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Connecting Humans:
twang in cyberspace:
how one music-related online community
blurs the line between "real" and "virtual"

This information was posted May 1, 2000; some of the URLs are no longer functional. You can still find the information though -- simply type in the URL that isn't working into archive.org.

 

"ALL communities are good, supportive things, whether they happen face-to-face or over e-mail. People make people more isolated. Saying the internet makes people more isolated is like saying pencils make people more isolated. Also, if you're the only person in Springfield who makes civil war figures out of marzipan - you can probably find more people with the same hobby easier on the Internet than by wandering the streets. This is good. You've created a community."

Chris Knaus
P2 community member

 
Many researchers and reporters study and write about online or "virtual" communities as completely separate from in-person communities. But how would they categorize Postcard2, an online community that spurs so many offline activities, large and small, that the lines between offline and online community are quite blurred?

Postcard2 -- also known as P2 or Passenger Side -- is a discussion group via e-mail that focuses on Americana music, a genre which goes by various names, including No Depression music (from the Carter family song of the same name), twang core, insurgent country, alternative country and many others (in fact, "what do we call this music" is frequently debated on the list). Americana music includes a variety of artists and styles that fall into gray areas too "rock and roll" or "retro" for country stations and too country for rock stations, from pioneers like Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons, to modern day performers such as Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams. Rockabilly, bluegrass and old-time country performers are also usually categorized fit under the Americana genre as well.

Members of P2 talk and debate about shows at venues throughout the U.S. (and, sometimes, outside the country), CDs, publications, favorite (and not-so-favorite) bands, the various influences on Americana music, and business trends that can affect performers and fans. Members are mostly music lovers from non-music-related professions, as well as professional and amateur musicians, music writers, music retailers, radio programmers, DJs and "industry weasels" (those who work for established music and entertainment companies and publications).

P2 started in 1995, and there are now more than 700 members of the online community. The vast majority are "lurkers": people who read but do not post messages to the list. Most members found out about P2 from articles about "alt.country" in newspapers or other publications, from another online community (usually the No Depression board on America Online or a bluegrass discussion group), or while looking for information on the Web about country music, blues, rock and roll history, and so on.

What is particularly interesting about the P2 online community is that, over the years, hundreds of its members -- frequent posters and lurkers alike -- have regularly engaged in meetings offline, and their initial connection to each other came from this list. From gatherings of members in the same city at music clubs, to securing a lineup of Americana bands at a particular venue, to forming a nonprofit organization and producing an annual music festival in St. Louis called Twangfest, P2 members consistently buck the usual stereotypes many researchers and reporters have tried to assign online community members: people using online interactions to substitute for in-person encounters, people going out less than before the Internet, and so forth.

"I have made many good friends from my involvement on this list," says Laura Dear, a research librarian and P2 member in Chicago, Illinois. "I suppose I meet up with fellow P2ers on a monthly basis. I've hosted parties and hooked up with people before and during shows. This is a very friendly group."

"Increasingly, the experience of meeting with P2ers resembles any other meeting with friends -- close friends that you don't see all that often," says Amy Haugesag, an online community manager for a for-profit company, and also of Chicago. "I'm not embarrassed to say that P2 has been the main source of my social life for a considerable part of the last five years. As a female music fan, I always felt a little isolated, because I had very few female friends who were as passionate about music as I was, and many guys never knew quite what to make of a girl who was as passionate about music as they were. P2 has provided me with a whole slew of fellow travelers, men and women, who share the passion -- who 'get it.'"

"Through P2 I have established relationships with a number of people in a number of different cities," says John Wendland, who works in the telecommunications industry and as a musician of St. Louis, Missouri. "I find myself being offered a myriad of different places to stay in different cities, and I have put up people from P2 at my house on numerous occasions. Having some common ground before meeting people for the first time -- a love of music -- seems to pretty much take away any awkwardness that would otherwise result from a first time meeting."

"I meet with someone from P2 at least two or three times a month, and for the past year or so I've met with groups of them about every three or four months or so," says Bill Silvers, a customer service supervisor in Kansas City, Missouri. "Those meetings are special, exciting, frustrating, nervous making, exhilarating, and drunken, to use just a few of the applicable adjectives. I've met and gotten close to a lot of terrific people that I would never have had the opportunity to have met before the creation of the Internet-P2-Twangfest. Simply, it's given me an opportunity to meet and interact with dozens of like-minded people, and has become a primary source of intellectual, emotional and personal interaction for me."

"I see P2 folks multiple times per week - sometimes even in non-musical situations," says Chris "C.K." Knaus of Nashville, Tennessee. "It's nice to go to a show by yourself and know that there will be at least one other person there you know, or at least recognize. Also, since I used to travel for work, I often would get the low-down on a new city from a P2 person and try to meet up at a show or two. This is a very cool way to travel. It's not P2 friends vs. my 'real' friends - it works itself into one big group, sorta. There's still private jokes in different groups and stuff like that - but that's no different than having friends from school and friends from the coffee shop."

"I've been to four or so group gatherings of P2 people, but I have met up with other P2 people at various shows in different cities," says Maggie Mazur, who works in digital prepress operations in Des Moines, Iowa. "The one-on-one meetings are easier, because you can meet and chat and then go about your business if you so desire. You have specific things you've e-mailed about or posted about that you can talk about. It's not like meeting a complete stranger at a bar, because with this, you already have a base line association."

"Because of P2, there is actually an alt-country scene in Boston now," says Marie Arsenault, a marketing consultant and booking agent, formerly of New England and now of Nashville, Tennessee. "Also, even though some of us lived within blocks of each other, we never would have met without P2. I met my now-house mate/landlord on P2. Many of my Nashville friends I met through P2 as well. I see them a few times a week. I also get together with what we affectionately call the 'Travelling Circus' about once every few months in some city in the U.S. I meet with the Twangfest Committee -- I'm also on the board-- about every three months in St. Louis. I don't like referring to these folks as my 'P2 friends.' Because there is no difference between them and friends I meet in other ways. Hanging with the folks I met through P2 always means lots of music, lots of laughs, lots of hugs, lots of love. They're true kindred spirits. Hanging out with these folks is one of the real joys of my life."

"Besides the annual gatherings that have become a regular part of lots of peoples' calendars, there have been, at varying times, enough list members right here in not-very-country New York City that we started to go to shows together regularly," says Barry Mazor, a multimedia trade publication editor. "We have even spun off a regular series of 'P2 in New York' shows at a local bar. I see some of these people regularly now, even when music isn't involved, and in the case of one lady, really often when anything at all is involved. The involvement in this community has led to my writing about (music) subjects professionally again -- which has been more pleasant than I would have figured! Day-to-day involvement with P2 and its people has tended to respark hankerings to do these things. It's been re-energizing. There have even been moments of contact with people I hadn't heard from for years that have been touching and which could only happen via the Net."

 
The Culture of P2 and
the pitfalls of e-mail-only communication

"There are internet lists, like one called postcard2, where the faithful debate fine points of alt.country minutiae like obsessive honky-tonk Trotskyites."

Peter Applebome
New York Times
April 15, 2000

The P2 online community is always lively, with tempers flaring and jokes flying back and forth about everything from the impact of communism on Woodie Guthrie's music to "Hee Haw." Many people who now post frequently to P2 report a shaky start the first time they tried to participate.

"My blood pressure would raise and heart rate quicken when I first read others' posts regarding music I held so dearly to my heart," says Dear. "I was living on the East Coast at this time and did not have many friends and certainly not many who enjoyed my favorite Texas singer/songwriters, rockabilly artists, country/honkytonk artists, etc. I lurked for awhile and then posted once and remember getting shot down by a couple of members about whatever the hell I was trying to say. That scared me off for a little while."

"Someone told me a review I wrote was a topic of discussion, so I joined out of curiosity," says James "Slim" Kelly of Atlanta, Georgia, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology, a behavior analyst consultant, an instructor at Georgia State University, and a part time music critic and musician. "I jumped right in trying to defend myself. I put my foot way deep in my own mouth several times before I figured out the protocol. Got called a lot of names, pissed a lot of people off, then had to redeem my self by talking smart about a few things. Now I put my foot only halfway in my mouth most of the time, but feel ok about doing it."

Even with his contentious start on P2, Kelly has strong positive feelings about the community. "It has been a pleasant experience across the board. I have not met a P2 person (face-to-face) I didn't like."

"When I went to Austin, Texas for an internship interview, I posted on P2 that I was coming and asked for some info about shows in Austin that weekend," he recalls. "I received about 10 private responses, each listing shows and several with phone numbers and invitations to meet for a drink, etc. I contacted several of the people who sent numbers, met them in person, and when I got the internship I had a ready made group of friends in Austin when I got there. They were my support during a very tough year, as I had separation problems, the internship was initially very stressful, my Dad was seriously ill for a while, and I got physically ill (and got better with a little help from my friends). The Austin P2ers and their friends literally saved my life, and helped me survive what could have been a disaster. I will always remember their kindness and acceptance, and will return that to others whenever I get the chance."

Part of P2's reputation for members sounding harsh may come from the nature of debate via written communication. "Dealing with disagreements and thoroughly hashing out contentious issues can be tough by e-mail" says Mark Wyatt of Columbus, Ohio, a professional editor, a member of a bluegrass band, and a Twangfest organizer. "Things come out more harshly sometimes than you mean them to. Which is why it's great to periodically see lots of the folks you write to; it helps restore the balance."

"I pretty much find that if I like the person from their e-mail, I like the person when I meet him or her," adds Wyatt. "The converse is not always true; some of the more contentious folks online are much nicer in person."

"While 99% of the people I've met in this community have been wonderful, there is always the exception," says Arsenault. "It's sometimes easy to forget that you really don't know someone that you communicate with through e-mail. Even if you're e-mailing this person 10 times a day, you don't really know the person. Nothing can replace that face-to-face contact. The P2ers that I've become friends with are the ones I spend real time with. Even the occasional visit makes a difference." P2 is moderated by Don Yates, a radio station program director in Seattle, Washington. On P2, this amateur country music historian has been friendly but quite outspoken.

"I've mixed it up with a lotta folks, but usually even the heated disagreements ended with expressions of mutual respect," says Yates. "I'm pretty sociable in general, and P2 is just one part --albeit an important one-- of an active social life. I still don't understand why some folks seem to get all fearful about posting, and get all freaked out if someone disagrees with 'em. Variety's the spice of life, and I love playing the contrarian and posting stuff that I know is gonna cause a debate. That's what makes P2 so lively -- lotsa interesting characters with contrary points of view. Even folks that have rubbed me the wrong way on the list have turned out to be generally nice people in person. Hopefully some might even say the same about me. [g]"

(note: "[g]" stands for "grin")

"The best part of P2: Music, Music, Music. Talking about it, playing it, finding out about new music," says Jeff Wall of Kernersville, North Carolina, an electronics technician in the communications industry, publisher of his own twang-related web site, and one of the most outspoken people on P2. "It all comes back to the music. Plus, we are a self regulating anarchy. The thing that has kept P2 successful while other music forums have broken down is that respect is mandatory on P2. Sure, we mess with each other, sure we like to point out that your favorite band sucks, sure we like to make fun of you when you pass out face first into the chips and salsa, but there is always respect there as well."

 
Twangfest: a music event organized via cyberspace

In 1997, various members of P2 organized a two-night music event in St. Louis, called "Twangfest." The event was organized by P2 volunteers all over the U.S., largely via e-mail, and showcased both up-and-coming and established Americana bands. The event proved so successful that a second Twangfest was held in 1998. The volunteer group that organized the event then started paper work to form an incorporated nonprofit organization. The third annual Twangfest in 1999 proved the largest and most successful so far, spanning three days and nights, packing in an audiences of more than 300 people a night. In addition to its annual showcase in St. Louis, Twangfest also sponsors a yearly CD release, Edges from the Postcard, a compilation various Americana bands, including some bands with representatives on P2.

"The first time I went to Twangfest, I had maybe met three or four of the attendees face-to-face previously," says Wyatt. His band was asked to play that first event. "I set up the whole gig entirely by e-mail, not even using the phone. Frankly, I wondered what the hell I had done and couldn't even be sure the whole thing wasn't some big sham. Well, when I got to St. Louis, I met person after person I had corresponded with -- there was almost none of that 'getting to know you' flavor that accompanies meeting people for the first time. I *already* knew lots about them. I've never experienced anything like it."

"I did have second thoughts driving through southern Illinois to spend a weekend with 50 people I'd never met," says Knaus. "But I figured if it sucked I could drive right back home. And the Waco Brothers were playing, so how bad could that be? How? I arrived at the hotel, unpacked, called a P2 member that was there -- and who I had never met in-person --, walked into his room full of folks I had never seen face-to-face before, and joined the party."

"I joked beforehand about going to Twangfest for the first time and expecting to see a bunch of people squinting from never being out and having to converse from table to table by laptop," says Wendland. "But, of course, it turned out to be nothing like that. Pretty much a crowd of fun-loving party maniacs for the most part."

"It was completely natural to go there -- but I think a lot of people were WONDERING how it would actually go before their, uh, first time," says Mazor. "Were there going to be a bunch of people standing around having these elevated arguments about the psycho-social significance of class distinctions in 'Hee-Haw'?"

Mazor attended one of the first large-scale in-person P2 meetings, at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference in March 1997. "There was a workshop in the convention hall on the Future of Americana radio format, or something like that, moderated, if that word can be applied, by P2 member Jim Caligiuri. People wore badges (at the conference), and I tried reading people's chests furiously, to see who, if any, P2 people were around. When a current in joke from the list was mentioned out loud during the panel, at least 50 people let loose with a knowing laugh. The next day was the second of the P2 Austin barbecues (sponsored by a list member). We discovered we could hit it off like old friends. The first of the organized Twangfest musical events sponsored by the list was just weeks later. That tied it up; these virtual friends were the neighborhood I never got to have."

"The last night of last year's Twangfest was my coming out party, after actually attending the first two Twangfests and managing the trick of lurking them while actually attending!" says Silvers in a quote from a page of testimonials on the Twangfest Web site. "After I slipped out of my shell, I started writing to the list, (lord help y'all there) and found out for myself that there really wasn't any reason to be 'intimidated' by the folks who I'd spent so much time reading and enjoying around here... It's a great, truly special community of folks, and I'm lucky to be a little part of it. Can't wait till next year..."

Lisa Merlin of Boston, Massachusetts attended her first Twangfest in 1999, and on the same page of testimonials on the Twangfest Web site, said she was "initially apprehensive."

"Being somewhat shy -- and a bit intimidated -- I wasn't sure what sort of reception that I would get. Would I be ignored? Would I feel out of place? What sort of people would I meet? I had a wonderful time. I have never felt so comfortable in front of a group of people that I had never met before. I felt a real sense of belonging. People were welcoming, friendly, bright, funny and a hell of a lot of fun. The music was fantastic.... It was also great to meet so many WOMEN interested in the same music I am!"

"Twangfest has been a source of real pride for me, in addition to giving me the opportunity to learn a huge amount and work with some wonderful people, and providing the best long weekend of the year every year now for four years running," says Haugesag, a Twangfest organizer. "The hardest thing about working with Twangfest has been juggling the different agendas and constituencies (of volunteers and P2 members). Trying to keep the fest true to its P2 roots, yet still making it grow enough to stay interesting -- and stay afloat -- has been tricky, and so has trying to make Twangfest all the different things that the seven different organizers want it to be."

"I'm very, very proud of the event," echoes Arsenault regarding Twangfest. "I've learned from Twangfest both professionally and personally. My accomplishments with Twangfest gave me the confidence to start a new professional career. If I can help put something like Twangfest together on a shoe string budget, well, I feel like can do just about anything. I could not have gained this experience anywhere else. Personally, Twangfest has brought so much joy into my life; some of the Twangfest committee members are now my best friends. I also love attending Twangfest. I get to see four nights of the best music this genre has too offer. And I get to spend four days with wonderful folks. My involvement with Twangfest reminds me that when you're doing something you love and believe in, it's not really work. It's really hard and stressful, but it's not work. I've carried that over to my professional life as well." So far, the Twangfest volunteers seem to be striking the perfect balance, given the notices the event has received, such as one from Jon Weisberger, a bluegrass veteran musician and writer for Bluegrass Unlimited (and, of course, a P2 member): "Twangfest is not only a great showcase for the whole range of 'alternative country' - everything from bluegrass to rootsy rock'n'roll - it's the creation of a modern-day community, the cyber-neighborhood of Postcard2, giving it an up-close-and-personal flavor unmatched by other music festivals. Most importantly, it's a hell of a good time. When the history of alternative country is written, I'm confident it will be cited as a turning point, when the alt.country cyber-community materialized to give the genre a significant boost, not to mention one hell of a good time."

 
Thoughts on cyber stereotypes

P2 members had strong feelings about a few recent, highly-publicized reports claiming the Internet is isolating people and discouraging in-person interactions. Many P2 members are part of other online communities, and while not all of these communities generate face-to-face activity, no one said these groups were taking away from their "real" life.

"ALL communities are good supportive things, whether they happen face-to-face or over e-mail," affirms Knaus. "People make people more isolated. Saying the internet makes people more isolated is like saying pencils make people more isolated. Also, if you're the only person in Springfield who makes civil war figures out of marzipan - you can probably find more people with the same hobby easier on the Internet than by wandering the streets. This is good. You've created a community.

"People who tend to isolate are going to isolate," says Wall. "One good thing about the internet is its ability to shorten the lines of communication. My wife, who is an introvert, has made several good friends through the Internet, some from as far away as Australia. She drove 300 miles to attend a gathering of her Internet buddies. This is amazing, especially considering that she has a social anxiety hang-up."

"My feeling is that the internet may make some people more isolated if they were that way to begin with, but used appropriately, it can open the door to a wider social circle," says Kelly. "The fact that we can communicate online before we meet in person and we share a common interest in certain types of music expedites the initial steps of forming a relationship."

"I can say that it's been easier to make friends via this route -- meeting them before visual noise gets in the way--than to meet strangers in the less virtual Big City by so-called normal methods," says Mazor. "I know dozens of people from P2 -- virtually and often face-to-face -- better than most of the people in this 15 apartment brownstone I've lived in for 21 years! There has never been anything isolating about belonging to this community to me at all...just the opposite. Heck, the lady I spend all that time with today was a lurker on the list for some time, delurked about a year ago before a show, showed up amongst a group of us, and over time we got to know each other better. Given my work schedule, which involved a daily long commute out of the city and much travel besides, and hers--which is academic and she lives about an hour subway's ride away anyhow--there's not the slightest reason to think I'd have met her otherwise."

 
Could the success of this online community and
its in-person events be duplicated by others?

P2ers offered a number of suggestions to help other groups plan and nurture a successful online community, and to undertake a successful event that brings an online community together in-person. Knaus says that, for success, an organizer of an online community needs to remember to:

"Be flexible," adds Wyatt. "An online community that just talks about one band or narrow genre seems like prison to me.

"You have to be prepared for the changing dynamic of a group, and accept repeating threads and some annoying people who like to cause trouble (baiting)," says Mazur, who is subscribed to numerous other music-related online communities. "I find some level of moderating helps keep a list focused, but having the freedom to share something about yourself is good, too. It keeps the list more human and people feel more connected when there's some off-topic straying."

"You've got to give community members enough space to be themselves--or at least, the version of themselves that shows in typing stuff," agrees Mazor. "But it seems to me that you've also got to keep the subject that brought the community together as your centerpiece, or a thousand points of individual distraction will blow the thing up. That keeps the Net list space itself an active home for that community -- instead of just turning into just a phone-like or bulletin board-like communication link for live community activities elsewhere. We've been lucky -- and maybe well-led and moderately moderated too -- in threading that needle."

"P2 is often accused of having an inner circle, or a clique," says Wall. "It's true, it does exist. However, it doesn't exist intentionally. Read a weeks worth of posts. About a tenth of the list generates the majority of list traffic. That's the inner circle. If you want to be a member of the inner circle, all you have to do is start contributing. It is a good idea to 'lurk' for a while to try to get a flavor as to what's going on."

As for events, Haugesag suggests organizers "keep in mind that you can't please all the people all of the time, and expect lots of grief and little glory. Have a clear sense of what you hope to accomplish, and try to find dates, times, and places that will accommodate as many people as possible. If people are traveling a long way, try to make sure that there's enough for them to do, enough places for them to stay, etc., without actually arranging their trip for them. And don't be surprised if some of the people don't turn out in person to be quite the way they seemed to be online. (That hasn't been the case with Twangfest, but I've heard stories of other gatherings...). Be prepared for lots of work and effort without much obvious return, at least not right away. Make sure you know why you're doing it and what you expect to get out of it, and don't do it unless you really believe in whatever you're doing -- otherwise, it won't be worth it."

"Honest and open communication is key," says Arsenault regarding organizing an event like Twangfest. "You have to really trust and respect the people you're working with. It's important that everyone is responsible and accountable. Face-to-face meetings at least every two to three months are really necessary."


 
Twangfest is each June in St. Louis, Missouri.
Complete information about this event, and information on how to join P2, is available on the Twangfest web site.

 


 
Some of this information was developed originally for The Virtual Volunteering Project and all of this information was written and compiled by Jayne Cravens, unless noted otherwise.

 
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