The Place of Mystique in the Internet Age

The Detroit Free Press had a piece over the weekend by their pop critic, Brian McCollum, contemplating the loss of mystique in rock and roll now that there’s so very much information available online. He writes:

There’s a reason they call the Internet the great leveler: As technology increasingly lets us get a glimpse into the star machine, peeking behind the scenes and absorbing all manner of minutiae about our favorite acts, the gap between audience and artist gets ever smaller. Details and developments are recorded, shared and analyzed at a dizzying pace and volume.

YouTube, MySpace, message boards, band chats, DVDs, reality shows — for a fan, it’s all hard to resist. Knowledge is tempting. Information promises relief, the chance to unravel mysteries and satisfy questions. But today’s rat-a-tat-tat multimedia culture presents us with a hard question about our relationship with our artists: Is more actually less?

The barrage of easy information makes it difficult for the mystique to stay intact. We get access, the mystique takes a hit, we quickly lose interest, we move on.

I’m not so sure that we move on when the mystique is gone, but other than that, yeah. Later in the article he asks:

But are we losing something valuable when we keep the curtain pulled back? You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect so. Mystique long played a special role in the music fan experience. It helped build tighter bonds to artists and their music. It strengthened their grip on our imaginations. It gave them staying power.

“To me part of the magic was that you imagined what John Lennon was like, or what these songs were about. You read your own meaning into the music and the people who were making it. That was part of what made you an active fan — you engaged on a personal level,” says Glenn Gass, 51, a music professor at Indiana University. “When you get a little too close they get a little too ordinary. And you don’t want your stars to be ordinary.”

In contrast to those who just whine about the evil changes the internet has wraught, McCullum’s got the wisdom to realize this is how it is, and that’s not going to change:

But here’s the deal: There’s no turning back the clock, and until somebody unplugs the Internet, the changes in our relationship with artists are probably here to stay. The idea of pop musicians as untouchable icons might one day be seen as a dusty relic from a time when artists had mystique by default. For those future musicians who want to conjure that old-time magic, the trick might be working hard to make a name — then working hard to hide in plain sight.

He also spends some time on bands for whom the mystiquelessness is working well.

Now no one knows the wonder of mystique better than I. To this day I avoid interviews with the singer who melts me down to a puddle of atoms and I really want to know next to nothing about him. When I saw a tiny blurb in Pitchfork saying he’d been spotted passed out drunk in the gutter I wanted to cry (though it seems it may not have been him, but his guitarist, who died not long thereafter, making me really cry). I don’t even like watching his videos that much because I don’t want to really have to face the fact that his body’s not as massively hot as his voice.

But I do want to take issue on a few points. There are in fact still bands who are working the mystique even in the internet age. They have obscure websites that make it hard to find information. They have MySpace pages that throw noise at you but nothing else. They eschew videos. Furthermore, though all that information is tempting, it can be resisted.

And what’s more, there’s little to ruin a rock star’s mystique like seeing them live. Long before the internet, I  lost my affection for plenty of rock people I thought I loved when I saw them in the flesh and realized how little there was to like. On the other hand, I had a few meals and drinks and coffees with Michael Stipe for a decade there and he never lost an ounce of his mystique. Real mystique transcends information.

Most importantly, mystique is not the only way to make people into active fans. You can know everything about a person and still have plenty of room for making meaning and engaging on a personal level. Half the time (if not more) the people making the music don’t really know what that force that comes out of them means. Knowing who they are and feeling like you can know them personally doesn’t mean that the MUSIC loses its mystique.

One of the people I interviewed for my Swedish indie study, a musician, who also has a voice that undoes me (and whom I really had fun talking to) had this to say on the topic:

It’s important to remember that people who play music are just people. The internet helps that, it’s not this huge iconic book of characters, rock stars. Personally I think the rock star thing is boring and played out. Its good its just people playing folk music. Music by the people for the people.

Indeed, the Swedish musicians I spoke with were all thrilled to get rid of mystique. Only one label guy had any desire to maintain it, and that was for the label, not the bands on the label. It’s a lot easier to be yourself than to be a false idol.

Short take: I’ll trade relationship for artificial mystique anyday. If the music can’t generate its own fascination without the persona of its maker, then no amount of mystique will make it worthwhile over the long haul.

Adventures in the Pacific Northwest

I am back, finally, from my week of adventures. First I stopped off in Redmond at Microsoft Research, where I gave a talk called I Heard It On the Network: Recent Developments in Music Fandom, in which I used the example of the Swedish indie scene to argue that in an age where people are bombarded by musical choices, bands and labels have a greater challenge in getting people’s attention. As a result, they need fans to serve as promoters more than ever, leading to shifts in the way fans are conceptualized and the powers that fans have. There is a video which is supposed to be posted on the net somewhere, so I hope to have a link to that soon.

Then I went on to Vancouver for the Association of Internet Researchers’ conference, which was, as always, a fantastic combination of food for thought and food with friends. For the first time there were many many papers about social network sites, including the roundtable I had organized. Some of the interesting points I took from the papers as a whole on this topic were:

  • people have no confusion between the term “friend” as used outside social network sites and as used on them. If you ask how many of their Facebook friends are “actual” friends, as Ellison, Steinfeld and Lampe did, you get fairly low percentages in response.

  • there are big cultural differences in how these sites are used and we really need more cross-cultural research.

  • the challenge to do work that is going to be relevant next month is higher than ever since these sites change so rapidly. Fortunately, little of the work I saw seemed particularly dated since they were very careful about how they framed their population.

  • While American scholars are obsessed with Facebook, other sites are getting very little analysis. I hadn’t even realized that the Danish youth are all about Arto, though I did, at least, know that the Swedish kids are into LunarStorm, Koreans into Cyworld, and Brazilians into Orkut. But how many other networks are out there with huge national followings that most of us have never even heard of?

There was almost no work on fandom and less than usual it seemed about intellectual property and digital rights. I did see a really nice paper by Hector Postigo who spent a summer interviewing people at the Electronic Freedom Foundation and was able to summarize the rhetoric they use in conceptualizing the issues, and another by Tarleton Gillespie, who talked about the simplistic and problematic ways in which the RIAA framed the issues in a set of educational materials they’ve created for use in high schools (for instance, the concept of “fair use” was completely absent). On fandom, I saw Stephanie Tuszynski compare the users of the Buffy fangroup she had studied to Daily Kos readers when they meet, which was interesting but not surprising, and Rhiannon Bury did a nice followup on five friendship pairs who had met years ago in X-File fandom and had remained close friends.

I also FINALLY got to sit down with Henry Jenkins, with whom I’ve corresponded for 15 years and whom I’d never met.

Henry and Me

The other highlight of the conference was that after 9 years of thinking about the association every single day (I was one of a very few founders, organized the first conference, was VP for 4 years, president for 2 and past-president for 2), at the General Meeting, the new executive committee took over and, for the first time in the association’s existence, I have NOTHING TO DO WITH running it! Well, except for being on the organizing committee of next year’s conference in Copenhagen, that is. Still, a big change for me, and a welcome one. It was particularly nice to be presented with a bottle of French champagne at the meeting and then smooched from all sides by AoIR presidents past and future (photo by Marj Kibby):


Nothing beats being appreciated :)

Now on to writing up the Swedish indie work, the work, the book, tomorrow’s class, and I don’t even want to think about all the other things!

The Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

In a month or so, at the National Communication Association meeting, I will be participating on a panel called Conversations with Leading Scholars: The Past, Present and Future Research on Human Communication and Technology. The other “leading scholars” are Susan Barnes, Nosh Contractor, Janet Fulk, Michele Jackson, Malcolm Parks, Scott Poole, Ron Rice, Craig Scott and Joe Walther. Fine company indeed. In preparation, we were asked to prepare short statements on the topic to be included in the Human Communication and Technology Division newsletter. It’s always a treat to get to write a little manifesto, and I think it’s relevant for how you think about communication technology whether you are an academic or not, so I thought I’d post mine here:

The Past, Present and Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

Nancy K Baym
Associate Professor of Communication Studies
University of Kansas

Scholars of human communication and technology have a past far deeper than many of its contemporary practitioners realize. In recent years, the origins of what we in NCA do under this moniker have often been located around the mid-1970s when Short, Williams and Christie proposed Social Presence Theory. Far deeper origins are to be found, however, when one realizes that technology need not mean computing nor be digital. We have other precedents, and other technologies. Human communication and technology begins with the invention of writing, it includes pigeon training, ink, woodblocks, 16th century books, and 17th and 18th century pamphlets. It includes photography, audio recording, radio waves, moving pictures, the telegraph, television, and countless other technologies, more of which have been forgotten than remembered. There are long traditions of scholarship into these other once-new technologies.

These media, and the scholarly traditions surrounding their study, are particularly forgotten in the conduct of Internet Research, a domain too often plagued by the notion that everything is new. Much is indeed new, but our focus on “new media” should not blind us to which things we ascribe to particular technologies are better attributed to novelty and the ways in which cultures project their concerns onto technology (see, for instance, Sturken, Thomas & Ball-Rokeach, 2004). One of our tasks is to distinguish what is new from what is recycled. Most communication technologies throughout history have raised issues about the quality of interaction, the nature of community, the status of relationships, authentic identity, trust safety, and privacy. One research priority for our future is thus to recognize our past. We need to link our theory, framing, research inquiries and findings to the history on which the production, reception, adaption and everyday use of technologies rests.

We must acknowledge the “everyday” nature of much human communication and technology, as has become the (welcome) trend in the last few years (see Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002). Within a continued focus on the mundane, we should examine how people simultaneously integrate multiple media into their daily communicative experience. In treating the internet and related technologies as new, we have tended to view them as isolated phenomena. Though the term “cyberspace” seems at last to have fallen from use, some still imagine what happens online as a world apart from everyday life, as though what happens in one online environment stays within its own borders. If today’s new media tell us anything, they tell us that boundaries are made to be transcended.

Online realms are no longer contained within their own boundaries (if they ever were). What appear to be single online groups often turn out to be multimodal. Group members connect with one another in multiple online spots, affording themselves of the use of multiple media – social network sites for making their identity and social connections visible, YouTube for video sharing, Flickr for sharing pictures, blogs for instantaneous updates, web sites for amassing collective intelligence, and so on. Our many studies of single web boards, newsgroups, chat rooms, social network sites and so on have given us a strong understanding of much that happens within these contexts, but we know next to nothing about how individuals and groups link these contexts to one another as they traverse the internet and meet the same individuals across multiple domains.

Most people connected online are also connected offline. Online and offline are not different entities to be contrasted. What happens via new technology is completely interwoven with what happens face-to-face and via other media – the telephone, the television, films, music, radio, print. Even behaviors that only appear online are put there by embodied people acting in geographic locations embedded in face-to-face social relationships and multimedia environments that shape the meaning and consequences of those online practices.

Our interactions with one another are increasingly multimodal. We conduct our relationships face-to-face, over the phone (both landline and mobile), and online through modes as diverse as email, instant messaging, social network friending, personal messages, comments, shared participation in discussion forums and online games, and the sharing of digital photos, music and videos. Research is increasingly demonstrating that the closer the relationship, the more modes people use to communicate with one another. Furthermore, these media are becoming one another, so that people are increasingly accessing the internet via mobile phones and using computers to conduct telephone calls. We cannot bank our research future on the technological forms. Instead we need to interrogate the underlying dynamics through which technology use is patterned across media, relationships, and communicative purposes and with what effects for how we understand and conduct our relations, our communities and ourselves.

Multimodality also cuts across once-familiar boundaries separating mass from interpersonal communication, as well as within mass communication media themselves. I might watch some episodes of a television show on my iPod and others on a television screen with friends or family beside me. I might catch missed episodes on YouTube, perhaps using an iPhone. I might read about it in a magazine, discuss it in an online forum, blog about it and define myself in part by listing it as a favorite on my social network profiles. The show’s producers, writers, actors and their interns may read the online discourse and feed it back into the show itself. They may accept my friend request on MySpace. In no time there’s likely to be a movie, a book, a billboard, a t-shirt, and, of course, plentiful fan-fiction, YouTube mashups and, increasingly, official spin off books and stories.

Finally, we need to think about how to transcend academic boundaries, while recognizing what we have to offer that is distinctive. There is little that we study under “human communication and technology” that is not also being studied by those in Sociology, Women’s Studies, Political Science, English, Law, Business, Psychology, Linguistics and many other fields in this and many other nations. We need to draw on that work. We need to speak to scholars in other traditions. We must avoid insularity.

At the same time, we need a heightened self-awareness about communication, and what it means to study technology from where we stand rather than where others stand. David Nye (e.g. Nye, 1997), an American Studies professor, argued that the narratives 19th Century Americans told about electricity and railroads were a means of constructing what it meant to be American. We should consider how the narratives we tell about technology through our research construct our own identities as communication scholars. Who do we wish to be, and how can we tell stories that help us attain our potential?


Nye, D. (1997). Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. New York: Columbia University.

Short, J., Williams, E. and Christie, B. (1976) The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. Chichester: Wiley.

Sturken, M., Thomas, D. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (Eds.) (2004). Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Philadephia: Temple University.

Wellman, B. & Haythornthwaite, C. (Eds.) (2002). The Internet in Everyday Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

About that Camping Trip

Well, the night weather did not cooperate too well with last weekend’s camping trip, but I thought you regular readers might enjoy some pictures from the glorious days.

We woke up after a tremendous all-night downpour that seeped into the inside of our tent to find a super-dramatic smoke on the water scenario, with the entire lake covered with rising fog:

Smoke on the water

Smoke on the Water

Later in the day, I discovered some areas with very psychedelic rocks and my son and I had fun making rock faces:

Rock Face 1

Rock Face 2

If anyone knows what kind of rocks these are please tell me. They were found in a very thin layer of the sandstone (limestone?) cliffs.In some areas they were flat and swirly. In other areas they were little balls like marbles and flat like the eyes in the first face up there. In other areas they were little bowls. Very very cool stuff. I brought a lot of it home.

And here’s a shot of Kansas looking just the way Kansas ought to look:


Have a super weekend.

Assessing the Internet’s Credibility

An article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend had some very interesting points to make about how shifts toward the internet in the music industry are impacting non-American bands’ ability to get visas to tour in the US. They spend much of the article on Lily Allen, whose visa was denied on account of some scuffle that got her on a bad-criminal-type list of some sort. But they also talk at length, particularly in regard to the Klaxons and New Model Army, about how the need to demonstrate reputation in the US is affected by the rise of blogs and online coverage. Bands have to show that they have been “internationally recognized” for a “sustained and substantial” time in order to get a visa.

Problem #1 is that the net has sped up the process of nothing to everything so much for some bands that what counts as “substantial” time in pop music may fall far short of the Immigration Service’s standard.

Problem #2 is that the net has become one of the main ways to document a band’s international recognition over time, yet the folks assessing visa applications can’t tell Pitchfork from

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, says that the Internet has changed the kind of evidence that bands present — posts from blogs and online magazines now appear in application packages. But the agency says it will only consider these sources if the band can prove that they are well-read and influential. The burden of proof falls on the band.

The WSJ points out that this comes even as live music revenues are up, despite CD sales being down, and they imply that canceling international tours takes a toll on the US economy. They also suggest, obliquely, that it’s in conflict with international diplomacy:

All this comes as some foreign governments are ramping up efforts to export pop music. New Zealand, for instance, has formed a music commission with a $400,000 budget to support the country’s music acts on tours abroad. At least three bands will play New Zealand’s first showcase concert at the CMJ festival next month.

“We’ve seen a much more aggressive effort from the cultural export agencies. I see it as the globalization of the music marketplace,” says CMJ founder Robert Haber. This year, bands from 50 countries are slated to perform at the event, up from about 30 countries three years ago.

In some ways I am sympathetic with the visa-grantor’s problem. It is not hard to imagine a band that wants to come to the States relying on lame blogs no one reads to say “look! we’re internationally recognized!” On the other hand, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. I think the country has much more pressing threats than bad pop bands.

But it points to a far deeper issue, which is the general credibility of online sources, and the fact that, in the absence of proof that an online site is “well-read and influential,” the assumption is that it’s all a bunch of garbage. Do they demand that bands demonstrate that a print source (zine articles for instance) is “well-read and influential?” I kind of doubt it. Paper = Legitimate. Pixels = Suspect. I run across this in academia in trying to justify online publication (to say nothing of, horror of horrors, blogging!) all the time.

There are many reasons bloggers might not want to publicize their numbers, and there is still no really good way to count site visitors, so it’s not clear how a band would go about proving the worth of the sites that cover them. This would be a great little service for someone to provide: before you apply for your visa, submit your internet coverage to us and we’ll document the popularity of the sites it mentions. No reason for every band to have to make this up themselves.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve heard rumors of bands trying to visit the US on tourist (vs. work) visas and being turned away because a google search revealed to the would-be visa granter that they were members of bands with US tour dates scheduled. Can’t win for losing on this one!