Star Wars Brand Steps into the Future
On Monday, the official Star Wars website posted an announcement that it soon will be ending its message board feature. The forums will be closing down later this month, then going offline in early June. While some fans seem to have been caught by surprise by this news, I think major changes have been brewing for some time. Back in October, news broke that Lucasfilm had hired an outside firm, Big Spaceship, to take over management of its internet presence, including websites and social media. I suspect closing the starwars.com forums is just a first step in a broader strategy of revisiting how Lucasfilm interacts with the fans while at the same time ensuring the Star Wars brand is preserved.
As a business decision, this move strikes me as exactly the right call. The internet is changing rapidly, and it’s worlds different from what it was when the starwars.com forums opened in 2001. On today’s internet, message boards are no longer the most effective way for a company to communicate with current and prospective customers. For one, despite being the official Lucasfilm website, the starwars.com forums had volunteer fans as moderators. While those fans’ dedication and commitment are admirable, it’s just not good business sense to have amateurs, not professionals, running part of a company’s public face. Many internet message boards, including the most prominent Star Wars discussion forums at starwars.com and theforce.net, have proven over time to be fairly insular in their membership. This can lead to the alienation of other perspectives and some voices seeming to be more representative among the broader fandom than they really are.
This isn’t to say that message boards don’t still have a role in the fandom, because I think they do. While they are a great way for Lucasfilm to deliver its message to the fans, one thing that Facebook and Twitter don’t provide is a venue for breadth and depth of long, ongoing discussions among the fans themselves – and Star Wars is certainly a fandom that generates plenty of fan discussions. But the very fact that these are discussions among the fans is the reason that fansites are the best place for the message boards to be hosted. It seems to be very effective for a lot of other fandoms, and it avoids any risk of Lucasfilm having its name associated with editing, banning, and otherwise moderating the fans, or earning ill will from intervening in the sometimes vitriolic clashes between fans.
To my mind, it was a wise business move for Lucasfilm to shift its messaging to sites like Facebook and Twitter, where they can reach a much broader range of fans, and where Lucasfilm itself controls its message and its brand directly. Even in the last two days, we’ve seen the first steps in this new direction. Leland Chee, the continuity manager for Lucasfilm, expanded his existing presence on Twitter to a new Facebook page which will enable Q&A and interaction with fans very similar to his previous continuity thread on the forums. The fansite EU Cantina solicited fan questions for an interview with Sue Rostoni of Lucas Books about the Expanded Universe. Instead of focusing their message at starwars.com, Lucasfilm can now spread the word to many different websites. This will allow them to harness the interest and enthusiasm of the fans, but not inhibit their ability to expand the franchise.
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