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Gamasutra was at MIT’s recent Futures of Entertainment 2 conference, and a fascinating panel including game designer Raph Koster and moderator Henry Jenkins touched on the hot topic of user-generated content and “fan labor”: how to foster it, how to monet

Chris Dahlen, Blogger

November 22, 2007

4 Min Read

At MIT’s Futures of Entertainment 2 conference, also covered by Gamasutra earlier this week, a panel of experts discussed the hot topic of user generated content and “fan labor”: how to foster it, how to monetize it, and what a company owes the fans in return. But the discussion quickly spread to the question of what divides a fan from a professional content creator? And does money get in the way of true fandom? Game designer Raph Koster of Areae, Inc. sat on a panel with fan fiction researcher Catherine Tosenberger; Jordan Greenhall, CEO of DivX, Inc.; Elizabeth Osder, senior vice-president of audience for Buzznet.com; and Mark Deuze, professor at Indiana University and author of Media Work. The panel, aimed at media professionals and scholars, took place at the second Futures of Entertainment conference in Cambridge, Mass., which was cohosted by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies and the Convergence Culture Consortium. Henry Jenkins, the Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program, moderated the discussion. Inviting the audience to express itself on your site is a keystone of web 2.0 businesses. As Deuze said, “There isn’t a media company in the news industry or games industry or in advertising right now anymore that isn’t talking one way or the other about, ‘What are we going to do with the co-creating consumer?’” “It’s definitely been a big year of upheaval, and a year when web 2.0 consumers figured out that quite a lot of web 2.0 is built on gypping people out of stuff they made,” said Koster. But he added, “It’s actually that sense of, ‘Well, I deserve something back from what I’ve done’ that causes most of the problems. Because historically, in every artistic field, artists starved to death until about 1890. So in some ways, the whole idea of creative content being something that earns money for ordinary people is kind of historically bizarre.” “You’ve got this natural spectrum between pros and amateurs, but in some sense there’s another oblique dimension, which is the degree to which the individual who created content is creating it to maximize return,” said Greenhall. “Intuitively? As soon as you add dough to the equation, things get bad real quick.” Several of the panelists argued that fans don’t want money, so much as the freedom to create without interference. As Deuze said, “The basic social contract [between producers and consumers] consists of two values: leave me alone, I want to be able to do what I want to do; but acknowledge what I’m doing. And those are the two values that drive a lot of creative work, whether you’re a professional or a fan.” Tosenberger agreed, saying that the writers of fan fiction don’t expect to influence or collaborate with the owners of a property. Describing the perspective of a fan fiction writer, she said, “The canon is your space. Fandom is our space. You do whatever you want, and we’ll respond to it any way we want, and you stay out.” She explained, “A lot of the reason [that] fans write fan fiction or create fan videos or whatever, is to be outside this commercial milieu. Once you bring money into it, once you get the media companies setting up spaces, setting up clubhouses, etc., it brings in the idea of control. Who’s going to be allowed into this clubhouse? Only the people who are producing what’ll make the media company happy?” The companies also have to ask, “Which participatory fans do you want? The fans who are writing nice little fiction about Claire discovering her powers on Heroes? Or do you want people writing slash fic?” While many fans don’t look for approval or compensation, some turn their work into a career in the media industry. As Osder said, “Web 2.0 is like the greatest farm team there ever was. There’s so much talent out there that couldn’t break through, that couldn’t be found.” Deuze observed, “In the game industry, it’s common sense that if you want to get a job at a good company, the best thing you can do for yourself is to mod.” Deuze also observed that even after they go professional, “Most people who actually work in the media – the creative people, game developers – [do it] primarily because they’re fans. That’s their motivation.” But for all the reasons that web 2.0 companies encourage fan talent and user participation, as Koster observed, they’re not after great content: fundamentally, they want metadata. He concluded: “They invite the participation so they can measure it. The web is a database. [Users] add to the database. The content is there so we can watch people skittering across it."

About the Author(s)

Chris Dahlen


Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer who covers gaming, music, technology, and pop culture. He regularly contributes to Paste magazine, The Onion AV Club, and GameSetWatch, and since 2002 has been on staff at Pitchforkmedia.com. He lives in Portsmouth, NH with his wife and son.

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