Managing and Mocking Identities

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by: Nancy Baym

The worlds of politics and fandom have been merging for some time, and it’s never been clearer than in this US election cycle where “user-generated content” from YouTube debate questions to Obama girl videos to Facebook groups to political blogs have been so important and inescapable.

When I look at what is happening on a site like Democratic political blog DailyKos and what is happening on a site like Scandinavian music blog Its A Trap, there are as many points of similarity as there are difference. Abagail Derecho, also a Convergence Culture Consortium affiliated researcher, is working on an article called “Everything is Fandom” about the Hillary and Obama “fan bases” arguing that their supporters act just like fans. I can’t wait to read it.

Against this backdrop, I’ve been hearing the meme “John McCain’s got a YouTube problem” repeatedly. I always took it to mean that he cannot hide the times he’s switched positions because the videos of his former statements are there on YouTube for all to see.

But last night my 7 year old son asked to see a John McCain speech (he is an ardent Obama supporter) so I went on YouTube and searched John McCain. It was not easy to find a straight John McCain speech rather than a remix, mashup, or video that had been otherwise altered in order to oppose him. This was our favorite:

In contrast, when we searched Barack Obama, it was very difficult to find anything BUT his own straight performances.

In this case the Obama fans are remixing McCain’s materials in order to support Obama. It’s funny to imagine what that would look like in other kinds of fandom. As The World Turns fans putting together videos that mock General Hospital? NIN fans doing critical remixes of Metallica songs?

I’ve heard a number of explanations for why the Democrats seem to be better able to work the Internet than the Republicans (although GW Bush’s focus on using email to get out the vote vs. John Kerry’s focus on using it for fund-raising is an important counter-example). But it seems to me that one essential piece with ramifications for everyone who has an online identity or seeks to motivate people to organize and promote them online, is simply that Obama has been really good about getting everything that he does up online and then letting people know it’s there. When my 12 year old wanted to hear the Father’s Day speech he gave yesterday, we found it immediately, on Obama’s own YouTube channel.

When I was at Mesh in May, I was asked how people can “control their online identity.” I said you can’t, but that your best bet was to put enough of yourself out there that when people encountered material that challenges your identity, they would be able to know the difference between the real you and the nasty things people say about you.

Of course, it also helps if the real you doesn’t say really stupid things.

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