“The new social rules of Internet fame”

Clive Thompson’s got a wonderful write up of the changing relationship between musicians and fans that has been a central theme of this blog in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. He talks to several bands (Jonathan Coulton, the Hold Steady, Ok GO, the Scene Aesthetic) and presents a nicely complex description of how “B-List” musicians find new career paths open to them online, paths that require a continuous online presence spent forming “symbiotic” relationships with fans. Such relationships can be extremely helpful to artists in practical and tangible ways:

… followers have volunteered hours of their time to help further his career: a professional graphic artist in Cleveland has drawn an illustration for each of the weekly songs, free. Another fan recently reformatted Coulton’s tunes so they’d be usable on karaoke machines. On his online discussion board last June, when Coulton asked for advice on how to make more money with his music, dozens of people chimed in with tips on touring and managing the media and even opinions about what kind of songs he ought to write.

They require, however, a new model of connection that looks much more like interpersonal than mass communication. Thompson describes performing artists as “eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame.”

In Thompson’s analysis, the key challenge is managing what to keep private and what to tell. Says a Hold Steady, Tad Kubler, “I vacillate so much on this, I want to keep some privacy, some sense of mystery. But I also want to have this sense of intimacy with our fans.” The other challenge is the sheer time involved (at one points, Thompson describes a musician as “losing” 2-3 hours a day in communication with fans, hopefully betraying more of his own attitudes towards fans than those of the artists of whom he writes). It’s clear, though, that sustaining one-on-one relationships with each fan is only sustainable when a fan base stays small. Thompson also touches on the fact that fans turn, and that the sense of intimacy can lead to fights and outbursts as well.

As you may or may not know, teaching a course called “Theories of Interpersonal Communication” has been the bread and butter of my career since 1986 and I gotta say… challenges of balancing privacy and disclosure? Challenges of having all the time and freedom to do your own thing without concern for the other people vs. wanting to be involved and interdependent? Where I come from, we’d call those ‘relational dialectics’ and we’d point out that they’re inevitable in every personal relationship. They are balancing acts we manage throughout the course of every relationship. Each artist needs to find his or her own way, but each artist/fan base relationship and set of relationships within that is going to be its own context that calls for somewhat different balances.

The social ‘rules’ aren’t out there yet, but here are some starters:

1. Treat each other with kindness and respect.
2. Respect one another’s boundaries.
3. Tell the truth.
4. Give at least as much as you take.

But even if there were a complete list of rules to follow, it will never be easy and the challenges will never go away. There’s a long list of ‘rules’ for interpersonal communication that people have studied, taught, read about, lived for decades, centuries, millennia, and we still haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that our personal relationships lead to symbiotic growth that benefits us all. We can’t expect bands and fans to solve that one. It’s a wonderful goal to strive for, though.

(Thx to Holly for making sure I found this article.)

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