So, we are now roaring into 2013 with the next installment of essays associated with the launch of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. The book is due out from New York University later this month. Each week, we are releasing a series of commissioned essays associated with the book, written by various friends, colleagues, former students, most of whom have at one time or another been affiliated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium. The Consortium, among other things, runs two conferences per year — one on the East Coast (Futures of Entertainment, hosted by MIT) and one on the west coast (Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly hosted by UCLA and USC).
These essays are tightly integrated into the book’s argument, but they are also intended to stand alone as spreadable content, and we hope that you will feel free to pass them along through your various social networks.
I have been writing about the core concept of Spreadable Media via this blog for several years now, and it has already inspired rich discussion. I thought I would share with you an outstanding video, which uses Spreadable Media concepts, to explain the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon. If you do not know the original Caine’s Arcade video, check it out below.
Now, here’s the video explaining what happened produced by Stephanie Linka, a student in a class taught last Spring at George Washington University, by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism alum Nikki Usher.
And now onto our regularly scheduled series of essays. Today’s crop are focused around forms of participation within a networked culture.
The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom
C. Lee Harrington
Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over.
—52-year-old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; quoted in Harrington and Bielby 2010
I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps airing in 2011 was 40 years), the daily installments of “primary” text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see the epigraph). No other form of media fiction offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.
Soaps’ longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with staying true to shows’ long narrative histories and developing characters in “real time” while aligning those narratives with contemporary tastes of both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom. The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby 1995) captured the beginning of fandom’s migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of “public” fandom (attending industry-sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called “moral” ownership over them—fans’ sense that soap opera communities and characters are “theirs,” rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.
This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, “soaps’ very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world [. . .] creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken” (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999, 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps’ revolving writing and production teams. Many long-term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than the people creating them (as, often, have several of the actors playing the characters, leading to interesting ownership struggles within the industry [Harrington and Brothers 2010]), and they often do know their show’s history better. (The same point can be made of long-term sports fans or movie-franchise fans, contexts in which transgenerational fandoms outlast coaches, players, actors, directors, etc.) Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference.
How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising
You can’t spell “spreadability” without “ad.”
The vision of unpaid people cheerfully passing around ads they love has been a guiding light for marketers for more than a decade now. And what’s not to like? An ad that gets passed along receives extra attention. The Good Housekeeping stamp of consumers’ approval that such transmission suggests is assumed to add trustworthiness to the message. An ad that “goes viral” scores extra eyeballs.
But while the demand and the budgets for “viral” have been growing, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a permanent box for spreadable media on the modern agency’s org chart. While many different disciplines—creative, media, public relations, social—are claiming ownership, a systemic problem has prevented spreadability from gaining a true acceptance.
Ad agencies, like factories of the industrial era, are a particular arrangement of means of production, highly specialized labor force and scarce resources optimized around efficient mass manufacturing of a particular type of output. For agencies, this output consists of ad units placed in print, television, online, radio, outdoor, theaters, events, and so on. An average agency produces and places thousands of such units on behalf of its clients each year.
These ads—paid announcements that appear in media—come in a finite variety of formats and sizes, and their production is scalable to the point where much of it can be, and has been, automated and outsourced. Ads are designed to elicit responses along the vector “see, like, remember, buy.” The agencies are structured around maximizing the number of these responses. Media departments craft media plans that try to ensure the highest number of the right people see the ad at the lowest cost. Creative departments are judged by the number of people who like and remember the ad. Ultimately, the agency’s output is evaluated against the number of people who buy the advertised product. The more people see, like, remember, and buy, the more successful the agency is in the long run.
Soulja Boy and Dance Crazes
During the summer of 2007, U.S. pop media seemed saturated with talk show hosts and pro athletes dancing along to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).” By the time an official music video was shot in late July, the dance craze was already approaching an apex, with new videos appearing daily on MySpace and YouTube. Close inspection of the phenomenon reveals a diverse array of overlapping audiences exploiting “Crank Dat” as a producerly framework for the expression of personal, social, and political messages. Steeped in southern hip-hop’s independent tradition, teenage rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em championed the songs, dances, and videos produced by these audiences in pursuit of his own commercial success. “Crank Dat,” for all its confusion, contradiction, and welcoming incompleteness, is a valuable demonstration of spreadability in practice.
In the dominant narrative of the 1990s, hip-hop was driven to pop dominance by a rivalry between Los Angeles and New York City. Excluded from mainstream media channels, artists living in the southern U.S. were forced to develop an alternative hip-hop industry supported primarily by locally grown “indie” record labels with connections to regional radio personalities, nightclub DJs, and mom-and-pop record-shop owners (Grem 2006). This independence enabled the southern artists to develop innovative sounds and styles quite distinct from their coastal peers. In 2003, with CD sales flagging, major record labels turned to these indies in search of new talent to revitalize the industry. Among the many southern styles attracting attention, snap music deviated the most from the conventional hip-hop template. Snap’s minimal drum programming and repetitive lyrics destabilized unquestioned hip-hop norms such as the value of complex wordplay and the use of funk and soul samples.
Television’s Invitation to Participate
Sharon Marie Ross
In Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet (Ross 2008), I argued that television shows starting in the late 1990s increasingly seemed to be “inviting” television viewers to become actively engaged with the TV text, often through the Internet. I saw three forms of invitation emerging: overt invitations, where a TV show obviously invites a viewer to become involved (e.g., American Idol’s calls to phone in a vote); organic invitations, where a TV show assumes that viewers are already actively engaged and incorporates evidence of this within the narrative of the show—or, in some cases, television network (e.g., Degrassi: The Next Generation’s attention to the role of new communications media in teens’ lives, and The N network’s use during Degrassi episodes of interstitials that feature teen viewers texting and IM chatting via The N’s website); and obscured invitations, where a TV show’s narrative complexity demands viewer unraveling that drives fans to online applications (e.g., Lost’s dense referencing of philosophers and artists as clues to the “hidden” meaning of the island and its inhabitants).
In discussions with Henry Jenkins since, I have suggested that organic invitations are likely to become the dominant form of TV invitations to participation. Today’s texting, IMing, web-surfing teens will become tomorrow’s multimedia-tasking adults, who will likely only be followed by a new wave of teen TV watchers who will be engaging in yet-to-be-imagined forms of new media communication.
Such developments are reverberating throughout all of media, from increasing demands on print journalism to be more present online to the use of branding in the spread of media franchises across TV, film, and music in such a way that demands more widespread knowledge of marketing from all media professionals. And such changes tend to spread throughout the TV landscape—even CSI has popular online applications, after all.
What Old Media Can Teach New Media
Amanda D. Lotz
While it may be the case that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the “old”—or, as I prefer, “established”—processes of media industries for creating entertainment content teach those who are endeavoring on the creation of spreadable media anything of value? In the overinflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn’t really, either. In this essay, I identify some of the established characteristics of entertainment-based media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies these industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.
A key starting point for understanding entertainment-based media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other business sectors—often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This “difference” of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to commercialization practices elsewhere simply don’t work, or at least don’t work as effectively, for these media companies. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim “nobody knows,” also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgment that such media industries are “risky businesses.” This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods. Conventional focus-group testing or the combination of known “successful” features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can’t test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.
Considering the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the “nobody knows” maxim is likely to be true of the circulation of spreadable media to the same degree it is for the distribution of established entertainment media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing creative content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost; these media companies have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their established platforms, and some of these strategies might prove productive for making spreadable media as well.
For those of you who were at the Modern Language Association conference this past weekend, you might have had a chance to buy an advanced copy of the book. If you did, we’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to drop a note here or even better on the Spreadable Media website.