Oh, that fickle internet

The New York Times has an article about shifting goals for musicians playing SXSW which, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, uses most of its words addressing the role of the internet.  They begin by affirming the importance of blogs, but shift quickly to the “the internet is fickle” meme that was fairly common  a year or two ago. They focus in particular on the band Crocodiles:

Many bands dream of this kind of reception. But over the four or five years that blogs have been the dominant tastemakers of independent music, artists have gradually become more wary of the hype-and-slam cycle of the Web. Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell of Crocodiles have been so distrustful of the Internet’s fickle power that at first they tried to keep as low an online presence as possible, going so far as to ask fans to remove YouTube videos of their shows.

“The Internet is taking all the romance out of music and art and replacing it with this revolving door that just revolves so fast,” Mr. Welchez, 27, the duo’s singer, said before a 20-minute showcase on Wednesday afternoon. Eventually, though, the Internet found them, and their MySpace plays quickly shot into the tens of thousands.

Artists, labels, journalists and everyone else at South by Southwest now depend on the Internet for almost every aspect of their jobs, from discovery to communication, distribution to promotion. But on the patios and hotel rooftops of Austin the conversation often turns to debates about what the Internet’s role should be.


Gimme a great big break, people.

What planet did these people live on before? It sure bears no resemblance to the one I lived on as a music fan in the days before the internet.

The internet is fickle?

Does anyone remember a little British rag called New Music Express? Was it not (is it not still) NOTORIOUS for how quickly it turned on those it adored just weeks before? They changed their mind at the drop of the coin WITHOUT ELECTRONIC MEDIATION! Impossible, but TRUE!

There were no one-hit wonders before the internet? That’s why you’ve heard of every band who had a single that charted in the 80s?

Indie bands who had a song that did well and got lots of buzz used to easily maintain that buzz before there was an internet? Tell that to all my friends who almost made it.

The internet is taking all the romance out of bands?

Well, maybe if you had none to begin with, or if you thought that getting mentioned on a blog was romantic and then not getting mentioned on a blog was a romance killer. I have fallen in love with so many bands I would never have found without the internet. If the bands don’t find that romantic, maybe it’s their fault for having weird illusions about what’s supposed to happen.

And what’s with people online still liking the Beatles and the Kinks? What’s with all those old videos that keep surfacing on YouTube? Don’t people know the internet is a revolving door and you’re not allowed to like anything old anymore? And that old is like, uh, yesterday? Nine Inch Nails have been together FOREVER. How can people STILL be talking about Trent Reznor on the internet?

Guess what? If you make great music year in and year out, “the internet” will stand by your side. And if you are a mediocre band who’s got one good song, be grateful the blogs gave it any attention. It’s not the internet’s fault if you can’t sustain your momentum.

You don’t want to find fans online? Fine, it’s your choice. But never forget that “the internet” is nothing but the people who communicate through it. And yeah, we may have a lot more choices now, but that ought to just make you make your music that much better. Great bands hold attention in ways the internet cannot erase. The fact is that most indie bands, like most bands, aren’t really all that special, and if it weren’t for the internet, they would never have gotten any buzz to lose.


I’ve got a comments section below. Name me the brilliant bands who got great blog buzz for a moment and then lost it even though they kept releasing fantastic new music. Bonus points if you can show the internet’s causal role in the decline of their audience.


Music Fandom vs. Narrative Fandom

Over the years, I’ve found myself mulling the differences between fandoms organized around narrative and those organized around music. It’s now a topic on which I have to pull together my thoughts in 1000 words or less for Henry Jenkins et al’s book on spreadable media. This post is really just me thinking outloud in a rough stab at a start. I would LOVE your feedback on the distinctions I’m drawing and those I’ve missed.

Narratives have characters, plots, and holes to be filled by fan creativity. Music doesn’t. Sure, you can get into discussions of lyrics, and there are many fan lyric interpretation sites out there, and heaven knows you can obsess on the musicians, but for all the time I’ve spent in music fandom, lyric interpretation has never seemed all that important to the social life around music. Music fans interpret what’s best and what’s worst in an artists’ catalogue, and they review shows, but it’s just a whole lot harder to talk about the significance of that chord change or the way that bridge takes the song into the third verse than it is to talk about what that shot of the window at the end of the scene was meant to imply or what a character meant when she said what she said.

Narrative also leaves space for much more fan creativity. Music fans may make their own videos to accompany songs, or form cover bands, or write fan fiction about musicians, but with the important exception of remixes, which remain a fairly marginal fan practice, I’ve never seen fans write songs in the same way that fans of a TV show will write stories using the characters. Music fans don’t seek to complete the music through interpretation and creativity. The music arrives complete. Fans can’t fix it or rebuild it in the same way they can with stories.

Music fans are far more likely to focus on news and information. Narrative fans certainly do this, building timelines and keeping abreast of production, casting, and so on, but music fans seem to do this as their primary activity. It’s all about when the album will be released, what the setlist will be, when the tour will happen, and what songs were played what night in what order. This is why music fan communities on the internet tend to get very quiet when the most recent album has been out for a while and the band isn’t touring. What’s to discuss?

Music fans also share the very objects of their fandom by making mix tapes, playlists, writing mp3 blogs, and sending one another recordings and bootlegs. On occassion, narrative fans will share a recording of a missed show with another fan, but, like lyrical interpretation in music fandom, this seems like a marginal practice in narrative fandom.

But I’m thinking that perhaps the most important distinction between the two fandoms is the way that music fans take the resources of their fandom outside of that fandom as part of their self-presentation in other contexts. Think t-shirts with band names (Rob Walker’s excellent book Buying In reports that Ramones t-shirts have outsold Ramones albums 10 to 1). Think playlists embedded on social network profiles. Think bumper stickers (I think “Republicans for Voldemort” is the only narrative fandom bumper sticker I’ve ever seen, though I’ve seen hundreds of stickers naming bands). When I used to work in a record store and grandmothers would come in at Christmas time to buy a gift for the grandkid and ask “what are all the kids listening to these days?” we’d respond “what kind of haircut does your grandchild have?” How does a Lost fan dress? Can you spot a Star Wars fan walking down the street? Narrative fandom is invisible unless it’s being discussed. Music fandom is much more likely to be made visible as an intrinsic part of self-definition in a wide variety of situations.

The upshot is that we should be wary of taking the practices of narrative fandom on which most fandom theory has been built as exemplary of all fandom. Different kinds of materials call for different kinds of practices, and if we’re to build theories that encompass all of fandom, we need to account for these distinctions as well as the similarities.

Best Twitter Exchange Ever: Burgess vs. Keen

Normally I wouldn’t rebroadcast others’ (public) Twitters on here, but I cannot resist sharing this wonderful bit of banter between Andrew Keen, Mr. Cult of the Amateur, famous for his argument that all those non-professionals on the internet are destroying culture what with their lack of professional editing and all, and Jean Burgess of Queensland University of Technology, an expert in digital “vernacular” and co-author with Joshua Green of a forthcoming book on YouTube I’ve been lucky enough to read already.

It started with Keen tweeting about working on his “bookie-wookie.” Jean retorts (It’s a Twitter exchange, so scroll down now and read bottom to top, not top to bottom):


Give him credit for maintaining a sense of humor, but with “You think “teh” is a misspelling? Ah, that explains everything,” it’s definitely Burgess FTW!

And while on the subject of  tweets that beautifully demonstrate the linguistic creativity and playfulness of Twitterspeak, I point you to Music Ally’s summation of the ten best tweets sent by Peter Sunde while on trial recently in Sweden for his role as co-founder of Sweden-based-world’s-largest bit torrent tracker, The Pirate Bay.

UPDATE: I fixed the broken link to the MusicAlly blog — thanks to those who alerted me to my mistake.

If it Doesn’t Spread It’s Dead

Henry Jenkins and his colleagues at the Convergence Culture Consortium (Xiaochang Li,  Ana Domb Krauskopf  & Joshua Green)  have recently published in eight parts their whitepaper on Spreadable Media. The concept of spreadable is meant as a more insightful alternative to the problem-plagued (pun intended?) concept of “viral.” If you’re interested in the things this blog discusses and you haven’t read the series, you’re behind. So here are links to all 8 parts:

1. Media Viruses and Memes

2. Sticky and Spreadable — Two Paradigms

3. The Gift Economy and Commodity Culture

4. Thinking Through The Gift Economy

5. Communities of Users

6. Spreadable Content

7. Aesthetic and Structural Strategies

8. The Value of Spreadable Media

The same crew, with the rest of the C3 core team is presently at work on a book to be called Spreadable Media. I will be contributing one of several short sections. Another C3 affiliate who’s posted his contribution to the book already is Justin Mittell, who’s written this wonderful post contrasting spreadable media with what he calls drillable media.

Read and get smarter.

Blogs vs Twitter? It’s the Interactivity

In a  post that appeared remarkably soon after my last post in which I noted that I am easier to find on Twitter than on Online Fandom these days, Rob Walker of Murketing and Buying In fame, expressed “Nostalgia for Blogs” and lamented:

I checked the Twitter feed and it was, of course, far less substantial than the blog had been. In fact I didn’t seen a single tweet of interest, whereas this person’s earlier blog posts had been, with some regularity, worth a look. If I don’t “follow” this person, I miss the possibility of some future interesting tweet — at least a link I would have missed, something.On the other hand, if I do follow, I clearly have to wade through a bunch of garbage. The signal-to-noise ratio will clearly be way worse than it had been on the now-dying blog. I’m interested in this person’s thinking — but I’m not that interested.

I wouldn’t want to presume he’s talking about me*, but either way, I’ve got some thoughts.

I agree with him that blogs are (sometimes) more substantial and I think reports of the death of blogs due to Twitter and Facebook are wrong. For me blogging has been a great way to collect and share thoughts on a particular issue, to collect ideas for future longer projects, and to create a public persona as an expert with something to say about the topics I know a lot about. I like to think the blog has been useful to people I wouldn’t otherwise get to communicate with. I’ve come into contact with many people, especially those on the ground addressing the issues I write about here, through this blog. Blogging has been and I hope it will continue to be great. It also takes a lot of time to get a post to what I want it to be before I post it.

But that said, I think Walker’s characterization misses the point on a few scores.

1) Twitter isn’t a substitute for blogging. Some people may choose to Twitter instead of blogging, but I wouldn’t assume that anyone has that kind of either/or relationship. A tweet is not meant to accomplish what a blog post is meant to accomplish. Neither’s killing the other, they aren’t in competition anymore than, oh, say writing books vs. writing a blog.

2) People like Twitterers’ minutia. In my case, though we’re not talking big numbers either way, more people follow me on Twitter than subscribe to this blog. One man’s garbage is another’s treasure, or entertainment, I guess. People — even smart thoughtful ones — actually LIKE the mix of links, random thoughts, and bits of daily life. They LIKE watching the person, not the topic. I know I do. I find Twitterers who stick to posts about their one professional interest boring. Other people love them, and more power to them. I don’t. IMHO, that’s what blogs are for. If you come to Twitter looking for ideas about a topic, you’re better off watching Twitter trends and searching keywords than following individuals; Twitter usually offers great topical coverage only in the aggregate.

3) Looking at a Twitter feed or profile isn’t the same as following someone on Twitter. People who don’t actually use Twitter think that you have to read all the tweets that are directed specifically @someoneelse.  If you follow from within a Twitter account, there’s a setting so you don’t have to watch that banter unless it’s between people you also follow. That changes the signal/noise ratio  a lot. Yes, there will still be tweets you don’t care about, but let’s be honest, can you name a single blogger who posts only posts you find interesting? I sure can’t.

4) Twitter is about banter. That banter is the best part. I’ve written this blog for a few years and I’ve talked to lots of bloggers. Getting people to post comments is hard. Getting conversation going is harder. The majority of things I write here get no response at all. On Twitter I don’t get responses to everything I say, but I sure get a lot more fast feedback than I do here. It’s also a lot easier to make a quick response to someone else — much more so than commenting on a blog post, especially if, like me, you read your blogs through an RSS reader. That back and forth makes me want to keep participating in Twitter. In comparison, blogging feels like a solitary endevour.

5) Twitter is temporal and cumulative. I made this mistake myself; it’s not until some time after you’ve decided to take Twitter seriously and made it part of the ritual of daily life that you really get it. If you check out someone’s feed, you can get a sense of whether they’re interesting to you, but it’s not until you live with someone’s tweets day in and day out that you know whether the rhythms and content of their messages are going to be rewarding or not. It’s not like a blog where you can read all the archives and get pretty much the full effect. On Twitter, it’s what happens interactively amongst the twitterers over the long haul in real time that makes it interesting.

6) Twitter is a great site for language play. The 140 character limit is a fun challenge for wordsmiths, and those who do it well are joys to read. As a genre, insamuch as it is a genre, the language of Twitter is just way more fun than the language of blogs.

7) Ugh. Can we just quit judging every new mode of communication that comes along and finding it wanting in comparison to the last one? Haven’t we been doing that for millenia? Don’t we always look back later and feel kind of silly?

Don’t like Twitter? Don’t use it! Disappointed someone’s blogging less? Encourage them to keep on blogging by letting them know how much you appreciate the volunteer work they do through blogging. But don’t be disappointed because people don’t twitter how you want them to blog. That just doesn’t make sense.

* Update 03/09/09: Rob has assured me since this was posted that he wasn’t.