The Evolution of Creativity: Nico Nico Douga and Doujinshi Subculture in Web 2.0

I gave a talk on Nico Nico Douga at Barcamp Bangkok on January 26, 2008. The event itself was fun and I got to meet a lot of interesting people, many of whom shared some obsession with Japanese media like I do. I’m posting here a revised version of the talk script and the talk slide, in Lessig style. (Yeah, I’m a Lessig fanboy.)

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Two times every year, in periods of three days, more than 450,000 people gathered in a convention center called Tokyo Bigsight, to participate in an event called Comic Market (or “komike” by the way the Japanese call it) to buy and sell doujinshi.

Doujinshi is media created by fans, in other words, amateurs who are enthusiastic about the stuffs they make.

Doujinshi comes in many forms. The most abundant is manga or comics. There are also music, and software; predominantly video games.

Most of the time, the content you would find in a doujinshi publication is not original. Doujinshi publishers take commercial media — in other words “rip” it — then transform or “mix” it with other media or their own artistic tendecy to create new content, and publish and/or sell it so as to “burn” it to the world’s memory.

For example, there’s this game called “Gradius,” which is pretty much about this space ship blowing up these aliens. There’s another game called “Air,” which is pretty much about this cute girl who dies a tragic death. Then someone puts the two games in a blender and you get “AirRade,” which is pretty much about this cute girl who’s supposed to die a tragic death blowing up these, err, cutesy aliens.

The Comiket is probably the largest single event that is a celebration of what Lawrence Lessig called read/write culture. It’s a culture in which people not only consume culture “produced elsewhere,” but actively participate in the process of making and customizing culture to their personal tastes.

The doujinshi culture is thus the embodiment of creativity, of individualism, and of values that creative work should be free for people to build upon.

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In 2006, a Japanese web site called Nico Nico Douga (ニコニコ動画) was launched. Initially, it didn’t do much by itself. It streamed videos from the already popular video sharing site Youtube, but added a feature that allowed user to post real-time comments that flied across the screen as the movie played. This feature alone has enabled many novel ways for people interact with Internet videos. For example, through Nico Nico Douga, it became possible to sing along, to cheer, to boo, to conduct surveys, and even to give typing lessons.

After a while, Youtube noticed that Nico Nico Douga was leeching off its bandwidth, and decided to cut the leech off. Nico Nico Douga then developed its own video sharing applications, and carried out on its own. This was where the fun began.

The most spectacular thing about Nico Nico Douga are contents that evolve like living organisms. What I’m going to show you here is probably the most popular strand of content there: Kumikyoku Nico Nico Douga.

So what? Why am I so excited about this? Well, for each popular video at Nico Nico Douga, there are probably more than 100 versions of it. Of course, there versions are mostly slight variations of the original video, but the point is that videos there build upon one another. I get a feeling that, at all time, something is always created.

I’m not claiming that this is not happening in Youtube or other video sharing sites. But the level of creativity at Nico Nico Douga is so visible and so in your face that users can’t help but get the feeling that the website is inviting everyone to participate in the fun that is going on. It is inviting everyone to create. It is inviting everyone to be a part of read-write culture.

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Why, then, is Nico Nico Douga is so successful in promoting creativity? To explain this, I’m turning to Richard Dawkins‘s concept of a “meme.” According to Wikipedia, a meme is a “theoretical unit of cultural information.” Dawkins gave catch phrases, tunes, beliefs, fashions, and some technologies as examples of memes. He observed that memes were very similar to genes. They can replicate themselves by propagating from one mind to another. Natural selection of memes happens as people forget unpopular, useless memes and remember popular, useful ones. Memes can become extinct if all people forget about them. And, in order to survive, memes have to evolve. Evolution can take place through mutation, which might be a result of one mind’s interpreting a meme in a new way. Or through inheritance, which results from crossing over a meme with other memes.

At Nico Nico Douga, we may say that a video is a meme, and Nico Nico Douga itself is large complex of memes (or as they call it memeplex) that evolves very rapidly. So there must be something that is conducive to this evolution. My thesis statement is that the amalgam of Nico Nico Douga’s user interface and norms of Japanese doujinshi culture fosters natural selection and evolution of contents.

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Let’s talk about Nico Nico Douga’s user interface, and let’s start with the real-time comments. The impact of real-time comments is enormous. This was a featured video at Youtube. It has been viewed around 800,000 times, but received around 2,000 comments, which is a lot for videos at Youtube. This was a popular video at Nico Nico Douga. It has been viewed about half of the times of the Youtube video’s, but received ten times more comments.

Real-time comments not only make it easy for viewers to give their impressions on the videos, but also make viewers want to comment. Why? Because it is fun to see your comments in action. Because it is fun to sing along, to make noises, to be a part of the mob, and to contribute to the videos you like by decorating it.

Nico Nico Douga thus makes it much more fun for creators to update videos because they get much more feedback than elsewhere. Seeing how people react to your video is a lot of fun itself, and Nico Nico Douga add to the fun by giving those reactions a nifty visualization. Real-time comments give people more incentives to create content, and thus fosters evolution of contents.

Another important aspect of Nico Nico Douga’s user interface is how it help user discover interesting videos. Let us have a look on Nico Nico Douga’s video page. The bottom left corner contains links to a number of videos, which I think are those that were recently viewed or commented on. This video, in particular, is sort of a typing game. This another video is a somewhat of a gathering place of people who like the character in the thumbnail, and they are trying to put as many comments into the video as possible to make the video rank first in terms of numbers of comments. While this arrangement might favors some kind of videos over another, it gives more chance for popular videos to reappear on the page. Moreover, on the side of the page, there are links to the daily video ranking page and the three most popular videos that day. Going to the ranking page, we see that the ranking is based on the numbers of times the videos got favourited in that day, which actually a good metric of popularity. Additionaly, a user can also select whether he wants to rank videos by the number of views or the number of comments. This ranking system, I believe, simulates natural selection of videos and encourages people to build upon them.

On the other hand, let us look at Youtube. We see featured videos, which are selected by a group of Youtube’s editors, promoted videos which Youtube is probably paid to put them there, and videos being watched right now, which are pretty much random. Youtube also has similar ranking feature, but it lacks clear indication of ranking, and is much less noticeable compared to Nico Nico Douga. Sometimes featured videos can get out of hand. On January 27, 2008, the featured video section is filled with videos of famous people answering the Davos question. While this practice of selecting featured video can promote a great social cause, I argue that it detracts from natural selection of contents. Users and creators are directed to videos that the editors deem interesting or have agendas to feature. The editors, in effect, are stealing the spotlight from truly popular videos.

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Let us consider the norms of the doujinshi culture next. Doujinshi culture encourages people to create derivative works, and thus brings about evolution of contents. Nico Nico Douga, on the other hand, acts as a common with easy access to source materials and a facilitator of rapid feedbacks to people who already want to create derivative works. The result, as we have seen, is a memeplex evolving at a speed we have not seen before.

But this is not the whole story. The Japanese is not the only people who wans to create derivative works. Everybody wants to do it. But why don’t we see proliferation of the doujinshi culture in America, where comic books, movies, and animated films are also very popular?

Well, doujinshi publications are mostly derivative works of commercial media. Moreover, doujinshi creators do not ask for permissions from copyright owners. This means that, under Japanese and American copyright law, these comic book are plain copyright violations. The same goes for these videos at Nico Nico Douga. If the creators were in the U.S., they will have a high chance of lawsuits flying their ways. But, in Japan, what is happening is the opposite. The Comiket and doujinshi subculture have been around for more than 30 years. Moreover, doujinshi is becoming increasing commercial day by day. There are many franchises of bookstores specialized in doujinshi, and the doujinshi market produced 245 million dollars in 2007, which is 15% of the Otaku industry, which includes anime DVDs, manga, video games, and figures.

The paradoxical existence of doujinshi culture, Lessig argued, is due to the lack of resources to enforce copyright law. His Japanese lawyer friend told him that “We don’t have enough lawyers. There just aren’t enough resources to prosecute cases like this.” I believe, however, that the reluctance of the industry to prosecute is attributable to the norm that doujinshi is a legacy, and the industry has to live with it. Many commercial manga creators were doujinshi creators. Some are still producing doujinshi, and make a lot of money out of it. They would not revolt against their roots. Restricting it would earn strong repercussion from consumers and creators alike. Indeed, the industry has adapted, and is trying to make money out of the culture. Comiket has become one of the best opportunities for companies to sell anime/manga related goods. Also, a company called Lantis recently released a CD called Lucky Star Re-mix 002, whose subtitle “[Lucky Star no Kiwami, AAA][Shiteyanyo~]” comes from popular memes in Nico Nico Douga.

Indeed, the norm held by the industry and enforced loosely by consumers and creators, has created an atmosphere where people would feel free to build upon existing contents. It is for this reason that videos in Nico Nico Douga and doujinshi in general evolve.

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To conclude, Nico Nico Douga is an example where user interface that encourages participation accelerates creativity. Nico Nico Douga’s success is also due to the norm of doujinshi culture that encourages derivation and informally protects video uploaders from publishers’ control. The moral of the story, I think, is that, in order to foster creativity, two things need to happen. First, you have to make it fun to create and give feedback. Second, you have to make it free by creating commons of content that people can build upon freely. While the first is easy to achieve with some cool UI tricks, the second is much harder as it would require changing the law to reduce the scope of copyright, or make the doujinshi norm very strong. But seeing the amount of creativity and collaboration that Nico Nico Douga brought about, I believe that we should do something to make our rights to derive protected by the law. Thank you very much.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted February 4, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I’m no fan of Nico and Youtube. Mostly because I have to sign in to do all the ausum things. And I don’t really see the need to register for YT and Nico. But I will give them the credit and respect due when it comes to creativity.

    On Free Culture:
    You have got to understand, free culture wasn’t a pipedream in the times of Shakespeare and the Bible.

    Shakespeare literally ripped off folklore and other writers, heck, he collaborated with other writers in some of the plays he wrote.

    The Bible, say what you will about it’s impact, was a collaborative work among hundreds, even thousands of men (most if not all, were politically and/or religiously motivated). Some might even call it the oldest example of a wiki existing before, well, wikipedia. And it’s still being worked on today. And I can assure you, this kind of work isn’t fun at all.

    On doujin culture:
    Also, don’t forget that the doujin revolution was mostly used to draw porn of characters. …Yep, porn. We also would not have had rapid acceptance of the Internet if it weren’t for porn.

    On creativity and fun:
    And not all creativity is fun. Thomas Edison didn’t have fun while he was inventing the lightbulb. Albert Eistein himself once said, “Genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.” I’m sure a ton of today’s creators have had their bad days where they found what they did not fun at all. Sure, loving your work makes it easier, but once you fail to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it won’t matter at all.

    On copyright enforcement:
    And as for copyright protection? Lawsuits? Don’t need’em. All I need is a police state, some carefully-worded laws, and the power to kill copyright infringers. You will not stop human nature unless you up the ante and make them realize that doing it is not worth it. Whatever smear tactic, propaganda, and so-called “education campaigns” won’t work. Only through wholesale murder can you ensure your copyrights to be protected. Only through fear can you ensure your imaginary property be protected. until any company is willing to make that leap, they cannot win. At all. Their greed has propelled them that far, the greed of the masses will destroy them, unless they become more evil than the masses. (Evil destroys itself, ze.)

  2. cardcaptor
    Posted February 4, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Dear DrmChrs0

    On Signing in:
    Signing in is really a drag, but I have become such an addict that it doesn’t really matter anymore. orz

    On Free Culture:
    The thing is, Shakespeare can borrow from folklore without being sued. Free culture was somehow implied their although no one might not have thought about it at that time. But, can you really borrow from Madonna or Walt Disney without being sued nowadays?

    On Doujin Culture:
    Sure, I’m well aware of the fact. But, you know, ain’t it wonderful?

    I observe that the abundance of porn in doujinshi depends on the media. For examples, you’ll not find hard-core porn video in Nico Nico Douga because it’s just simply disallowed. (It would be interesting to see what kind of porn would see if we have an adult version of Nico Nico Douga though.)

    On Creativity and Fun:
    Yep. Not all creativity is fun. Creativity results from money, motivation, and a whole slew of other things combined.

    My summary was too simple, I guess. What is more accurate is that, if you want to foster creativity of user generated content (so that people just create without receiving profit in return), then you have to make it fun. Wikipedia is a lot of fun. Youtube is a lot of fun. Blogging is a lot of fun. Barcamp is a lot of fun. Writing open source software is a lot of fun. (Someone might disagree on this. But I believe most people release open source software so that people would thank them later.)

    On Copyright Enforcement:
    I sympathize with you that a single company is trying to make your country exactly what you described.

  3. Posted February 7, 2008 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Hello, I watched your presentation thing. I just would like to know what that video was of the idolm@sters dancing. I really would like to see that, so if you could tell me at least what it is, then I would appreciate it. Thx

  4. cardcaptor
    Posted February 22, 2008 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    Traversy: Perhaps this is the closest thing to what you mention?

  5. Posted February 26, 2008 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for not being specific enough. What I meant was, the video viewed on slide 163. You can sort of the read the Japanese name when you download the video. But, I can’t read Japanese (just a bit of hiragana or katakana here and there, but no real kanji skills)

  6. cardcaptor
    Posted February 26, 2008 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s Mako Nyan Dance. http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm939521

  7. Posted April 11, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Well, I can’t really argue with this.

    But the fact is that a friend and I have always wanted to sing along the nico nico video (Kumikyouku, most of the times.) but I cn’t see WHERE is that place were you can click and sing.

    It’s pretty hard. Really. :c

    Write back as soon as you can.

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