Clive Thompson wrote a short article in the Feb 2010 issue of Wired Magazine called "in Praise of Online Obscurity" where he talks about how social circles begin to break down as they increase in size. He says that in small groups people are more intimate as they are part of a community where they can contribute and express their feelings and ideas openly, but in larger groups they become just another member of an anonymous mass. The article got me thinking about just how valid his points related to the various prog circles on the internet.
"After all, the world’s bravest and most important ideas are often forged away
from the spotlight — in small, obscure groups of people who are passionately
interested in a subject and like arguing about it. They’re willing to experiment
with risky or dumb concepts because they’re among intimates. (It was, after all,
small groups of marginal weirdos that brought us the computer, democracy, and
In a related research study, it was determined that 150 friends is upper limit on what the human brain is able to simultaneously keep track of.
I frequently visit certain small forums dedicated to prog music where people discuss new and old releases, give short reviews, and alert others to good bands that they have recently found. The interesting aspect of all this is how close-knit the communities are and the wide variety of people within them. Friends in these groups can be musicians, record labels, graphic designers, album reviewers, management agencies, web site representatives, and of course fans. The importance of these communities is that there's a feeling of togetherness where they can speak out with relative impunity and the rest of group will listen to what they have to say. When a hotly anticipated new release comes out everybody weighs in their thoughts on it and the people who made the CD are right there to read the critiques. These groups function as a think tank that can effectively sort out the good and the bad, so they become a self-correcting influence on the people within the group who are making the music.
Another interesting aspect of these small groups it that people in the group become advocates of certain bands and act like their personal promotion agency. From what I've observed it's an amazingly effective way at getting the word out about new music, more so even than the various web sites dedicated to reviewing CDs. I think a person is more apt to take the advice of a friend they know and trust over others on other web sites who they don't. I have little doubt that I have increased the visibility of some bands and even helped a few get signed by agencies or labels as a direct result of my own posturing in some of these groups.
If there's a downside to all of this it's that within these small groups there's a familiarity between members and they tend to view newcomers as outsiders. Depending on the person's background it usually takes a long while for somebody new to gain enough respect within the group for people to start calling them a friend. Another potential downside is that these groups tend to be somewhat rigid in their ideals, so the focus of one particular group is often for a similar look and sound.
It's interesting to think about how these small groups might play a role in how music is written and composed. From my experience some of the most creative and unusual music was created in a relative vacuum of outside influence, while 'popular' music generally must conform to a larger community/industry standard. The prog world is filled with thousands of niche bands with their own unique sound. I think a good deal of the individuality of prog music comes as a direct result of the bands interacting with a very small number of influences and supporters.