Negotiating Between Consultation and Creativity
Two days ago, Ryan Arndt (@CertainlySocial), Community Manager for the IGDA, sent me an article called “The Web is a Customer Service Medium.” You can click the link and read it for yourself, if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to do just that. In the article, Paul Ford discusses the nature of the web, and the differences between it and other mediums, spefiically traditional print publishing. Ford suggests that every medium answers a question, and that in the case of the internet, that question is this: “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?”
Much of the article is about adapting for success on the internet, focusing on creating experiences that give people a voice and a feeling of that voice being heard. Ford draws a line between what I feel are two very important pieces of the internet. On one side, he references the content of the web. Whether it’s blogs, book excerpts, podcasts, or some other content, it’s usually an extension of some other medium, and old-school media frequently struggles to understand why publishing these snippets doesn’t generate a community. Ford’s ultimate conclusion is that “The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium.”
He’s right. This idea, the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” question, is the very reason that the job of Community Management exists in the first place.
The effect of the WWIC culture cannot be ignored. I certainly partake of it myself. Catch me at a convention and ask me what I’d do if I was in charge of DC Comics’ film and videogame properties, then settle in for a long chat. What strikes me as interesting about the WWIC idea in general is how pervasively it has invaded popular culture, specifically entertainment. We all have an idea of how our favorite movie, tv show, or video game should be, and we’re all incensed when it doesn’t go the way we want.
Of all the entertainment mediums, though, videogames seem to take the brunt of this, in my experience (With the possible exceptions of Star Wars and Superhero films). I suspect it’s because the very nature of the videogame medium is that it constantly consults the audience. Movies will move on without us, whether we protest their content or not. A videogame character, however, will not take a single step without consulting the player. Soap McTavish, Commander Shepard, and Marcus Fenix can’t pull the trigger unless you tell them when to do it and in which direction to point their weapon. Luke never consulted me before blowing up the Death Star, but videogamers were being consulted long before the internet was a twinkle in DARPA’s eye. When compared to other entertainment mediums, I’d argue that videogaming traditionally has the most active of all entertainment audiences.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that when these audiences find their way onto the internet, there is a heightened level of expectation for consultation. It’s also no surprise, then, that when a company resorts to a content-only strategy of community-building, it’s rarely successful. The reason that this strategy rarely results in a healthy, hearty community is because it’s actually focused on building an audience. In doing so, it is missing out on the other, more important part of the web, the part that videogame fans come online for – the ability to connect like-minded people to one another and to the content creator. Ford links to many examples of successful internet endeavours in his article, and the thing that most of them have in common is that their focus is more on what their users do with content, not what the content itself is. Whether it’s “official” content or user-generated content, the most successful community-builders of the web get there by allowing deep levels of sharing and interaction with the content.
So where does that leave the more traditional content creators that bring original content to the table? The internet is all about consultation, and it’s wildly successful in creating new types of content, but that doesn’t mean that traditional content has to disappear entirely. While fans can often have an overflow of ideas about where material should go after it’s been produced, original thought from creators should always be brought to the table. If Epic Games, Bioware, and Infinity Ward only listened to the consultation of their fans, they might never have introduced Gears of War, Mass Effect, and Modern Warfare into the videogame world. This is usually where the internet lights up with fans that insist the creator doesn’t care about them and isn’t listening, and creators insisting that they still have plenty of original ideas to bring to the table.
By and large (please excuse the generalization here), the internet collective doesn’t come up with Mass Effect on it’s own in some quiet corner forum somewhere. But after Mass Effect is out, the internet can give you some of the most direct and insightful feedback – consultation, if you will – about what a properties’ strengths and weaknesses are. And the gap in between those is where a community manager fits. No community manager should hand over wholesale control of any product to the fans, and likewise they shouldn’t wholesale dismiss the desires of fans in favor the original creator. Instead, they bear the task of being negotiator between mass consultation and original creation. This is doubly true with videogames, where we’ve spent decades teaching the audience to be consultants.