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In the wake of this week’s absolutely ridiculous IKEA fandom misstep, I feel moved to get down on screen once and for all how to properly handle a disagreement with your fans. Here it is, folks, what to do when your fans are engaging in activity you’re not sure about.  Without looking like a complete idiot.

Lets say you are the owner of a fan object, and your legal department tells you a superfan is using your brand name in a way you can’t control. Maybe you find out your fans have created a “Squishable Trading Post” to swap your after-market plush designs. Or let’s say a fan has started “World Nutella Day“, a celebration of your dessert-turned breakfast chocolate spread. Or perhaps they’ve started a website called “Ikea Hackers” showing the universe how to rework your terrible terrible furniture to be useful.  Do you have the right to be concerned? Yes! Its scary to know you’re outsourcing your brand identity. And hey, you employ all those shmancy lawyers (or in Squishable’s case, a dude named Charles who sometimes does lawyer stuff after lunch). You gotta keep them busy somehow.

So how can you disentangle your brand from your fans’ acts of love with finesse? Without looking like that idiot who loves kicking puppies? Puppies who incidentally make you a lot of money? Before you make a move, stop.  Just stop.  Think for a second.  I know it feels exciting and proactive to send that cease-and-desist, but many a brand meltdown could have been avoided by a deep breath and 5 minutes of introspection.  Your fans have a vast communication platform at their disposal, potentially a much wider one than you do. The second you react they’ll put the gears into motion spreading the word about your actions. When that happens you’re no longer in control, and throwing good intentions after bad won’t help if you change your mind. You can stop your fans from doing what they’re doing, but you can’t stop them from letting the world know you’ve stopped them from doing what they’re doing.

Put aside the legal ramifications for just a minute.  Put aside your corporate policies, not to mention your ego, and think.

1)  Is the activity your fans are engaging in actually harmful?   Or is it just scary?  Is it actively hurting your brand, or are you just nervous it might at some point? What are the benefits you’re receiving from their activity?  Is it giving the product free publicity, like World Nutella Day? Giving your brand a new platform, like the webcomic ‘Miss Officer and Mr. Truffles‘ – which came from a simple news photo? Is it providing your brand with a sexy new context, like when hipsters decided to rebrand PBR on their own (“PBR is authentic American that shows solidarity with the working class” beats “It’s cheap” as advertising any day).

If your only answer is free publicity, you might have some ground to stand on.  “But we’re giving them free publicity!!” is the excuse used for all sorts of blatantly criminal behavior, from pirating movies to plagiarizing writing.  But if your answer starts edging into context creation, you might want to think again.  Ikea Hackers isn’t just bringing the joys of awful furniture to a wider audience, it’s showing the existing audience new ways to desire it. That’s the equivalent of discovering that not only are your teddy bears comforting, they’re edible as well! This sort of activity makes the brand itself more valuable. If you move against them they’ll be seen as victims who understand your own brand better than you do, and rightly so.

2) Are the actions you’re about to take consistent with the philosophy your brand claims to embody? The cult TV program Firefly is about a renegade starship crew and their fight for freedom against an uncaring bureaucracy. In 2013, Firefly’s owner Fox began sending out cease-and-desist letters to designers of Firefly hats on the grass-roots crafting website Etsy. What ensued was an uproar which might seem out of proportion to what, with an audience of consumers, might be a straightforward matter of defending copyright. But that neglects the deeper truth: fandom is the result of a tenuous compromise. No matter the level of loyalty to a brand, the true loyalty is, not to the fan object, but to the concepts which it represents. When a gap opens up between the values a fan object claims to embody, and the values of the fan object as commercial entity, this delicate balance is upset.

Are you really ready to force your fans to remember that you’re just a soulless corporate entity?  I mean,  fans do know it somewhere deep inside, but do you really want to shove it in their faces?  If you’re a brand like Abercrombie & Fitch, where warm fuzzies play no part in their brand context, then fire away!  But for most of us it’s not that simple.

3)  Do your actions respect your fandom’s social hierarchy? Modders who update their XBoxes so that they can play any game they want are considered the creme-de-la-creme of the Xbox gaming community.  It’s a tricky skill, one that takes time to learn.  So when Microsoft decided to ask the Department of Homeland Security to start arresting XBox modders, the community was rightfully taken aback. As a dog owner, the only metaphor I can think of is the turmoil that ensues when you accidentally feed the Alpha second. Superfans have their peers’ respect, they have a platform, and they have a lot of people who owe them favors. Your general population is going to react negatively if you start insulting their role models, the people they themselves have chosen as leaders. The superfans have their hearts. You only have their money.  Guess which one is stronger.  (Also, apparently Microsoft controls the Department of Homeland Security? Is anyone else really creeped out by this?)

4)  Is this an issue that could be solved through some kind of partnership?  Instead of fighting this situation, can you perhaps absorb it?  Bringing fan activity in-house is almost always a win.  For the fan it gives them the status they deserve.  For you, there’s the twin benefits of ready-made context development, and also control over the activity in the future.  So many fan kerfuffles could have been solved by partnering with the offending organization, as Nutella eventually, grudgingly, decided to do with World Nutella day.  XBox lost a chance to pick the minds of the best modders in the business.  Ikea has lost a born organizer and leader in the coveted community of do-it-yourselfers.  Don’t fight your fans, hire them!  Miley Cyrus did.

5) How about…just asking the fans to add a disclaimer?  You remember disclaimers, right?  The default method of explaining that a fan’s activity isn’t representative of the official brand?  That little snippet of text that used to be the answer to this problem for hundreds of years before lawyers got bored? “This thing is not affiliated with, funded, or in any way associated with that thing”?  You know, that really really easy solution that makes everyone happy? Ask them to add a disclaimer. Jeez.

6) If you truly decide that you despise the activity going on, you can ask them to modify content. Not their business practices, not their ownership, the content.  That way the fans can continue being fans, you don’t lose the extra context, and neither of you has to, say, go to court.  Is a fan-made forum for World of Warcraft suddenly full of racial slurs?  Before asking them to shut down their huge platform with thousands of completely innocent users, how about asking them to…stop using racial slurs?   Yes, there are many mentally unbalanced folks out there, people with no middle gears, people who love to play at being an outraged martyr every time there’s a suggestion to show just a little respect. But believe me when I say they’re few and far between.  And if the choice is between a little  modification and complete obliteration, very few will pick the latter.

7) Only once you’ve tried every single one of the above, and tried them truly, in good faith, should you unleash that cease-and-desist. The moment you hit send, be ready for that fan backlash. Start monitoring all your channels, and not just your own but every arena where you know your fans congregate. Get your whole team online and start answering questions. Every single one – every facebook comment, ever tweet, and at least read every blog and tumblr post even though commenting on them might be stalkerish. Do it with compassion.  Do it with humility. Do it with embarrassment.  Explain you’re only acting this way as a final resort.

It’s no hyperbole to say you are messing with your fangroup’s very core and self image – the way they spend their time – so don’t be a dick about it. Your fans have the right to be outraged, and any hint of high-handedness or disconnection will pour gasoline on the flames. Black Milk recently made itself a laughingstock by igniting a fan-war over a completely trivial post on their facebook page.  Instead of explaining themselves, or even asking for fan input, they chose the “no, you’re wrong and incidentally you’re banned for disagreeing with us” approach.  It went over great.

Show your fans that you’re there for them, you’re listening to what they have to say, and that you understand how they feel even if it won’t change your mind.  Tell them why you had to do it. Tell them how much they still mean to you.  Handle this like a breakup where you know its your own fault: It’s not them, its you, and you’re really really sorry. Because if you’re not, believe me…you will be.

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18408619-brain-on-the-plate-with-fork-and-knifeWhat better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.

But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.

Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.

Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”

An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60’s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).

With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.

As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it,  full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.

Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!

This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.

And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.

Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.

The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.

There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.

Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.

For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.

Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere

News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.

We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.

Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me­­­­ of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess.  Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.

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Earlier this week an unexpected blog post was penned by American photographer Sara Rosso, explaining why her website, a collection of recipes, stories, and resources about the celebration of ‘World Nutella Day‘, would shortly be shuttering.  The culprit:  a cease and desist order from Ferrero SpA, the owner of Europe’s favorite breakfast junk food, Nutella.

Now, fans are used to these official-looking documents. They’re sent to music aficionados who remix their favorites, to the writers of fan fiction containing proprietary characters, and sometimes just to people selling hats.  I received one myself back in the late 90’s, and the scary letterhead – and expense implied therein – was enough to make me shutter my very first startup faster than you can say “copyright infringement“. (Hopbooks, you’ll be missed).

But this cease and desist order was different.  For one thing, International Nutella Day was just so darn silly, and so obviously did more to help than hurt  the Nutella brand.  Now, it’s true that this excuse is  trotted out by brand violators to defend a suspiciously long list of crimes, from file-sharing and console-modding to downright design theft. And it’s also true that, at least in the US, companies are required to pursue every instance of infringement on pain of trademark erosion.  But in this situation it really is difficult to imagine what damage might have been done. Full attribution was given, no properties were stolen. It was the most vanilla of crimes, right up there with “assault and makeover” or “breaking and donating“.

But the other reason this cease and desist differs is because Rosso is a superfan.  Superfans are the true believers in a fan object, the multipliers, the ambassadors, the evangelists, the advocates, the brand leaders, the “insert business 2.0 term” of commerce.  They may be drawn in for any number of reasons (the joys of community membership,  a love of fannish activities, or just the status that comes with knowing a lot about something.)  But no matter the reason for their their romance, all superfans should be treated like cherished, beautiful, delicate elfin princesses…who also might rip your arms off and eat your brains at any moment .

By the time a Superfan has attain such exalted status they’ve already found followers who care about their opinion.  They’ve found an existing platform on which to express it, and they have a deep-seated motivation to keep their fan object true to the ideals they’ve already internalized. And when the leadership at the top of any cultural hierarchy is attacked, the sugary chocolate goop hits the fan. Primal instincts, developed long ago on the savannah for tribal defense, swoop into action:  a pack will always rush to the rescue of their alphas. Barely had Russo blogged her note of resignation before a large portion  of the breakfast-eating web rushed to tweet their betrayal and outrage. Nutella’s Facebook page overflowed with comments like “Sorry to hear that you value your attorneys so much more than your customers. This is what happens when you take us all for granted, I guess. Would you prefer a worldwide boycott of Nutella until you give your customers what they want?” and also the more direct “Your spread is tasty, but your lawyers are idiots.”

It’s been noted that all fans make a conscious choice to ignore one fact: that their item of worship is a commodity created for moneymaking purposes. But just because they ignore it doesn’t mean they’re not aware of it. Somewhere, deep inside, every fan acknowledges the make-belive aspect of their love: they feel very strongly, but they could also chose not to. Very few Team Edward fans would truly turn down a date with Jacob if the opportunity presented itself, very few Apple owners truly wish to lay down their life and liberty for a war against Microsoft HQ (although you never know).  To upset this delicate balance – to forcibly remind a fangroup of the corporate entity behind the curtain – is part of the map that should be crossed off with a huge skull and crossbones and ‘here be dragons‘.

Nutella has quickly backpedelled with a Facebook post of full of thankfulness to their fans and an intention to to drop legal charges, but they may have yet to see the big picture.  For one, according to Nutella, the fault lies with a routine lawyer task. Had it been brought to their attention, they say, it would certainly not have happened.  This has prompted many fans to question Nutella’s entire fan philosophy – as one fan put it, “Gratitude, but no apology?”  For this to be treated as PR mistake instead of as a policy mistake is remarkably tone-deaf; many companies might have reacted by requesting the fan enter into a formal agreement, or have the fan place a disclaimer on their site, or in extreme cases, immediately hiring the perpetrator at a huge salary to head their PR team.

Compare this with Beam Inc’s reaction over fan outcry over their plan to reduce the alcohol content in Makers Mark. I haven’t seen that level of groveling since the last time my puppy got too excited on the carpet.

In any case, thus ends a week in which at least some of Nutella’s fanbase realized that sugar mixed with palm oil isn’t the best way to start the day after all (I kid. Nutella tastes lovely, especially on… everything).  But lest we grow too smug in our condemnation, to paraphrase the author Neil Gaiman, “May all your moral decisions be so easy”.  There are times, true times, real times, when the business imperatives of an institution really do outright clash with fan demands, and no satisfaction can be brokered even by participants of goodwill. When that day comes, God help you – there will be no solution except to put on a brave face and hope your company will outlast the outrage.  Fandom is a small tempest in a teacup, but it’s a tea cup that can easily spill over and swamp the whole breakfast table.

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So here we are knee-deep in summer, and I bet you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, there’s just too much relaxation going on right now.  I’m feeling too darn happy with the world.  I need some pretentious reading to sandpaper my nerves so I have something to bitch about.”

Well TOO BAD, cause one look at this summer reading list and you’ll notice that none of us have anything to complain about at all.  This summer’s topic is the economic impacts of fandom in a digital age, and baby is it a delicious one.

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky – Obviously every list with any kind of buzzword has to start with Clay Shirky’s tasty musings about all that’s good about heavy connectivity. You’ll want to spend most of your time on the chapter dealing with fan motivations.  Start off your drinking game by taking a shot every time you slap your head and say , “Huh, teenage girls make sense for the first time ever.”  It’s summer, so the shot should be something with watermelon.

Fan Cultures, Matthew Hills – Ever wonder what academics do when few people care about their subject?  They write for each other! Painstakingly plotted out,  most of this is a refutation of the heretical theories espoused by the dozen or so other fan theorists active in the world.  But look a little closer and you’ll see some interesting points about gender and decision-making in pre-digital  fandom. Take a shot of something with iced tea in it every time he claims that someone’s theory didn’t take the X-Files into account

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker – How does what we buy reflect our social affiliations and sense of identity?  Rob wants to tell you! He makes a great case that our commercial motivations are thoroughly tied to the image we build up of ourselves. Take a summery shot of something with cucumber in it every time he uses a euphemism that isn’t quite “fan group” but really means “fan group”.  Don’t worry Rob, we know what you’re talking about.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott , Anthony D. Williams– At two years old this is kind of ancient for a  tome about digital whatsis.  But be not deterred!  This is the classic ‘Origin of Species for crowdsourcing’ – not first and certainly not completely right, but it’s held up remarkably well for a book that relied on examples that, in hindsight weren’t actually the next big thing.  Take a shot of something minty every time you feel a smug sense of superiority.

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Jonathan Gray (Editor), Cornel Sandvoss (Editor), C. Lee Harrington – More academia!  This collection of nifty essays spans everything from early proto-music fandom to Korean pop-stars.  Ignore all that and highlight every third word in the introduction where the different stages of fan theorization are spelled out.  Take a shot of something with ginger every time you have a mood swing between “Oh-my-god-I’m-dying-from-bordom” and “oh-my-god-this-just-changed-my-life”

Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Eric Qualman – Any book that adds the phrase “-nomics” to the end of  their title is good by me: freakinomics, wikinomics, MICRO wikinomics…there’s nothing ‘nomics can’t do.  A lot of this book has been said before, but the conversational tone is helpful for beginners and the examples give a great insiders view. Take a shot of something with lemon every time you suspect there’s something intrinsically, horrifically terrifying about all forms of marketing.

Fans Bloggers Gamers, Henry Jenkins – By the dude who wrote the much-touted Convergence Culture, you can believe this is a serious page turner. I’m totally not being sarcastic.  Compared to most other books from this time period, these essays are less dated, and more , what’s the word, AWESOME than its contemporaries.  Spend most of your time in the early chapters about fan fiction and gender.  You’ll never look at man-on-man stories written by middle-aged straight women the same again. Take a shot of Champagne every time you feel the urge to google “Kirk/Spock”.

Now go drink some water.  What were you thinking reading all those at once.

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Today’s post is brought to you by the backchannel, that swirly, seething collection of tweets, FB posts, and I suppose technically Google+ comments that makes up the realtime reaction to any presentation. If used right it provide instant audience interaction, keep folks paying attention, and guards against awkward silences when the presenter asks “anyone have any questions?” If used wrong it’s great place to heckle.  It’s what you would be saying if you didn’t have to wait for the darn speaker to be done.

Generally, the line of thought is, the audience is gonna talk about you anyway so you can either force them to turn off their phones (which makes you look like a dick) or you can harness their sniping for the powers of good.  Usually this is accomplished by projecting the audience’s twitter feed or chatroom somewhere the presenter can see it.  More rarely it means building the feed directly into the presentation software.  Even more rarely it means hosting the chat yourself.  That’s the one I wanna talk about.

After all the backchannel excitement at SXSW I started getting curious about how they could be used in an academic setting.  One sign of a good class is when I see that the students have gone ahead and made their own group chat (using partyappchat, or some such) so they can talk during lectures.  Usually it’s to make fun of the professor, but sometimes it’s to share resources or ask advice.  The point is, they only bother in classes where there’s some level of engagement.

I tried experimenting with this a little during a class I was involved with last semester.  During the student’s final presentations I tried projecting the live twitter feedback on the wall near the speakers. Students sent a pre-list of all the quotes and links they wanted re-tweeted during thier presentation, and that, plus the reactions, made up the backchannel. With a couple of exceptions, this totally failed.  There was a lot of excitement and retweets, and a little joking in the feed, but not a whole lot of conversation.

I think the issue is that people might retweet interesting quotes, and people might heckle or offer encouragement, but no one is going to clutter up their feed with comments like “Could you repeat that?” or “What’s he talking about?” or “Actually, I think that’s wrong but I’m not totally sure, anyone?”  We’re all too worried about the persona we’ve created on our social networks to risk polluting it with anything resembling real conversation.

Here’s one possible solution, this Fall I’ve implemented a new experiment with the same class. During each four hour lecture every week, all students, and also the professors and visiting critiquers are logged onto HipChat.  If you haven’t used hipChat yet I must say this is a pretty great tool – complete archiving and searchability in a nice chat package.  What goes on there?  Whatever!  Reactions to the presentations, side conversations, reference material, and yeah, a little bit of snarking.  Why is this so great for us:

  • Each presenter ends up with a complete transcript of reactions throughout their presentation.  When listening, especially to a lecture that’s a little long, it’s so easy to forget the more nuanced points of feedback in trade for the big ones.  And likewise, if there is good feedback there’s pressure to tune out the rest of a conversation in favor of remembering your comments.  Either way, better to just get it down on screen.
  • As moderator it’s a whole lot easier to see who’s engaged and who isn’t, the commenting and the not. I await the day that this thing has some analytics built in so I can see participation a little more easily.  It’s great to no longer wonder if someone is taking notes or on Facebook.
  • Questions get answered a whole lot faster, and without breaking up the presenter’s train of talk.  It’s so easy to derail a line of thought when a concept doesn’t make sense, and the jump to boredom after that is pretty fast.  This way confusion gets resolved immediately, and moreover without stopping the stream of the  lecture to do it.

Is it a panacea?  Not at all – there’s one glaring issue:  it’s hard to pay attention while typing.  This method almost requires small lapses in attention.  And second of all, it does require a healthy dose of control to keep things from devolving into ascii art.  If the presenter isn’t pretty darn dominant, this isn’t the tool for them.

Of course, that’s a bit of a gamble in any presentation, whether academic or otherwise, but I heartily suggest giving it a try either way.

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I recently took a stab at talking about how the power of online fandom – any fandom, not just the Facebook kind – can change the foundation of the customer/seller relationship to everyone’s advantage. But there’s one point that I think keeps getting ignored by industry, and also by Social Networking platforms themselves (who should know better!). Why oh why is Facebook still being spoken about as if it’s an advertising platform?

The other day I had a conversation with a very nice guy from a large social network who was was profiling the social network activities of one of my companies for a success stories report. He wanted to know how we decide to run a campeign, if we use an ad agency to coordinate it with our other properties, our objectives, targeting, and analytics, and what kind of custom quizzes, games, videos, and other bells and whistles we integrate to catch peoples attention.

The answer is that we don’t use any custom quizzes, games or ad agencies, and the only analytic I care about is the Engagement score. We have one custom page: a list of our products. To continue judging Social network success by these old-school marketing phrases is to throw away the number one advantage of a social space: Authenticity.

The secret to our success on this Social network is that we reply to every post. We answer every question. We ask our users what colors to use for our new design, and we go back to the drawing board if they don’t like it. We tell them what we had for lunch. We sympathise that they had a bad day. We wish them happy birthday, and we do it morning, noon, nights, and weekends because that’s when they’re on. And in return they give us something that’s so much more valuable than their wallets, they give us thier goodwill.

What it comes down to is this. If you treat Social Network users as customers, they’ll treat you like a corporation. Treat them as people and they’ll treat you like someone worth paying attention to. To narrow it down: Facebook is not just a bigger megaphone. Its sad to see so many companies turning thier pages in to themeparks when they should be turning them into summercamp. Come on people, try a little authenticity. It will go a long way towards not looking quite so desperate.

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Here’s the text of a speech I gave at Miva Merchant’s “It’s a Social World” conference in San Diego this last week. I used the opportunity to try out some stuff I’d been musing on for a couple of months, that when it comes to retail the power of social media is not in its ability to increase reach, but in its ability to create depth of commitment from its users. Much thanks to Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen for the vocabulary for of a couple of these concepts

Welcome and good morning! The title of the next 45 minutes is “The War is Over – Fan Communities and the rise of buyer-seller collaboration”. Now, that’s a bit of a mouthful, so there is an alternate title I was considering: “Everything I ever wanted to know about marketing I learned from comic book geeks.” Today I want to take a step back and talk a little bit about what why we’re doing all this. What’s so great about a fanbase.

A while ago, a large company decided that it wanted to write a reference book. It was going to be really really big. They realized right off the bat that it was going to be way over their budget, even if they hired an entire new staff, the quality just wouldn’t be worth it. A solution was finally suggested: they would find fans who had shown an interest in similar books –intelligent people with a little spare time every day, and they would ask them to each help out, just a little bit. By the end of the project they had over 800 volunteers who produced what ended up being 12 books worth of information.

The Oxford English Dictionary took from the year 1860 to the year 1895, and it was a huge success. Now they didn’t have to do it this way. Their product was in high demand so no matter how crappy the quality, they knew people would buy it. And if people didn’t buy it, they knew they had some of the most powerful advertisers in the world working for them at the time. But Instead they used the wisdom of their potential buyers, and that’s probably why, instead of being a passing fad, we still use dictionaries today.

It was a brilliant concept. But it did take 35 years. Today this idea of working with your customers for a shared goal finally has the chance of taking place in a reasonable amount of time because the internet has changed the way we think about group dynamics. That’s just a fancy way of saying that we not only talk to each other differently, we think about each other differently too.

Ecommerce changed how sellers see themselves – it’s so much easier to make the leap to being a seller now – but it is also changing how sellers see their customers. It’s true that many of us still consider it the job of merchants to extract money from customers with pliers: push people hard enough in the direction of a product and a certain number of people will go for it.

The war is over! Maybe?

But I think it’s not overstating things by saying, a good two centuries later, we might be witnessing the end to the age-old adversarial relationship between customers and sellers. Why? Because there are a couple of seriously huge incentives for sellers to begin taking seriously the phrase they’ve been using ever since the advent of Facebook: fan communities. The idea of fans dates back hundreds of years, but the metaphor I’m going to use is comic books, of which I myself am a fan. If you buy a comic, you’re by default a fan. All you need in order to join this exclusive fan community is interest. Your badge of membership is the product you’ve purchased. When a new product comes out, it’s the fan community who discusses its merits, who makes suggestions for the next issue, and who spreads the word to other potential customers. And because it’s self-advertising, there are a lot of members. And oh are they motivated

With the rise of social media we are all of us potential fans. We’re looking at a possible future where all consumer groups are fan groups, and where buying a product is just a side product of that fan activities. Will this be better for business as a whole? Well, If nothing else it will be a lot more fun. I mean, given a choice between cajoling customers into purchases through high pressure sales tactics, and delighting them so much that they give you money for the sheer joy of being in your product’s presence, I know which one I’d pick. Remember, concentrating strictly on money instead of the buying experience is like praying to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.

So, a fast review. What we know and love today as Social Software is made up of all kinds of services: Wikis, Realtime editors, social networking services, bookmarking tools, microblogging, forums, chat rooms, virtual worlds, MultiPalyer Online games, and technically Blogs, sometimes, and all of their purposes are to allow many-to-many interaction. So instead of a website talking to you, which is how we are used to dealing with the web, now, the website can talk to you, and you can talk back to it, and you can also talk to all the other fans who are reading it. Now, just to get some vocabulary out of the way, today I’ll be focusing on facebook, and I’m going to use that word “fans” a lot. To avoid confusion, I’m talking about fans as in football, not fans as in facebook. Their Fan tool was aptly named, but a little confusing in a talk like this.

So, Social Networking is powerful in terms of connectivity and reach 1) because it’s a good way to quickly contextualize and build stories around people and things , for example, a few moments on someone’s facebook page and you probably know if you want to get to know them better or not. And 2) because it deeply reduces transaction costs for meeting new people and ideas. That means the amount of energy it takes to try something new. Whereas once meeting required going to parties and joining activity groups, now you might just have to scroll down through a list. But very quickly, smart people realized that where you have large groups of people money also follows. It’s a fact of technology that systems created to help people share cute kitty pictures can suddenly be reused for completely different purposes, like overthrowing governments. This is the fact on which what facebook has made their billions.

We are all fans

As you’ve been hearing these last two days, social tools are not a panacea – it’s not like you can just sprinkle some social on something and voila, here is profit. The reason is because causality is networked. There’s a buzzword, it means that many different things influence a final outcome. Very few us ask, would I buy something from me? Would I be influenced by my posts? Would I comment on this entry? Would I ever be a fan of my page (fan in the facebook sense)? At best, people answer “Well, I wouldn’t, but fans are different.”

The fans are you. We are all fans. The line between sellers and buyers doesn’t exist anymore except in your bank account. If you wouldn’t participate in your own social community, no one else will either. While it IS possible to reach unlimited people with our new tools, unlimited reach isn’t good enough because we ourselves aren’t unlimited. Our budgets aren’t unlimited, our resources are not unlimited.

So, social tools with infinite reach are only free if our time is worthless. That means we need to focus on the real-world triggers that can cause the type of behaviors we want to encourage. As retailers, what do we want? We want influence, control, buzz, we want as much reach as we can get for the least effort.

But, what does a potential fan community want? Note, that’s a very different thing from asking what your customers want. Your customers probably want discounts and free shipping. The good news is, your fan community wants things besides product. What they want is stuff that you can give them, and more importantly, stuff that they can give each other. Why is this so cool? Sooner or later we run out of our capacity to want more stuff. Whereas your potential fans want things that, as humans, we will never run out of a capacity to want.
The basic pluses to social media membership are those of any group:

  • Comradeship. Perhaps they’re feeling lonely
  • Access to techniques (things passed on as knowledge rather than officially documented)
  • Collaboration. They want to have a voice in something bigger than themselves
  • Approval. They’re looking for someone else to tell them how great they are

All of these boil down to two major categories: Recognition, and belonging

Each transaction you make with a fan has an unspoken question: this transaction is free, so what is the social coinage I expect to be paid in. Is it a feeling of belonging? Or is it feeling of achievement? Do I expect “thanks” or do I expect “attention”. Now, the best fan interactions address both motivations at once – they allow a feeling of both “I did it” and “we did it”. Wikipedia is a great example of this. Editors get the thanks by having their name listed, but they get the satisfaction of watching their entry become more and more accurate.

When creating an active, involved fan community, the first question to ask is, what are my potential fans like? What are they after? Who’s your imagined user, and what do they get out of this tool? At Squshable ours are motivated by a little of each category. They like being part of a community: They want to talk about how to wash our products and swap stories about how they got theirs, and they want to tell us which designs they want next and what colors to make them in, and they bring in their friends so we all as a group can reach certain quotas and feel good that we reached them together. But, they’re also looking for recognition. They create videos. They write stories and want feedback on it. They post pictures of themselves and want to be told how cute they are, and that’s all completely valid too.

Your Facebook Page is Not an Advertisement

The best thing you can do to in order to encourage your fans in fanlike activities, hopefully one of which will eventually be a purchase, is to give them a venue to discuss their opinions. And I do mean a venue to discuss. Your facebook page is not an advertisement. I’ll say it again because that’s so important. You can’t hold a discussion in an advertisement because everyone knows that the communication is only really going one way.

This is one of the reasons why many companies have latent pages: they may or may not have a relatively large number of fans but they’re not engaged. So when you are evaluating why a fan community isn’t working, you want to address these two major motivations: Perhaps people rarely comment, so there’s no motivation of community acceptance. Perhaps you rarely comment, or comment with the wrong replies, so there’s no motivation of approval.

Attracting fans is a topics being addressed by a couple different panels here, so for now the important thing to remember is this: becoming a fan with a lowercase f, a facebook fan, takes energy. It takes a leap of faith and trust – “yes, I hereby believe this person isn’t going to cause me annoyance.” It’s small transaction, but they add up fast. These people have done you a huuuge favor by visiting you fan page, so make it as easy for them as possible.What it comes down to is, never underestimate someone’s willingness to bail during the beginning of any complex interaction. Getting over that hump is the first issue.

Your second step is creating a safe place for potential fans to land. Once a user has taken the leap of faith required to take time out of their very important lives to check out your materials, what kind of environment have they arrive in? Is it active? Is it friendly? Does it give a feeling of community? To get a web sale you might need 30 seconds of attention. But social media requires a much longer term relationship.  Here are some items to check:

Are fans encouraged to share their tokens of membership, their tribal colors if you will, their signs that show “you don’t know me but I am embedded in your society”. If not, you should encourage users to submit them. What am I talking about? We receive roughly 30-40 pictures a week on our facebook page of people showing off with our product. They’re not showing off for us, they’re doing it for each other, to prove they belong. Even if you have only one or two images showing real live people, every bit helps, so, you want to support these displays of identity as much as you can.

Is it timely? Do fans see you responding to other fans within a couple of hours? Being timely is more important than being transparent or accurate because the recent activity area on the facebook page is there to create social pressure. All of these people are doing something. Why aren’t you?

Do they recognize that this is a communal space, and not just a commercial space? There’s an easy trick for this one – I call it the 40/40/20 rule. To keep your fan area social, and not just make it into advertising, 40% of your posts should be about You. You as a person. What you’re thinking and doing and what you’ll do later. Another 40% should be about topics of interest to your fans. Only 20% should ever be about you as a corporate entity. That’s your sales announcements, your product launches, the stuff that you want to slip in under the radar. If anyone has ever used the OKCupid dating website, they’re brilliant at this: they have an entire blog devoted to data of all things, and it keeps people coming back because it’s not really related to what they do, and thus nonthreatening. So basically, when users look at your page, you want something in the users brain to say, “hey, it really looks like those guys are having fun. I wish I was a part of it.”

Our last step to building this fan community is keeping those fans active. Remember, your facebook page is not an advertisement. It’s a social space that happens to be populated by people who like your product. So Socialize! People like to talk to real people. They like to talk to each other (that’s that community motivation we spoke about) and they like to talk to you (that’s the approval motivation we spoke abut.)

People are fans of you, your product, your store, your branding, your other fans. The one thing they are not a fan of your corporate entity. People can tell when you’re thinking of them as customers, not fans.

The key to staying in the right mindset is good old fashioned authenticity. It’s as simple as being careful to never use marketing speak. “On sale for a limited time only”. New and improved”. “Act now.” Come on guys. When small businesses try to take on the trappings of big corporations you often find it has the opposite results. Our biggest strength is that we are not Walmart, and people aren’t coming to us for a Walmart experience. Incidentally, part of authenticity is sometimes breaking the third wall – admitting you’re a retailer: a person, and not a corporation. Let them know you’re trying to make money, so you can fund your vacation to Bermuda. You like watching Dr Who re-urns. When works is done you’re going out for a beer.

Another key to authenticity is consistency in acknowledging the customers experience. They’ve gone through a lot of effort to post that picture, to let you know what they did and didn’t like about your store or hairstyle or whatever. The least you can do is validate it, approve of it, by replying.

Comments are not a way to keep score! We often think of them that way – look, I got fifty posts on my page, I must be hot stuff – but they aren’t. Each comment no matter what it says is a request for your attention

Using your Powers for Good

So, as any cult leader will tell you, controlling the actions of large groups of fanatical people is an exciting experience, not to mention rewarding financially. So our question becomes, how can we use this goodwill, and benefit from these motivated fans.

First off, obviously they can become your marketing force. Because of the way facebook is set up, every interaction they make with our fan page informs their friends of their preferences, and that social pressure is one of the most powerful motivators in existence. There are a couple ways to use that: You can use it for build-up to a big event, you can make private launches on products, you can give discounts or sales, or really, anything that will get people excited enough to weigh in.

But although it has its place, strict marketing still confuses fans with customers, when there are so many other ways to use this active, engaged community you have created:

Beta testing. Outside of advertising I can’t stress this enough as one as the most important services your fans can provide. Testing new site updates, testing design or product ideas

Usability testing services. That ‘s a biggy

You can also use them for user-contributed resources and services. These depend on the size of your company. A rabid enough fan community cares about you and cares about your store, and wants to help you succeed. When you’re small it can be invaluable to put a call out for peple to help with things you can’t do. For example, every once in a while we need some models. We know exactly where to go to get them.

Idea sourcing. This one is very cool – if you know exactly what your customers will buy, you suddenly know exactly what to supply. Ourselves we use a voting system to find out what types of new animals people would buy, and we make the top ones. It’s never failed us, except once. They wanted a zombie. That was just weird.

User-generated content. This is where the pictures, the videos, the reviews, etc. all comes in. Each one continues the cycle of interaction by rewarding the fan with recognition and encouraging group engagement in others. That makes up for the times when you yourself can’t be in on a conversation – if done well the conversation is still going on without you.

So when you’re trying to decide what to do with your newfound fans, the question you should ask yourself is: What do I want to accomplish, and what is the simplest thing that could possibly work. We’ve had situations where we scope out large complex rewards systems – fans get free merchandise if they complete a set of tasks, etc. In the end, simple is best. We are small businesses; let’s stick with what we know.

Keeping the Balance

I’d like to end on a downer. After all this cheer-leading it’s important to acknowledge once again that social media is no panacea, and more importantly, it’s no place for anyone who is insincere. It is possible to fake authenticity for a little while, but it sounds pretty exhausting to me.

One of the biggest challenges in transferring from customers to fans is you gotta start treating them with respect. They are your fellow travelers. And with the loss of control that comes with abandoning our strict authoritarian pigeonholing of roles comes some unhappiness too.

Social media survives on a very delicate balance of exerting just enough control to encourage behaviors you want, and at the same time suppressing those behaviors you don’t. I am not talking about trolling, or spam, or malicious hacking, all of those should be stomped on without mercy. But, say for example someone rants about the price of your shipping. And someone else points out that it’s because of the size of the box. And someone else makes fun of their spelling. And pretty soon you have a flame war going on.

There are a couple of things you can do:

First of all you can encourage that conflict! It’s important to recognize the extremely important role that conflict plays in keeping your fans involved. Having a civil debate sometimes means that people do beat each other up. There is very little as effective in keeping a fan involved in a scene and coming back to your page as a good fight. Why is this? The danger in fan groups is not that they blow up, but that they fade away. The danger is not from conflict but from disinterest. If people are fighting, it’s going to be okay because that means there is some long-term commitment.

And furthermore, Flame wars are a side effect of creating a great space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. Metaphorically speaking, we want a space that people think is worth vandalizing. I remember one of our proudest moments, a while back we put up a vote on four new designs and then we noticed that someone had created a hack to stuff the ballot boxes for the design they wanted. That showed time and commitment: it meant we were doing something right.

Second off, you can accept the conflict you can’t change. The knee-jerk reaction is to immediately suppress what people are doing to your lovely page. However here’s a good rule: Don’t forbid what you can’t prevent. For our fans, feeling controlled is a demotivate, just like feeling ignored. Instead of just deleting comments you disagree with, try disarming them instead. When someone complains about shipping times, remind them that you don’t ship on weekends because the post office is closed, and anyway your wife wanted you to paint the kitchen. People respond well to fairness even if they disagree with you, especially if they view you as a person.

Suppression is a very distant third option. It’s true that groups where each person is completely free to do what they like…aren’t groups.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought: The strength of social media comes from it’s risk. People pay attention to it exactly because it cannot be completely controlled by one person. But that loss of control is a small price to pay for a self-sustaining, attentive, involved, enthusiastic, and most importantly, happy fan community.  Who might even buy something at some point.

Thanks everyone.

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