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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


Helping One Another Become More Intense

Claire Harlam

Is the use of the phrase virtual community a perversion of the notion of community? What do we mean by community, anyway? What should we know about the history of technological transformation of community? Is the virtualization of human relationships unhealthy? Are virtual communities simulacra for authentic community, in an age where everything is commodified? Is online social behavior addictive? Most important, are hopes for a revitalization of the democratic public sphere dangerously naïve? --Howard Rheingold, The Virual Community (325)

Media theorist and widely agreed upon coiner of the designation "virtual community" Howard Rheingold asked these critical questions as he watched OG social-networking blow up in 1993. Nearly two decades later, these questions remain understandably unanswered--they're tough! But while it's understandable that theorists grapple still with these questions, it's unsettling that members of the "communities" in question don't seem to have interest in the implications of such questions. And if it's unsettling that "community" members don't seem to have interest in the questions, it's foolish that founders of such professed "communities" don't address them at all.

Rheingold continues (338):

Ethical issues occurred to me when I entered the business of growing virtual communities. Is building a virtual community for parents, for example, using money provided by a company that sells diapers, a way of turning community into a commodity? Is this a bad thing? Is it really right to call a collection of web pages or smutty chatrooms a “community?” how much commercial ownership are the members of a virtual community willing to accept, in exchange for the technical and social resources necessary for maintaining the community? Is it possible to be in the business of building communities for profit and still write about them?

"Ethical issues" can be understood as "market risks" here if it makes the business planner comfier--the point is that Rheingold considers how actual members of a community will respond to the predetermined virtual ecosystem built for them (if also for investors).

Author-composer-scientist-legitimate multi-hyphenate Jaron Lanier writes in his You Are Not A Gadget (47):

The 'wisdom of crowds' effect should be thought of as a tool. The value of a tool is its usefulness in accomplishing a task. The point should never be the glorification of the tool. Unfortunately, simplistic free market ideologues and noospherians tend to reinforce one another's unjustified sentimentalities about their chosen tools.

Many among the small coterie of folks who write about and/or experiment within the online world of film distribution and discovery assert the importance of "new" and "sustainable" "tools" and "models." Few, however, consider who exactly will use these tools, how they will use them, how they will know about them, and what tasks the tools will ultimately accomplish. There are some fantastic new online tools for filmmakers, like that offered by website Kinonation (the start-up evolution of which Roger Jackson has been so generously and transparently blogging about on Hope For Film) which accomplishes the critical task of allowing filmmakers to upload their work in order to have it transcoded to the different formats required by various VOD and EST services.

KinoNation further aims to help their filmmakers find an audience. It remains unclear to me how tools that allow selected filmmakers to get their films online (other examples include: Sokap and Yekra and even VHX For Artists for artists who aren't Aziz Ansari) but which don't have built-in audiences (like YouTube channels or Kickstarter) plan to connect filmmakers and fans. These platforms rightfully assume and assert that there are legions of potential fans out there consuming an unprecedented amount of content, but they don't explain why these legions will assume their specific tools.

Filmmaker and fan connection is a task that needs a tool, and it most likely won't be the same tool that gets a film transcoded, crowd-funded, or "liked" by the filmmaker's friends. But as soon as you're talking about the people involved (filmmakers and fans) as opposed to the technology, you're talking about social behavior and you're talking about "community." And the general questions surrounding virtual community and behavior are no better answered now than they were in 1993. I have focused my CRI research on these questions because I think their exploration is crucial for building the tool that can address the specific task of connecting filmmakers and fans.

"The places that work online always turn out to be the beloved projects of individuals, not the automated aggregations of the cloud," writes Lanier. He signals out one such place, a community of oud players (super legitimate multi-hyphenate) where "you can feel each participant's passion for the instrument, and we help one another become more intense" (71-2). (How) Can an online tool allow us to help one another become more intense, and, by assumed extension, more involved, more invested, more interested in each other's work and in each other?