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.
Fans or Friends? How Social Media is Changing the Artist-Fan Relationship (Part 1)
1. How has social media affected online fandom?
First, it’s important to understand that online fandom has been around since the earliest days of electronically networked communication. It existed well before what we’re now calling “social media” (as though telephones weren’t social!). So there are a lot of answers to this question.
One is that it has made online fandom much more visible and important to content creators and marketers. Online fans used to be obscure pockets of fringe activity with amazing potential. Now that potential is starting to be realized in that fans are gaining more power and influence. The online media that have been developed in the last decade or so also enable fans to create a lot of things like videos, artwork, or game mods they couldn’t make or share anywhere near as easily before. In that sense social media have been great for fan-driven creativity.
On the other hand, before social network sites became so important it was easier for fans to coalesce into groups online – there were specific mailing lists or web boards or newsgroups for discussing bands or other media, and it was easy for those sites to develop in-group identities and norms that made them feel like communities. Those groups still exist, but social network sites have decentralized fandom and none of them is good at managing groups. When is the last time you felt a sense of community through a Facebook fan page you’d liked? Those sites can be useful for information sharing and foster fan-to-artist/artist-to-fan communication, but they’re lousy for fan-to-fan communication. In that sense it’s a step backwards for fandom.
2. What do you think are the main benefits, and on the flip-side, the biggest challenges for artists having direct and instant access to their audience through social media?
There are a lot of benefits. People tend to focus on the marketing potential, and there’s no question that having instant access to the people who like you most can only help sales. Artists can keep audiences up to date on everything that matters and keep them engaged with them even when they’re not making music – a big change from the days when you had to hope they’d still remember you enough to care by the time your next record came out or your next tour came around.
There are also subtle benefits that are priceless, like the steady streams of affirmation musicians receive that remind them that their music touches people and that helps them better understand their life’s work, or the new friendships that arise as their audiences shift from being anonymous numbers to real people who come to matter as individuals. I worry that we lose track of these human rewards in thinking about social media through the lens of commerce.
The challenges are big, though. There’s the immediate challenge of which sites to engage. There’s the fact that which site is in vogue changes pretty quickly, the ways those sites work is constantly being tinkered with by the site designers, and paying attention can seem like a full time job, especially if, like most people, you’re not all that interested in social computing. There’s the time it takes to maintain a presence online, the challenge of what aspects of your selves to present, the question of how much to respond to fans who contact you, the continual requests for more of your attention and time than you may be willing to give. There’s often a sense that you have to be constantly available and continuously thinking up clever things to say, and perhaps that those clever things should be personal which may feel uncomfortable. In many ways these are challenges we all face, but they are enhanced for anyone who’s got an audience based on their work rather than personal connection.
3. Is fan interaction through social media simply part of the job description for today’s artists?
As a social media researcher I think I am supposed to say yes, and many of the younger musicians I’ve interviewed feel that it is. But I don’t think it has to be. I do think that someone has to be maintaining a web presence for artists so that when potential listeners go looking they can find out about them, hear them, get a sense of what they’re about, and buy the music. But we’ve got some examples of people like Sufjan Stevens who seem to do fine without tweeting or using Facebook and there are countless artists who use social media a lot yet still get nowhere. Social media can used to build relationships with fans that will endure and keep them interested over time. They can be an important part of maintaining a career and for some people it can make their career. But you can be totally engaged with people online and it won’t buy you an audience if no one likes your music or if you’re too tied up in chatting with them to make it. You can also be engaged with your audience, but in ways that demonstrate that you’re a jerk or otherwise turn off your fans. I encourage artists to use social media, but they don’t have to use every site and if, for them, social media are uncomfortable or deterrents to creative production, it’s totally okay not to use them. Find a fan or friend you trust who wants to represent you online instead, or have management do it for you.
In Part 2 of our interview with Nancy, we’ll touch on whether there is a clear difference between fans and friends, and how social media has changed the way fans can contribute to an artist’s career.