In this four-part series, we look at how the internet has affected the way we experience and enjoy entertainment like books, films and shows. Technological advances in the last few decades have transformed the way we interact with the world. But what does it meant for traditional media?
It sometimes seems to me as if everything happens online these days. I don’t remember the last time I saw a news broadcast that didn’t contain anything I had already heard on Twitter, or played a game of Scrabble that didn’t involve Facebook as an intermediary. If the internet is a virtual world – with its online shops, online libraries and online art galleries – then it stands to reason that parts of the internet have come to resemble streets and towns, and even those bizarre conversations that sometimes happen between strangers on the Number 3 bus route. We call these places ‘social networks’.
But towns, streets and even buses contain more than just people – they also provide a wealth of opportunities to promote and share things, whether that’s by advertising a product on a billboard in the centre of town or by showing a fellow passenger the scarf you’re knitting on the bus. That’s why social networks are also sometimes referred to as social media. They provide a platform where we can easily share things we like, things we’ve made, or even things we just really want, with the people around us who might be interested.
The intersection of these two roles on social networks is increasingly becoming recognised and people are beginning to turn it to their advantage. To continue the streets-of-a-town analogy, we can see the big companies buying ad-space down the side of Facebook in much the same way we see them buy advertising down the side of the road. But we can also see smaller ventures flourishing like market stalls in the centre of town, from bands handing out flyers for local gigs to crowdfunders busking and filmmakers handing out free samples in the form of trailers.
Put in such terms, it might seem that nothing’s changed at all with the introduction of the internet to the mix. But people spend a lot more time online than they do in the street, and they’re less likely to be on their way to somewhere important. So when someone flags you down and says ‘hey, check out my film’ you might actually stop and watch a whole trailer. More than that, you might go and look up the cast to find out where you recognise that actor from. While you’re at it, you might even buy some of the other things they’ve been in on DVD.
To do that in the real world, that filmmaker would have to have parked up in his or her mobile library van, with a TV in the back there too and a nice comfy chair and every DVD ever in a box on the passenger seat with plenty of change on hand so you could buy all the stuff you wanted. And if you wanted to show a friend, you’d have to call them and say “Hey, get to the high street, there’s this guy who’s making an awesome film that’s gonna come out eventually and he’s showing a trailer and selling all sorts of old films and TV shows. How soon can you be here? Half an hour? He says he’ll be gone by then.”
And that’s the real beauty of social networking – it’s so easy to share things, even between people who operate in completely different time zones. So you’ve found a song on YouTube your friend would really like, but she’s on the other side of the world? No problem, throw her a link on Facebook to look at later; maybe her friends will spot it and like it too. Or it’s 3am and you’ve found a hilarious picture nobody’s awake to laugh at with you? Stick it on Twitter or Tumblr and see who responds.
Even better, the people who make things – films, songs, Sherlock-themed jewellery – can not only easily share the things they’ve made, but they can also share the stories behind them, listen to your feedback, and in some cases even listen to your suggestions. Let’s face it, if you start pointing at a billboard and gabbling about how brilliant a product’s going to be and how much you want it, people are going to give you funny looks. If you share your enthusiasm on Facebook? People will ‘Like’ it. Get excited on Twitter and the creator of the thing you’re so keen on might even reply to you. As for Tumblr… well, Tumblr is like a big ol’ snowball of enthusiasm. Once you get it going, the whole world can get excited with you.
Social networks are a great leveller – whether you have 5 followers or 5 million, everybody gets 140 characters per tweet. They also bring people together as communities – your Facebook friends are your actual friends too, and that friend request means you accept that link with them, but there are also assorted groups for things you get excited about. That can range from a page just entitled ‘Mountain Biking’ where there might not be much community spirit but everybody likes mountain biking, to a group like ‘The Art of Neighbours’ which lovingly mocks its beloved Australian soap through low-res drawings, and organises regular meetups and Secret Santas for people who like both Neighbours and sarcasm.
Social networking makes it easier to get in touch with people we’ve previously only admired from afar, in a less formal setting than writing fanmail and sending it to their agent. And as long as you’re sensible about it, you might make a couple of new friends along the way. If you want to be mercenary about it, you can literally network through social networking – it’s hit and miss, but it’ll work out for you eventually – or you can just chat to people who get where you’re coming from, or exchange ideas with those who don’t.
But social networking also allows you to experience things you otherwise would have missed out on. Some of you will have been to San Diego Comic-Con this year, for example – some of you might even have seen, for example, the Firefly 10th Anniversary Panel that caused such a sensation. I’m prepared to bet that more of you, however, saw the panel via YouTube, in a video you were sent on Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook. Word travels so fast on the internet these days, and that can be scary but it’s also incredibly powerful. Fifty years ago, you’d have to hope that someone with similar interests to you lived nearby, or boy were you not going to get to discuss your excitement over the latest episode of Coronation Street with like-minded fans. Now the internet means our communities can be based on shared values and interests instead of random quirks of geography.
A fantastic example of social media as a way to bring people together without geographical limitations was ComfyCon 2012, which occurred over the same weekend as San Diego Comic Con. Two webcomic creators – Danielle Corsetto of Girls With Slingshots and Randy Milholland of Something*Positive – who weren’t going to San Diego this year decided to host their own virtual convention instead. I only managed to catch one panel, but there were several over the weekend with assorted webcomic pros, all conducted via YouTube and/or Google Hangouts. Fans from all over the world joined in by sending questions and messages on YouTube and Twitter, and the panel I ‘attended’ ran for several hours, as the artists took it in turns to run off and grab a drink when required. One fan even took the initiative to set up a virtual ‘Dealer’s Room’ for the several webcomic guests who ended up participating.
There were no queues, tickets, or travel expenses incurred. Admittedly there was no real cosplay element, but since being in your own house meant that you weren’t even required to wear trousers to attend, that’s probably forgivable. Even the panellists, through clever aim of webcams, managed to avoid wearing that most cumbersome of garments, the pair of jeans, without outraging public decency. I hope we haven’t seen the last of ComfyCon, and judging by the response it received it will hopefully be repeated in the future.
So basically, social media has changed fandom by making everything a whole lot more immediate and a whole lot closer. It doesn’t matter if nobody in a three-city radius cares that you like Game of Thrones or has ever even heard of Misfits, because it’s so easy to link up with people who love those things as much as you do. There are even people who’ll say “If you like that, you’ll love this thing that’s coming out next year…” or “I made this, which is kind of like that.” And let’s face it, any of the Moffat-centric fandoms will practically bite your hand off if you offer them something to keep them busy until their next series. It’s never been so easy to find the people you want to share things with, and through that process it’s easy to make friends.
When you look back at your life, you’re not just going to see that you were into Lord of the Rings when you were thirteen. You’re going to remember the people you shared photosets with, people you squealed and flailed at about the latest The Hobbit trailer, and the way they rallied around you when you missed out on something amazing or just felt a bit low. You’re going to remember that time one of the stars tweeted you back about some witty comment you made, and you’ll look back on the incredibly talented people you met – virtually speaking – along the way. And if the internet’s made all that possible for people who otherwise wouldn’t have had that experience, that’s worth more than all the lolcats in the world combined in my book.
Next issue, we’ll be rounding off the series by looking at the internet’s effect on archives. Don’t miss it!