Crowds, Words, and the Futures of Entertainment Conference

November 15, 2011
By | 18 Comments

This past weekend, I attended the Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. I’ve attended before and am a big fan of the endeavor. FoE brings together academics, content creators, and advertisers to discuss current and emerging trends within the media industries. As such, it’s a remarkably rare space, one in which discussions are facilitated across distinct fields. I’ve been to other events where content creators are invited to speak at academics, but at FoE no one group is set up as knowing what’s going on, the other(s) being left simply to write notes. And thus it’s also an interesting, if sometimes awkward exercise in talking across paradigms, goals, and vocabulary.

Each time I go, it’s the words that strike me the most. Which words are used and why they matter seem to determine and say so much about the distinct cultures that are coming together. An example from FoE5 came in a panel on “crowdsourcing.” That word is buzzish and frequently used, and I never realized how much I should hate it until that panel was over. Discussion followed a disturbing pattern as the panelists began to circle around the notion that crowds needed leaders, or “benevolent dictators” as the panelists dubbed them. And thus a panel that I thought would be a bottom-up panel about audience and citizen power ended up being quite remarkably top-down in focus. This even led to Jonathan Taplin, film producer and USC prof, opening a later panel about journalism with the pronunciation that he’d never seen good art created by a crowd.

“Crowd” was the problem here. If we see audiences, agents, actors, citizens, individuals as crowds, we’re per force rolling them into an undifferentiated bovine mass. Indeed, setting a crowd versus artists was a semantic trap, in some sense, since surely once a crowd develops something, we use different words to describe them. I’m sure all of Taplin’s movies, for instance, were created by a crowd of people, but he and others likely called them the cast and crew. Or once voices of brilliance rise up from a crowd, we give them a new title and extract them from the crowd. Consequently, to invoke the crowd in this regard is to create the ultimate third party straw men. Why do so if not for rhetorical purposes, to reinstate the power of the individual creator, to argue for the lack of wisdom of the crowd and the need for benevolent dictators (!), and hence in some regards to circle the wagons around the author as God figure.

The crowd in crowdsourcing, therefore, might seem utopian and fuzzy at first blush, but ultimately it’s doomed to bovinity by the presence of the word “crowd.” If I use this example, though, it’s not (just) to register my grumbles with that panel (and, to be clear, the panel had some great contributions besides the benevolent dictator stuff), but moreso to make a larger point about the value and need for meetings such as FoE in general. Since these words really matter, and a lot of them get chosen sloppily, then get reused again and again till they become gospel. Let me counter the above example, then, with one with a happier ending. Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and others have been trying to slay the word “viral” (as in, “that video went viral”) at FoE for a while now, preferring a model of “spreadability” that focuses attention on the agents at the heart of the process, not on some externalized process of biological contagion. They want us to think of why people spread things and share them, in part so as to force producers to realize that thinking, intelligent audiences (not “crowds”) are needed for things to “go viral.” And they’ve made great inroads. If anyone had “viral” on a FoE5 bingo card, they likely would have lost that game.

I’m sure that skeptics and diehard grumps would read my account of “crowds” and decide that this is why academics and producers simply can’t talk with each other. Indeed, I’ve heard all too many sadly stupid and childishly puerile critiques of things like FoE and the Convergence Culture Consortium that romanticize living in an ivory tower to the nth degree. But instead I see these as examples of why such meetings are so vital, and why I’m so thankful that Jenkins, Ford, Green, and co. remain dedicated to making them happen. At first I thought FoE would help me learn of new gadgets and trends and such, and while it does that too, it’s the chance to stop and think about the words we use to describe what’s happening, which ones we should toss, and which ones we need to change that excites me the most.


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18 Responses to “ Crowds, Words, and the Futures of Entertainment Conference ”

  1. Tim Anderson on November 15, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    To paraphrase Williams, “there are no crowds, only ways of seeing people as crowds”. Meet the new boss, same as… you know the score.

  2. Sam Ford on November 17, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    A lot of really good thinking here about “crowds” that I think merits further attention. And, as we’re copy editing and finalizing our “Spreadable Media” manuscript, I think it’s something Henry, Joshua, and I need to think through. After all, a book dedicated in many places to picking apart words especially needs to pay close attention to the terms it picks up. And I think your critiques of crowd describes, for instance, why participatory culture is not synonymous with “the wisdom of crowds” model/approach that’s been discussed so much. Thanks for the thinking, Jonathan. It came at a particularly apropos time for us…

  3. Jonathan Taplin on November 17, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    My critique of “crowdsourced art” was meant to be a bit more extensive. The whole point of my new book, Outlaw Blues is that the true artist is engaged in what Marcuse called “The great refusal”–almost by definition in opposition to the wisdom of the crowd. Certainly the crowd hated Picasso’s cubism. The crowd hated Charlie Parker’s bebop and Dylan’s embrace of rock and roll. Yes, when I produced Scorsese’s Mean Streets, there was a (very) small crowd behind the camera, but no one involved with that film would deny that the author/artist was Marty.

  4. Tim Anderson on November 17, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    I have been studying new media seriously since I have started in the 1990s, new digital media in the mid 2000s, and teaching it for the last 5 years. My basic problem with it is exactly what I hint at on my above comment: a flippant disregard for specificity and knee-jerk embrace of neologisms. I am looking forward to your manuscript Sam and hope it deals with how producers are interpreting metrics to help divine, not crowds, but specific forums and members. At this moment I am writing a manuscript that partially deals with the “1,000 true fan” debate, which is really about specificity and identification, not “crowds”. To me the term is slippery and dangerous because of it. Without much thought “crowds” can easily be viewed as masses and the slippage can lead us into 19th and 20th century style debates, ergo “crowds don’t make art” type statements.

    • Tim Anderson on November 17, 2011 at 2:47 PM

      I keep thinking of event-based art like the kind “organized” in the fluxus movement that had small crowds as a counterpoint. But that isn’t even my critique of the statement. Rather it is the way that crowd begins to slip from “sources of value” to “sources of production” to “a way to organize” and so on. I worry that the lack of specificity gets lost in the neologistic nature of the term. I am much more interested in the Williamesque statement I made above, e.g. “the ways of talking about crowds”, than anything else. Understanding those ways of discourse are extremely important and will allow us academics to connect with producers in a meaningful fashion.

  5. Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    Thanks, Tim. I’m glad this discussion came up while we are still finalizing the manuscript. We’re looking to tackle a variety of terms and the logic behind them, from “Web 2.0,” “viral,” and “stickiness” to “influencers,” “the wisdom of the crowds,” and “the Long Tail”…among others. In most cases, what happens is that people take helpful metaphors and then try to make them organizing principles to the point that the metaphor created restricts understanding rather than creating it. I liken it to Frankenstein’s creature. (The worst example of this in the marketing world is audience segmentation profiles, i.e. the “soccer mom”).

    • Tim Anderson on November 18, 2011 at 12:40 PM

      No, I get that. The principles may be key, but I guess the way that I like to think about them is not as abstractions but as, as you say, principles. However, what is most interesting is the manner in which the application of the principle may differ from place to place, person to person, etc. I really look froward to reading about the variety of applications where specificity of application is key. Here’s one example: both Amanda Palmer and Ok Go are trying to leverage social networks to promote their concerts an music. However, the two acts do it in completely different was. Ok Go are not extravagant bloggers, but Palmer has used that forum to great effect. Palmer, in fact, has relied on blogging about her video experiences, as had Ok Go. In fact, both have left labels because of video disputes and issues of restriction. But Ok Go left over disputes about embeddability and Palmer demanded to be dropped over what she felt was her labels A&R efforts to censor her body. The details are really key here since both point specific sets of institutional concerns. To me, lumping them into examples of “social networking” ignores the specifics that speak to digital media. I go on and on about this in a manuscript I am developing, so I can bore you there later. But what I am most concerned with is that the details are left intact and not paved over with so many neologisms. In fact the neologisms make us, more often than not, unable to speak and listen to media producers.

      Can’t wait for the book , Sam. Thanks for listening and all of work!

      • Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 1:24 PM

        That’s a great point, Tim. As you know, academics are as guilty as the press, as consultants, and many, many others of trying to shoehorn examples into the models they most want to use, glossing over the “inconvenient” details of a story in order to make it the perfect illustration of the thing they’re talking about…

  6. Scott Ellington on November 18, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Was the window of opportunity (to influence the future[s]of entertainment) ever actually open?
    And how might one be notified of the availability of FoE5 podcasts?

  7. Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    Hey Scott,

    I think there’s more of a chance to help with evolution rather than revolution. As to something I have more control over, the video podcasts are going through some post-production now but should be available soon. We’ll be sure to spread the word about when they are available.


    • Scott Ellington on November 18, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      Thank you, Sam.
      I was hoping for the evolution of a leveler playing field in which the contribution of the “consumer” of media is integrated into a more-sustainable metaphors for culture than these bones of etymological contention. So it goes.

      • Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 1:26 PM

        Well, if we were to go with “leveler” as a point of comparison, I’d say we’re “level-er” than we were. But “level-er” and level are far from the same, and now we have new power embalances and new models (“Web 2.0” for instance) that help gloss over the major questions of power, of privacy, of agendas, etc. that will be necessary to address to have that world in which you are striving to see…

        • Scott Ellington on November 18, 2011 at 1:30 PM

          Complete agreement! Except with the belief that we’re leveler than we were, before, during or after the Writers’ Strike:

          • Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 1:49 PM

            I don’t know that the Writer’s Strike resolved much of anything in the grand scheme, but we at least live in an era where all of us have a bit more voice to make our opinions heard. The power imbalance is still vast, though….and there’s no glossing over that, just as that truth can’t deny that I’m blessed to live in a world where I can read what Jonathan Gray, Scott Ellington, and Tim Anderson thinks without the strong editorial, dictatorial hand of a news conglomerate. (Doesn’t mean, though, that you guys have the same affordances to get your message across as Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity…)

          • Sam Ford on November 18, 2011 at 1:50 PM

            I think Hollywood’s awfully misguided about what is in its own best interests…

            • Scott Ellington on November 18, 2011 at 1:57 PM

              “This even led to Jonathan Taplin, film producer and USC prof, opening a later panel about journalism with the pronunciation that he’d never seen good art created by a crowd.”

              The crowd may not have produced the U.S. Constitution, which may not be good art, but as powers and platforms converge, I wonder whether the windows of opportunity to influence the future[s] of anything are actually open or illusory.