American culture* and platforms for consumer creativity (case study 4)

What happened to mass culture, mass marketing, and mass media?

Well, several things.

One is the inclination of consumers to make their own culture. Once passive recipients of someone else’s mass creative efforts (TV shows, ads, magazine stories, journalism), the world has got very Do-It-Yourself. We make our own culture in the form of blog posts (like this one), fan fic, YouTube videos, Twitch performances, and spoken word.)

My favorite example is fan fic. According to UC Berkeley professor, Abigail De Kosnik, there are 1 million words in the Harry Potter novels written by J.K. Rowling. Fans have written 6 billion words with Harry Potter novels as the jumping off point.

The Rowling novels create a platform that supplies characters and story lines, and a variety of other fictional materials. And these supplies the bits and piece that readers variously reimagine and augment to tell their own stories. And tell them and tell them and tell them.

What should we make of this great profusion of creativity?

Many people just seem to shrug and move on, as if to say

“Kids, what are you gonna do?”

The Chris Anderson answer was “build a pipeline.” Capture value by being the conduit through which the new diversity of contemporary culture flows.

A second answer is “build a platform.”

And this means doing deliberately what J.K. Rowling did by accident. What we want to do is to “fund” the creative efforts of “fans” as deeply and as generously as possible. Create the starter kit that spares them having to start from zero. (These people have absorbed so much contemporary culture they could, and often do, start from zero. But some of us would like someone to play the “early investor” from a creative point of view, to supply the “upfront” investment needed to get things started.)

Having created a platform, we want to build an economy.

We need to find a way to reward the best fan fic writers. I think the best way to make this happen is to ask a big brand to fill everyone’s “tip drawer.” Now when we are traveling through the Harry Potter fan fic universe, we are able to tip the best writers for their efforts. This doesn’t have to be big money to make a big difference. As it is, very talented fan fic writers will spend this summer working at McDonald’s. Instead of telling stories and extending their talent. Picture Shakespeare in a paper hat. Too stupid. Too cruel.

A big brand can change that. And the rewards would be immense. Building and funding a fan fic platform takes a big telecom, or unicorn, or CPG brand from self satisfaction and a too vivid sense of their own grandeur to an enterprise that actually grasps what is happening around them. Does this build consumer interest and loyalty? You have to ask?

But it’s not only an opportunity for brands. Want to be the new Jack Dorsey? Build a platform that enables and rewards fan fic creativity and you will be worshipped as a god. You will be the Medici of the postmodern age.

I know that people like to praise fan fic as a flourishing of the gift economy. But, ladies and gentleman, let’s forgo the tearful declarations and put away our hankies. We’re not the ones who have to work at McDonald’s this summer. Let’s make ourselves useful, by enabling and funding American culture. The marketing rewards are simply astronomical.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.

The image: I am meaning to do a post on this Spring ad for ages now. It captures something about the new, newly creative, consumer. Those who know the ad will know where I’m headed. (And if you could please tell me, that would be very much appreciated.)

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