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AD: Fans, Friends & Followers

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Difference Between a Fan and a Friend

Lance Weiler organized a few roundtable discussions at SXSW this year, outside of the conference itself; audio and video will be posted on the From Here to Awesome site at some point.

They were held at the offices of B-Side Entertainment. I'm not exactly sure how to describe the focus of the conversation, which lasted about two hours and included about 20 people packed into the conference room at B-Side. It touched on financing and fandom, contracts and deals, marketing, patronage, and new distribution avenues. (The roundtable I was part of included Brian Chirls, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, Tommy Pallotta, Scott Macaulay, Brett Gaylor, Isis Masoud, David Garber, Slava Rubin, Danae Ringelmann, and Scilla Andreen, among others I didn't really know.)

For me, the most interesting threat of the conversation was about fans: how you accumulate them, and how the nature of fandom is changing. (We started by summarizing Kevin Kelly's excellent essay 1,000 True Fans.)

I tossed out the idea that "fan" is starting to feel like a vestige of the (good) old mass media days. In the age of Facebook and MySpace "friends," is anyone happy to simply be a fan anymore?

"Fan" feels like such a passive word. They're supposed to join your fan club, read the fan club newsletter, and buy tickets to your movies when they come out. They're consumers, pure and simple -- a ready audience when you need them.

The new fan -- or friend -- or "peer" (the term that Susan Buice proposed) wants to be more connected to you and your work. They want to hear first about your new project. They want to have input to it, or help shape it in some way (Brett Gaylor is allowing "friends" of his documentary project Open Source Cinema to edit some of the sequences.) They want to respond to your YouTube videos, comment on your blog, tell you when they think you're selling out or full of shit. (Some "friends" those are!) They want to give you ideas and be credited for their ideas. They may even be willing to help finance your next project or pre-buy the DVD through sites like IndieGoGo or IndieMaverick. They'll help promote it when it's finished, embedding clips in their blogs or Twittering their friends that they're on the way to the premiere.

What's amazing about the Internet is that there are the tools that let you communicate with this "friend base" and ask them for help.

What's even more amazing is that people are willing to offer help, if it's asked for in the right way (and rewarded in the right way, with recognition and perhaps more tangible trinkets.)

But what's scary is that it's still hard to tell which of your "friends" will actually *do something*, like turn up in a theater and buy a ticket, and which ones are simply compulsive about creating new connections, adding you to their own ever-growing roster of friends. And I think it will be challenging (perhaps scary) to manage some of your friends who want to be more than just friends ... like sending you the script they hope will turn into your next movie.

I'm not suggesting "friend" is definitively the right term to be using. (I still think of a friend as someone who intuitively knows when you need to be taken out and bought a beer, and who knows about large swaths of your history.) Peer is pretty good, as is collaborator. Patron feels too passive, like someone who's just bankrolling a project.

But finding a new term for the people who support creative endeavors seems to be an important step in moving beyond just thinking about them as fans.

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