Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Assistant Professor
University of Utrecht Department for Media and Culture Studies

User Participation, IKEA you're    
doing it wrong

Several media have reported about the recent changes in IKEA's approach to fan sites. Ikeafans.com and Ikeahackers.net have received cease and desist letters; as Ars Technica reports, IKEA demands the domains to be handed over. While there is some speculation why IKEA, who previously condoned the activities of their fan communities is changing their approach. Ars Technica suggests it has to do with IKEA's recently launched corporate platform: Share Space. That would make sense especially when the corporate community is not attracting as much traffic as the fan platforms. But IKEA could also felt challenged by advertising for competing services on the fansites or could fear for the 'generic brand identity' or whatever.

Whatever it is, IKEA is poorly advised in bullying their fans. I have written a book it. In Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, I explain at length that users constitute an extension of a companies production. They actively become co-producers of corporate products and services. Whether the companies like or not, their users form an extended research and development department that works better than any marketing driven corporate research facility.

When Sony was biting at their fans

To illustrate this let's have a look at Sony's AIBO. In 1999, Sony introduced a highly sophisticated product into the market of electronic consumer goods. The AIBO is an electronic robotic dog with abilities to learn and to express different ‘moods’. Equipped with a camera, touch and audio sensors, a memory stick, 16 MB RAM, and a 32 bit processor, the pet could walk, orientate itself to its surroundings and respond to user actions. As any software-based product it could be hacked and changed. The friendly dog could be turned into a madly biting electronic pit bull or into a disco dancing puppy. And of course at the center of the AIBO loving users were community websites and most notably Aibohack.com, the site of hacker Aibopet. The fans and Aibopet could do something, Sony could not. The AIBO was a product too sophisticated for Sony's product support. Investing many hours, Aibopet explained users how to program their expensive gadget, how to deal with bugs, and most importantly how to expand the limited range of features Sony had initially provided. As the IKEA fan sites, Aibopet was on good terms with Sony initially. And Sony clearly profited from Aibopets efforts and from the fan sites' ability to connect enthusiastic AIBO users. Several features Aibopet developed were incorporated in newer version of the AIBO, and after Aibopet had launched a user-friendly editor, Sony's following update of their own editor software for the AIBO looked astonishingly similar to the one developed by Aibopet.

However, Aibopet did something that some shortsighted lawyer found troublesome; through reverse engineering AIBO software, Aibopet was actually violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a deeply flawed law that stifles innovation and provides market dominating companies with an easy way to criminalize competition. The law also affected the freedom of research, free speech and the freedom of expression and it certainly limited customers in their freedom to use products they owned.

When Sony sent their lawyers in 2001 to bully Aibopet, he simply shut down his website and published Sony's cease and desist letter, causing outrage and protest in the AIBO fan community. Within a week the story made headlines in major papers in the US and Europe, it sprawled through the relevant newsletters and reached the activists for copyright reform. Sony was smart enough to recognize their mistake and called their pit bulls off.

There are more examples of companies reacting ill-advised to fan activities. Lucasfilm was a constant threat to the legendary Star Wars fan film site The Force, at the time the most credible fan community of the Star Wars universe with a mind blowing output of fan developed movies. Microsoft aggressively went after the hackers of the Xbox just to see completely alternative user networks emerge next to Xbox Live. However, Microsoft was smart enough to incorporate many features developed by the Xbox hackers into the design of the Xbox 360.

How companies approach user participation

The expansion of cultural production into the realm of users naturally comes with a certain loss of control. To that companies can react in three ways. As I argue in Bastard Culture! these approaches can be labeled as confrontation, implementation and integration.

Confrontation

Confrontation refers to the collision of a new media practice and the established conventions of production, and describes how attempts are made either to change the legal situation in order to preserve the conditions under which old media practices had functioned, in spite of the possibilities offered by new technologies, or to design technology in a way that would prevent appropriation. Confrontation is what the music and film industry are doing ever since they noticed that they had missed the boat to the digital age. Also Microsoft's activities in criminalizing open source, most notably Linux, or having the authorities enforce the DMCA and raid homes to seize modchips falls under the confrontation approach.

Implementation

Implementation describes the extent to which the new media practice can be implemented into software design. It sees the ability of enterprises to successfully exploit new tendencies and take advantage of them. This is what Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram and other popular social media platforms actually did: implementing user activities into super easy to use interfaces and new business models. Lucasfilm tried implementation, but got it wrong. They launched an online movie editor for Star Wars clips that had no share function, no download feature, a scarce selection of Star Wars footage and certainly no users.

Integration

Integration refers to how the new media practice can constitute an integrative approach to production and labour. It harnesses many values and practices developed in online communities. Wikipedia is a prime example of integrating users into their production. Google Maps integrated developers by opening their API and they handled a significantly smarter way of addressing copyright issues. Instead of having lawyers bullying the needed co-developers of corporate value, they established a proper community management and ways of communicating with their unpaid co-developers based on mutual respect.

IKEA could learn a great deal from examples. We know that corporate community platform will never ever reach the credibility of a fan community. Why setting up a corporate platform in the first place, if your own corporate culture is in contradiction to the values, principles and most importantly the practices of the fan site. A corporate community platform is most often the illusion the company could control their fans. What you can do damage control, but can't have a community and the total control, unless your platform is ravingly popular.

Harassing fan sites will do more damage to a brand than these sites can do. Apart from that, establishing corporate community sites is already dated. Now, I am not surprised that some managers at IKEA may think it is the apt way to extend their service into the digital realm. IKEA was already sleepwalking into the age of social media. While the users posted their newly purchased items of Swedish franchise design and the hacked versions of it to the popular social media platforms, IKEA was nowhere to be seen on these channels. IKEA customers organized themselves in this space and the fansites filled a gap, IKEA was unable or unwilling to fill. Corporate community sites are in my opinion a waste of money and energy. It seems more efficient to cooperate with 'professional users' who already do occupy this space. In future, our organizations will be working extensively with outside contacts, ad-hoc teams, amateurs and users of all ages in an informal way, harnessing knowledge where it appears and integrating it into the value creation. The 'smart organization' renders the in-house bred corporate community platform redundant.

On a personal note

As someone who has barely any item of IKEA in his house, I looked up what people do with things from IKEA. I had no idea! Seeing all these amazing creations, I feel tempted to actually start buying at IKEA.

Image credit: Daniel Saakes at Flickr

Date July 2014 Category News

Instead of embracing the efforts of their fans, IKEA tries to shut down their sites. As I write in my book Bastard Culture! this is not a smart idea. Harassing fan sites will do more damage to a brand than these sites can do. Sony found out when they shut down an AIBO fan site back in 2001.

2000 - 2017 Mirko Tobias Schäfer

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