As we count down to the wide spread release of our new book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, we are rolling out this week five more essays — in this case, dealing with core issues from the book’s chapters on independent media and transnational media flows. One final crop of essays from the project will go on-line next week. By now, some of you may well be receiving copies of the book advanced ordered through Amazon or New York University Press. We’d love to know what you think. I was lucky enough to be able to share some thoughts about this project this past week with faculty and students at Concordia University.
The Long Tail of Digital Games
In the raging debate over the legitimacy and consequences of the “Long Tail” theory (Anderson 2006), few markets have received more attention than those dedicated to digitally distributed video games. Proponents of the Long Tail have argued that digital distribution will finally turn the historically hit-driven game industry on its head—that future revenues will be driven by consumer activity distributed across a huge catalog of video games developed, in large part, by independent game developers as opposed to titanic publishers; that it will prove consistently more profitable to focus on niche audiences in this new world of digital game distribution, rather than to focus on the development of broadly appealing hits; and (for those of us interested in the spreadability model) that a new generation of empowered consumers will actively seek and promote the highest-quality content, driving revenues to the most deserving game developers and leading to a healthier and more vibrant video game ecosystem overall.
There can be no doubt that encouraging signs of this development have begun to crop up everywhere. Many now-prominent independent game developers, such as The Behemoth and 2D Boy, have leveraged console-based digital distribution platforms such as Xbox LIVE, Wiiware, and the Playstation Network (PSN) to reach markets that were previously only accessible via the long arm of a traditional publisher. These developers have not only created award-winning games that have generated significant amounts of profit. They have, in many cases, retained the rights to their intellectual property (IP) and operated with near-total independence, an unthinkable situation for small console game developers only a few years ago. And, while digital distribution on the console typically generates the most buzz, independent developers have made equally great strides on mobile devices, the web, and the PC thanks to a wide variety of channels (stores such as iTunes, Android Market, and Steam; portals such as Kongregate.com; and more generalized distribution through social network sites such as Facebook, to name just a few). Savvy observers have noted that in mobile ecosystems in particular, independent developers have consistently had greater success than traditional publishers in cracking into the “top 10.”
(Sp)reading Digital Comics
Comic books—especially single issues, or “floppies”—have always been spreadable. As kids in the 1980s, my friends and I would head into our local comic shop, each emerge with an armful of floppies, then spend the afternoon first reading through our own haul and then each other’s. Usually, at least one of my friends’ floppies would be from some larger multipart story arc, and, if it was any good, I’d either go digging through my friend’s collection or thumbing through the store’s back issues to find out what was going on. Sharing, recommendation, drillability, and vast narrative complexity were all part of our everyday lives long before we could even drive.
Webcomics have emerged as an alternative form of publishing that makes such practices even easier. Many webcomics use RSS feeds to deliver new installments via email or RSS reader applications, and many webcomics offer forums where fans can chat and bicker and share their favorite comics with one another, much as my friends and I did in person so many years ago. Now, I can recommend comics to friends around the world either by emailing them a link to a webcomic’s site (and thus the latest comic) or a “permalink” to the archived page or, more commonly now, by texting, IMing, or Facebook messaging them such a link. Many webcomics, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau’s A Softer World, include built-in widgets for fans to recommend them on online services such as Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Twitter. Scott Kurtz’s PVP includes widgets to share each strip on twenty different services.
Unlike traditional print comics, for which most writers and artists labor under “work for hire” contracts for large publishers such as Marvel and DC, webcomics are typically owned and operated by their creators and rely on revenues generated by advertising, fan subscriptions/memberships, or sales of ancillary merchandise. As a result, for creators, getting individuals to purchase a single instance of their work (such as a traditional print floppy) is less important than establishing an ongoing relationship, aggregating a large recurring audience over time. The simplicity of the URL system supports this—when recommending a comic to a friend, I could copy and paste an image of the comic itself into an email, stripping out the context, ads, and links to the related merchandise, but why bother when sharing a link is so easy?
The Use Value of Authors
A key dilemma for both media consumers and producers in today’s media environment is discoverability: with so much media spreading, and even more desperately wanting to be spread, how do we choose what to consume? Consequently, consumers need highly effective filters to direct them to the media they are most likely to enjoy and away from that which they are unlikely to enjoy; producers, meanwhile, need to develop techniques to ensure that their content enjoys safe passage through such filters and finds the audiences most likely to enjoy their work. Herein lies the importance of, and the use for, authors.
As compared to creative figures—producers, writers, artists, designers, and a wealth of other terms in common parlance to describe those who make media—an “author” is someone to whom we attribute a heightened level of authority and autonomy over the item of media in question. Most consumers operate on the assumption that a vast amount of media isn’t worth personally consuming, either because it is corporate hackery written by committee just to make a fast buck, because it is amateurish and incompetent, or simply because it doesn’t appeal to any of their interests. An author, though, is a totem of sorts that signifies a certain level of skill and singularity of vision. To talk of authors for professionally produced content is to assert creativity and self-expression in what can too often be characterized as a faceless, paint-by-numbers industry, while to talk of authors for amateur-produced content is to attribute artistry in what can too often be characterized as a world full of everyone’s uploaded cat videos. Discussing authors can be a way to validate the product of said authors, and hence to allow ourselves to discuss art, meaning, and depth in some popular media without attributing artistry or depth to all popular media.
At the same time, precisely who the author is can be hotly contested and variable, as the content industries may pose one author, while fans may look to others, sometimes working to uncover who the “real” author is. For instance, while The Simpsons is often popularly spoken of as Matt Groening’s, many fans have nominated other individuals in the show’s production as the true source(s) of the show’s perceived brilliance, and hence as its author(s). The fact that people would bother to argue over who the author is should signify how much the title of author matters, and it offers an initial sign of the importance of authors.
The Swedish Model
Sweden is a small country, yet it has one of the world’s biggest and best-selling music scenes. You might think ABBA, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they’re just the best-known starting point of a very long tail, with thousands of bands spanning every genre and degree of success. Sweden is also home to The Pirate Bay, the world’s top torrenting site, which ABBA songwriter Björn Ulvaeus has decried as made by and for those who are lazy and stingy and don’t understand that, if creators can’t anticipate payment, they will never release music (“ABBA Star” 2009). Since the advent of recording in the early twentieth century, recorded music has been the central economic good of the music business. Hence, it is no wonder that the mainstream industry has been so vociferous in its efforts to demonize and sue uploaders and to support national policies that limit the ability of listeners to spread music.
Further down the tail, though, Sweden is home to many artists and labels trying to forge a new way through this thicket, one that rejects the notions that certain payment is a precondition for artistic expression or that file sharing detracts from the economics of their business. The attitudes and actions of The Swedish Model, a consortium of seven independent labels committed to a more optimistic dialogue on music’s future, and other Swedish labels and musicians put spreadability at the center of their hopes for the future of the music business. The tiny label Songs I Wish I Had Written, headed by Martin Thörnkvist, who also heads The Swedish Model, shared an office with a Pirate Bay cofounder, and Thörnkvist uploads his label’s catalog in the highest quality to Pirate Bay. Labrador, another Swedish independent label, gives away annual samplers through Pirate Bay and posts all its singles for free download on its website.
These entrepreneurs have taken to heart that if their music doesn’t spread, it may as well be dead. The logic goes like this: We are small and have minimal budgets. There are few mainstream venues that will promote our music, so few people will have the opportunity to hear it through mass media. The more people who hear it, the larger the audience will become. Even if most of that audience does not pay for CDs or mp3s, the slice that does will be bigger than the entire audience would otherwise have been. And the slice that doesn’t pay to buy music may well pay for other things. As Thörnkvist put it when addressing the music industry audience at MIDEMNet, “I’d rather have one million listeners and one hundred buyers than one hundred listeners and one hundred buyers” (2009).
Transnational Audiences and East Asian Television
Consider a clip from the Japanese variety show Arashi no Shukudai-kun that recently made its way onto YouTube in early 2009: a small group of Japanese pop singers are challenged to eat a “surprisingly large” hamburger named after a city in the Ibaraki prefecture and are joking about how “Super American” the situation is. They suggest that the burger inspires them to don overalls and grow “amazing” chest hair, while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blares in the background. The clip was then subtitled in English by two fans based in Australia and circulated based on its appeal to English-speaking audiences of the “J-pop” performers in the video as an embodied spectacle of Japanese popular culture. Various versions of the clip were distributed online through fan communities on LiveJournal, a Russian-owned social blogging platform with offices headquartered in San Francisco, and other forums, and fans shared the links through their blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, and other social media channels. In the process, the Arashi no Shukudai-kun clip was recontextualized, reformatted, resubtitled, and diverted to new (and sometimes unexpected) audiences at every step along the way. Far from exceptional, there are countless clips like this one on YouTube: in the global spreadable media environment, its crisscrossing path back and forth across multiple national, linguistic, and cultural boundaries is becoming perfectly common.
Not only is the transnational movement of media becoming increasingly pervasive; it has also become significantly more—and more visibly—multinodal. Thus, we must go beyond the use of Bruce Springsteen in the background of a Japanese variety show as part of a parody and indigenization of Western cultural materials to consider its subsequent movement as it is taken up, translated, and circulated by grassroots intermediaries, passing through divergent and overlapping circuits, often outside the purview of established media industries and markets. In short, we must look beyond sites of production and consumption to consider the practices of transmission and the routes of circulation—the means and manner by which people spread media to one another—which are increasingly shaping the flow of transnational content.