Cyber Space

Ever since blogs and forums populated the internet, virtual spaces have been a hotbed for fan communities. In this piece, Dimitri Aurousseau, manager of psychedelic rapper Simili Gum and one of the founders of label White Garden, investigates the new practices born out of the recent spike in online live interactions, and what it means for online users.

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Author: Dimitri Aurousseau

Photo Credit: Loïs Pettini

Translation : Una Dimitrijevic

One of the most striking moments at the end of 2021 was undoubtedly Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of the launch of his Metaverse. Most internet users were taken by surprise, yet this vision projects a possible future for our social interactions. And while it’s still hard to imagine living permanently in this artificial universe, the former Facebook CEO firmly believes in it. Moreover, the global context isn’t going to challenge this commercial strategy. 

The pandemic and successive lockdowns have increased our social interactions online. In the music scene, many events became virtual: livestreams of concerts and DJ sets; discussions about music on Twitch ; online parties at which each participant had their own little avatar, etc. The size and nature of these events were as diverse as the varieties of music and artists spread across the planet. 

But, as we slowly get used to living with this virus, what conclusions can we draw from these online events? Were they merely remedies for our temporary isolation or do they mark an inevitable evolution? 

Internet as a timeless community space

The very essence of the internet is about linking computer networks across the world, creating a space for information exchange, discussion and multimedia sharing. Since its very beginnings, the internet was characterized by the fact it generated communities. The first sites to populate our URLs were discussion forums. Since then, such interactions have multiplied and mutated into different forms, with social networks springing up just when the internet slowly infiltrated our homes.

Today, we can be online almost constantly thanks to smartphones, and these interactions through our screens have become an increasingly important part of our daily lives. Although these past years it seems that the pioneers of the world wide web, with their open-source model, are being replaced by a marketable and commercial internet, the web and its users are still influenced by the idea of a space for free content sharing.

These individuals often gravitate towards the cultural objects they most value. Certain authors, like David Jennings, speak of the creation of “aesthetic communities” (editor’s note – See “Net, blogs and rock’n’roll: how digital discovery works and what it means for consumers, creators and culture”).

Within these groups, the founding idea of “sharing a passion and common interest” gives rise to communities that share cultural references and can influence the behavior and choice of individuals.

Many social scientists have studied these “communities of fans” through massively popular works like the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings sagas. And yet, the same logic of community and sharing seems to exist in so-called “underground” cultures. The various lockdowns were thus marked both by livestreams from famous DJs like David Guetta and obscure events bringing together 20 aficionados of a little-known electronic music sub-genre.

The proliferation of such events prevents us from sketching an overall picture of this process here. However, their content appears to have evolved when compared to traditional interactions. Although not every event presented an innovative format, the limitations of social networks and traditional platforms when it came to sharing aesthetic sensibilities quickly became apparent. 

The shared moment as experience 

Indeed, if we analyse social media or streaming platforms, we see that very few of our online social interactions are “live”. On Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer, listeners can see the activity of those they follow, but they can’t add personal comments or interact with others. On YouTube or Soundcloud, comment spaces allow fans to meet and interact, but once these comments are posted, they’re frozen like archives of the past. Relations therefore seem disconnected from real time and users don’t experience a shared “moment”.

On social networks, following the arrival of actors like Periscope in 2015, it became evident that sharing in a moment T was, in fact, important. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook launched their live options soon after. YouTube inaugurated this feature in 2011, but it only appears to have become popular in recent years. Since then, platforms that strongly promote this idea of “flow”, like Twitch and Discord, have risen to more prominent positions in the media ecosystem.  

It’s in this context that live streaming flourished during the lockdowns. As artistic and cultural activities drew to an abrupt halt, several initiatives sprang up in response. Faced with behemoths like United We Stream (the Berlin platform that became global), more DIY organisations emerged in France, such as Boiler Merde.

This collective frenziedly scheduled a large number of musical projects, inviting them to come and perform on Twitch as and when they could. Today, nearly 400 live performances from many alternative scenes are available on their YouTube channel. 

Independent labels like PC music also latched onto the trend. For the release of his album AppleAG Cook brought together several artists in a livestream festival called Appleville. This project brought together a fairly large variety of performances. Between raw webcam sets by Clairo and Palmistry, viewers could also experience live shows with 3D visuals, or others that resembled music videos, like the one filmed in real-time by Charlie XCX.

During this period, some artists also organised their own livestreams, like Yung Lean with his concert shot in the back of a truck in a shipping port.

For others, like the nu.cenosis collective, the content of their streams relied on an aesthetic and interactive experience. Gathered in an IMVU map (a social app that lets people explore virtual worlds with a customised avatar), participants could mingle with others at the party. By customising their avatars and communicating with other players, each person could have a unique party experience.

Although many are now available on replay, the live events brought together a large number of “aesthetic communities” on screen at the same time. The unifying nature of these livestreams played a big role in their success, but so did the sensory experience they offered. People could once again sample that unpredictable flavour of concerts, where everything is not as minutely controlled as in a music video.

By embracing video streaming, these real-time performances and DJ sets also allowed some artists to reinvent live shows, to offer up something other than simple recordings. Such innovative and shared experiences won over a certain number of fans during the lockdowns.  

Rethinking livestreams

Yet this practice was far from new. For years, channels like Boiler Room and Cercle have been recording DJ sets around the world, and the TV broadcasting of concerts has a very long history. Even the idea of building communities through the use of webcams had been explored by underground events like c a r e parties and probably many other similar initiatives around the world.

But the sudden enthusiasm for this process forces us to reflect on the vision that we want to promote through live streaming. Such gatherings, which may well become more frequent, bring up questions of an artistic, economic and even philosophical and political nature. This evolution is leading us to consider new ways of bringing this “shared moment” to life for a community, but also our choice of platform and the values we project onto such events.

Do we want a freely-accessible service? A system of fair remuneration for artists and technicians? Or a commercialised one-upmanship like Travis Scott’s giant concert on Fortnite (where Epic Games sold the rapper’s and his avatar’s merch)? It’s now easier to understand why Big Tech companies are looking forward to this future and all the new “available brain time” it provides. 

About the Author

Co-manager of artist Simili Gum and independent label White Garden, Dimitri Aurousseau also writes pieces for musical reference publication Musique Journal.

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