Netnography of a festival community in times of social distancing.

Karolina Golemo and Marta Kupis

Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Poland

How does an open-air music festival, that at peak popularity attracted hundreds of thousands participants, move to a small concert hall or to a virtual space? Instead of closeness, crowd spontaneity, unfettered contact between people, liberating dance and cathartic mud baths in front of the stage, there are rigor, restrictions, meticulous distance measuring, and face masks. In 2020, the year dominated by the pandemic, such a scenario was met by Pol’and’Rock, one of the most popular festivals in Poland, with a multitude of devoted fans. The event’s organisers moved this year’s edition to a television studio with a limited audience and made it accessible online through social media.

Pol’and’Rock Festival (formerly known as Woodstock Station), held since 1995, is an annual free rock music event labelled with the motto: “Love, Friendship, Music”. The event emerged as an idea of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation (an initiative collecting money for Polish hospitals during the Christmas period for almost three decades) to show gratitude to its volunteers. Pol’and’Rock Festival (encompassing other genres like punk, heavy metal, folk, blues, electronic music) has been traditionally connected to the Polish third sector: different NGOs habitually present their activities in the festival venue. Along with the concerts there are other events organised during the festival, e.g. The Academy of Finest Arts – a space of encounter and discussion between young people and famous personalities: artists, politicians, and religious leaders. Throughout the years, there have been visible connections between music and issues regarding social activism and freedom of expression.

In 2020 the festival community was challenged by these unexpected circumstances. The decision to adopt the new format of the event was made quite early, at the end of April. Festival organisers’ announcement left no doubt: responsibility, solidarity and security proved to be more important than the annual group celebration of the musical ritual in Kostrzyn nad Odrą, the festival venue. Jerzy Owsiak, the president of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity Foundation, stated:

Those who know us, know that we do not give up easily — no gale force winds, storms, or upheavals would dampen our resolve and energy to create the Most Beautiful Festival in the World. Unfortunately, we had to bow down to the virus (…) Now is not the time for pretending to be brave, for coming up with gimmicks to trick the virus. We know this very well, so we directed all our activities towards helping medical staff fight with the disease. We believe that we will overcome the worst, yet we are realistic and, above all else, prioritising health and safety of our festival guests and performers.(…).

He invited the festival audience to join the online 2020 edition and to maintain the sense of togetherness in the form of a distanced celebration:

We are gearing up to create a one-of-a-kind adventure and to recreate that community we have lovingly tended for all these years (…). Let’s create this festival experience together. Find a pleasant spot and, along with family and friends, immerse yourselves in the atmosphere of the Most Beautiful Festival in the World! Our stages will play internationally, and we will be honoured and humbled if you invite us to your homes (…).

This unexpected scenario caused by the pandemic influenced our research plans, too, making the fieldwork move to the virtual space. The participant observation, material encounters and dialogues with the public on the spot, had to be substituted by netnographic tools. These belong to a relatively new trend in social sciences, which can best be described in the words of Robert Kozinets: Netnography is a form of qualitative research that seeks to understand the cultural experiences that encompass and are reflected within the traces, practices, networks and systems of social media (Kozinets, 2020). The author further divides netnographic tools into three groups: investigative (a passive observation of online forums, groups, accounts, etc.), immersive (according to the author, it is difficult to speak of online observation as “participatory”, since there are many online actions that are neither passive nor active in classical ethnographic terms – for example, “liking” a comment – so he proposes the term “immersion” instead), and interactive (online interviews being the best example). The research presented here combined the investigative tools while watching the transmissions and the immersive tools for studying the audience.

The 2020 online edition of Pol’and’Rock Festival could be experienced, both in the sense of listening to the concerts and interacting with the rest of the audience, in two different ways. The first of those was through immediate, concurrent activities, creating a feeling of togetherness during the three festival days, while the second one was through deferred actions, helping to maintain a sense of community over longer periods of time. Different social media provided different affordances for interactions: for example, YouTube, the platform which was (and remains) the most popular way to watch the festival, offered both live transmissions and the ability to watch them after they took place. Similarly, the platform offered two forms of communications between viewers: a live chat and a classic comments section. The first of those offered an opportunity for public interaction only during the transmission, though the messages can still be read. The latter remains a lively forum of new opinions months after the festival took place.Two other main video platforms which transmitted Pol’and’Rock were Facebook and Twitch and each of them provided only a half of YouTube’s interaction affordances: Facebook’s comments and public chat were not differentiated, while Twitch offered only the live experience, both in terms of watching the concert and interacting with other viewers. It should be added that the last of the sites mentioned was also the only one where all events took place on the same channel, without any breaks in transmission.

While these technical differences between video platforms may seem of little importance, they appear to have had some impact on the behaviours and dynamics of people watching the online edition of Pol’and’Rock. Those watching Facebook transmissions made only limited attempts at interacting with each other, unless to ask or answer about a specific issue. As such, the comments were mainly expressions of one’s own feelings or checking in with an information on their whereabouts. Since the main theme of 2020’s edition of Pol‘and’Rock was a house party, the viewers appeared eager to let others know where their own house party is. It should be noted, though, that bringing banners with one’s hometown’s name happens quite often on live concerts, too. Perhaps, then, this is one of the examples of attempts at recreating a normal festival’s atmosphere? Twitch’s live chat was perhaps the “wildest” of video platforms: the users were very expressive, both positively – about the music – and negatively – about, for example, advertisements. It is difficult to say if such open criticism is only enabled by the online situation in general, this particular website’s specificity, or if the same person would complain about the commercial aspect of the festival to their friends, or if they would loudly shout about their displeasure for everyone to hear, which would be the closest equivalent to the vocal (‘keyboard-al’) online criticism.

Having briefly described the three main transmission platforms, the following account focuses on the most popular one, YouTube. The live chat there was under much more control from the moderators in comparison to Twitch, though it should be noted that it was also incomparably more crowded. The same transmission could have a difference of a couple of thousands watchers on YouTube to a few hundred on Twitch, which – as was directly experienced during the online observation of the event – made it difficult to post timely comments, interacting with other viewers or responding to what was happening onscreen. Meanwhile, the attempts at recreating as much of a live festival atmosphere as possible, mainly through responding to what was happening in the transmission may be the most striking element of the live netnography presented here. A multitude of watchers was not only writing (or, one might say, shouting on their keyboards) the song lyrics and sentences symbolic for the events (Zaraz będzie ciemno – It’s getting dark), recreating flashmobs and waves using emoticons (astoundingly quickly created sign language), but even asking each other if the showers are currently occupied or if someone could borrow some toilet paper, clearly trying to recreate the realities of a festival camp (though that last issue recently proved challenging even in the home setting). On the whole, Pol’and’Rock’s live video channels proved to be a captivating field for online observation.

Still, we should also mention some other new media that helped maintain Pol’and’Rock in a safely distanced situation. Needless to say, every social media platform played a role here, with Twitter used to share quick thoughts, photos and videos, all boosting the popularity of related hashtags, while Instagram offered a special filter to take and share a unique festival selfie (as pictured above). Two channels deserve more attention, however, if for no other reason, then because they represent the media which were available for some time, but only gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The two dark horses are the festival’s mobile app and its channel on Discord (See https://discord.com/). The former has been available since 2014 and has certainly had some uses since then, being a pocket-sized map, schedule and communication platform in one. This year, however, as the main premise of the festival was to create The Most Beautiful House Party in the World, the app helped to create a global sense of community by providing a simple map where anyone could check-in their own house event (see map image below).

Map image of online events Pol’and’Rock Festival 2020

While the greatest number of such check-ins was, unsurprisingly, from Poland and the rest of Europe, they came from many other continents, all across the Earth. And if there was need of further proof that Pol’and’Rock 2020 was indeed an international event, one need only look at the discussions taking place on Discord, with some posts being indeed in languages other than Polish (mainly in English). The platform (consisting of a website, as well as pc and mobile apps), with its unique structure combining a collection of private group chats, a social medium format, and actually private chats, may be the closest approximation to the structures forming among the event audiences: most people gather and stay around a scene, others drift towards accompanying events, others go to eat or shop, and others form very small, private groups – all the while they still maintain a single, ephemeral yet strong community of a festival edition’s audience.

Festival audiences’ online actions focused on maintaining their community during the COVID-19 pandemic, as exemplified by the participants of 2020’s edition of Pol’and’Rock. Such collective behaviour corresponds to some of the classic anthropological theories. Among those, two deserve a short reference within the context of phenomena described above. Firstly, the presented online actions can be seen as a realisation of Manuel Castells (2010) network society, with the festival itself serving as the central “node” of communication, surrounded by many multidirectional exchanges between the participants. Secondly, Victor Turner’s (1991) work on ritual has long been applied to music festivals, which also involves the concept of communitas, the anti-structural community formed in the middle, liminal ritual stage. A much newer trend shows how the same theory also works well in application to online worlds and groups. What is more, the framework of ritualistic social drama has also been used in analysis of critical situations, with a crisis serving as a forced liminal stage, during which people have to come up with new ways of dealing with the reality. There is little denying that COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest global crises of the last few years. As such, the 2020 edition of Pol’and’Rock combines three different “liminalities”: that of a live event, that of an online community and the one caused by a crisis. And indeed, just as Turner’s theory predicts, this unique situation created a fertile ground for creative ways of keeping in touch and recreating the festival atmosphere.

Hopefully, these substitutes will not be necessary much longer, but at the same time one has to admire the high-spirited determination of Pol’and’Rock fans to recreate the live event atmosphere in any way possible.

References

Castells, M. (2010) The Rise of the Network Society, Volume 1 (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Kozinets, R. (2020) Netnography. The Essential Guide to Qualitative Social Media Research. London: SAGE Publications Inc.

Turner, V. (1991) The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.