What should a middleman mediate?

In yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote a piece about “Buddylube,” a middleman agency that specializes in making widgets for pop bands:

“The artists need promotion,” Eaton summarizes. “And all these new technologies of social media need artists.” So what if there was “a one-stop shop” — a Jiffy Lube, if you will — for celebrity-centric social media? Since then Buddylube has established itself as a middleman — Eaton prefers “concierge” — between dozens of social-media companies and scores of music stars (well, the Web presences of scores of music stars). Eaton compares the use of these tools with the kind of community-specific promotion that bands have always used — except that instead of putting up fliers in a particular geographic location, the target is virtual: Like offering a “skin” that decorates your Snapvine voice-mail player with a picture of Enrique Iglesias.

There is a bit of an implication, which Walker conveniently uses me to counter, that there is something insincere or artificial about a “concierge” mediating the relationship between rock star and fan, not unlike the Facebook fakesters I wrote about here. The point I’m quoted as making is that giving fans a way to spread your music around to other fans and potential fans is inherently positive. It says to the fan “I realize that you are an important part of my success, and here are some free tools that will give you pleasure and help you fill that role.”

I don’t think audiences expect that everything that comes from a band, or celebrity or — and Walker makes this link at the very end — politician will come directly from the hand of the one it represents. We’re used to publicists, spokespeople and speech writers. And we can do math and figure out that if someone has 10 fans, we’ll probably get things straight from the human in question but that this won’t scale to thousands, and certainly not to hundreds of thousands or millions. There is a real market for middle-people, and so long as there is no deception going on about it, I think that is just fine. It would be far worse to omit the middle people and skip the communication altogether.

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which this relationship-moderator market seems focused on filling out forms — fill in the blanks to create a widget, insert your video here to include moving images, add photos here, link to mailing list goes here, etc. Create a street team by signing up here and clicking this link to do this or that.

Once everyone’s got the technology down, they will realize that communication is not just about form, but about how the form is conveyed. It is about style as well as substance, or, as we hammer over the head in our communication courses, it’s about the relational messages that are sent as well as the content messages. Technomiddlemen are getting very good at crafting content messages and so long as not everyone has them, that’s enough. The mere existence of the thing is enough to send the message. But when everyone’s got them, the relational subtleties will matter even more than they already do. Understanding the tone to strike for each artist given his or her fanbase (and desired fanbase) is a sophisticated communication task — how do you speak to the new fan and the die hard at the same time? the casual listener and the devotee? PR professionals, artist managers, and their ilk are generally trained — through practice if not schooling — to speak to crowds. Speaking to crowds while also speaking to individuals and making it feel interpersonally meaningful is an increasingly important task that no technology can solve.

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 deadspin.com, 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.

Passing for Normal

If you spend any time around famous people, the first thing you realize is that they can’t go anywhere without being THAT FAMOUS PERSON. If they’re out, they’re game to be observed, evaluated, commented upon, and interrupted. You hear a lot about how the internet allows people to compensate for the shortcomings of their body-to-body persona: they can pretend they are older or younger, they’re male, they’re fully able-bodied, they’re skinny and cute, whatever it takes to get the kind of attention and connection they’re after. I’ve always thought one interesting piece of this that I’ve never seen anyone really talk about is that famous people are also invisible when they’re online. Julia Roberts can go hang out in a chat room or on a message board and no one needs to know it’s her. Or, apparently, so can Halle Berry:

Oscar winner Halle Berry loves chatting to people online using a pseudonym.The Monster’s Ball beauty regularly posts messages to fans on her official Hallewood internet site, but also visits other chat rooms under an assumed name.

She says, “I have gone online and pretended to be someone else in an attempt to have some anonymity.

“I have tried, many times, to have a normal conversation when celebrity was not a part of it. Sometimes it works and at others it gets a little weird.

I remember in the mid-1990s when celebs first started showing up in the online spaces where people were talking about them. People put Michael Stipe through quite a grilling until he answered some trick question about a movie “correctly.” People doubted Courtney Love’s authenticity until she started ranting as only the real Courtney could. There were a lot of cases of it. How weird, and perhaps refreshing, to have people challenging that you are who you say you are instead of being unable to escape being who you are. Not surprisingly, the same thing happens to Halle too:

“(Occasionally) I say in a chat room, that I am Halle Berry. But the reaction is, ‘You are kidding – get out of here.'”

and yeah, who would believe it?

Celebrities obviously aren’t ‘typical’ people, but I think they’re an interesting exceptional case to consider when we think about identity play, freedom, power, constraint, and the nuances of using the internet to perform selfhood.

Twitter gets the buzz

I am hearing lots of buzz lately about Twitter, the web site that lets you create an account where you can post really brief answers to the question “what are you doing?” using IM, your phone, or the web. Others can read your updates and comment on them. Liz Lawley has a very thoughtful post called “Why Twitter Matters” in which she argues that its brilliance is to:

merge a number of interesting trends in social software usage–personal blogging, lightweight presence indicators, and IM status messages–into a fascinating blend of ephemerality and permanence, public and private.

The big “P” word in technology these days is “participatory.” But I’m increasingly convinced that a more important “P” word is “presence.” In a world where we’re seldom able to spend significant amounts of time with the people we care about (due not only to geographic dispersion, but also the realities of daily work and school commitments), having a mobile, lightweight method for both keeping people updated on what you’re doing and staying aware of what others are doing is powerful.

The most high profile twitterer these days is probably Democratic presidential contender, John Edwards, who can be found twittering away here (one assumes it is not really he entering that text). This week he’s told us where he is or where he’s on his way to and said his campaign is committed to being carbon neutral.


There are some not-very-famous entertainers of various ilks on there as well, but it’s safe to say that so far it has not yet been discovered by the famous as a new MySpace through which to gain loyal followings or enhance the loyalty of those they’ve already won over.

I can see that Twitter is not for me for some of the reasons Lawley discusses as common criticisms (it’s so trivial! who needs another distraction! do I want people to know what I’m doing?), but I agree with her that it’s an intruiging development, and think it has more potential than blogging to mirror the kind of mundane and trivial everyday checking ins that we do with people we are closest to on a larger scale. For people who want other people to know what they are up to most of the time, this can really make that simple.

And I can imagine fans really getting off on reading their celeb’s twitter… especially fandom of the sort that’s all about crushes and oohing and aahing at their every move. It could be a way for celebrities to make their own Gawker Stalkers. Kevin Bacon could write “Just had lunch at DOJO with a writer type” and someone could comment “You were wearing a nice fitting olive tee and your skin looked great! You pretended not to notice the glances as everyone pretended not to care. The guy you were lunching with was a regular looking guy, definitely not as fabulous as you.”


PicksPop: Showbiz gossip and social betting in one!

PicksPop is a relatively new entry in the how-can-we-make-fantasy-sports-enthusiasm-work-for-other-genres category. Like Fan.IQ where sports fans can get points for making correct predictions about games, on PicksPop, fans can get points for making correct predictions about… all kinds of showbiz things. This week, for instance, you can get up to 4000 points for your guess regarding which movies will do best this weekend, which team will be first on Amazing Race to get into a form of transportation next, and what color hair the model’s going to have at some point on some upcoming game show. Says the founder and CEO:

Celebrity sites are everywhere and we wanted to turn all that enthusiasm into a game itself– to see who can predict the unpredictable, said Tom Jessiman, founder and CEO of PicksPal. Everyone claims to be able to predict who will be tossed off American Idol. Now, as we say at PicksPal, think youre good? Prove it.

If you invite your friends to form a league with you and they get points, you get points too, so they’ve built in an incentive for bringing other people into the online space with you.

Anyway, the site is way too pink for me, and I’m not sure whether this whole fantasy non-sports thing is going to be a fad or whether it will stick. There sure are people who’ve earned lots and lots of points on there though, so at least for some people, it’s sticking now.