There are many things that David Bowie is a pioneer of. With a set of extraordinary musical personas, the singer set a precedent for a new invigoration of theatricality in the machismo world of rock. With his remarkable performance on stage as part of The Elephant Man, a play in which Bowie took the lead role, the singer became a foundational stone in musicians trying their hand at acting. Above all, his determination to continue evolving artistically has laid the blueprint for the ultimate purist pursuit. But, as well as all that, he was also a pioneer of the internet.
BowieNet, launched on September 1st, 1998, was the Starman’s very own Internet Service Provider. The singer, with his expert vision, saw the blossoming of the internet as something precious and powerful at the same time. He told Jeremy Paxman in 1999, “The internet is now, it carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious. Chaotic, nihilistic,” as Bowie’s interrupted by a snort of derision from his interviewer, the singer puts him right, “Oh yes it is!”. During the interview, Bowie also talks about the “demystification between the audience and the artist” which he thinks is one of the internet’s most powerful tools. Considering he’d set up his own BowieNet as a private ISP the previous year, he was well placed to agree.
For just £10 a month, you could not only have access to high-speed internet, whatever that was in 1998, but also the man himself. A press release of the time suggesting users would have a direct connection to “David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, including live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bulletin boards.” In 2020, we may look back at this with a heavy dose of scepticism. After all, we’re 22 years down the line of internet nihilism and the darkness of some corner of this here world wide web can be frightening. But, it turns out, Bowie really meant it.
In 1999, as part of the promotion for his album Hours, Bowie was interviewed by ZDTV. Bowie opens up about secretly speaking to his fans via BowieNet, telling the interviewer “At least two or three times a week, I go into the rooms on my site, anonymously generally, but sometimes I have a name that they know me by.” That alias would be “Sailor”, a fitting moniker for the singer. He would sue the handle to share Bowie updates as well as answering fan queries, even providing rave reviews of new releases—Arcade Fire’s Funeral earned a particularly brilliant response. But mainly, he just used it to be closer to his fans.
Telling his interviewer that he is often online he says “I participate a lot more than they think [laughs]. Yeh, I got several addresses, so it would be very hard for them to… I know some of you know what they are,” he says with a smile, staring down the barrel of the lens. The interviewer asks about “Bowie the voyeur”, suggesting it may be a strange situation to sit in anonymously on a conversation about yourself. But here Bowie not only predicts the rise of social media’s community but the value of an online community.
“No, that’s the point,” he says, “the best thing that’s happened with our site. I think because it has produced a kind of community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything.” He reflects, “It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than being part of the BowieNet.”
It showcases, yet again, what we already knew about Bowie—he has incredible foresight. The singer can see the blossoming of communities that social media can provide. While the platforms are not anywhere near perfect, it’s hard to ignore Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others’ ability to connect perfect strangers over mutual interests. It’s the foundations laid down by countless early-internet chat rooms and one Bowie quickly took up as a vital piece of his own fandom.
As the conversation continues, Bowie reveals that his site had a dense population of artists and, it so happens, webmasters and those directly working on the very earliest websites. He also encourages artistic submissions “continuously”, receiving a plethora of “both written word, and in graphics on the visual side.” He effuses about the members of BowieNet “They’re an amazing bunch of people, they really are great, they really are.” He evens throws a little shade at competitors, “I’ve been through a lot of the so-called fansites, of other artists, and I’m really proud of my lot because they got a good sense of humour.”
The interviewer agrees “you should be proud” he says, suggesting Bowie had achieved what he had set out to do—create a community. “It feels like a virtual community. I’m not quite sure how you differentiate between that and a ‘real-time’ community. There’s something added by not actually knowing who the other person really is in reality and only having a sense of that person, it’s almost metaphysical. It’s an extraordinary feeling. I enjoy it very much because I don’t quite understand and I’ve always enjoyed the things I don’t understand.” BowieNet would go on to be an award-winning ISP.
While Bowie doesn’t quite predict every facet of the rise of social media, neglecting to mention the giant impact it has had on our political landscape. But he does clearly see it as a powerful and potent way of connection, while the singer’s viewpoint is through rose-tinted glasses, it’s hard not to reminisce about the innocence of early-internet age chat rooms, dial-up connection soundtracks and the chance of accidentally speaking to David Bowie without ever knowing it.