Describing people who are into Star Wars or Marvel or Batman as "nerds" these days is a bit of a misnomer—you could just as easily call them "people who are into the most popular movies on the planet." But describing people who contributed to a 3,000 word entry to Wookiepedia on the holiday "Life Day" (which first appeared in the 1978 Star Wars Christmas Special) as nerds? That might be closer to the truth.
They, however, might prefer the term "members of fandom," though, and now said fandom is going front and center: Wikia.com—the for-profit company started by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, which hosts detailed Wikis for superfans to share the minutia of every detail of their favorite movie/show/game/comic book/fantasy series/whatever—announced the launch of Fandom.com this week. That's a big deal, given the sheer size of Wikia's user base. As COO Walker Jacobs explains, the company was looking for a way to maximize the utility that they currently provide when they stumbled upon some interesting data.
"When we were digging into the numbers, it didn’t completely make sense—we were seeing very low bounce rates, and the average user spends 15 minutes on our site. If somebody were just coming to search to get a quick answer to a question, they ended up spending a whole lot more time there," he says. "Our audiences had been customizing our product. We have a very sophisticated user base, particular our most active users, and they were using it to create social feeds and hold discussions and make a robust user platform."
With that robust platform already in place, Jacobs and the rest of the leadership at Wikia looked at what their competition was—and found it wanting. "What we started to realize is that there’s a very crowded ecosystem among entertainment media companies that cover celebrities and fashion, but our fans were different from that," he says. "They were interested in the IP itself—Game Of Thrones, Star Wars, Harry Potter. For people trying to keep up with that, where would you go every day? It didn’t really exist, is what we found. It was kind of a white space. So this seemed like an opportunity to co-create with our user base, as a new kind of media platform to create a new kind of media site."
Certainly, there are plenty of websites that speak to Game of Thrones and Star Wars fans—from io9 to Entertainment Weekly to Comics Alliance—but one thing that Fandom can do differently is leverage its already massive userbase.
"What makes us different is we’re 190 million uniques a month. It’s global, and we’ve got this rabid fanbase," Jacobs explains. "We have 125,000 active contributors every month on our Wikia platform. And they’ve already voted that they want to share their expertise with the world. What we finally said is that these are people that are so knowledgeable that they actually have stories that they want to create too. We have our own editorial team, our own production and video team, and we host our fan communities, and I would suggest that nothing like that exists."
While Fandom launched this week as a nice-looking entertainment blog, Jacobs has ideas for how it can be a lot more than that. Indeed, true to the Wiki spirit, he says that part of the plan was just to build it and let the users help develop what it might become.
"We made a very purposeful decision, as far as our product today, and said, 'We think this is interesting, we want to give our fans a platform as quickly as possible to start contributing and publishing content, and rather than spending a year developing, let’s get something suitable for launch built, and let it develop,'" he says of the process. To that end, rather than attempt to build around the same broad mandate that Wikia has, Fandom was developed around the idea of being a home for fans of movies, TV, and video games—and in order to touch on all of those things effectively, they focused specifically on fans of Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Fallout, and Destiny at launch. "The problem with just launching with those three broad categories is that it misses the point of where we're going," he says—which is drilling down on the specifics. "We launched with those five fandoms to tip our hat at our future, and to demostrate to our audience where we're going. As we scale, we're going to be curating these specific fandoms and many, many more with a depth that doesn't currently exist."Jacobs and the Fandom team have big ideas for what the site could become. There's potential for personalization ("I imagine a world where when I look at the app or the website, and when you do, what we see will be different because we have different interests"), as well as for discovery. That opens up some interesting connections that Wikia is in a unique position to take advantage of.
"We have 40,000,000 pieces of original content—articles—on these very topics. That's over three times the size of the entire New York Times archive dating back to the 1850's, and it’s growing exponentially. And we’re the 15th largest website in the US according to Quantcast," Jacobs says. "When you combine that scale of audience and that scale of content, the analytics that it spits off are really interesting. We see what IPs are trending and what’s happening before they’re conventional wisdom. So we think we can introduce users to IP that’s trending around the world as a discovery engine. We see cross-sections—that Star Wars fans are disproportionately interested in another IP. so we have recommendation engines to put the right content in front of the right eyeballs at the right time."
That'd make Fandom.com a useful tool for fans who want to do more than just collect a list of all of the various Star Wars media in which "Life Day" appeared—if you want to learn what other things your fellow Wookiepedia enthusiasts spent hours obsessing over, in favor of a new obsession of your own, it appears that they'll be setting up the tools to do it. And since they're launching into a media landscape that can be crowded, finding the places where they can leverage their userbase and the analytics information that comes with it to develop into something that no one else has seems to be the key to making this work.