Monday, July 8, 2013

Leaders of the Tribes

We live in a time where the concept of being an "online celebrity" has really taken flight. Of such Internet celebrities, Mark Zuckerberg might be one of the most widely known and celebrated.

He's only got a couple years on me. And a couple billion dollars.

This man has earned the status of being a household name and all-around cultural juggernaut. He is one of the wealthiest people in the world. He's had an academy award-winning film made about him. His Facebook page has over 18 million followers. All this, for being the man behind Facebook.

And there are others like him, too.

The Internet is a network of networks. Its content comes from individuals, and can range from simple videos to entire websites. Those who provide us with social networks and other online hubs are in a unique position for getting personal exposure.

For example, take Tom. Do you remember Tom?

The notorious mug.

Tom Anderson was the co-founder of Myspace. When Myspace was still important, new accounts would automatically include Tom as a listed friend. This has given Tom massive publicity, and earned him the nickname "Myspace Tom". Incidentally, it turns out that you'd never actually want to be Myspace Tom's friend, but it's undeniable that his position on MySpace was what gave him such cultural fame.

Of course, if you never used Myspace, then Tom might not mean a whole lot to you. The same could be said about Mark Zuckerberg if you never used Facebook, but good luck finding people my age that don't use Facebook. The point is that a successful online network often brings fame to the network creator, and their presence can be especially felt within the network.

Something interesting happens when we leave social networks and start getting into the various online hubs. Websites like Myspace and Facebook are fairly decentralized, and don't really have a community to speak of. What goes on when we start looking at places where insular communities can form?

Jeff "CJayC" Veasey was the founder and former administrator of GameFAQs, a gaming-oriented website primarily ran by himself. The forums on GameFAQs have accumulated over 80,000 users and over 60,000 message boards over the years of its existence - certainly small numbers compared to Facebook, but still a significant number of people. Whenever Veasey would make a post on his own forums, the site users would swarm his post with their own posts, just so they could say that they "posted in a CJayC topic". During his tenure on his website, the user base made up nicknames for him like Ceejus, a portmanteau between Veasey's username and Jesus.

Veasey's role as site owner and administrator gave him an automatic leadership position within his website's population. His online handle was immediately recognizable. He would be given respect when seen and blamed for when something bad happened on-site. This is similar to what we see happen to Mark Zuckerberg and the various routine changes that Facebook undergoes, except Facebook users don't respond nearly as uniformly or personally to Zuckerberg's every action. Certainly, nobody's saying that Mark Zuckerberg is Jesus. Well, except this guy, I guess, but that's just one guy.

If you are Jeff Veasey in the mid-2000s on AOL, then you are in a waking nightmare.

All site owners and administrators have a privileged role in their websites by virtue of being the most important contributor to it. However, the site owner's role in their website community can be observed to do interesting things. On smaller forums, administrators are usually treated as just another forum user because of their immediate availability. On larger social networking sites, administrators are recognized, but don't offer much personal connection.

Look somewhere in between, and you'll start to find the administrative cults of personality. These online hubs have a large user base interacting with the administrator, but it isn't so large that the interaction is completely impersonal. These people are the leaders of their own tribe, conveniently assembled in the online hub that they created.

Some website communities like going above and beyond to celebrate their administrators. In 2009, Time Magazine's "World's Most Influential Person" title went to a relative unknown named Christopher "moot" Poole. Moot is the creator, owner, and administrator of the website 4chan. The people of 4chan decided that not only were they going to vote en masse for their glorious leader, they also coordinated the vote so that the top spots spelled out one of their inside jokes. In a list normally reserved for world-renowned individuals in the mainstream public eye, an Internet website owner emerged victorious instead. This was not organized or requested by moot himself - his community members voluntarily did this.

More important than your silly civil rights leaders.

Administrators likely appreciate the community enthusiasm, since it's often a sign that people like going on the website and are consistently contributing to page views. The personal adulation, however, gets mixed responses depending on where you look. Jeff Veasey didn't like the attention that he received very much, and the frenzied behavior of his user base was reason enough for him to make fewer non-administrative posts on his forums.

Usually the more passionate user bases are also younger, so the administrator often has an additional authoritarian role. The website YTMND has one such younger user demographic, with members doing stupid things like wage cyber-war with Ebaumsworld over image-stealing. When such an incident occurred, administrator Max Goldberg had to step forward and tell his userbase to stop their behavior. He then had to deal with Ebaumsworld's administrators through a very public exchange of letters. Goldberg's actions could fit the profile of a parent, or at least a very devoted babysitter.

If we look at SomethingAwful, with a user demographic primarily in the 20s and 30s, then we can see a different administrative style. Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka's approach to managing his website was to create a website suited around his own interests, which means that anyone regularly visiting the website automatically has things in common with Kyanka. The simple filtration system in place to keep out low-content posters also brings up the average age of the community. The result is a community that Kyanka himself can relate to and actively participate in. He would even take up various PR stunts, including getting into a boxing fight with film director Uwe Boll.

This kind of online cultural presence has been seen before, especially on YouTube's emerging entertainment community. The admins are content providers. People flock to their content, and tend to stick around if they like the content. If the content is staying afloat and gaining in popularity, then the admins are likely doing their jobs well, adding to the credit that they receive. Although there is certainly cash flow by way of ad revenue, what really strikes me is the cultural capital at these people's fingertips. These people are beloved entirely for what they give for others to consume. Oftentimes, what these admins give are just parts of themselves.

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