In this guest post, MidemNet speaker Paolo Olivi, founder of fansite MadonnaTribe.com, explains how, from fanzines to web communities, fans have always led the way…
Once upon a time, we used to call them fanclubs. In most cases, an official artist’s fanclub was able to reach fans on a national or international basis, while fan-managed associations had a smaller, sometimes regional scale.
The most lively clubs challenged themselves in the editorial field, creating what were brilliantly labeled fanzines. Long time fans of artists who have been on the scene for more than 10 or 20 years look back at those times with a bit of nostalgia, a lot of self-indulgement, and the constant feeling of “how things were then”.
What happened next – no need to say – was the internet.
The peculiar characteristics of the web perfectly matched the aspirations of amateur fandom publishing. It was (relatively) simple, especially in the times when the web pages were all simple html, it was cheap, it was able to cross borders and languages, and it was quick.
The online version of the artists’ fanclubs debuted more than a decade ago, way before the word ‘blog’ was created, and ages – in internet time – before services like YouTube, MySpace, Flickr or Facebook were imagined. In this sense, fans were piooneers of the web and started developing what we now call web 2.0 content.
Sharing and collaborating were in fact the basic principles of the fanclub experience, and were immediately translated in the online versions, mainly using tools such as message boards, newsgroups, newsletters and chats. It took a while, though, to elaborate a specific prototype of online fanclub, and the early years presented a variety of sites using a mix of such tools, with one or another being predominant.
Ten years later we can safely say that fan-managed associations, in their online version, have pretty much reached a standard that was set by a few cutting-edge websites that pushed the envelope and where even imitated by the official artists websites.
What some still call fanclubs are now widely recognized as communities. The main difference being that in a communit,y people join (and leave) in a very easy and instant way. Fan-operated communities are generally free and require seconds to join. They have a much smaller strength in the club aspect, and nothing that recalls a membership card. In fact, fans are pretty much crossing over different sites and communities, check several ones in the same day, and take part to different discussion boards; many tend to settle with a favourite one, but the most still have two or three for a same artist in their browser’s bookmarks. And of course they participate in as many communities as the artists they are fans of.
What makes a contemporary fansite popular now is a blend of three different elements: information, design, and sharing. The second one is of course all up to the webmaster’s ability to create an image that is innovative, user friendly, and most of all inspiring and matching the vibe and feel of the artist the site is dedicated to.
As for the sharing, well, that’s of course all up to the fans. The life of a fan is all about sharing to begin with. In the early years it was sharing copies of magazines and local press and trading them with fans from all over the world. Old school fans put a smile on their faces today when they look back at when they used to trade recordings of TV appearances or rare footage on VHS, or making printed copies of the blurry pictures they took at a concert and treat them as golden treasures.
In such a scenario, it is easy to understand how the recently developed web 2.0 services become instantly popular among the fandom; because they were simply a quicker, cheaper and better evolution of what fans have been always doing. Today you can find amateur recordings of the most poignant concert moments on YouTube hours after the show has ended.
And it is not hard to guess that as soon as the mobile devices complete their evolution and services become cheaper, the spreading of similar content will almost be live (unless the concert promoters look into this and try to manage the process themselves, like some are already doing). On fan forums, concerts are already updated live thanks to those who send text messages and camera-phone images via MMS.
While it remains a mystery to me as to how you can be so dedicated to drive you eyes off your idol performing on stage to type a message or send a picture, this shows well how much fans are addicted to the fine art of sharing. And your easiest bet is that, as soon as technology makes you able to post on a forum straight from a mobile device, things will jump to the next level.
In all these regards, online fansites have been pushing boundaries, raised the standard, and official websites run by the artists labels and management were quick to follow. Partly because of the difficulties of providing exclusive content and stronger relationship with the artists – that the bigger it is, the more distant remains from the fans.
If you look at any top chart artist official site today and compare it with how it looked ten years ago, you will instantly realize how big the work of the unofficial sites was in developing the new format.
There’s still a rather big distance between the two of them, though, and that’s about the first of the three elements we were discussing above: information. As they are today, official websites are bounded to official information. They can be in charge of announcing an album, a tour or an event, but that usually happens at the same time of a press release, while fans have never enough of their idols and want to know everything in advance.
Also, official websites are free from gossip (and the best fansites are, too), but fans feed themselves with rumours. And lastly, official websites can’t spoil the surprise and shed some light on a new project unless the management green-lights them to do so, making the most of the advance imformation exclusive territory of the fansites with the best insider connections.
But the difference becomes smaller when official websites have forums that are almost identical to the fan-operated ones (well, also members and nicknames are almost identical, too) and this is again the power of sharing – when a breaking news is out, it is everywhere. And as much as fans are devoted to their favourite artist, they are not as devoted to their favourite fansite: when the news is in the public domain, they tend to forget where they read it first. And the game is never over…