Awhile back, I read about a Pew study on sites like Digg and Reddit. According to the BBC, the study found that “Seven out of ten of the stories selected by the user-driven [news] sites came from blogs or non-news websites with only 5% of stories overlapping with the ten most widely-covered stories in the mainstream media.” Also, “In a week dominated by stories about Iraq and the debate about immigration, users were more interested in the release of the iPhone and the news that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth.” One of the authors admits that the “technology bias” was probably due to enthusiastic “early adopters” of such sites. I think that’s kind of an understatement. I think the sites they were looking at in the study were geek-dominated sites, and what they’re seeing isâ€”to some extentâ€”a geek-driven news agenda. You know me, of courseâ€”maybe I’d have called you a witch in Salem if I had been doing my dissertation on witches back thenâ€”but I doubt this is my imagination. I dropped by a Reddit Meetup on Halloween which seemed overwhelmingly male and sported a disproportionate number of people dressed as video game characters.
Not long after I read about the Pew study, I came across a link that keeps track of the most visited Wikipedia pages in a given month. As of when I’m checking it now, the top 10 include Naruto, Guitar Hero III, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Heroes, and Transformers (film), among others. If you don’t count generic pages like the entry page, pages about stereotypically geeky media products (anime, video games, fantasy literature, superheroes, robots, etc.) account for over half of the top ten results. Sex-related and Xbox-related pages figure prominently in the rest of the list. Sure, you occasionally see something like 50 Cent or America’s Next Top Model, but what we’d typically consider “mainstream” seems pretty outpaced here by what we’d consider “geeky.”
In a seemingly unrelated story I discovered around the same time time as the above two, Nancy Baym referred to a Time article by someone from Hitwise, a company which tracks web traffic. The article suggests that fanfic is a much bigger destination on the web than many probably imagine:
Fanfiction.net is the largest site in market share of visits, capturing 34.7% of the visits to the entire [Entertainment/Books and Writing] category. As of the week ending Aug. 25, 2007, the site ranked in the 159th position of over 1 million websites, putting Fanfiction.net ahead of sites such as Apple.com.
This is certainly news to me, but I’m concerned that we are kind of discussing apples and oranges here: Fanfiction.net is regularly updated with new creative content for people seeking entertainment (and has Harry Potter on its side); Apple.com is updated with ads and relatively static content for people seeking information (save for Apple “fans,” a minority within a minority of computer users who probably go to other blogs which would filter relevant information for them). Still, it’s interesting that a fanfic site made the list at all.
What does all of this mean? A couple simple explanations for these trends come to mind.
The first explanation is that geeky interests have become way more mainstream. This seems to be Nancy’s interpretation of the news that fanfic is a major web destinationâ€”i.e., there must be more people reading fanfic than we ever imagined.
The second explanation is that a minority of people with geeky interests disproportionately account for massive amounts of web trafficâ€”i.e., the web is still more geek-dominated than we’d like to admit.
I’m inclined to guess that there’s some truth to both of these explanations, but that the second may explain some of these statistics better than the first. It’s no surprise that we see Wikipedia pages dominated by the geeky products most embraced by mainstream culture. This is arguably indicative of the mainstreaming of that which was once considered only geeky. Still, I think Reddit may be something of a microcosm for the web as a whole: While you can find just about anything on the web, some of the most visited destinations still represent the esoteric interests of a minority of computer-savvy fans and enthusiasts.
Malcolm Parks mentioned in one NCA panel that large numbers of people with broadband access are still what we would consider light or infrequent users. This got me thinking back to the above links, which I had sitting around in a draft post for awhile, not sure how to connect the dots between them. Now I’m thinking of who the heavy web users are: They may not be computer experts, but may still share some of the geeky predilections shared by hacker and IT cultures. This is probably partly due to traditionally shared interests among overlapping subcultures, and perhaps in part because keeping plugged into fan subcultures on a daily basis requires a certain baseline of computer facility.
While the term “digital natives” is misleading, there is some sense to the idea that young people growing up with computers now will probably be the major population online in the long run. What will be interesting to see, then, is whether fanfic sites and geeky movies still figure so prominently in top-visited pages once computer skill is not so closely connected with other geeky interests.