R.E.M. And The End Of Online Community

When I discovered R.E.M., which on Wednesday disbanded, through Out Of Time as a 12-year-old schoolkid in 1991, it was the beginning of a long love affair with music made by some of the most creative, humble and well-intentioned people I could imagine.

My ongoing appreciation of that band has tracked the evolution of online media.

When I first boarded the internet four years later, it was a revelation. I, like many others, instantly connected the two.

Usenet newsgroups, organised in to thousands of increasingly specific subject niches for all manner of interests, like rec.music.rem let fans around the world share news, views and interpretations of lyrics. Discussion lists like REMarks, run by some kind-hearted female college students, did likewise over email – there was even a specific mailing list for each of the four band members. I became operator of an #REM Internet Relay Chat channel, in which we could chat and play guess-the-lyrics games 24/7.

This intersection was geeky and joyous. My passion poured out of me. Suddenly, it was clear that, though few around me shared the same love, we outsiders could each reach out and share views and thoughts with like-minded people, regardless of physical proximity or geography. When few in my town had yet heard of the internet, much less connected to it, it was clear to me this new internet was a community of interests – “a perfect circle of acquaintances and friends”, as Michael Stipe once sang.

Though it is a truism, in 2011, that “social media” enable widespread online communication, it was in the furnace of the mid- and late-90s when the internet’s fundamental rule was forged – anyone can become a publisher. So I promptly joined the throngs of cat owners, fans, freaks and hesitant media groups creating websites of their own – an R.E.M. fan site, complete with a nascent bulletin board. I was experimenting with building an early form of online publishing and curation; my site was where I first learned how to be an online publisher. For a time, it was rather well attended in what was a fertile scene of many fan sites, and its latest incarnation, somehow, remains online today – an abandoned shrine to a band now gone.

But, soon, I would join a larger R.E.M. fan community with more momentum, Ethan Kaplan’s Murmurs. As Metcalfe’s Law tells us, the value of a network goes up congruent with the number of people on that network. There, in our own small corner of the internet, up to 15,000 members at one point delved in to the subject at hand in super-high definition, as well as other areas of interest in their own respective corners (every slot has its spot).

I deployed my growing professional journalism skillset there, too, becoming (don’t laugh) Murmurs’ de facto voluntary news editor for several years – properly assembling breaking stories found out there in news media as well as those tips submitted by fellow site users. Sure, it was esoteric, geeky – but I’ll defy anyone to have found a more authoritative, higher-definition source of R.E.M.-related news anywhere. The internet satisfies specific interests absolutely, and with infinite depth.

Out of the experience, and the tacit arm the band put around Murmurs’ shoulder (for, R.E.M. learned, this greatest gathering of its audience was a natural asset), Kaplan became technology VP and SVP at R.E.M.’s Warner Bros Records and WMG for five years; I got to meet the band, to feed like minds with must-have information and to hone my skills at the intersection of news and community. All of us members have delighted in each others’ company on the road during tours.

But this internet has changed. Where, once, it resembled a community of interests, on which strangers from distant locations would be drawn, centripetally, to each other out of common understanding, now it is more a free-for-all.

Once, I was shocked to be rubbing shoulders in an IRC channel with a netizen from the same town as me. But the mainstreaming of the internet that has taken place in the post-2005 broadband adoption boom has brought everyone online. In that wake, instead of niche communities that reflected our many different interests, we have social media, which reflect in one place the multitude of connections and identities people display in real life. The internet has been inverted.

Our online communities nowadays appear uni-dimensional rather than infinitely self-satisfying in ever more specific niches. They are loosely connected, one-size-fits-all cacophonies in which specific discussion has little opportunity to flourish and in which subjects are held together at whim by transient hashtags amongst quick-fire short exchanges…

I dearly love the online media industry folks I follow on Twitter – but I really couldn’t give a damn about their views on football or motorcycling (and they may care nothing for my music, or even my industry tweets). It’s partly this frustration which prompted marketer Hugh MacLeod to try “reclaiming” blogging from Twitter and Facebook recently.

Social media’s developers have spent much time building grand platforms on which to unite the whole of internet kind, in patterns that mimic real life – and less advancing the original technology that indulged our niches. Perhaps that is strange, considering it is in these niches where advertisers like to deploy targeted advertising.

Priorities change, too. Though Kaplan began work at R.E.M.’s record label, the demands of an executive career and fatherhood (as well as R.E.M.’s own exit from the 90s limelight and, with it, the slaying of albums by iTunes’ a la carte menu of tracks) have coincided with Murmurs’ declining member count. Likewise, I have learned to invest myself in pursuits other than a single passion – with maturity, teenage fandom takes a different place in the order of things.

If you’re anything like me, in these hectic times of digital distractions, you can scarcely devote time to read anything longer than 140 characters, much less write a 750-word post critiquing the latest album. Do we any longer have time to devote to indulging our passions in their respective corners of the internet? Are we content merely to fire our briefest of thoughts out in to the ether, to whomever may be following us? To real-world friends and our professional peers who may not care to engage on the topic? In social media, we have become expressive, performative, but not necessarily conversational.

Though I feared the day it would ever happen, I always wondered where I would be, what I would be doing and who I would be with the day R.E.M. called a halt; how would I mark the occasion? Sure, I am currently indulging something of an online wake with the diminished community of fellow Murmurs members. But, as I sit here digesting headlines like “RIP R.E.M.”, turns out I am also doing so with an army of Tweeters I have never heard of, most of whom have only been mobilised by the event of today’s sad news, and many of whom think the band quit long ago. Small pieces, loosely joined.