SXSW Interactive: "Mainstream is Nothing": Felicia Day and Christopher "moot" Poole

One of the most exciting highlights of my SXSW 2011 was seeing Felicia Day's keynote address. Day, an actress and creator/star of hit web series "The Guild" to promote her latest project, a new web series called "Dragon Age: Redemption." The six-episode series, based on BioWare's recently released Dragon Age II, takes place in the Dragon Age universe and stars Day as an Elven assassin hunting down a rogue mage. The series is scheduled for release this summer and the trailer premiered on a February episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

Day, a former World of Warcraft addict, is best known for writing, producing and starring in "The Guild," a sitcom-esque web series about a motley crew of MMORPG gamers. Day originally wrote the show as a half-hour pilot but, unable to sell it, decided to start her own production company (Knights of Good Productions) with her friend Kim Evey and self-produced the first season in ten five-minute-long webisodes. Along with the Joss Whedon fan base that knew Day as Vi from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, later, as Penny from "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"), "The Guild" quickly attracted an enthusiastic audience of gamers and bloggers. Day was able to successfully crowdsource the production costs, funding the production of a second season and a Season One DVD through viewer donations. Today, the show is producing its sixth season and has over 100 million viewers.

Day, 33, said she "grew up on the Internet," so using blogs and other social media sites to promote her show seemed natural. Although creating such a niche product aimed at a subculture audience is the polar opposite of the traditional TV network mentality, it has proven to be a successful production model, at least for "The Guild." The show is also unique in its sponsorship and distribution deals with Microsoft, Zune and Sprint; although the show now includes product placement, Day has retained complete creative control, a rarity in any form of "branded entertainment." Day talked about the changing face of the entertainment industry, pointing out that more and more companies are realizing that the price of a 30-second TV spot could fund months of branded web content.

And here's where I collapse into a big puddle of fangirl-jelly: in addition to being funny, creative and charming, Day also went to college at University of Texas at Austin when she was just 16, double-majored in mathematics and violin performance and graduated as valedictorian of her class. So, just to recap: DIY TV production maven, brainy musician, talented actress, badass gamer, smart writer, child of the Internet, owner of my heart 4evar.

The second keynote that I showed up an hour early for was by Christopher "moot" Poole, creator of imageboard site 4chan. Poole started 4chan in 2003 with about 20 users; these days, the site receives over 12 million individual visitors every month, an impressive number for a bare-bones collection of text-and-image message boards with zero marketing except Internet word-of-mouth. The site hosts nearly 50 boards but is most famous for /b/, the "random" board, which is responsible for about half of 4chan's traffic. In his keynote speech, Poole described /b/ as "the dark heart of the Internet," and it seems to be his main inspiration for his new project, Canvas (now in beta at http://canv.as/).

Unlike Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who strives to expand the reach of Facebook such that real, verifiable online identities become the norm, Poole—as he did in his talk at the 2010 TED conference—stressed the importance of retaining venues where posting anonymously is an option. In Poole's view, keeping the option of anonymity allows users to "share who they are in a raw, unfiltered way" that provokes creativity and "values content over creator." Although at times, Poole's defense of anonymity sounded a bit like young Julia Stiles's hacker soliloquy in that 1993 episode of "Ghostbuster" ("It's a world where you're judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like; a world where curiosity and imagination is power!"), it's true that the anonymity and ephemerality of 4chan have created a uniquely anarchic sort of writer's room. It's impossible to accumulate a bad reputation or form a cult of personality in a space with no identity. Each board only displays a static number of posts, and old ones are permanently deleted; when there's no archive of your actions and your reputation isn't at stake, the cost of failure is next to nothing. In other words, although anonymity often brings out the worst in people, it also has the power to bring out the best in them too. Ironically, Canvas, at least in its beta version, does keep a log of the site's activity and is even invite-only, requiring Facebook Connect to "weed out trolls," according to Poole. However, it is possible to post anonymously on Canvas after getting a Facebook-verified account.

With writers like Slate's Farhad Manjoo and publications like the New York Times urging or implementing bans on anonymous comments, the value of online anonymity has never been more hotly debated. TechCrunch is one of many popular sites to adopt the recently tweaked Facebook comment box widget, which requires potential commenters to identify themselves through Facebook (TechCrunch also offers the option to verify identity through Yahoo! or AOL accounts), connecting and centralizing online identities. Anonymous commenting has long been a subject of controversy within the world of feminist blogging because of its effect on the creation and moderation of "safe spaces" for online discussion.

Some might argue that the disadvantages of anonymous commenting far outweighs its potential benefits; after all, the creative minds in Poole's original "ephemeral space," 4chan, use anonymity's freeing power to create such timeless works of art as Advice Dog, Rage Guy, and Rickrolling. They're funny and zeitgeist-y, but ultimately frivolous, and created at the cost of rampant trolling and bottomless hostility—something other sites with more serious topics just don't have the patience for. 4chan's model has certainly created a community, but it's an intensely self-regulating and self-punishing one. Poole hopes to make the most of anonymity's positive, creative side with Canvas, which has a cleaner, less linear layout than 4chan and includes simple image modification tools built into the site to make altering and reposting images quicker and easier.

In her talk, Day urged the audience to harness digital media to create their own content on their own terms instead of working to break into mainstream media production models. "What is mainstream?" she said. "Mainstream is nothing anymore." Both 4chan and "The Guild," although they have built their popularity by accommodating niche audiences, are increasingly influencing traditional media systems and existing as successful examples of the innovative power (whether for good or evil) of web-based media.

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