Ups and Downs of the Online Chat

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These days, online chats are part of the pop star dog and pony show. With every new album, a band is ushered through the usual routine on AOL or a label's site: Hunker down at a PC for an hour, while some PR lackey fields "What's your favorite song?" questions from adoring fans. Of course, it wasn't always this pat. Just five years ago, before the Web boomed, getting a band to "talk" with fans over a computer was a lot more challenging and, to most labels, absurd. At the indie music bulletin board service where I worked back then, we didn't even call it "chat" -- we called it "typing."

As a one-man band of producer/host/editor/promoter/writer/beer-buyer, the job of "chat host" seemed outrageous: Hustle rockers to a rat-infested building in downtown New York, then, somehow, usher them into the strange new ether of cyberspace. Since the Internet literally didn't exist in most people's minds, the only stars who would agree to boot up were those who made careers of surfing the fringe of punk, alternative, and hip-hop -- artists like Henry Rollins, the Meat Puppets, Basehead. Chat, they figured, was the next underground. For a while, they were right.

With no software to moderate the chats (as how questions are cued in AOL), our "happenings," as they were tagged, were more like free-for-all mosh pits than linear discussions. Imagine Eddie Vedder clicking into a Pearl Jam IRC channel and you might get the idea. Fortunately, our dial-up BBS could only support a few dozen members, so the feeding frenzy never got that out of control. To my surprise, I soon learned that despite the potential to verbally (and anonymously) abuse a celebrity, fans would actually respect artists online. They'd ask thoughtful questions and explore lengthy conversations they could never have at a record store signing or on a radio show like Rockline.

For the artists, the unfiltered interaction with their fans was unprecedented. A guy like Bob Mould, who doesn't like to do press or make personal appearances, relished this safe opportunity to have a dialogue with his audience. Before he was outed by Spin magazine, he talked openly about being gay and even played a song in concert that was requested by a fan who had been in the chat that day. Some artists, like Radiohead or David Byrne, would stay online long after the chat was scheduled to end. Long before No Doubt was in MTV's buzz bin, they were shoveling down pizza in front of the computers and answering fans questions about what it was like to tour with Bush.

Things changed quickly. Soon our BBS became a Web site and the chats went on the IRC and Prodigy. We left behind the rats and moved to a clean 10,000-square-foot loft near Urban Outfitters. Publicists started to demand that we provide typists for their artists -- some bands even brought along their own. And now the mosh years of un-moderated, text-only celebrity chat are lost in the data stream. Most chat questions come in a cue, where, like on Rockline, fans have wait and pray the band sees their thoughts. Hopefully, every once and while, webmasters will switch off the new wares and let the words fly.

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