I have been surprised by the interest from academia in our ‘Twister’ communities. Twister 5 (which has very recently quit this mortal coil) had a smattering of researchers lurking in the background, probably hoping for some insights into creativity and Web2.0. Before that we had a few receiving the mails from Twister 3 and even a few brave souls prepared to risk their dollar on the KDX powered version Twister 4 (on ya Julian). But really, all involved are probably curious about what we actually learned from moderating Severed Heads ‘fans’ for 15 years. I can’t really justify the time writing a considered analysis here, but a few notes are worth jotting down.
Firstly the overall dynamic of our communities was that of web communities in general. Put a large number of people together in anonymity and they behave badly. The mailing list was least affected as the participants’ email addresses were disclosed (a rarity in these spam filled days). The BBS was the worst. The symptoms are familiar – trolls, flames, and an incessant round of ‘Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of A Bitch’ – some of the usual features on any BBS.
If there was one factor that was uncommon, it was the mixed message of having a ‘fan’ discussion area where the population was discouraged from being fan-like. People joined ‘because’ of Severed Heads, but then were told to talk about anything but. This was intended to defuse the usual band/listener relationship, which it did when we had a wider spread of people, but when trouble came it seemed to draw energy from that uneasy set up. Put very simplistically:
A: Hello, I offer you a free place in my house. Never mind my photo on every wall, I’ve drawn moustaches on them!
B: What’s the catch? There’s always a catch.
A: There’s no catch, and you don’t have to tell me what I nice person I am.
B: Well, what if I piss on your floor?
Neither A nor B gets out of the relationship looking too innocent. It would just be better to admit that it’s going to be uneven, but make sure everybody gets something out of it.
If you’re an artist that’s thinking about starting a discussion group, forget it. It won’t work. The resentment will overcome any attempt at self effacement. Let somebody else do it on your behalf if they want, and then give them lots of support.
Fan is of course short for Fanatic. There’s a lot of energy in that role and not all of it good. Think of Stephen King’s Misery.
Next point is why the membership slowly declined over those years. Numerically it waxed and waned – at all times we were plagued with dead members. On Twister 3 we once purged all accounts to clean out those addresses that bounced – 270 were phantoms. Twister 5 had a parade of people that joined and never came back. I simply have no idea why they would bother.
What I mean by ‘decline’ is more subtle. The question is bundled in the answer – we lost high achieving, creative members as they had no more time to participate, we lost people who had children, we lost people that became empowered and disdained community. In fact the Twister membership is a very interesting snapshot of the Internet: up front all the early adopters and enthusiasts roughly in their 20’s, who slowly leave the space, which becomes filled with the very young and the middle aged. And the young go to Facebook.
A similar process is going on with music. Concealed in the argument about free distribution is a decline in enthusiasm – music that was once listened to intensely is now just part of a lifestyle. Why would anyone be on a band discussion list?
Leaving out a whole line of thinking here – jump to the chase – I am not surprised to see in Time Magazine this week a discussion of ‘authenticity’ as an upcoming social issue – except I am more concerned with the flip side – what I am calling the ‘virtual ghetto’ – it won’t be much longer before poverty is associated with online services – the wealthy will have paper, the poor will have PDFs – this will take its toll on all online.
If there was ever going to be a Twister 6 it would be made of bricks.