The disruptive power of the internet has made ‘community’ an essential concept in the new media landscape. A community is a group of people who share the similar interests, concerns or pursuits. They form around common purposes or practices.
As argued in the first post of this series, the internet ‘disintermediates’ because it collapses the cost of publishing, broadcasting and distributing, removes obstacles to the creation of new social groups, and eliminates barriers to the formation of distributed networks.
These distributed networks and new social groups are the basis of any new community. This post will argue that for creative producers community is a precondition of successfully operating in the new ecology of information.
There is, however, one common assumption about community that need to be dispelled before I consider what is involved in the development of a community that can support an individual’s creative practice.
Does size matter?
The ease with which web content can reach a wide audience can lead us to think that success is defined by mass interest. YouTube videos with millions of views seem to be the benchmark we must aim for. However, some data from new organisations shows how scale is not necessarily synonymous with success.
Newspaper web sites hailing the tens of millions of unique users they attract monthly is a regular feature (see this example). However, Navigating News Online, a recent report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, although flawed in many ways, offers a different take on these numbers.
NNO identified an important distinction between ‘casual’ and ‘power’ consumers of information. More than three-quarters of the traffic to the top 25 American news sites came from users who visited just once or twice a month. In most cases they will have arrived via a link or search, read once piece, and then moved on.
While there is an obvious social benefit in getting a media organisation’s content to as many as possible, these infrequent flyers will not offer much economic benefit even in terms of an audience for advertisers.
In contrast, the NNO report found that ‘power users’ – people who came to the same news site more than ten times each month, and spent more than hour each month on those visits – comprised on average only 7% of the total web readership.
This trend was known before the NNO report, and applies also to UK examples. Although the numbers are now larger, these 2009 metrics from the Daily Mail show the number of casual versus power consumers:
- 28.7 million unique users/month globally
- 8.9 million unique users/month from the UK
- Of the UK users 611,588 came to the web site every day
- Half of those UK daily users (c. 300,000) stayed for 20 minutes/month
So while the headline-grabbing tens of millions of unique users suggests a vast audience around the Daily Mail, their loyal British users numbered no more than 300,000 in 2009.
These dynamics are the reason pay walls attract a small number of subscribers in relation to the overall readership of a news site. Subscribers come from power users: pay walls exclude or limit casual users so depend on subscriptions from the most loyal.
Working with fans
The idea that it is the power users, the most loyal consumers, that are the basis of an economic strategy to fund creative content is common to the music industry, where such people are known as fans.
What the internet has done, however, is made to possible to directly access prospective fans and provide them with content. The consequence of that is that artists don’t have to pursue a ‘blockbuster’ strategy to succeed. Instead of waiting for the one thing that might offer stardom with all its rewards, artists can build a community of those who appreciate their work and might be willing to support it.
Kevin Kelly famously outlined this concept with his post on 1000 True Fans. Like so many things influenced by the web, Kelly identified how a power law curve, which is the basis of the long tail phenomenon, suggested new possibilities. While the number of 1000 was indicative only and varied according to the artist’s media, Kelly maintained that if you could move people from an encounter with your work to being ‘lesser fans’ and on to ‘true fans’ regular support would be forthcoming.
Kelly later conducted interviews with artists to see if his argument played out in practice. The results supported the thrust of his original argument but tempered its enthusiasm. He concluded that:
there are very few artists making their entire living selling directly to True Fans. The few that are, are selling high-priced goods, like paintings, rather than low-priced goods like CDs. But there are many that partially fund their livelihood with direct True Fans. (my emphasis)
Mike Masnick’s review of musicians supports this conclusion, and importantly demonstrates that the logic applies to more than just the famous who already have a fan base.
How does an individual create a community?
So, if you wanted to pursue this strategy what would it involve? The first thing to note is the hard graft. Kevin Kelly’s interviews made clear “it takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself. And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.”
Assuming you are committed, here are six steps to create a community around your practice:
- Get yourself a web platform (site, blog etc) to make some work and your thinking available for viewing and linking, and keep updating this platform;
- Think of yourself as a publisher or broadcaster, find your angle or voice, and offer information beyond self-promotion on a regular basis;
- Participate in social networks and other on-line forums, offering comments, links, information;
- Understand that a community is more than the sum of your social media followers and friends. Social networks are a necessary but insufficient condition of community;
- A community’s members have varying degrees of commitment, from observers to occasional supporters to committed fans. Followers and friends are, until they demonstrate otherwise, not ‘true fans’. But they might become committed supporters if they are engaged with your work;
- Engagement means offering your community a sense of belonging and commitment to your practice and the thinking that informs it. This comes through conversation and dialogue around ideas and information rather than just appeals or material inducements;
In the debate about crowd funding photojournalism I have emphasized how having a community is a precondition of successful support. Those who have raised funds have either been already well-known (which means they have had a community of support) or they have in effect followed most of the steps above. As Bryan Formals wrote in his good post on crowd funding, “it all starts to tie together: transparency, authenticity, community building, collaboration, funding.”
Point 6 is probably the most difficult and most important in the process. It is the step where supporters feel they participate in the project, something Joerg Colberg identified as important, and which Tomas van Houtryve has put into practice creatively and effectively. But like all engagement, this participation is not a one-way street – as van Houtryve has found, creative practitioners can learn a lot from their supporters and their work can be better as a result. The benefits are not just financial.
As I shall argue in the third post of this series, the idea of community is important for big media players as much as individual artists, and it is behind some of the new economic strategies to support journalism. There are lessons to be learnt from those strategies for individuals too.
The principles that make community possible are the same in both cases even if the scale is different. The internet’s logics of disintermediation, disruption and disaggregation affect everyone. It’s harder for individuals to perform all the necessary tasks that make a successful community, but the rewards are potentially great.
Photo credit: victoriapeckham/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license