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Jonathan Coulton is a musician and songwriter. A former computer programmer and self-described geek, Coulton tends to write quirky, witty lyrics about topics like science fiction and technology: a man[…]

“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.”

Question: Do you consider yourself "internet famous?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:rn What do you see yourself as? 

Jonathan Coulton: I rnwalk a dangerous line between comedy and non-comedy music. Like many rnwho've come before me, I'm not the first to do it and it's a troubling rnthing sometimes to be known as the guy who writes funny songs when in rnactuality my favorite songs are the ones that are not funny at all. My rnfavorite songs of mine are the very sad ones. And so, yes, you know I rnthink it is, I think it is crazy, I have learned that it is crazy for rnany artist to decide how they want, what kind of artist they want to be rnknown as. You don't get to decide that. The best-case scenario for you rnif you're an artist, is to make the things that you love. To make the rnthings that you want to make and to have a group of fans who like it andrn support you and who make it possible for you to continue making more rnstuff. That's all you can ask for and I think if you start to worry rnabout, are people going to think of me as a novelty musician, when rnreally I'm a sensitive writer of important songs, then that way lies rnmadness. Because it's not up to you to decide and there's little you canrn do to change anyone's mind. Once you've put the stuff out there that isrn yours, people will make of it what they will and you're lucky to even rnbe thinking about trying to change that. So shut up. That's kind of rnwhat I think about that. So, I'm just so pleased to be here and you knowrn I feel so fortunate to be making a living this way. I'm happy for the rnfans who think of me as a novelty musician and I'm happy for the fans rnwho think of me as a writer of important songs. However you like me, I'mrn just glad that you like me.
Recorded on May 6, 2010