The web’s hall of mirrors

Becky Hogge
5 June 2006

It's not often one gets to muse on the world of pop music at openDemocracy (unless, of course, your musings happen to be about Bob Dylan), but the British pop charts, in particular the number-one slot, have a lot to teach technophiles this week. For over two months a rather catchy (and not a little creepy) ditty called Crazy has topped the official charts – the first track to do so via online download alone, as copies were not immediately available in record stores. This week, the top spot is occupied by one Sandi Thom, whose foray into webcasting concerts from her basement as a relative unknown was later revealed to be a clever public-relations ploy.

The worm doesn't usually turn so rapidly. One half of Gnarls Barkley, the duo behind Crazy, is web sensation DJ Danger Mouse, who rose to fame in early 2004 when he produced a so-called mashup (a remix that splices together two different original works) of the Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album. Thanks to is flagrant disregard for copyright law, the cheekily-titled Grey Album was subject to numerous cease and desist campaigns from Beatles rights-holders EMI, before Downhill Battle, those pesky music-activist kids, staged "Grey Tuesday" an international day of download, to support the album and the artist. Overnight, Danger Mouse became a bona fide geek sensation. And the album wasn't even that good.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)

"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)

Crazy, however is not just good, it's brilliant. Thanks to Danger Mouse's production talent and the memorable lyrics and vocals of established performer Cee-lo, plus some early airplay on one of Britain's most influential radio shows, it was downloaded in the country over 31,000 times in its first week of release. A CD version was released the day after to comply with British singles-chart regulations, but Crazy nonetheless entered the annals of history as the first single to reach the number-one spot via legal downloads alone. This prompted a flurry of excitement that the legitimate music distribution industry might finally have undone the damage caused by its slow reaction to illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing.

The duo deserve one final footnote of hallelujah for deleting the single (that is, removing it from shops) last week, thus ensuring that people didn't get sick of hearing it. This fleet-footed action marks a further refreshing break with the dinosaur era as epitomised by Canadian stadium-rocker Bryan Adams, whose record-smashing 1991 hit (Everything I do) I do it for you – sixteen weeks at number one, and a watchword for aural catatonia ever since – was selected in May by Digby Jones, director-general of Britain's leading employers' organisation, as one of his "desert-island discs", thus proving that neither money nor influence can buy a man taste in music. But I digress.

A twist in the downloads

Gnarls Barkley made way for Sandi Thom, and it is here, reader, that the tale gets more murky and interesting. For Ms Thom was not all that she claimed to be. Her story is that after her car broke down on the way back from yet-another half-attended gig she decided to pack in live touring in favour of webcasting concerts from her basement, only to be discovered weeks later by RCA records, thanks to all the online "buzz" surrounding her website, whence said gigs were cast.

So far, so geek chic. But over recent weeks several British online music forums have been picking holes in her story: pointing out that webcasting was a pretty tricky business; that bandwidth really didn't come cheap, especially if Thom was webcasting to the number of people she claimed; and – hang-on-just-a-Googling-minute – isn't this Thom on her MySpace profile in 2005 talking about a cool new songwriting deal with Windswept/Pacific Publishing? Meanwhile, established music PR firm Quite Great, whose past clients include Talking Heads, Kiss and Cliff Richard, revealed that Thom had been on its client list since June 2005.

The bit that comes next is where millions of young, impressionable music fans rush into record shops to deface copies of Thom's single, after trashing her in their MySpace cliques for being a bald-faced liar and uploading video footage that satirises her so-called basement webcasts onto YouTube. Right? Well no, actually. Despite the fact that her single I wish I was a punk rocker (with flowers in my hair) sounds like three cats screaming in an alleyway, Thom reached number one and got herself a slot on the BBC's flagship Top of the Pops programme.

So, can the internet be so easily stage-managed? The saga of Sandi Thom reminds me of the censorship hoax staged earlier this year by Bejing-based Chinese language blog Massage Milk, whose owner Wang Xiaofeng closed down the blog himself and then watched and laughed as western media dutifully picked up the story as one of Chinese censorship. His motivation? "To give foreign media a lesson that Chinese affairs are not always the way you think."

Has the web now become the hall of mirrors many always assumed it was? And what does this mean for internet mobilisation – which many Democratic Party activists in the United States argue is the new politics?

Let's not panic just yet. Human communication has always been complex – we don't say what we mean, even in the simplest of situations and interactions. The internet may magnify this trait, but it doesn't change it all that radically. Just as I know what you mean when you ask me "are you cold in here?", so Sandi Thom got sniffed out by the power of the blogosphere, and Wang Xiaofeng made his point about the complexities of free speech.

But then, maybe that's just what I want you to think…

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