Frank Sinatra Got It

USA Weekend, that vapid Sunday newspaper insert, had a tribute to Frank Sinatra on the tenth anniversary of his death that included reminiscences from many who knew him. Among them was his daughter, the wonderfully named Nancy, who revealed:

My dad may have been old school in certain ways, but he was on top of all the new technology. He stayed on the Internet until the end. He and I started his official website together (now He loved it. He’d read comments from fans all over the world and dictate his thanks to them through me. (I did the typing.) It made him happy to see people who were as young as 14 or 15, who had discovered his music, writing to him.”Please keep this site going,” he said to me. “It’s really a great way to stay in touch.” I’m so glad he was able to see that before he died.

How great is the image of Frank Sinatra dictating letters to 14 year old fans that Nancy typed and sent? Wow.

How good a friend is a friend?

With my colleague Andrew Ledbetter at Ohio University, I’ve been finishing up a paper looking at relational development amongst “friends” on Our paper’s been accepted for presentation at the Association of Internet Researchers’ annual meeting in Copenhagen in October. Here’s the abstract. Forgive the heavy academese:

Tunes that Bind? Predicting Friendship Strength in a Music-Based Social Network
To be presented at Internet Research 9.0; Copenhagen, 2008.

“Friendship” is an inherently ambiguous relational descriptor. In social network sites, where “friend” is often the only word available to label relationships, the ambiguity seems only to be enhanced (e.g. boyd, 2006; Fono & Reynes-Goldie, 2006; Gross & Acquisti, 2005). This paper seeks to shed light on the nature of “friendships” in one social networking site. Founded in London in 2005, functions as both a social network site and a music recommendation, streaming and, to a lesser extent, downloading service. In May 2007, when it was bought by CBS Corporation for US$280 million, boasted more than 15 million active users in hundreds of countries. To our knowledge, there has not been any academic study of social dimensions of

The data reported here come from an international survey of users. The 559 respondents (36.5% female, 63.5% male) from 48 countries were recruited through messages posted to’s two general interest site-wide discussion forums. Each time one opens a profile page, one’s friends list appears in a random order. Participants were asked to open their profile in another window and think about the first person on that list in answering a series of questions about their relationship. After assessing a number of baseline facts about friendships (number of friends, proportion that began on, average length of friendships), we conducted a 4-step multiple regression analysis to determine the predictive value of four sets of variables on relational strength.

We measured relational strength with the scale used by Chan, Cheng, and Grand (2004), a shorter version of that created by Parks and Floyd (1996). This 18-item scale assesses six of the dimensions Parks (2007, p. 27) argues, “constitute a definition of the relational change process.” These include interdependence, depth or intimacy of interaction, breadth or variety of interaction, commitment, predictability and understanding, and code change and coordination. Because scores on each of these dimensions showed high intercorrelation, we treated the scale as a single measure of relational strength.

We examined four sets of variables’ correlations with relational strength, controlling for each previous set with the introduction of the next set. First we considered demographic factors including age, gender, and geographic location. Second, we looked at partner similarity (homophily) in terms of those demographic variables and musical taste. Third, we addressed the extent to which relational partners use media other than (face-to-face, telephone, text messaging, email, chat, instant messaging, communication via other websites, and postal mail) to communicate. Finally, we examined whether communicating via itself correlates with relational strength above and beyond communication via other media.

We found that on average, the relationships were of moderately low strength, just below the midpoint on the scale. friendships were likely to be stronger when (1) the partner was female, (2) the relationship was between partners of different sexes, (3) the partners did not meet through, (4) the partners also communicated face-to-face, on the telephone, through text messaging, via email, via IM, or on another website, and (5) the partners communicated via Homophily, even in musical taste, did not correspond to friendship strength except in the case of sex, where it lessened relational strength. Chat and postal mail did not correlate with relational strength.

These results suggest that – and likely other social network sites – serves as just one node in stronger relationships. By itself, does not seem to lead to strong relationships. As a relationship-formation site, it fosters weak ties. However, in conjunction with other modes of communication, it may enhance already strong partnerships. The findings lend further support to Haythornthwaite’s (2005) theory of “media multiplexity,” in which she argues that the number of media through which people communicate should be added to the definition of “strong ties.” Our results also demonstrate the importance of considering diverse modes of online interaction separately, as well as examining how their use is interwoven.


boyd, d. (2006). Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites. First Monday, 11 (12).

Chan, D., Cheng, K.S. & Grand, H.L. (2004). A comparison of offline and online friendship qualities at different stages of relationship development. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Vol 21(3), 305-320.

Fono, D., & Raynes-Goldie, K. (2006). Hyperfriendship and beyond: Friends and social norms on LiveJournal. In M. Consalvo & C. Haythornthwaite (Eds.), Internet Research Annual Volume 4: Selected Papers from the AOIR Conference (pp. 91-103). New York: Peter Lang.

Gross, R., & Acquisti, A. (2005). Information revelation and privacy in online social networks. Proceedings of WPES’05 (pp. 71-80). Alexandria, VA: ACM.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2005). Social networks and Internet connectivity effects. Information, Communication, & Society, 8 (2), 125-147.

Parks, M.R. (2007). Personal Relationships and Personal Networks. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Parks, M. R., & Floyd, K. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 80-97.

Putting the B(ees) in Buzz

Swarmteams is a project led by Ken Thompson exploring whether the same sorts of processes that insects and other biological entities use to organize group behavior through short term low range signaling can be applied to human social groups such as fans. It bills itself as a

new type of community-engagement platform, which was designed around communication principles used by social groups in nature such as ants, bees, geese and dolphins.

It’s an interactive approach, which aims to connect musicians with their dedicated fans, by enabling them to manage, grow, develop and montetise their own fan bases.

Thompson is testing this with a NESTA-funded pilot project using bands in the UK:

Swarmteams enables musicians to communicate directly with their ‘Alpha fans’ – a core group of about 25 dedicated fans. It works by allowing Alpha fans to create and manage their own “swarm” of dedicated fans. These fans are then encouraged to recruit and reward their own swarm of fans, and so on.

As the number of swarms expands, the speed at which messages are spread throughout the community becomes faster – and more effective.

Their success depends on the ability and commitment of the musician/band to grow and manage a viable and passionate fan base, which they can use to sell their music, recruit other fans and promote their concerts and gigs.

He’s got a few bands signed up now, but is still signing more up if you’re in the UK and interested (click that link just above to sign up).

My friend David Jennings, author of Net, Blogs & Rock ‘n’ Roll, a book I wish I’d written but will settle for having blurbed, is working with Ken to assess the effectiveness of the pilot. And with my grad student Ryan Milner I am helping David some of the background — going through the fandom research looking for things that look like swarming, even if they weren’t called that. Says David:

I wrote last year about Swarmteams cross-platform messaging service, and its application for coordinating networks of fans. Swarmteams is running a pilot project for the music industry this year, supported by NESTA, and going under the name of SwarmTribes®. For many musicians, getting the first 10 or 20 dedicated fans is easy enough — but when it comes to multiplying this number things become more difficult. If and when their fan base does increase, they’re faced with the challenges of managing it.

Musicians need a communication system to interact with their fans, which is adaptable and instantly reactive. They need to engage with their fans, using a means of communication that can be scaled up. This is where Swarmteams can help.

I’m pleased to say that I’ll be working alongside Swarmteams as researcher, reporter and evaluator for the project (also funded by NESTA, but as an independent project). And I’m looking forward to working with Nancy Baym of University of Kansas and her colleague Ryan Milner.

The core of the Swarmteams concept is the combination of a “back to nature” communication patterns and the latest cross-platform messaging technologies.

Swarmteams founder Ken Thompson has researched biological/ecological perspectives on team organisation and coordination (laid out in his Bioteams book). Then Swarmteams have designed a communications system around this, combining SMS text messaging, email, instant messaging and RSS.

Starting with those 10 or 20 dedicated fans, bands and artists can use the techniques and technology first to build a broader base of fans and then to motivate and coordinate these fans around gigs, releases and special events.

I kind of inherently dig the idea of thinking about biological/ecological models for our behavior, especially in the context of the oh-so-techie internet/mobile phone world. It’s cool to see some creative thinking and I’m looking foward to seeing how the project pans out. In the meantime, if any of you can think of examples of things that look like “swarming” let me know. Thompson describes the theory behind it as based on these four points:

1. Any group member can take the lead: Any member can broadcast to the group, create their own swarms, invite others to them and create links and content.

2. Integrated Messaging across phone and web: The ability to message every member of your swarm in one click on any device without worrying about how they are connected.

3. Small is Beautiful …..and Big is Powerful: “Swarm Communities” are multiple swarms on common topics of interest providing scale yet maintaining the small group dynamic.

4. Reach the many through the few: Engage individuals within their communities via their trusted relationships.

Live or Virtual? Even I Choose Live.

The internet is often cast as “the virtual” while face-to-face, or as one scholar better termed it, “body-to-body” communication is seen as the locus of all that is real and authentic. Having studied how people use the internet socially since the early 1990s, I’ve always been very wary of the whole concept of “virtual,” with its implication that what happens online is ALMOST real enough to seem like it’s real but can never really truly be Real. I know too well that for the overwhelming majority of people the overwhelming majority of the time, what happens online is just part and parcel of our everyday lives — no more or less real than a phone call, a memo, a newspaper or even … an in-person conversation. My own research is among studies showing that online interaction isn’t much better or worse than any other kind of interaction and using the internet in relationships doesn’t make them any better or worse.

My position is sometimes interpreted to mean that I think the internet can be substituted for face-to-face communication. I don’t think this. There is something special about shared physical presence that no medium can ever replace. The internet lets us build connections that we can later meet in space, it lets us maintain connections that formed in space, it gives us a way to coordinate how to meet in space. It supports face-to-face communication.

I’ve been thinking about this need for shared presence among fans lately in the wake of two things. First was the completely spontaneous way in which basketball fans in my town amassed downtown when the team made it into the top 4. I don’t know how many thousands came out on in a viral happening that night, but there were 25,000 — 1/4 of the town’s population — when they got to the final 2, and 40,000 when they won. When they had a parade over the weekend so fans could witness what my son described as the “terrible!” “worst ever!” “totally boring!” spectacle of the team sticking their heads out of convertibles, 80,000 people came. When the paper talked to the people who went to the parade they talked about “just wanting to see the players.”

I was a little tempted to sneer, but I totally understood.

Because the second thing that’s got me thinking about the importance of shared presence is the fact that I’m soon to go further than I ever have before to see a show by a band I love. Now this is coming from someone who logged tens of thousands of miles in the 1980s following REM, the dBs, Camper Van Beethoven, Dumptruck, Thin White Rope, Big Dipper, Love Tractor, and other bands I loved around the midwest. It’s even coming from the girl who said “yes” when a girlfriend called her up 3 years ago and said “fly to Denver, meet up with me, and go see REM.” Live music has always compelled me to come.

Back up.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while or know me, you know that a few years ago I fell very hard for the Norwegian band Madrugada. They have never toured the US. Last summer, their guitarist passed away and in addition to mourning what was way too soon a passing, I also selfishly mourned that I never got the experience of seeing them live. Two years ago I sat exactly where I’m sitting right now and looked at ticket prices on Expedia trying to figure out if I could get to London for their show there. I decided it was just too indulgent and didn’t go. I heard a bootleg. It wasn’t that great a show. But boy do I wish I’d gone.

Before his death, they had almost finished a record. The remaining members finished it, put it out, and more or less announced the end of the band saying it didn’t make sense to go on as Madrugada without Robert. Seemed fitting. But the record is good. Really really good. And they were a band that loved to tour. And you could listen to that record and hear the songs calling to the men who made them “you have to play me live, you know you have to, you know it, you know it.” First they played one show, invitations only, for 500 people and 30 fans (they had a raffle, 10,000 entrants in only a few days). It was hard to imagine that with that taste they could really spend the summer cooling their heels in their urban apartments when there were festivals all over Europe. A few weeks later they announced they were going to tour after all.

Sit home again on account of “it’s too indulgent”? Not an option.

It took an absurd amount of juggling and coordinating, but in a month I’m going to see them 2 nights in a row in Denmark. The next week I’ll give talks in Copenhagen, Toronto, and Montreal then go camping with the family. One might question my sanity.

But what I keep thinking about when I ponder my motivation for going so far out of my way to see them, especially in the wake of Robert’s unexpected passing, and when I think about all those basketball fans in the street, is that being together in person with all your attention on a passion so important to your sense of what makes you you, is such a powerful way to affirm LIFE. To celebrate the fact that we are alive in the same time, the same space. We are alive together.

I found Madrugada on the internet. I met the people who’ve invited me to speak in Copenhagen and in Toronto on the internet. I’m grateful for the chance to see them in person.

Sharp Insights into Indie Music Fandom

I recently read Wendy Fonarow’s book Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music.

It’s easily one of the best audience ethnographies I have read, in part because she focuses both on the details of behavior — the microways in which audiences at indie gigs organize themselves — and offers a compelling macro-explanation of what’s going on here. The methodology is also impeccable – it is a true ethnography based on years immersed in the scene, making rigorous records, and analyzing in copious detail.

To briefly summarize, she argues that there are three audience zones at indie gigs. The people up front are focused on the band, they are close, there is a lot of bodily contact, it is supportive but rough, it is all about emotion. The people who hang out here are mostly young. In Zone 2 are people a bit older, not so enraptured they need to be up front, but still attending to the music. In the back — Zone 3 — are the professionals, the ones who’ve seen so many shows that it’s old hat and they’re more interested in seeing one another. She’s also got a pair of dead-on analyses of guest lists (the different kinds, how people manage asking for guest list tickets given all the face issues at stake) and placement of guest passes (short story: more in-crowd, more concealed).

Fonarow is an anthropologist, and she draws on theories of ritual and aesthetics to argue (and I don’t begin to do her argument justice) that essentially the indie gig is serving as a music-based trance-like coming-of-age ritual akin to drum-based rituals you see all the time in places like Africa. During the ritual transformation, fans come of age as they gradually start to become more protective of their bodies and practical about other life-responsibilities and move from the front of the stage (pure feeling) to the back of the room or leave altogether (adulthood).

At the time I read it I thought this analysis might be a bit over-analytic and theory-happy. But the more I think about it, the more I think she’s really pinpointed something in the essence of our engagement with the objects of our fandom and social scenes around them that is relevant far beyond pop music studies. I find it speaks to my own experience, and it helps me understand things about my own fandom.

There’s kind of a gap between people who do fan studies of tv shows and those who do fan studies of music. I wish they’d read each other more. For the tv crowd, this book’s a really good touchstone.

And it’s fun to read!