Nancy Baym is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. She is also an online fandom expert, an author, public speaker, and has even been made into a comic strip character. She wears many hats, but is consistently making valuable contributions to the debate over social media and the future of the artist-fan relationship. We had the privilege to speak to Nancy to get her thoughts about the impact social media has had on artists and the way they interact with their fans. This is Part 2 of our interview with Nancy (Read Part 1).
Fans or Friends? How Social Media is Changing the Artist-Fan Relationship (Part 2)
4. You recently gave a presentation called “Fans or Friends?” at the International Communication Association, talking about the increasingly interpersonal nature of the relationships between musicians and friends. Should artists in fact view their fans as friends, or is there still room in this hyper-connected environment of social media for a clear boundary between the two?
Fans and friends are not the same thing. Individual fans may become friends (as they always have), but real friendships are mutual – friends choose to be connected to each other, they do things for each other, their relationships are based on equality, they spend time together. It’s not a kind of relationship that scales to a large fan base. Artists can’t be expected to take the kind of interest in each individual fan that the fans take in them. That said, the boundary is often not clear (if it ever was), and each artist has to figure out the boundaries that work for her or him, because it’s not the same for everyone and there’s no right or wrong way to draw those lines. Some people feel fiercely private and want a strong difference between friends and fans, others are totally happy to treat fans as friends and to meet them and see where it goes. Just like some of us are gregarious socializers and love to go out and meet new people and others of us are homebodies who are happy with the small social circles we’ve got.
5. Does social media and constant fan interaction remove any possibility of there still being some mystique, some mystery between the artist and their fans?
This is a challenge, and it’s one that some of the artists I’ve talked to fear. Lloyd Cole told me he’s worried about the internet “destroying the last shards” of his mystique. But I think it can be done. There’s a Norwegian band called Kitchie Kitchie Kimeo, some of whose members come out of some of Norway’s biggest (and now defunct) bands. Their first album is released this June. For the last two years they’ve done a great job of being on Facebook and the web and Vimeo but being very mysterious. They will post information about events and weird little 30 second clips with creepy scenes from old movies and samples of their music as the soundtrack. They share nothing about themselves as individuals and it really works to build a sense of mystery, anticipation and specialness. Now they have an audience primed because of their previous bands, but I think that kind of strategy can work if you can figure out how to get people to pay attention in the first place. There are lots of musicians online who just steer clear of talking about themselves beyond reporting things totally relevant to their music like being in the studio, appearances, or release dates. It can be done, but there are definitely pressures that make it harder than it was in the days when you only had to talk to the press.
6. How has social media changed the way fans can contribute to an artist’s career?
The main way is that fans have new power to serve as publicists by sharing information and embedding and linking to music they love. With sites like Kickstarter, social media can also be used to help drive funding of projects up front. I recently gave $100 to an artist who wanted to rerelease a deluxe edition of one of my favorite albums (“Kontiki” by Cotton Mather). I found out about the project because a Facebook friend posted it to his page and it showed up in my newsfeed. And then there are the more ephemeral ways, like just providing continuous support by sharing their own appreciation and excitement.
7. In the age of so many social media options and free profiles on various sites, do you think it’s still important for an artist to have their own website?
It’s essential to have a site that you own and which only you control. MySpace once took the band Bones’ username and gave it to a TV show of the same name. I know of at least one artist who was never able to get verified on MySpace even though his band sold hundreds of thousands of records on a major label. In an effort to limit fraudulent pages, Facebook recently converted an unknown number of legitimate artists’ pages those musicians had created into “community” pages. It is entirely within the purview of any site you don’t own to cut you off, change the terms, give your username to someone else, or otherwise destroy your presence. They can also go out of business or just out of style. I think it’s important to use social networking sites, but you should always be trying to get your fans’ contact information in a form you can move around at will, and you should always have your own data and presence available at a URL you own. You can’t expect fans to access you only through your own website, you have to go where they are, but having your own website is a dependable anchor in an ever-shifting sea.
8. You’ve developed quite an online following of your own, how are you dealing with your audience? Where do you draw the line between the professional and personal when it comes to fan interaction through social media?
Ha! I’m very comfortable fusing the personal and the professional, as anyone who reads my Twitter stream (or has ever taken one of my classes) knows. My challenge – as it is for anyone with a range of interests that attract people - is that some followers are music business/tech people, some are social media people, some are old friends, and many are academics. I’ve never been able to figure out how I could segment myself for the different audiences, but I’ve learned that people I would have pegged as caring about one often turn out to appreciate something else so I’ve quit trying and embraced not drawing false lines. I think most of the people who might call themselves my “fans” are younger academics who know me through my scholarship. In that regard, integrating the personal and professional is meant to demonstrate that you can be a successful woman and still have a family and raise kids and have indulgences and crushes and love pop songs and not just be a one dimensional workaholic. I do limit who I friend on Facebook and I don’t follow most of the people who follow me on Twitter because I actually try to read most of the tweets in my stream. I do read all my @ replies and usually respond to the ones that aren’t spam. There are a lot of sites and services I just don’t use. I’ve made friends through Twitter and I look at most of the people I interact with on there as people with a good shot at becoming friends if we ever meet. But there are still lots of things I’ll never post online. I’m pretty clear on my boundaries.