Balloons at Depeche Mode's O2 gig illustrate the difference between 'community' and 'fans'

 by Martin Belam, 24 February 2010

My colleague Meg Pickard gives a great presentation about the nature of social media, and it includes a slide of three people waiting at a bus stop, with the question 'is this a community?'. At the weekend I had cause to think about the nature of being 'in a community' at Depeche Mode's O2 gig.

There is no doubt that I am a big fan of Depeche, and have been for many, many years. I also visit a lot of websites about them to follow news of the band.

But something surprised me at the show, which indicates that I am not a member of the 'Depeche Mode' community.

As the band began to play 'Policy Of Truth', accompanied by a video of lots of coloured balls bouncing around, fans around the O2 began releasing lots of coloured balloons into the crowd. This had been pre-planned on forums, and has been a feature of the current tour.

For me there was something very interesting about how this had been self-organised by fans, and that actually a bad newspaper review of last year's shows had spurred the whole thing on to a new level. Writing in The Independent back in December, Andy Gill said:

"The shortcomings were epitomised by the balloons released during one song: when Elton John does this sort of thing, you can't move for bloody balloons – it's like being in the kiddies' ball-room at Ikea – but here, the vastness of the Dome lent a particularly bathetic edge to the smattering of around a dozen balloons bobbing fitfully about the audience. When you've just been stung £25 for a few hours' parking, this sort of cheapness just rubs salt into the wound."

There was an immediate and brilliant riposte in the comments:

"That was me with the balloons ... I'll buy more next time ..."

Although originating as a fan-based bit of fun, for the last leg of the tour the official Depeche Mode site encouraged it on their blog for the tour, citing the review:

"You guys need to get some balloons for the 2010 shows and get them floating around for 'Policy Of Truth' - a bit of audience participation is always fun!! At one of the London shows, a journalist thought that the balloons were an official part of the show - and complained there were not enough of them! It is up to us - the fans - to make sure that there are enough balloons to make a decent display at each of the forthcoming shows. This is a perfect chance for us to show our appreciation for the band in their 30th year. Please sign up below if you are willing to bring some balloons, blow them up, pass them round and coordinate the release at the start of 'Policy Of Truth'"

But as I mentioned above, it was all a surprise to me.

When Meg asks whether the three people at the bus stop are a community, many people answer "yes", because they see people with a common purpose and geographical location. Meg argues that they are a potential community, because they are standing apart and not yet talking to each other.

When it comes to the Depeche Mode community, I might be at the bus stop, but I've obviously got my headphones on, because I'm clearly not listening to what is going on amongst the fans!


Martin, I think we older folks cannot relate to the newer fans. We will undoubtedly be part of our own community through gracious memories, but, I like you, will be listening with my headphones not part of the present day community. Good post!

Bummer you did not have any ballons. I still believe you ARE part of the community, just not the online community for Depeche Mode, but now that you know you can BE online with everyone else so you won't miss out next time. The thing about social cliques these days is that you have to stay CONNECTED to be in the loop. Cheers

Good points Martin.. The potential definition of a "community" is quite different in today's connected world vs. the 80's when DM was at the top of the charts!

I don't think that Meg's theory hold all the way since in an online community you don´t have to talk to someone (or to all) to be part of the community. For me the community is something that you have signed for in some way.

Tommi - just to clarify, my hypothesis about the three people in the bus stop isn't that they need to actually talk to each other to be a community but they need to act together, enhance or affect each others experiences or perceptions or actions, interact (which could be non-verbally) and above all recognise themselves and/or each other as having a common affiliation or identity.

In an online community, you don't need to talk to someone to be part of a community, but you need all the other stuff above.

A potential community is a bunch of people with loads of things in common, but who don't think of themselves as a community in any way, and haven't acted on it yet.

For example, is Amazon a community? Or a bunch of people who like buying books and things?

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