Thursday, November 28, 2013

Polished Analysis

In the last forty years, media has been going through many shifts. With the rise of the internet and reality television, interactive media has been on the rise. The idea of interactive media has created the idea of the active consumer and in-turn an interactive consumer. The internet has enabled creative people to shuck off the ties of mass-media companies, and has provided an accessible market for independently produced media such as Sowerby and Luff's Fat Chance (Fat Chance) an independently produced comedy podcast. Moreover, with the advent of the internet, users can now more freely interact with their media choices through social networks, email, comment sections, forums etc. This interactivity allows people to shape the media they are consuming. Furthermore, consumers are actively encouraging this new wave in media and are being encouraged to participate.

To encourage audience participation, Brian Luff and Georgina Sowerby structure their podcast much
like a talk radio show. However, instead of taking calls from the audience, the audience sends in emails, tweets, and post to the Facebook group "Sowerby and Luff's Fully Optamised Social Media Network" (SLFOSMN). Sowerby and Luff then feature the audience participation on their current podcast, Fat Chance. By encouraging people to interact and help shape the show, Sowerby and Luff are participating in what is known as interactive media, sometimes also called new media. Though this point is important, what is more important at this time is discussing the social network surrounding the podcast.

Though Fat Chance is a fascinating show feature news stories of odd occurrences, strange products, and other phenomena that make the listener question if an occurrence being discussed could have happened, the social network, SLFOSMN, is by far a more interesting phenomena. On SLFOSMN, audience members are able to post new stories of bizarre happenings. For example, this morning (November 28, 2013) the news story about a drunk man being swallowed by a python was posted and discussed, an audience member explained it was a hoax and posted a link to another story carrying the same image and story of a different occurrence in another country. The audience is then able to read a story before it is featured on Fat Chance and are able to discuss it amongst themselves and engage it more directly and immediately; as opposed to, waiting a week for the podcast to be released. Moreover, SLFOSMN acts not only as a place for the audience to interact about stories not covered by Fat Chance it also provides another way for the audience to engage the stories besides emailing in responses to the show. Audience members can post similar stories that are being covered in the weekly episode of Fat Chance while listening to the podcast.

This concept of simultaneous listening and interacting and delayed listening and interacting, is discussed by Carrie Heeter in her article Interactivity in the Context of Designed Spaces." Heeter discusses the fact that both the media, even interactive media, and the media consumer are both situated in time and that the media has to be designed to consumed after production. Fat Chance is designed to solicit post-production responses. Audience members are not able to immediately call in or email while the show is being made, therefore all of the interaction happens post-production. This fact  is important to understand because unlike a face to face conversation, a live webcast, or radio show, this media is being designed to solicit response after the fact to extend the conversation show to show. Sowerby and Luff, essentially, built themselves a show that will maintain content  for an extended period (usually their podcast series last 100 or more episodes) that maintain a cohesiveness of content.

To maintain the show and the show's content though, Sowerby and Luff had to create an affinity space. Gee defines an affinity space as a place were people share ideas around common interest. Before the advent of the Facebook Group, the affinity space was centered around the show and the fans were not able to interact one with another. The conversations were mediated by Sowerby and Luff because all of the information was passed through them. When Sowerby and Luff launched SLFOSMN, they then were able to have the audience members build the groups collective intellect. As Pierre Levy posits Collective Intellect is what is formed by a group, often participants in an Affinity Space, that helps shapes what the group knows and what the values of the group are. Furthermore, the group is then able to individual create meaning by participating in the affinity space because they know what the values of the group are thus what they appreciate. The creating of SLFOSMN, allows Sowerby and Luff's fans to expand the collective intelligence of the group through direct individual participation.

Despite the ease of participation in SLFOSMN, very few fans actually participate by posting or commenting or even liking.
A post made to the SLFOSMN showing the tight nature of the group
and how the content posted on the SLFOSMN is related directly to
Fat Chance.
The group has a very tight nature and can seem very off-putting to someone who is very new to the group. The group has a very well constructed collective intellect that one has to, at this point, accept or reject because the group is so well established. This established group intellect is both a benefit and detriment: the group has such an established collective intellect that the participation of the group seems directed in one way. It seems at this point that the collective intellect of the group is unchangeable. Michael Emme discussed this phenomena in his piece "Going
Nowhere: Exploring the Cyber Space Between our Ears" where he discusses the good and bad of collective intellect. He found that collective intellect and affinity spaces often create stereotypes that often people do not fit in and that often a group's collective intellect becomes so concrete that it becomes unchangeable.

 Before moving ahead into this piece, it is important to first define active participation and passive participation in SLFOSMN. Active participants are those few people who post items to the news feed and those who comment, thus furthering the conversation of the group and generating content for the show. Liking a post or a comment is passive participation because it only denotes that one approves of the content being posted to the group. The act of liking does not move the conversation forward nor does it help build the collective intellect of SLFOSMN other than to say this content is something the group approves of or at least one person in the group approves of. The group habits can be seen, to an extent in the graphic below. As can be seen in the graph most of the people who participate in SLFOSMN posted content or commented on posts making up 72% of the groups activity with only 28% of participation being passive participation in the form of liking. This data shows that group is heavily focused around generating discourse not simply showing support for what is being posted.

Furthermore, the importance of what Sowerby and Luff are doing with Fat Chance, and all of their other podcasts that follow the same format, is they are participating disputing mass media through audience participation. Henry Jenkins discusses this phenomena in in his pieces  "Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans" and "Quentint Tarantino's Star Wars: Grassroots Creativity Meets the Media Industry" where he examines how groups of people in affinity spaces take images, films, and other forms of media, rework them or reinterpret them and create new meaning. Moreover, as Jenkins explains, are now more able to interact with media more immediately than ever before because of the internet. Therefore, the fans of Fat Chance are able to send corrections to stories or items that Sowerby and Luff present in their show or simply add to the story, thus changing the collective intellect of the group, through active participation through email and Facebook posts, and thus also create meaning beyond what they are intended to get from Sowerby and Luff.

This project has been very interesting. I will depart from the standard from of academic writing and engage with a bit of personal narrative and reflection on this study, here in the conclusion. I have been a fan of Sowerby and Luff's podcast and media projects since I was 16 years old. I had stopped following they podcast a few years ago, but remained in the Facebook group. When I was told I would have to examine an internet community for this project, I did not first think of this group but went to other groups I am a member of instead. I remembered this group after awhile and decided to select this because I noticed active participation in a digital sphere I did not see in other areas. As I have said before in this study, SLFOMNS acts as a microcosm of Facebook. It not only undermines big media by giving media consumers a voice, it creates a safe environment for fans of Sowerby and Luff to express their interest.

The research for this project was fairly easy, though gathering information for that particular pie chart was rather grueling, thus why it is the only graph in this piece. There were some difficulties finding sources that discuss this phenomena because it seems that a lot of research into this particular field is fairly new. I think that media outlets should be looking more closely on how to get their viewers involved and Sowerby and Luff's projects are a great example of how effective audience participation can be. Furthermore, their series create more consumers of media. I found my self looking for stories that I could post to the group so I could participate because it looked like a lots of fun. Sadly, I never found anything that had not been posted already and felt that my voice was not needing to be added to the already existing discourse in the group. This feeling is, I believe, one of the issues facing  large affinity spaces: how can all the people feel encouraged to participate when already so much is happening? I have no answer to this question; however, I am sure other people have looked into this subject, but it has very little baring on what my research project is. I must say that I found it very enjoyable to engage one of my interests in an academic light, and feel that this research has uncovered a new depth to what is otherwise a fairly silly show.

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