“I want everyone to know ;)”: Negotiating Online Publics for Learning, Production, and Self-Promotion

Originally posted on the Connected Learning Research Network blog, 10.26.12:

During my fieldwork in Sackboy Planet, an online community of LittleBigPlanet2 players, I frequently observed community members sharing their designed levels with others and for various purposes.1 Usually, players share their levels-in-progress on the website’s forums for feedback from others players to improve their skills and designs, to promote their own content, and to participate in level design contests that have exciting rewards. Most often, levels were shared in areas of the forum designated for self-promotion. But on occasion players would share their content elsewhere on the website in order to strategically garner the kind of attention they want to their projects.

One such example of this can be seen in a post in the forum created by a community member named Sacklad. His post, which existed in a highly visible section of the forum designated for feedback on level design, was among the most popular posts in the section. The post, however, did not in its entirety meet the rules of this section of the forum. The administrators of the forum leave notes, called sticky posts, that set the terms for what can be shared in this section of the forum. Without these rules, discussion would be too unwieldy and difficult to navigate for people looking for other kinds of content or conversations. The first third of the 150+ pages of responses to the Sacklad’s post is devoted to topic-appropriate talk about idea development and designer recruitment for his own project, but after a certain point Sacklad stopped soliciting new ideas and new teammates. Instead, he used the remaining 100 pages of posts to share updates about the game and entice readers to follow the project until its release. Some community members became irritated that the thread drifted from the stated topic, and requested that they move their discussion to a private group. However, Sacklad felt that keeping it public was important:

“EVERYBODY JOIN THE PRIVATE GROUP!! NEVERMIND BECAUSE THIS THREAD IS STAYING! LOL!!

I said that because I want the rest of Sackboy Planet to know that this project is still in development…and by the way, this is the most visited thread on the site…I want everyone to know ;)”

In order to promote his own content, Sacklad strategically navigated not only the rules of Sackboy Planet that restrict certain kinds of off-topic discussion but also the publics of the online community. In doing so, he developed an approach that functioned similarly to the use of a megaphone in a crowded room: he was able to generate an incredible amount of interest in his work while part of a community saturated by others’ projects.

Sometimes players preferred sharing their levels-in-progress in less public environments, and they used different content sharing mediums as well as privacy settings to reach the kind of audiences they were looking for. Instead of posting on the forums, Luchadoro created a blog post in the online community announcing his project and requesting feedback:

“I need a group of testers to play my level, identify bugs or problems with the game, and submit these errors to me. If you are interested I will send you a private message containing a highly secret code needed to access and play the level. Then you can find some friends (three, for the most fun!), play the level a lot and share any problems with me!”

Blog posts exist in a separate area of the website, and while most are viewable to the public they are less readily visible than the forums. Moreover, Luchadoro used privacy settings within the game design itself to require a code or password to view his project. I asked him why he used blogging and passwords instead of simply posting in the forums:

“I wanted to make sure [the level] was bug-proof and that everything worked smoothly. And I also wanted to award players with a preview of the level. I wanted feedback. That was my main goal.”

The use of blogs and codes allowed him to solicit feedback and avoid sharing a level that had lots of bugs, or problems, in its design. I followed up by asking him if he would have received the same kind of feedback if he posted in the much more public forums. For Luchadoro, the use of blog posts and privacy settings in the game design enabled him to reach his desired audience:

“I would have gotten feedback I think. But for one thing the level could have had a lot of bugs. And for another it’s much easier to get feedback if you actually ask people for feedback. It’s way more likely to get detailed, very informative feedback. Actually I got a message for two full pages of feedback, so it was worth it. After about six testers I turned everyone down.”

By sharing his level-in-progress through blogs, a quasi-public medium on the website, and using game codes, or privacy settings in the game that restrict who sees your project, Luchadoro strategically navigated online publics in Sackboy Planet to reach his desired audience. Moreover, he sought this particular audience because he was not ready to share it with everyone yet – it had bugs and was still in development. While the website does officially designate spaces to share levels for feedback, those spaces reach a very broad public. Luchadoro used blogs and passwords to innovatively negotiate online publics in Sackboy Planet to create a context for level development and learning most ideal for him.

While these examples stand as interesting cases that show how gaming and online communities can provide multiple avenues to share work, solicit feedback, and learn, scholars of new media and culture may find them interesting, as well. Members of Sackboy Planet have the opportunity to not only consume game content but alsoprosume – players produce levels for others to play, as well.2 Moreover, on Sackboy Planet attention can be rather scarce. Not every created level is played by everyone and receives feedback and commendation, a reflection of a form of inequality termed attention scarcity.3 But sometimes attention scarcity is not simply about the need to reach any audience but it is rather a problem of reaching the intended one amid a larger crowd. In her research, boyd (2008) shows that teens navigate multiple channels of communication online for varied purposes and with different consequences.4 Similarly, members of Sackboy Planet strategically negotiate online publics to share their work with peers and overcome dimensions of attention scarcity, creating the kind of experience they seek as community participants and budding level designers.

(1) All group and individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.

(2) Rizter, G. and N. Jurgenson. 2010. “Production, consumption, prosumption.” Journal of Consumer Culture. 10(1): 13-36.

(3) Hargittai, E. 2000. “Open Portals or Closed Gates? Channeling Content on the World Wide Web.” Poetics. 27(4): 233-254.

(4) boyd, d. 2008. Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. PhD Dissertation. University of California-Berkeley, School of Information.

Special thanks to Rona Sheen who assisted with data collection and analysis for this post.

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