Does "Internet Famous" Mean Famous?

“My fame is very targeted. It's not local because it doesn't have anything to do with physical space, but it's local on the map of ideas and taste. Walking down the street here in New York, nobody knows who I am.”
  • Transcript


Question: Do you consider yourself "internet famous?"

Jonathan Coulton: I definitely consider myself "internet famous" at this point. I think the difference between famous and "internet famous," it's a dividing line that is getting a little fuzzier, really month by month at this point, not just for me but I think as our culture changes, and I think it's about the medium that you are famous in. If you are famous for being on television, you are reaching a much larger and broader audience, than anyone who's on the Internet. As popular as certain ideas and people have become on the Internet, they don't really reach that kind of super fame, that sort of global broad appeal until they move into television. 

You know you can look at anything... like Twitter for example, you know that was a thing that I heard about through somebody else, signed up for it, started using... Nobody cared about it, you know, I was explaining it to my friends and they thought I was crazy. And then you started to see people on the Internet got excited about it and started using it and so it was sort of an internet thing and then you started to see people talking about it all the time on television. That was a very quick transformation. It was very, very quick it moved into that medium. And that's the point when it became a really famous thing. And it's a thing that almost everybody knows about now. Maybe they don't understand it. Frequently when it's mentioned, it's accompanied by a lame joke about how it's weird or stupid or whatever. So you know in many ways, it's infamous outside of the Internet rather than being famous. 

But you know, for me my fame is very targeted, it's not local because it doesn't have anything to do with physical space, but it's local on the map of ideas and taste, you know, because I'm famous on the Internet for writing a certain kind of song. And that appeals to a certain kind of person who's interested in certain things. And within a certain community, I'm pretty well-known. But just walking down the street here in New York, nobody knows who I am. I'm rarely recognized in public. And so in many ways it's the best of both worlds, because I have a fan base that is large and loyal enough to support me and I get that ego boost that is you know, I know now is kind of critical to me you know, that feedback from people telling me that they like this song or that song or that they really enjoyed this concert or that CD. 

I get that back and forth, but at the same time, I can see how having that kind of relationship with the entire world would be kind of unpleasant. You think about somebody like, poor Michael Jackson, who can't really go out in public anymore. Well, now he's dead but when he was alive, he could not go out in public anymore. And I think it's a bizarre thing, that the people that we love the most, we force them to become shut-ins. We've sort of cut them off from the rest of the world. It’s a strange thing that fame does. 

Question: Why do certain ideas become Internet famous and others don’t? 

Jonathan Coulton: Well, I think that there are a couple of things at play, that govern what kinds of ideas become "internet famous." One of them is just the fact that there are more geeks on the Internet than there are non-geeks on the Internet. And this is just because the Internet is still a relatively new medium on this planet. So I think a lot has been made of the ascendance of geek culture and you'd be crazy if you didn't think a lot of that had to do with the fact that there is the Internet and now all these people who use computers have a way to use their computers to get together in different ways, to communicate and create things and disseminate ideas and bounce them off of one another and change ideas. So I think part of it is just the Internet is the perfect medium for geeks because geeks like computers and that's mostly where the Internet is you know. 

But aside from that, I do think the common thread that a lot of internet culture shares is a kind of hyper-postmodernism. I barely know what I'm talking about here so bear with me, but you know I think there's a kind of humor, in particular, that is unique to the Internet and it has to do with referencing other things in an ironic way, in re-imagining them in a certain way, recycling ideas. Of course this is part of what postmodernism means, but I think there's sort of winky aspect to the things that become really popular in internet culture that sort of sits on top of that standard postmodernism, you know, collage combination of different ideas. Look at LOLCats for example. Which is bizarre and could only exist on the Internet and is, I think a real good measuring device for determining if somebody is part of internet culture or not. You know, they're basically funny pictures of cats, with a caption you know. And so you can say, well that's dumb, that's you know there are lots of greeting cards that are like that. We've had that for a long time. But there's a self-referential quality to LOLCats and it's the language that cats speak, somehow, it's this kind of pigeon language that cats speak and it kind of makes sense. I mean, if you're a fan of LOLCats, the reason you like it is because you see a caption and a funny picture and yes, you are looking at a funny caption of a funny cat picture, but also there's a joke there and it's very hard to explain what that joke is to somebody who doesn't get it. And it has to do with that language that cats speak, that is made up, that somehow a very large group of strangers all seems to agree that this is the language that cats speak. And so, I sound like a lunatic just talking about it. And that is, I think, a perfect example of the things that become popular on the Internet and why, even though I haven't really said why because I don't even know why. 

Question: What do you see yourself as? 

Jonathan Coulton: I walk a dangerous line between comedy and non-comedy music. Like many who've come before me, I'm not the first to do it and it's a troubling thing sometimes to be known as the guy who writes funny songs when in actuality my favorite songs are the ones that are not funny at all. My favorite songs of mine are the very sad ones. And so, yes, you know I think it is, I think it is crazy, I have learned that it is crazy for any artist to decide how they want, what kind of artist they want to be known as. You don't get to decide that. The best-case scenario for you if you're an artist, is to make the things that you love. To make the things that you want to make and to have a group of fans who like it and support you and who make it possible for you to continue making more stuff. That's all you can ask for and I think if you start to worry about, are people going to think of me as a novelty musician, when really I'm a sensitive writer of important songs, then that way lies madness. Because it's not up to you to decide and there's little you can do to change anyone's mind. Once you've put the stuff out there that is yours, people will make of it what they will and you're lucky to even be thinking about trying to change that. So shut up. That's kind of what I think about that. So, I'm just so pleased to be here and you know I feel so fortunate to be making a living this way. I'm happy for the fans who think of me as a novelty musician and I'm happy for the fans who think of me as a writer of important songs. However you like me, I'm just glad that you like me.

Recorded on May 6, 2010