The Economic (and LOL power) of I Can Has Cheezburger

The New York Times recently had an article on LOLcats, specifically the ICanHasCheezburger site, and I wondered, what took so long? Is it because it seems so … silly? Or is it because the idea of female nerd culture (not to say that those that are not female or nerds don’t enjoy LOLcats, but really) seems like a non-money making venture and thereby uninteresting?

While I’ll be writing a longer review in response to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one aspect of the book that really bothered me was the way he seemed so dismissive of ICanHasCheezburger. He calls the process of creating a LOLcat “the stupidest possible creative act” with the “social value of a whoopee cushion and the cultural life span of a mayfly.” He does, however, consider it to be an example of participatory culture — perhaps equal to Cartoon Network.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, he explains his viewpoint a bit differently, but I wonder how many readers are going to seek out this “explanatory footnote”:

SHIRKY:  But the interesting thing about lolcats, about these cute cats made cuter with the application of cute captions, is that when you see a lolcat, you get a second message which is: You can play this game, too. All right, when you see something on television, the message is: You could not do this, you can only consume this.
There is a giant gulf between doing something and doing nothing. And someone who makes a lolcat and uploads it – even if only to crack their friends up -has already crossed that chasm to doing something. That’s the sea change, and you can see it even with the cute cats.

But one aspect that Shirky does question — and that the New York Times gazes over in amazement (similar to the “weird Japan” newsreporting meme) is that someone is getting paid. But it is the owners of ICanHasCheezburger who are making seven figures (for the entire family of  sites) — not those creating LOLcats, who receive merch for their creative output.

Shirky describes concerns about labor efforts in participatory culture (and thereby fan culture in general):

If ICanHasCheezburger.com, purveyor of lolcats, is a late-model version of the fifteenth-century publishing model, then the fact that its workers are contributing their labor unpaid is not only strange but unfair. But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What happens if their efforts are an effort of love?

We here on The Learned Fangirl have discussed the labor/fan dynamic and are glad that it is being considered within the context of Cognitive Surplus — and will be addressing this issue head on in the followup book review. We’ll be discussing why Shirky not having an answer for his own questions above for both LOLcats and participatory culture is disappointing. At least this half of TLF will!

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I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Commercial versus Non Commercial use?

Creative Commons licenced work by dbking

Creative Commons licenced work by dbking

Due to the difficult line determining what is commercial and non-commercial use of copyrighted materials, Creative Commons has recently completed a study regarding this issue — with surveys of both content creators and users (PDF full report here). This study has lots of interesting  information for the fan-creative-remix community.

The study’s findings include that

Many group participants noted that there are promotional and thus potentially economic or commercial advantages to creators in connection with releasing content freely for noncommercial use. For these creators, “credit” for permitting noncommercial use is very important, and the question of attribution is something that gets factored into their consideration of when a use is acceptable. … As a practical matter, many seem to consider noncommercial use as having minimal or indirect commercial impact, rather than absolutely no commercial impact.

What about users?

As do creators, users often approach the question of noncommercial use on a case-by-case basis. Paralleling many creators’ approach to deciding when to allow or license a noncommercial use, many users also explained they use content guided by their own principles or personal rules of thumb, or in accord with practices followed by other users, which they hope creators are more likely to accept, on a “safety in numbers” theory. Verbatim examples of how some users articulate their understanding of when a use is noncommercial include:
· “if it’s for education or personal use”
· “if it does not compete – noncommercial is really non-compete”
· “if the creator is getting promotional value”

Jessica Litman in Lawful Personal Use suggests that personal uses of copyright works arguably *is* outside of copyright protection.

So how does the study respond? It alows for leaning towards that direction:

users are much more likely than creators to rate personal or private uses as noncommercial, and there is strong consensus among users on this point. Thus this particular use scenario, at least as rated by users, stands out from all the others as being the most ‘definitively’ noncommercial …. Creators also agree that personal or private uses are the least commercial of all scenarios measured, but it is striking to have this one instance in which users believe the use is even less commercial than creators.

You’re in the jungle, baby!: Book Review: Terms of Use: Negotiating the Jungle of the Intellectual Commons

In her “sequel” to No trespassing : authorship, intellectual property rights, and the boundaries of globalization, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén’s  Terms of use : negotiating the jungle of the intellectual commons discusses the idea of an information commons in a unique applied theory way, analyzing the way that cultural interpretation is a form of intertextuality.

The book is divided into four main sections — on the public commons as a physical space, on the public commons of patents, plants, and cultural knowledge, on taxidermy(!), and the public domain (Kipling and Disney). The book will be highly useful to those trying to understand public domain and commons issues from a non-law perspective — for those who are familiar with the names, if not the works of Jurgen Habermas, John Locke (not the one on Lost), and Henry Jenkins. Unlike some other books I’ve read by those without a legal background, the law is not stated inaccurately (Debora Halbert’s Resisting Intellectual Property Law is another great book in this subgenre).

All of the sections were interesting (including the section on taxidermy) and were based around the locus of jungle as place and idea, though I kept thinking of Sepultura while reading the plant/patent section. But considering the focus of this blog, the most useful sections to me involved copyright, cultural preservation, and cultural identity.

Wirtén defines what makes the intellectual commons different from a physical land commons:

The information commons is simply made of a very different raw material than soil, turf, and grass. Information-based resources are both non-rival (my use of information does not hinder yours; in fact, you and I can use the same resource simultaneously with no detrimental effect taking place), as well as non-excludable (intially, information can be costly to produce, but new technology makes it difficult to hinder an infinte number of users at zero marginal cost).(41)

Yet she sees that viewing the information commons with “an aura of utopia” is not a full picture:

Not seeing the internal lacerations, rips, and conflicts of interest contained within the public domain and the commons is more than counter-productive; it is dangerous. …Xenophobia, separating ‘us’ from them,’ is an element of the commons economy that displays its fair share of the ‘parochial and exclusive.” Disregarding the more unsavoury geopolitical realities of the information commons is to underestimate the sophistication of the power relations….(45)

Wirtén discusses the importance of libraries and other keepers of culture:

To answer the question of how precisely copyright affects cultural heritage institutions negatively, we must return … to … use. Libraries … [serve as ] symbolic space [as] both keepers of the material object the book and and in the sense of transmitting the content kept within that particular receptacle.

… At the same time, as libraries keep our books in trust for future generations, however they do this independent of the limitations posed by either material object or building. …Libraries today provide us with cultural works detached completely from traditional materiality.(131)

But she understands that technology is not a panacea or replacement for cultural institutions:

We have an extremely strong faith in the power of technology today — borderline religious zeal, even — to preserve and disseminate cultural expressions forever. We should be more skeptical about the presumption of eternal informational life. Similarly, we must not always assume that the separation of knowledge of use from the resource in question does not have an impact on the information carried by that resource, even when disembodied from its original host and made into bits and zeros that can be shared and reproduced infinitely. (149)

Wirtén discusses the ongoing impact of copyfraud, weakening the information commons:

A web of legal and extralegal control stations are posted everywhere, and if you are not vigilant, or just easily intimidated (which is is not that uncommon, considering the media coverage that surrounds copyright), you might end up paying for access to works that are in the public domain. Unfortunately, museums , archives, and universities whose role is to promote access to their materials, and who are among those hardest hit by and the most vocal opponents of intellectual property expansionism, are found among the offenders. (106)

Highly recommended, especially for those willing to see where the discussions of the intellectual commons can go, looking for the jungle’s “productive, rather than destructive” elements.(9)

Our first nerd president?

Arguably, Obama is the first nerd president. (Considering that Thomas Jefferson’s books were the basis of the Library of Congress, my vote is for second nerd president).

Obama, who collected Spider-Man comics as a kid, has now appeared in a sold-out Spiderman comic.
And while Obama has more pressing problems to fix — like the economy — there are “nerd” issues that should be considered, such as intellectual property policy.

The Obama campaign, in Technology and Innovation for a New Generation stated

Intellectual property is to the digital age what physical goods were to the industrial age. Barack Obama believes we need to update and reform our copyright and patent systems to promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated.

Public Resource.org has five suggestions regarding how the government can better serve the public. They include

1. Rebooting .Gov. How the Government Printing Office can spearhead a revolution in governmental affairs…[including making government publications, including caselaw, available in an easier to access format]
2. FedFlix. Government videos are an essential national resource for vocational and safety training and can also help form a public domain stock footage library, a common resource for the YouTube and remix era.
3. The Library of the U.S.A. A book series and public works job program to create an archival series of curated documents drawn from our cultural institutions, …
4. The United States Publishing Academy. …
5. The Rural Internetification Administration …bring[ing] high-speed broadband to 98% of rural Americans just as the Rural Electrification Administration did for electricity in the last century.

While the incoming Obama administration is interested in these issues, some have serious concerns about the implementation. Siva Vaidhyanathan says

the General Services Administration is negotiating with YouTube (a Google service) to post federal hearings, etc.

… there is no clear reason for the government to solidify YouTube’s market dominance. In fact, there is no reason why the GSO could not mandate that all federal agencies post their videos in open forms — accessible, repostable, and mashable — on their own sites.

Then We the People could repost them on YouTube with commentary and maybe some cartoon graphics mixed in. Better yet, because .gov can’t deal with the bandwidth demands of too many folks pulling down popular videos, the federal government should post open format video as bittorrent files.

Maybe the Obama administration can help explain why Nancy Pelosi has Congress’ Youtube channel intro video hosted by cats, Capitol Cat Cam, — with a Rickroll (question: is including a section of Never Gonna Give You Up fair use? I doubt the lawyers of the RIAA would think so!)

I can has cheezburger?: An example of female nerd culture

The kitteh that launched millions of lolcats

One of the most amazing items missing from the two recent books on nerd culture (American Nerd & Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them) was the difference of the nerd experience of girls and women compared with male nerds.

I was thinking about how easy it would have been to include examples of female nerd culture in these books — the differences in ways of discussing and experiencing pop culture, fanworks (fanfiction, fanvids, and slash), the difference in marketing to girl and women (shoujo /shojo versus shonen anime and manga, especially mahou shojo, the magical girl subgenre).

One other real-world example of the gendered difference in nerd culture is Icanhascheezburger.com, the home of lolcats. While there are male fans and non-nerd fans of lolcats, lolcats is a generally female nerd phenomenon. But why?

First, the gender issue — lolcats are based on cute pictures and it is socially more acceptable for women and girls to be involved with cute things. One such example is the Japanese penchant for all things cute, called kawaii, like Hello Kitty.

Secondly, the nerdyness — lolcats “talk” in their own form of English, based on leetspeek, used primarily by computer programmers.

Those two elements put together (and in my personal non-empirical experience) show the reason why many of the fans of lolcats are female nerds.

For example, look at the picture below — filled with cuteness, yet with oddly stated language. If this would only have the picture, it could be directed at anyone who likes cute or cats; if it only had lolcat speech, it would be directed at anyone interested in subculture speech patterns. But the combination of the two demonstrates that lolcats is directed at those in both groups — female nerds.

cat

The spread of lolcats is detailed in a history page, describing the process by which the cat speaking oddly picture became an internet meme and a website. There has even been detailed analysis, trying to describe what makes lolcats what they are.

Ican hascheezburger.com also has a significant economic role on the internetz — according to Business Week,

A week of ads on Cheezburger, via Blogads, starts at $500 and tops out at $5,400 for a premium position. … It recently ranked No. 26 on the most-linked-to blogs list on Technorati. [Ed: As of this blog post, it is the 13th most popular blog on Technorati.]

According to the Times (UK),

In March [2008], icanhascheezburger reached No 8 in a UK newspaper’s 50 Most Powerful Blogs list. [The week of October 12th], it was recording about 5.5 million hits every day.

The spread of lolcats and its staying power for an internet meme, specifically Icanhascheezburger is quite amazing. Time quotes the site’s creator

“The breadth of cultures [lolcats] has spread to is mind-boggling,” … “We think it has evolved beyond Internet subculture and is hitting the mainstream.”

Time magazine says

The striking thing about lolcats–besides its amazing fecundity and variety and the fact that, unlike a lot of Internet cat humor, it’s actually pretty funny–is how little else like it there is online right now. …

We may be witnessing a revolution in user-generated content, but the more mainstream the Web gets, the more it looks like the mainstream: homogenous, opportunistic and commercial. It’s no longer a subculture; it’s just the culture. And don’t we have enough of that already? Are we facing a future without a weird, vital, creative phenomenon like lolcats? Say it with me: “Do not want!”

Icanhascheezburger is now a book, I Can Has Cheezburger? A Lolcat Colleckshun, by Professor Happycat, “full of kittehs and win!”

cat

Lexicon of not fair use: The Decision in the Harry Potter Lawsuit

After many months, Judge Patterson issued an opinion (PDF) in the Harry Potter Lexicon case, ruling that the Lexicon, could not be published and ordered a payment of $6,750 for copyright violation.

The part of the decision based on fair use states

The fair-use factors, weighed together in light of the purposes of copyright law, fail to support the defense of fair use in this case. The first factor does not completely weigh in favor of Defendant because although the Lexicon has a transformative purpose, its actual use of the copyrighted works is not consistently transformative. Without drawing a line at the amount of copyrighted material that is reasonably necessary to create an A-to-Z reference guide, many portions of the Lexicon take more of the copyrighted works than is reasonably necessary in relation to the Lexicon’s purpose. Thus, in balancing the first and third factors, the balance is tipped against a finding of fair use. The creative nature of the copyrighted works and the harm to the market for Rowling’s companion books weigh in favor of Plaintiffs. In striking the balance between the property rights of original authors and the freedom of expression of secondary authors, reference guides to works of literature should generally be encouraged by copyright law as they provide a benefit readers and students; but to borrow from Rowling’s overstated views, they should not be permitted to “plunder” the works of original authors [], “without paying the customary price” [], lest original authors lose incentive to create new works that will also benefit the public interest [].

So what I think? Overall, this decision will not hurt non-commercial fan works, but one should be careful before commercializing works or using too much of the source material.

As I discussed previously, the exclusion of mentions of fan labor and fan contribution is unfortunate. However, there are helpful nuggets for those who are engaged in fanworks, for example, the Lexicon was found not to be a derivative work — meaning that it recast the story of Harry Potter in a way that no longer made it the same as the work of J.K. Rowling:

altering the original aesthetic of the Harry Potter series from an intricate narrative to an alphabetized catalogue of elements from the Harry Potter world.

Overall, the decision gives a distinct impression that if one is to base a work on that of another, it should be of high quality — and that means not too much direct copying:

The Lexicon’s verbatim copying of such highly aesthetic expression raises a significant question as to whether it was reasonably necessary for the purpose of creating a useful and complete reference guide…. Verbatim copying of this nature demonstrates Vander Ark’s lack of restraint due to an enthusiastic admiration of Rowling’s artistic expression, or perhaps haste and laziness as Rowling suggested …, in composing the Lexicon entries.

So be careful about the aesthetic quality of your next fanfic or fanart !11!!