short shrift. And as a method, researcher introspection suffered a premature and suspect demise.

Hierarchization as the key to community building? Absolutely. Invidious comparison? Yup. It’s the human condition. But I wonder about the human level ramifications of all these separations. What does it feel like to be on the wrong side of these community relations?

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