social capitalism

As I was just saying . . .

There’s a blurred line in social networks between communicating and selling.  And Leonie Margaret Rutherford has that borderland nicely nailed in a new article in First Monday, “Industries, Artists, Friends and Fans: Marketing Young Adult Fictions Online.” The abstract:

The Internet has facilitated the coming together of formerly more separated youth taste cultures, such that literary, screen and graphic fandoms now more readily overlap. Media industries have invested in online strategies which create an ongoing relationship between producers and consumers of entertainment media texts. Using the Internet marketing campaign for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga as a case study, the paper examines the role of the publishing industry in marketing popular teen literary fiction through online channels in ways that often disguise promotional intent.

Fan culture and Web 2.0 are often described as being places where cultural hierarchies are disrupted and tastes are actively shaped by diverse audiences who gravitate to niches. Anita Elberse has challenged Chris Anderson’s claim that the “long tail” of niche items will win out in a world where audiences can make their own choices among a myriad of options. Elberse’s research suggests that digital buzz actually compounds the blockbuster effect. And Rutherford’s research shows how this works. As she puts it,”[o]stensibly democratic networks of online youth sociability exist in a complex and complicit relationship with the processes of global media industries.”

She quotes  from a Publisher’s Weekly story in which a publicist at Scholastic said, baldly, “part of the trick to marketing books to teens online is that the most effective results seem to come from the coverage that appears most organic, viral and uncommercial in nature.” Appears. In other words, when you sell something, do your best to make it look as if you’re just another fan, raving about a positive experience.

As the quote from Scholastic’s publicist illustrates, the lines between user–generated fan sociability, and industry–generated social marketing are blurred. Such overlaps demonstrate the informational circuit of what Nigel Thrift calls “knowing capitalism”. Audiences/users gain information about narrative remediations and consumer opportunities related to their interests, while publishers and media industries garner data about their audience base. Through user feedback, publishing and media industry stakeholders are able to make projections about the viability of merchandising or cross–platform products associated with their literary or screen media properties.

Rutherford points out that genre fiction, particularly women’s romance fiction, has traditionally built on a strong connection between fans and producers of fiction. But the marketing aimed at youth also is intended as recruitment for a future market by going after the youth demographic and building the kinds of loyal relationships previously developed between women readers and romance publishers. But there’s also another key element: “The marketing of young adult fictions has also increasingly been aligned with the cult of celebrity.” Meyers built her own website so she could align her image with fans and identify as a storyteller, a geek, one of them. But the feedback loop between the author and the fans and the fictional world builds a committed customer base. “The author, the series and its characters have become celebrity commodities, fuelled by Internet communities of interest, an intersecting, cross–media stardom.”

Which is all very thought-provoking. This research does seem to describe the mechanisms by which audiences cooperate with and are coopted by marketers in making blockbusters, which in turn gives audiences a sense that they are participating in something really, really big. Which, of course, means niches are all very well but it’s not where the cool kids want to be seen.

The attention economy, like our economy, apparently has a widening gap between the rich and the rest. And on the Internet, nobody knows you’re an advertisement.


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