The New Shape of Online Community

I’ve got an article just published in the new issue of First Monday called The New Shape of Online Community: The Example of Swedish Indie Music Fandom. It’s two things — a documentation/description of how this particular fandom is organized, and also an argument that the days of thinking of online community as associated with single domains is over. Instead, I argue that fans are organizing themselves across multiple sites, not just as individuals, but as distributed groups. This has implications for everyone from fans to scholars to site designers. As I summarize in the conclusion:

The Swedish indie fans practice what might be called “networked collectivism” in which loose collectives of associated individuals bind networks together. On the one hand, this means that groups can avail themselves of many mediated opportunities to share different sorts of materials including text, music, video, and photographs in real time and asynchronously. On the other hand, this creates many problems, particularly with coordination, coherence, and efficiency (i.e., the same materials must be distributed in multiple places, and sometimes there are many replicated efforts).

For those seeking to study online communities, this sort of social formation poses the methodological challenge of how to bound the object of study. It has long been the norm to go to an online space and study it. We have countless studies of particular newsgroups, Web forums, social network sites, and blogs. We have few studies that explore the connections amongst these disparate online platforms, despite the fact that people’s online activities are almost always distributed across multiple sites. It is no longer clear that going to a site is an appropriate strategy for studying community on the Internet.

One might liken the problem to that of a “pub crawl” in which a group goes from bar to bar drinking. One can do a fine study of any one of those pubs, and likely find something resembling community at play. Yet a slight shift of perspective from the space to the patrons reveals that for them, whatever community might be happening at that pub cannot be understood without reference to other spaces in which those people also meet.

From a practical perspective, this form of social organization poses problems for both individuals and those who want to connect and be connected with them. When a community is spread across multiple online spaces, it requires more time and effort for people to figure out what there is and to what extent in which spaces they will develop a community–specific identity. The analysis presented here suggests that with so many places to have discussion, it may be hard to reach the critical mass necessary to sustain ongoing conversation anywhere, with potential negative consequences on the development of shared meanings within groups.

Developers face the practical problem of how they can make sites that serve as both locations of activity and which can be exported to other sites in order to build connectivity across locations.’s exportable charts are one example of responding to this emerging demand, as is Virb’s built–in capacity to import blogs and photo feeds from other sites into one’s profile.

At a time when organizations from rock bands to public health services are increasingly turning to the Internet to reach their audiences, it is not enough to create one’s own site or to get on MySpace. Like the community members, they need to immerse themselves in this ever–more distributed and complex terrain in order to understand which online sites to target and how.

I’ve got at least one more paper on the topic of Swedish indie fandom in the works, so am quite interested to hear any feedback on this paper. And I hope you find it useful or at least fun to read.

Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll

Congratulations to David Jennings on the publication of his book Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll. I read the proofs earlier this summer and can recommend it as a highly readable, smart, and interesting look at music discovery. I’m a wee bit jealous that I didn’t write it myself.

book on shelves

But on Monday I’ll have a link to a nice little brand spanking new online publication of my own…

Band Promotion on Facebook. Or not.

Adam Shahbaz has written a thoughtful and entertaining post about how Facebook has changed for him since his time as an early user connecting with his friends, through the minifeed, to an era when he has to friend his boss (hi, Brad!). Embedded in it is his report on trying to use Facebook to promote his LA-based band. Short story: it didn’t work:

Facebook became a great marketing tool for my band, rejn (pronounced “rain”). Now users would get our concert messages even if they had yet to join our global group. The group, by the way, jumped from a paltry 200-something local members to a growing 600 global membership of “devout” Facebook users in a very short period of time. For the effort (little) and the cost (free), we seemingly got a great deal.The original, more local fan group, however, allowed us to engage our users. People clicked on the band members and checked out our pages and saw the parties we played at and whether we passed their litmus test of coolness. They checked our individual pictures: bass player doing a keg stand, lead singer in mid-back-flip.

Things were looking up.

With the new global fan group, the one that killed the original, people commented less. For every message we sent, our fans became more resentful of the influx of spam. We had to resort to older techniques to get people to come to the shows. After all, with a small band as with a small business, local means golden. But the announcements became worthless.

We even paid for 30,000 flyers to be distributed exclusively on the University of Southern California Facebook network. At the show, I asked around and did not find one person who even saw the flyer, let alone anyone who found it compelling enough to come to the show. I never expected a big return, but I figured at least one person would have seen it. We were back to good old word-of-mouth.

Facebook has a ways to go toward being a meaningful way to promote bands (despite ReverbNation’s bold efforts to make it easier). The problem of notifications coming too fast and furious on Facebook to digest and therefore seeming more and more like spam is a big one. The very weak support for groups — there is no easy way to see if there are new messages in discussion threads, for instance — is another. FB groups, like so many on other social networks, seem to be serving far more as identity badges than meaningful ways to interact or build community.

Blogging Athletes

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article up this week about athletes using the internet for direct communication with their fans:

As the MySpace generation reaches professional sports, many athletes are maintaining website profiles and blogs. Along with providing a direct link to fans, these personalized Internet entries serve as an excuse to limit interviews with mainstream media while also offering the ability to deliver unfiltered messages.Bryant used his site to acknowledge it would be tough to leave the Lakers — but he would if it meant playing on a winning team. Other reports are purely personal. Tiger Woods announced the birth of his daughter. And Greg Oden discussed the pain of having his tonsils taken out.

“They come off good if the athletes know what they are doing,” said Will Leitch, editor of, a website that often links to players’ websites. “The mistake is when you see people that still have their college MySpace profile up and all of a sudden they are in the NFL or MLB.”

Indeed, while posting messages is often intended to clear controversy, it occasionally causes it.

This is a topic I’ve covered before, in terms of musicians in these posts (among others):

How the internet transformed what it means to be a music fan

The new social rules of internet fame

Pop Stars must blog says Baltimore Sun

Music Fans and musicians belong to each other

My take on this is that it can work very well if the image the star builds on his or her site is consistent with the public persona that’s working for them already, and otherwise it can be a mess. Or as I was quoted as saying in this article:

“There’s a fine line between being candid and getting yourself in trouble, and it depends a lot on what your image is,” said Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. “There is a reason professionals usually handle that stuff.”

I strongly believe that the opportunity for direct relationship building between fans and artists, athletes, public figures, is a good thing, but I like how this article points out its potential pitfalls.

Stupid Things Part 2: Elton, Meet Ramesh.

The other day I posted a long rant about Voxtrot leader’s anti-internet rant. Now Elton John wants in on the internet-slagging action. According to The Sun Online, Sir Elton

…claims it is destroying good music, saying: “The internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff.

“Instead they sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn’t bode well for long-term artistic vision.

[...]“I mean, get out there — communicate.

“Hopefully the next movement in music will tear down the internet.

“Let’s get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.

Same rant applies. Key points:

(1) There is no evidence that people who spend time online spend less time communicating with others. To the contrary, research strongly suggests that people who spend time online are MORE likely to spend time communicating with others than people who avoid the internet.

(2) Marching in protest is not mutually exclusive with blogging. Bloggers also march in the streets. People can do both. Indeed, the internet and blogging are being used every day to organize physical protests and marches and even… parties! If he has a beef here, it’s with digital music production, which is a separate issue from the internet.

(3) If you’re worried about the spread of bad music, quit making it!

Has anyone seen any studies about live music attendance since the dawn of the internet as a music-oriented space? I’d love to see some stats that support claims that it is suffering on account of the net. My guess is that if it’s suffering at all, it’s on account of the insane ticket prices people like Sir Elton demand. My sense is that smaller local shows are attended as well as they ever were. Certainly the hot acts sell out around here.