Whose Space Is It Anyway?
It had to happen pretty soon didn't it? A book about Myspace? Only this isn't a dumb users guide or a dull technical report, but a lively, well-informed and very amusingly written attempt to begin to understand the social and particularly the musical significance of Myspace and similar social networking sites.
In the book's opening line, Shooman warns us, in typical overstated underrated way, that "This book is already obsolete". However, he says, that this doesn't really matter as "a large part of (its) discussions essentially predate the internet".
And the main one of these is that "people like to talk".
So, in a highly humorous, self-deprecatory style, Joe gives us a quick guide to the birth of the net ("lots of computers glued together") before getting into the meaty subject of "online communities" such as Myspace, Bebo, Friendster and the rest. I enjoyed his discussions on whether such sites really are "communities" or just places for people to show themselves off; are they genuinely working together for the social good (as Faceparty.com's ability to coordinate the building of a school in Africa seems to have been) or merely "a kind of global popularity contest" as "Geoff (who used to be in a band but isn't anymore)" is quoted as saying? Both sides of the Myspace phenomenon are discussed; how its networks allow kids to chat in a way they'd never dare to face to face, as well as to talk directly with people they'd never ever know existed in distant parts of the world, and also to communicate directly with their heroes, but also how it encourages the new generation to spend more and more time at home, glued to the PC and slightly nervous of venturing outside into the world of real people and (mostly) imagined menaces.
Perhaps of more interest to R*E*P*E*A*T Readers (who, let's face it, all have no friends anyway) are the chapters dealing with the influence of the internet in general and Myspace in particular on the careers of new bands. Again the author is keen to put both sides of the coin; he makes it clear how Myspace has helped speed the spreading of the word about new bands, so much so that record labels have often been left behind as the kids have heard all of a band's songs on their Myspace months before an official single or download becomes available, and by the time of a band's first album, they may already be yesterday's news. It's also clear that, particularly in its early, pure days (before PRs and record companies got wise to it), Myspace was a genuine reflection of how popular an up and coming band was, a barometer that NME journos and the like admit to using to help them decide who to cover. But this fact points out the limits of Myspace; it is only one tool (of many) that bands and record companies need to use in order to break into the big time. And as with all things developed from below, it has been taken over and so it can be sold back to us by The Man - in this case your friend and mine Rupert Murdoch; thus our Myspaces are now plastered in adverts for all things Murdoch, and there are stories of record companies employing people to spend their time adding 'friends' and plays to bands Myspace accounts in an attempt to help break them into the big time.
The chapters dealing with bands that, it is claimed, have made it big as a result of Myspace, show the limitations of the site. The book points out that while acts such as Arctic Monkeys, Gnarls Barkley and Lily Allen all profited through their online activities, they did not make it big because of them - they all had hosts of media support, record company money and their own imaginative drive behind them to help them on their way to success. *
In the stinking waters of the music biz, while having a big presence on sites like Myspace is definitely a help, having shitloads of friends is no guarantee of a bands success. It's not even a life jacket. Believe me, I know. +
The book finishes by suggesting the possible future developments of the net; perhaps Last.fm is the new way for bands to be heard by a new audience, perhaps Myspace will one day sort it's e-mailing system out, or perhaps soon it will be replaced by a genuinely multi-media "unified communications model" where you can swop music, pictures and video, e-mail, watch your own TV channel and listen to your own radio, chat on message boards and using your voice (remember that?) through a Skype-like connection, and who knows what else?
In this review I've tried to show the main thrust of this book. What I've failed to do is explain what a joy it is to read, to portray the self-defacing enthusiastic humour with which Shooman writes. In some ways I enjoyed his appendixes and endnotes best of all, they're often hilarious in a chaotically throw away manner; when he claims that the loss of CD sales due to the internet providing music for free will be made up for by merchandise sales , he adds that he can't go into this as it's "beyond the remit of this book" but then adds in the notes "plus I just thought of it and can't be arsed checking whether the notion holds any water whatsoever"! The illustrations by Alex Jackson are absolutely fantastic and the subheadings are often good for a laugh too; I love the section on You Tube being called "Gootube"!
So, a light hearted and highly enjoyable take on a very serious subject. One that's made me re-think some of what R*E*P*E*A*T is trying to do on the web.
And the conclusion to all this? That people like to talk. And these sites, these messes of zeroes and ones, are just another way of enabling and facilitating this, adding to but not replacing traditional methods.
If proof were needed of this, to promote this book I received not glitzy e-mails or exciting comments on Myspace, but two anonymous hand drawn pictures delivered by post to my door. I'd no idea what they were, assumed they were submissions for the magazine and site, and dutifully stuck them on the images page where you can still see them here. Now I find out they were the first thrust in a rather clever, but decidedly lo-tech, marketing campaign for this book.
Cos people like to talk.
My attempt at Shooman style Endnotes