The artist-to-fan and fan-to-fan bonds have been a complex affair since the early days of the modern era of popular music. Fan communities sprang to life around artists who played within communities, stemming from the deep folk tradition and intimacy provided by these live settings. Artists and fans connected to each other during these performances, and while the relationship may have been less intimate than the adoring fans would care to admit, a relationship did exist nonetheless.
However, with the rise of mass media and thus mass media production, new technologies served to decentralize the music, creating an environment in which music (and its related social communities) could no longer be associated with a solitary geographical location. Rather, these cultural forms were reinscribed in a decentralized community, located on a global level (the Internet) and bound together conceptually. Marjorie Kibby explains:
“Developments in communication technology have contributed to a ‘deterritorialization of space within a global cultural economy’ (Fenster, 1985) , to a point where ‘local’ is no longer disconnected from ‘global’ and the identity of a specific place is located both in ‘demarcated physical space’ and in ‘clusters of interaction’ (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992)” (Kibby 295)
Such fan communities initially build themselves upon the “ritual exchange of information,” fostering a sense of connection between the artist and themselves through “belief in a commonality” (Kibby 295). However, these interactions rarely, if ever, end at this artist or music-related exchange of information. Instead, these decentralized groups of individuals connected through cyberspace form the same types of communities one would expect to find in geographically-bound sectors, although with some curious results in terms of interaction when confronted with new communicative forms.
Social researchers find that the pattern of socialization within cyberspace is quite a bit different than similar locally-bound patterns of socialization, mainly in terms of intimacy. Given the great deal of anonymity provided by the internet, social scientists have noticed that friendships seem to develop at a more rapid pace as the ritual of information sharing occurs without many of the reservations found in face-to-face relationships. However, this anonymity also fosters a sense of protection from negative responses to interactions deemed unacceptable by societal norms.
Of particular note is the phenomenon of trolling (or “flaming”), the engaging of anti-social behaviors in anonymous forms at a level not found within face-to-face interactions. These anti-social exchanges provide researchers with an interesting look into behaviors that become surprisingly common when social inhibitors are absent (i.e. the social ostrization that would occur were these exchanges to take place in non-anonymous space).
Here is a sampling of these vitriolic interactions taken from a discussion of the recent Adam Lambert AMA performance which sparked controversy when he engaged in various sexual behaviors on-stage. The sampling is of fan responses and various readers at Entertainment Weekly commenting to each other on the performance:
“I believe Idiot is better suited to you but that would be insulting all idiots. If you hate it why follow him and write on his stories, you are beyond stupid” (Kel)
“You loved it cause you’re a freak. He had no regard for the young kids watching the show. Irresponsible.” (Melissa)
“Funny thing but I think that you are a freak! I think anybody that does not love Adam is a freak! He is totally adorable and hot! You on the other hand have some serious issues” (Kaaketu)
“You’re an idiot. Your dumbass would probably support him if you found out he was a serial killer.” (Kim)
As can be seen from these responses, the level of non-restraint is striking in comparison to usual disagreements about art in comparable face-to-face social settings. While the abusive comments are almost humorously elementary in nature, the prevalence of such interactions across such communities is not.
Even though there are still a great deal of fan spaces that don’t facilitate this sort of inappropriate interaction, the issue of the false intimacy created between fan and artist that is is reinscribed through these interactions is still of some concern. For example, following the death of Michael Jackson, at least twelve reported fans committed suicide. While this situation naturally implies a mental instability, in a hyperbolic way it emphasizes the bizzarely intimate ties created psychologically through these communities in regards to artists who may know little or nothing of these communities’ existence.
While theorists such as Marjorie Kibby have worked to understand these communities as they relate to new media technologies, the technology is evolving almost faster than the research can keep up. With “Twitter” being the fastest trending topic of 2009 according to Google, a great many musical artists have taken to Twitter to interact with their fans without any formal mediator. This new form of direct interaction complicates matters further as now it is more difficult to assess the level of congruency between fan perception and their actual relation to the artists.
Global superstars aside (Britney Spears, for example, often has her manager handle her Twitter account), a great deal of artists interact regularly and publicly with fans, making Twitter possibly the most trusted and sought-after form of fan interaction available at this point in time. Artists can also privately message their fans, and often do, but at what rates only the artists could say, given the privacy afforded by Twitter for such interaction.
In addition to these currently evolving technologies, the emergence of independent media specialists and tighter security has changed even the fan communities from the chaotic spectacle prone to social breakdown as witnessed by Kibby. On the contrary, through advertising revenue and tech-savvy part-time employees, fan spaces have come to resemble the structure of a local community center or country club. For small fees these fans are often given access to exclusive interviews, moderated fan discussion, even online chats with the artists.
Such structures have come to further emphasize the dissonance between when Kibby calls the “regulars” and “newcommers” (Kibby 299). While at the time of her writing these disparities grew on the basis of collective shared knowledge within fan communities, this has quickly evolved to resemble the existing economic class structure, with those able to pay the often pricey membership fees and buy the expensive collectors’ items as being higher up the latter.
This is especially true of non-literature fans, given the highly commercialized nature of popular music, in which borderline clinically-defined hoarding becomes a virtue. Outside the realm of popular music, this type of fan community can be seen with the recent Twilight Saga, as what began with online book clubs quickly evolved into films that spun off into various fan clubs for the films’ stars, which then spun off into, ironically, a best-selling soundtrack based on the overinscripting of the music’s connectedness to the film and, by nature, the film’s stars.
As can be seen, the behaviors exhibited toward superstars such as Elvis, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince has slowly come to represent a greater number of fan communities as such interactions become easier and easier to partake of given the technological revolutions of the past two decades. And as these styles of community become an integrated part of the larger society, one can watch as guiding structures and norms also develop to maintain social order.
While Kibby’s work still rings true on some levels, possibly the most fascinating points are those in which it does not. Because, while unmoderated fans in anonymous areas may still “flame” others, the growing trend among fan communities shows a cultural evolution in which cyberspace has come to represent a microcosm of the larger society. This evolution shows itself as the chaos and disorder rapidly comes to represent yet another community, but with the new understanding that community is in fact conceptual rather than geographical.
Kibby, Marjorie D. “Home on the Page: A virtual place of music community.”
Lynch, Joseph. “Lambert on ‘Ellen’: An almost-apology for his controversial AMAs performance.” Music Mix. Entertainment Weekly. (2009) Retrieved December 02, 2009.