Fan sites RIP?

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by: David Jennings

Andy Aldridge, who created one of my favourite fan sites, and whom I interviewed for the book (notes to appear here when I get round to it), is asking whether such sites are on the way out.

The fan site was the baby of the dedicated individual who lovingly hand-crafted huge lists of tour date archives and setlists, photos and audio, reviews and interviews painstakingly transcribed by hand from magazines and newspapers, and a discography that included the most obscure and pointless of releases just for the sake of being complete — only a real fan could possibly care that the album version of Superfreaky Memories was given away on a Mojo coverdisc

I hope he's wrong, and here's why I think he may be.

As Andy explains, the means of production on the web have changed in the 12 or 13 years since he started his site. The fan sites that he sees on the wane are the labours of love by dedicated individuals like himself, the artisans. Web authoring these days is less the province of master craftsmen, and more the home-assembly flat-pack ethic of YouTube, MySpace, and, yes, blogs like this one that don't require too much knowledge and skill to run. (There are still as many, if not more, master craftspeople around, but they're less visible relatively speaking.)

My prediction is that the next phase of fan site development will see the development of more collaborative projects, whereby fluid groups of fans work together complementing each others' skills and filling in when someone drops out.

There are two big challenges facing the individually-driven fan site. One is the range of areas that one person has to cover and keep up with, from graphics to databases, and from coding to being able to write well and manage the online contributions of others. Not to mention the pleasurable graft of researching material to put on the site. All of these areas have seen big changes since the early days of the web (apart from writing well, perhaps), and its difficult for any one artisan to keep on top of all the issues.

The other challenge is that fan sites depend on individual commitment: having the time and tenacity to stick with the project and keep it evolving continuously. You do it for love, not payment. And without payment, any activity is at risk from changes in your life, like getting promoted into a job with longer working hours, bringing up a family, or just developing different interests. Over a decade or more, every individual feels the impact of these kinds of pressures at some time or other. The fact that Andy has kept A Head Full of Wishes going for 13 years without any break that I've noticed (and his son was born a few years into that period) is just the exception that proves the rule.

I think we're going to see that as wiki and workflow technologies mature, more fan sites will become group endeavours, managed by fluid, self-organising communities of fans. This Might Be a Wiki, the fan site for They Might Be Giants, is the kind of thing I have in mind.

A lot of the individually-developed fan sites have now grown communities of supportive fans around them. It's a matter of opening up the architecture of these sites to facilitate wider participation, which will make them more robust in the long term, and less prone to attrition from corporate competition in the ways that Andy describes. This will come about not just from the maturing of the technology, but of what I call the 'fan economy' as well.

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