In September 2001 two entrepreneurs Missy (coal-black Betty Page bangs and numerous tattoos) and Sean launched SuicideGirls.com. With their backgrounds in graphic design, programming and photography, they came up with the idea of launching an alternative adult site that started out as “a kind of an art project” — it grew out of an interest in Bunny Yeager’s pinup photos, where the control and attitude of the sexy women were emphasized, only now it was about pierced and tattooed females. Missy describes the portrayal of women on the site in the following words:
The site is about the girls being in control and being in charge of how they’re portrayed. It’s also proof that sexuality and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive of intelligence, and we wanted to showcase all of the girls, but leave people guessing a little bit. There’s no need to go full-blown porno.
SuicideGirls.com is an adult community that offers a mix of eroticism, creativity, personality and intelligence. SuicideGirls is about so-called empowered eroticism; it provides a site where girls outside of mainstream culture can express their individual style through soft erotic images, and web logs. Every week the site introduces new SuicideGirls, every day new pictures are added; a full national calendar of events is frequently updated and is searchable by location, date or keyword — members can be looked up by name, age, location or keywords; the site also features a magazine section with original fiction, articles and interviews with celebrities. What makes this site especially interesting is that each SuicideGirl has her own page featuring a pertinent profile with personal information such as age, stats, body mods, favorite books, music, sex positions, and current crushes. She can also put up pictures and video materials — including a web cam — of herself, express her thoughts and share her daily experiences in a blog, comment on other blogs and message boards, chat in designated chat rooms, and organize online and offline events.
Kate78, Texan-born, is a regular blogger. She writes about her studies in Kansas City, a city she has come to hate after she learned that her car insurance could only be renewed in Texas. She describes herself as a “punk rock chick” — illustrated by pictures that show her with long spiky hair; she has got her nose pierced and her many tattoos — and a “suicidegirl”. There are plenty of blogs — e.g. LiveJournal, Blogspot, Punklog — where girls write about wanting to become a SuicideGirl. The girls are mainly motivated by a wish to share their bodily art paralleled by a sense of being in control over their image and admirers (they keep control over the photo sets and shoots).
SuicideGirls.com is foremost an online community and therefore girls from all over the world can potentially become a SuicideGirl, as long as they have access to the Internet in order to publish to their personal page. These girls are in charge of their own online presentation, supported by a lively community where both women and men interact by reading and posting to the girls and each other’s blogs. In addition, members of the site can also post local events to the SuicideGirl calendar or the message boards, comment on pictures, and even hook up with one another. With the ability for members to create their own page, with their own profile picture and personal information, members can search for one another based on location, age, sex and personal preferences. Indeed, not only the SuicideGirls themselves have online pages to fill: subscribers to SuicideGirls.com have similar ‘privileges’, with the exception that they have to pay a small fee of $4 per month — though they can never refer to themselves as SuicideGirl: anyone entering the site has to log in as either ‘SuicideGirl’ or ‘Member’. Thus, SuicideGirls.com mixes a DIY attitude with alternative culture — especially Gothic, Punk and Emo — resulting in an appealing grassroots approach to sexuality that is of interest to both women and men.
At the same time, the public identity of a SuicideGirl is constructed within a particular textual context dependent on commercial drivers. Through attracting fans on the basis of her “autonomous” self-representation — Goth fans, for instance — she brings in customers, raising questions about the tensions between “grassroots” self-representation and corporate branding.
Collaborative Eroticism as Business Model
We should document the interactions that occur among media consumers, between media consumers and media texts and between media consumers and media producers. The new participatory culture is taking shape at the intersection between three trends: 1) new tools and technologies enable consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and re-circulate media content; 2) a range of subcultures promote do-it-yourself (DIY) media production, a discourse that shapes how consumers have deployed those technologies; and 3) economic trends favoring the horizontally integrated media conglomerates encourage the flow of images, ideas and narratives across multiple media channels and demand more active modes of spectatorship” (Jenkins 157).
Traditionally the organization of economic production is based on the idea that individuals order their productive activities either on managerial hierarchies, or on production that is based on market prices (Benkler). Peer production represents a new mode of organizing that is not based on relations of dependence (managerial hierarchies) nor relations of independence (markets) rather peer production involves relations of interdependence. Peer production is a heterarchy characterized by relations of minimal hierarchy and by organizational heterogeneity (Stark). While traditionally structured organizations attempt to maximize internal order and control by enforcing a hierarchical system and establishing standards and clear lines of authority (Powell), heterarchies exist through permitting and even fostering a diversity of organizational logics and minimizing conformity (Chan).
With the introduction of Mosaic and the Pentium chip in the mid-1990s the notion of the organization of production profoundly changed. The Internet could be used for more than looking up information or sending email. Instead, it offers a structure where participants are not organized by managerial hierarchies nor governed by price signals rather where people formed networks to collaborate in open source software projects or effectively constructing ‘user-created search engines’ for the exchange of e.g., music files, games (KaZaA, Gnutella), news and chat. While the present moment is marked by a legal standoff between robust communities of users (cultural co-producers) and the established media industry (particularly the music and film industry), some elements of the corporate media world have taken a different approach, embracing the new technological use rather than attempting to outlaw it. These corporations have found their way to online participatory networks and are attempting to use them for their own good. For instance, companies like Coca-Cola, BMW, and Apple offer online spaces – often in the form of thinly veiled advertisements (‘advertainment’) – where people can play games, watch movies, share files and the like in order to create or promote a company’s product, service or brand. They crucially rely upon blurring the boundaries between production, distribution and consumption, encouraging the target audience to work for them. Whether by playing games with embedded advertising, or inadvertently sending marketing information back to advertisers, or simply by passing advertising texts within one’s circle of friends, the target audience and the larger dynamic of participatory networks are ‘used’ by corporations to achieve their ends. SuicideGirls.com is a good example example of this emerging mode of (commons-based) peer production in a digitally networked environment – i.e. groups of individuals who participate in online shared spaces driven by diverse motivations, and serving corporate as well as community needs. The SuicideGirls’ blogs are the shared currency that binds SuicideGirls.com and its erotic consumers together as a “community”: SuicideGirls.com taps into online communities by enabling collaborative eroticism.
Moving beyond adult entertainment, this trend of using blogs for commercial purposes raises interesting questions regarding, on the one hand, the cultural status of online blogging from a commercial perspective, e.g., how should we consider the cultural status of artifacts such as blogs that have commerce at the core of their identity: Can we speak of a displacement of aesthetic experience by the branding experience, or might these two experiences be seen as part of a continuum?; and, on the other hand, regarding participatory culture in a commercially mediated environment: e.g., What is the status of b2c, c2c, and p2p in a commercially structured network; What are the implications for user appropriation? The answers to these questions among others studied by various academic disciplines may contribute to the building of a framework for examining the consequences of this strategic shift towards relating to, reaching out to and linking online customers in a commercial web (b)log.
Anja Rau, thank you for your feedback.