Amazon spent $970 million last year to buy Twitch, a website that streams videos of people playing computer games such as League of Legends. The site attracts an enormous audience for advertising — with more than 100 million community members — but who could have predicted that back in the early 2000s, when broadcast gaming first started to take off in South Korea?

Ian Condry and T.L. Taylor probably could have. The MIT ethnographers explore the connections between online and offline worlds through the Creative Communities Initiative, a research group within Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and both professors have long recognized that the passion that drives today’s fringe activities often catches fire more broadly, producing tomorrow’s blockbusters.

“Movements go from the margins into the center,” says Condry, who has written a book on how hip-hop, defying the predictions of the music industry, surged to popularity in Japan. “You can identify scenes of intense, passionate devotion on the part of fans and audiences that are harbingers of future development in media and culture.”

The Creative Communities Initiative investigates the phenomenal growth of online communities, social networking, and collaborative creativity by studying how the people involved behave — in contrast to other studies of Internet culture, which rely on crunching numbers.
When it comes to solving global challenges, “it’s a seductive idea that we don’t need to get to know people individually,” Condry says. But communities are made up of individuals — and “marginal communities can be a little out of the zone of attention, but they offer inspiration for new approaches.”

The success of sites like Twitch, for example, is already blurring the boundaries of authorship and challenging traditional definitions of copyright, notes Taylor, the author of Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (MIT Press, 2012). Industry giants are being forced to adjust to this new reality, revealing the power of grassroots communities to effect change. “I believe we’re moving to a post-copyright era,” Condry says.

The bottom line, Taylor says, is that “communities are very good at knowing what they want and need to sustain themselves and they’ll take or make any technology to do it. Any problem-solving approach has to engage with that fact.”

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