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«Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans Andrea J. Baker Received: 16 November 2008 / Accepted: 10 June 2009 / Published online: 24 June ...»

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IDIS (2009) 2:7–21

DOI 10.1007/s12394-009-0015-5

Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans

Andrea J. Baker

Received: 16 November 2008 / Accepted: 10 June 2009 / Published online: 24 June 2009

# Identity Journal Limited 2009


This paper discusses the “blended identity” of online rock fans to show that

the standard dichotomy between anonymous and real life personas is an inadequate

description of self-presentation in online communities. Using data from an

ethnographic, exploratory study of an online community and comparison groups including interviews, an online questionnaire, fan discussion boards, and participant/ observation, the research analyzes fan identity online and then offline. Rolling Stones fans often adopt names that illustrate their allegiance to the band, along with avatars.

Issues of gender and the technological change of software platform also affect types of online self-presentations and their construction. Fans engage in “role embracement”, merging their individual selves with the role of Stones fans, demonstrated by reactions of friends and family. Connections between offline and online settings occur, with band affiliation of fans expressed through choice of apparel offline, and usernames from online filtering into the offline interactions among fans.

Keywords Online identity. Blended identity. Online community. Username. Fans.

Rock music. Online fans. Internet. Cyberspace. Role-embracement. Gender.

Goffman. Self-presentation. Construction of identity. Avatar. Virtual ethnography.

Qualitative research. Web 2.0 Introduction The Rolling Stones and fan identity The fans of The Rolling Stones first became visible during their early television appearances and the tours in 1963, ’64 and throughout the 1960’s. They followed the *Names provided in the paper are actual usernames if people gave the researcher permission to use them, or are changed or removed if the respondent preferred an anonymous form of identity. The names of the fan groups are changed.

A. J. Baker (*) Ohio University, Lancaster, OH, USA e-mail: bakera@ohiou.edu 8 A.J. Baker group known for their resistance to band uniforms and drug laws, their rebellion against the mainstream ironically in conformity with the aspects of the countercul- ture. They were often counter-posed to The Beatles, the nice boys, and fans frequently chose between the two super-groups, although some claimed to like both.

Over 40 years later, The Stones are touring and recording and many fans are from the ranks of the old-timers who were there from the start. With the Internet available since the later months of 1994, fans found ticket buying easier, if not always fairer.

They became consumers and producers of a vast amount of information on the band, and came to know each other online.

This paper is an overview of identity expression within an online fan group of The Rolling Stones. Stones fans from other groups are mentioned in comparison.

The main research questions are:

& How do fans present themselves online?

& How do the online identity and the offline identity of fans inter-relate?

The purposes of the paper are two-fold, first, to delineate how fan identity may occupy a middle area between “real” and fantasy elements of self-presentation, and second, to gain insight into the mix of offline and online behaviors and attitudes among fans, or to explain how the real and virtual combine. This middle ground of fairly open self-expression colored by the group purpose may characterize a large proportion of discussion groups online that are based upon a common interest.

Rolling Stones fans online and studies of fan identity

While studies of fan behavior have become more accepted within academia in recent years in the popular culture area (see Harris in Harris and Alexander 1998, p. 4), the study of online fandom is only beginning to flourish (see, e.g., Gray et al. 2007). A notable early work about fans online is Baym’s (2000) study of soap opera fans. She discusses elements of online community and tactics of communication within it.

Much has been written about online identity including a large literature on the issue of deception (see e.g., Birchmeier et al. 2005; Gonzales and Hancock 2008). The normative form of identity adopted by fans submerges their individual names, without necessarily intending to deceive their online peers. Why the study of online fan identity is important to Internet researchers is two-fold: first, to learn more about the fans of celebrities, bands, and television shows who form a large subgroup of interest groups online, and second, and even more crucial for this paper, to add to knowledge on how people combine their offline presentations of self with their online interests. Because fan sites and music fan communities in particular so obviously link a group (the band or performer) to the individual (the online participant), they represent the opportunity to learn about how people relate to others with common interests online.

After the methodology section detailing how the research was conducted, the major topics include descriptions of fan usernames and avatars, the effect of technological change in the fan sites, and a discussion of the concepts of “blended identity” and role embracement. A summary of findings and future directions for research concludes the paper.

Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans 9


This research is part of a larger project on identities, relationships and norms of an online fan community. It follows the methodological tradition of qualitative research in sociology (Denzin and Lincoln 2007) that draws upon the ethnographic method employed by cultural anthropologists (see Geertz 1973). Also called “field work” or “participant observation”, ethnography traditionally aims at describing and analyzing the behaviors and attitudes of the participants in the collectivity, their customs and perceptions. Often the researcher becomes a member of the group, or is already a member at the time of initiating the research, as in this project. Online researchers have transposed this methodology to online settings, engaging in “virtual ethnography” (Hine 2000). Studies of online communities using the ethnographic, participant observer method include Nancy Baym’s (2000) depiction of Internet soap opera devotees, fans of these daily television shows, as indicated above, and Rheingold’s (1993) classic book on THE WELL, The Virtual Community, which included reference to both online and offline events and relationships. Baym and Rheingold were both participants in these communities before they began to write about them, as was this author.

The qualitative methodology here is a combination of a two-year ethnography or participant observation in a discussion board and in offline events, an online questionnaire posted for members of the targeted online group, and interviews with online fans, including members of the targeted online community and also interviews of people from three other groups. Some of the respondents belonged to more than one group. The targeted group “Shattered” has several thousand people who have registered, with a few dozen or so who do most of the daily posting. The other groups are mainly smaller than Shattered, with one that has a larger number of registered members, “You Got Me Rocking” (YGMR). The primary source of data for this paper is from 89 interviews with online fans, three-quarters of whom are on the Shattered discussion board, and one-quarter from the other groups, predominantly YGMR.

After a period of a year or so, the researcher decided to study the online community Shattered, with the permission of the head of the group. He announced a separate forum for those interested in answering open-ended questions about their experience with The Rolling Stones and their online community. The researcher posted questions in the forum that some members read and chose to answer. The other three group leaders gave permission to contact members for interviews, and in two cases, offered to help further with the project. The data from the interviews, conducted mainly by phone, is added to that from the forum answers. Interviews lasted approximately an hour and 15 minutes apiece, with some taking two, three or more hours, when fans had longer histories with the Stones, or remembered many details they wanted to include. The public threads about concert events and facets of the Stones’ lives and performances were also read for the larger research project, and for clues to identity discussed in this paper.

As part of this qualitative project, the set of interviewees was not selected randomly from the population of online fans. Drawing from the total number of people who have ever signed up for the online community in its ten-year existence (n=5,706 on May 3, 2009) would miss the fact that only a relatively small group of 10 A.J. Baker members actively engages regularly. For example, the average number of messages per day is 128, with a small group writing multiple daily posts. Guests can read without creating an account with a username, and guests along with registered members often lurk instead of joining the discussions by posting. Rather than numerical quotas, the method here follows “theoretical sampling” (see Glaser and Strauss 1967) whereby categories of people including the more active members to less active online are noted. About two-thirds of those asked for interviews agreed to them, although some of those who declined the interview did answer the questionnaire. Those from a range of fan communities and across ages and geographical territories were queried, either by interview or a questionnaire online.

The fans range from ages 18 to 63 and come from countries all over the world, though mainly located in North America, and secondarily, Europe.

For the sample in this article, the 89 interviews occurred primarily by telephone, although a few took place in person or through chat. They came from four different online fan groups, some with overlapping membership. Different numbers of people from one group Shattered, answered all or some of the questions posted online. The mean number of postings for the forty questions was thirty-five, with a median of thirty-two answers per question. One or two questions were put up at a time, with some drawing more written response than others, depending upon interest in the question and when it was posted. The questionnaire served to explore types of responses to basic inquiries and formed the basis of the more developed set of interview questions.

Questions specifically related to identity in the questionnaire and interview guide include, “How did you select your username?” and “How did you select your avatar?” Related questions asked about members’ favorite Rolling Stone, why they liked the band’s music, and how friends and family reacted to their fan behavior. The data presented here on usernames, avatars and responses of others is drawn from the questionnaire, while the information about offline behavior comes from the interviews, unless otherwise noted. In qualitative methodology, the data analysis often happens concurrently with the data collection, with the findings emerging directly from that process (see Becker 2004).

Rock fan identity online: username, avatar, and favorite band member Fan identity online: the username The typical identity presented through the username on the board Shattered is of a fan of The Rolling Stones, since that is the purpose of the online place. Shattered is a gathering spot for people who like the band’s music and often, who also care about the performers themselves. By taking a phrase from a song lyric or an album title, using all or part of a band member’s name, or by referring to a place or person associated with the band, the members want to demonstrate a liking for the Stones through their selected names. The user’s name or ID often depicts the merging of the individual and the band.

A high degree of admiration of the band causes someone to identify with the band through self-naming. Whether it is the music itself, the onstage and recorded Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans 11 musicianship and performances, or the perceived personas of band members that so excites the fans is an empirical question. The interview data indicates all three elements are parts of the attraction to the band. The username suggests close familiarity with the music and also a liking of the band members themselves. To name oneself tells others something about where the liking is most focused, whether in a favorite song, or a favorite band member.

One issue that arises online is when two people choose similar user IDs. They cannot be exactly the same because the technology prevents two people from having identical names. As on many discussion boards online, if a person leaves or is taken off because of inactivity or disruption, the name can become available again. When the original user reappears and wants the name back, conflict can occur. Users watch out for each other by telling people online and offline when a particular name “belongs” to someone else, by right of seniority. Numbers are used, as elsewhere online when a name is very popular such as “angie75”, a user id drawn from the well-known Stones song with the same female name in the title.

The amount of creativity in name-selection is admired, along with the longevity that having a popular name implies. The popular names include band members’ names or variations of them. One Dutch fellow, Mickijaggeroo, took his moniker from a video in which the Latino shopkeepers have trouble recognizing the lead singer until he plays a Stones album and dances to his own music. They chant, “Ah, Mickijaggeroo, Mickijaggeroo!” upon realizing who is in their store. Sometimes abbreviations are considered almost too innovative, until people come to know a person online and off, as was the case with IRLTS, an abbreviation for “I really love the Stones.” Remembering the acronym proved difficult, at first, for online fans, and pronouncing it offline, even more so. The user’s first name, a one-syllable, fairly common man’s name is often used to address him offline.

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