Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends, and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age uses interviews with a number of prominent artists who have been able to forge careers and gain widespread popularity primarily through promotional and distribution tools available online. For those of us doing research on digital cinema, Kirsner’s book is a valuable resource, one that illustrates the ways in which content creators are navigating, and sometimes profiting from, what Chris Anderson has described as the “long tail” of digital distribution and what others have described as do-it-yourself (DIY) distribution. While my own research, in Reinventing Cinema (Amazon) , focuses exclusively on filmmakers, Kirsner assembles a number of key figures from what he calls the “era of digital creativity,” including musicians, comics artists, visual artists, and novelists, in order to establish or explore how a set of practices have emerged that allow artists to escape the “gatekeepers” of traditional distribution and market themselves. While Kirsner’s book is generally optimistic about the potentials of DIY, a number of significant themes surfaced throughout the interviews.
One of the themes that a number of content creators mentioned was the desire to use digital tools in order to produce social change. Kirsner interviews both Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed and Uncovered) and Sandi DuBowski (Trembling before G-d), both of whom used the house-party model as one tool not only for distributing their socially-conscious documentaries but also as a means for creating a conversation about them, one that could, especially in Greenwald’s case, turn into an active, politicized audience. Greenwald also describes his efforts to move away from feature-length films and toward short videos that could have a more immediate effect on their audience (51-53), although Greenwald’s more recent project, Rethink Afghanistan, seems to offer a more subtle blend of both approaches by releasing short, timely segments online and then editing those into a feature-length film. As Brian Stelter notes in the New York Times, Afghanistan is “being shaped both as a film and a campaign at the same time.” Kirsner also makes a point of asking Greenwald to explain the collaborative process that has become such an important part of his documentaries, especially with much of the material on Brave New Films being produced by other video activists.
Kirsner’s interview with M Dot Strange also produced a number of key insights. Strange, an animator and filmmaker, also discusses how he has cultivated an active audience, in part by openly communicating how he constructs many of his visual effects: “I’ve found that educational stuff can attract an audience. Share your techniques, and tell people about the software you’re using. You’re almost giving them the DVD extras before they buy the DVD” (54). Strange adds that many studios mask the “real” construction processes behind their films as “proprietary,” furthering mystifying the processes of production for potential filmmakers. While this theme isn’t explicitly addressed elsewhere in Kirsner’s book, this “pedagogical” component of DIY culture seems significant, and it is certainly implicit in the practices described by many of the artists he interviews.
Another question the book addresses–and I wish this had been a more explicit concern–is the energy required to promote the finished products made by these digital creatives. M Dot does acknowledge that the new distribution models open up new models while reminding that everyone will not be successful and adding that “You’ve got to be like a carny: crafty and resourceful” (54). Artist Natasha Wescoat acknowledges feeling “overwhelmed” by the promotional work and having “a couple of burn-outs” (78). Similarly, DJ Spooky, consciously echoing former President Bill Clinton, suggests that he views his career as a “permanent campaign” (65). Given the negative effects of the “permanent campaign” on governing, it is easy to speculate that such non-stop self-promotion may interfere with artists actually pursuing their creative goals, a question that was never satisfactorily addressed in the book. However, because I am also intrigued by the “extratextual” features that accompany most films (and because those extratextual features are important meaning-making devices in their own right), it’s worth treating the new distribution models and promotional practices themselves as forms of “creativity.”
Finally, I was interested in comedian and YouTube executive Mark Day’s discussion of “expertise” and the ability of successful digital entrepreneurs to turn that success into a second career as an “expert,” whether as a consultant or as a speaker at film festivals and other venues. Given that many of these success stories are about timing and luck (among other factors), I found myself wondering about the other side of the digital coin, the less popular digital creatives who have remained on the periphery of this new DIY culture. In most cases, I don’t think it’s fair at all to regard these figures as “failures,” but I wonder if there are other narratives that we call tell besides the digital Horatio Alger story, narratives that might emphasize the new forms of storytelling made possible by digital media. Most of the people Kirsner interviewed were honest about approaches that didn’t work for them, so I’m not looking for a similar collection of failed attempts, just more narratives about what is possible.
That being said, I think Kirsner knows DIY culture as well as anyone, and he is well-positioned to document what is happening in a variety of digital media, to provide that crucial snapshot of digital DIY practices. He is also aware that what he is providing is just that, a snapshot, pointing out that these practices are far from static and subject to alteration as new artists find new techniques for having their voices heard (and hopefully making a living from it). The book also provides at least some statistics about what opportunities are actually available financially to even the most successful digital artists, making the book a useful guide to all of us interested in the ongoing practices of indie filmmakers, musicians, and artists alike.