Stargazers in Cyberspace

Confessions of an On-Line Fan Club Junkie

           It started with a purely pragmatic interest in finding out when the next Bruce Springsteen album and tour were going to happen. I logged onto Luckytown, an online musical mailing list, both for the concert information and out of a curiosity to find out what these things were all about. And, more or less ,I got what I expected: I learned that Springsteen would be appearing in Chicago--as close as he came to the Twin Cities on the first leg of his Ghost of Tom Joad tour--and also discovered almost daily tour updates and trivia.

           Lots of trivia. Like lengthy debates about whether or not any soundboard recordings exist of a particular 1976 show, and what kind of vehicle the Boss currently drives. Sure enough, I soon found myself addicted to the list, looking forward to my daily dose of Luckytown the way I used to anticipate the first beer of the evening--not so much for the information itself, but for the chance to connect with other list members. Since Springsteen dropped off of most people's maps when Reagan was still president, it was reassuring to see I wasn't alone in my obsession.

           I found similar levels of obsession on mailing lists like Hole Lotta Love (all things Courtney), Wire (for U2), Heart Shaped Mail Box (Nirvana), and Sugar (ditto). Online fan clubs focused on the arcane and obscure are also taking up cyberspace: see lists devoted to Rupert Hine, A-ha, Eric's Trip, etc. Not surprisingly, most of the conversation focuses on concerts, bootlegs, and sightings of the objects of one's fandom. But talk can also veer off onto bizarre and fascinating tracks, such as the Wire debate on whether Bono is in fact the reincarnation of St. Paul, or Courtney fans who trade barrettes and and stories about their overdoses.

           While most people I know would never even think about joining a fan club--an institution that still connotes fevered teenagers sending away for black-and-white glossies--plenty of folks who presumably should have better things to do with their time seem to devote a tremendous amount of effort into conversing on these lists. But fan clubs they are, in the truest sense of the term: Even a single day's mailings from the U2 and Hole groups reveal their membership to be made up of as many sycophants and stalker-mentality obsessives as they are folks who simply want to talk about the music.

           But what's still most fascinating about the lists is the way they forge a community among their members, functioning as virtual coffee shops and even group therapy sessions. In a time when fewer and fewer of us actually share bits of ourselves with real live friends and family, it's not surprising that we're more than willing to expose ourselves in these loose, virtual communities. They offer a relatively safe space to bounce our feelings and beliefs off others who, though you've never seen them and have no idea what they're really like, have at least one thing in common with you. Even when flame wars between members reach their most incendiary, someone inevitably says something like, "Hey, we all love Kurt, can't we just get along?"

           The lists work like this: Subscribers send a message to a central e-mail server, which then disseminates the message to every other subscriber. Many lists are managed electronically, with the e-mail server automatically bouncing each incoming message to all members whether it addresses the music or the sender's favorite rice pilaf recipe. But many have an administrator who moderates the list, and sends out the messages in a single daily package called a digest. (Receiving a daily digest is far preferable to receiving each message as it's bounced to the list; fewer things are more annoying than hearing your mail alarm sound only to find out that it's not your best friend in New York but somebody wondering if he's the youngest Bob Mould fan in the world.)

           To say a list is only as good as its administrator might be overstating the case, but not by much. A good list administrator understands what the members want and, more importantly, don't want. So Jarrett Lee, a student at the University of Hawaii who has administered Heart Shaped Mail Box since January, keeps the focus on Nirvana, but lets things get fairly heated. Kevin Kinder, who administers Luckytown, on the other hand, tempers the debate somewhat, omitting posts that he feels would detract from what most subscribers want to read; a post I made referring fans to a Steve Earle list was bounced back to me because Kinder wanted to keep the discussion focused on the tour, for instance. The administrators are the first to acknowledge that they're a little on the obsessive side, along with everyone else on the list. Kinder took over the list in 1990 because it was his only source for concert tape trading, but admits that since then, he's "gained more of an irrational emotional attachment to it. Plus, you can take comfort that there are some people even crazier than you are."

           Most of the lists have no official affiliation with the artists, their management, or their record companies. But Kinder has been able to establish a relationship with Springsteen's New York-based publicist, who now gives him official information about tours and albums as soon as it's available. Occasionally, the involvement is more direct; Jason Dour, who administers a PJ Harvey list, says that Harvey's management "monitors the list anonymously and has opened an exchange of dialogue with fans that could not have been possible without the mailing list." And after Bob Mould did an online, real-time Q&A session on MTV/America Online from which many Sugar list members were excluded, he agreed to answer subscribers' questions using a list member as a moderator. It sure beats waiting for SPIN to interview your idol.

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