NBC's Community and Open Source Collaboration
by David Roh — Old Dominion University
September 20, 2012 – 00:00
NBC’s Community occupies a peculiar space in broadcast television—it boasts a tech-savvy, fiercely dedicated fan base, but the show lives under the constant threat of cancellation because many of its viewers watch online, flying under the Nielson radar. But having dedicated viewers belonging to this particular demographic has its benefits.
After one episode in which the show’s characters play an old school 8-bit game, a few fans, perhaps aware of NBC’s looming decision to renew or cancel, decided to bring it to life. Pulling the graphics, structure, and mechanics of the game—itself a composite of 80s-era console games—the fans built a prototype and posted it online for others to play with and tweak.
In the past, a company like NBC would have taken the game down with the threat of litigation, angering and alienating fans. Thankfully, it seems they’ve given their tacit consent—for the time being. What’s most fascinating to see is what happens when the copyright clamps are removed and fans are free to participate in a derivative creativity that skirts intellectual property rights, usually for non-monetary purposes.
I think there’s a pattern here that’s worth theorizing. This is a mode of creativity facilitated by networked collaboration; a creativity that openly acknowledges and credits its source material; and a creativity that encourages subsequent derivations—something that I’ve taken to calling "disruptive textuality."
But that’s not the end of the story. I use the term “disruptive,” because it doesn’t begin with fidelity and end with minor alterations—sooner or later, a transformation will occur, with each iteration becoming wilder than the previous. The Community game is just one example—there’s call for “forking” on the homepage and you can keep track of branches on Github—but I wonder what will happen when NBC realizes the game is diverging from "canon," taking a life of its own, perhaps in ways it doesn’t necessarily find agreeable. Will they exercise their copyright options then?