When we consider the many identities of David Bowie — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke — we often neglect to include his transformation into an internet entrepreneur. In line with Bowie’s reputation for being ahead of his time in all endeavors, it happened several tech booms ago, in the late 1990s. Foreseeing the internet’s potential as a cultural and commercial force, he got ahead of it by launching not just his own web site (which some major artists lacked through the end of the century), but his own internet service provider. For $19.95 a month (£10.00 in the UK), BowieNet offered fans access not just to “high-speed” internet but to “David Bowie, his world, his friends, his fans, including live chats, live video feeds, chat rooms and bulletin boards.”
So announced the initial BowieNet press release published in August 1998, which also promised “live in-studio video feeds,” “text, audio and video messages from Bowie,” “Desktop themes including Bowie screensavers, wallpaper and icons,” and best of all, a “davidbowie e-mail address (your firstname.lastname@example.org).” While the dial-up of the internet connections of the day wasn’t quite equal to the task of reliably streaming video, many of BowieNet’s approximately 100,000 members still fondly remember the community cultivated on its message boards. “This was in effect a music-centric social network,” writes The Gardian‘s Keith Stuart, “several years before the emergence of sector leaders like Friendster and Myspace.”
Unlike on the the vast social networks that would later develop, the man himself was known to drop in. Under the alias “Sailor,” writes Newsweek‘s Zach Schonfeld, “Bowie would sometimes share updates and recommendations or respond to fan queries.” He might endorse an album (Arcade Fire’s debut Funeral earned a rave), express incredulity at rumors (of, say, his playing a concert with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson to be beamed into outer space), crack jokes, or tell stories (of, say, the time he and John Lennon sat around calling into radio stations together). As Ars Technica’s interview with BowieNet co-founder Ron Roy confirms, Bowie didn’t just lend the enterprise his brand but was “tremendously involved from day one.” As Roy tells it, Bowie kept BowieNet fresh “by exploring new technologies to keep fans engaged and excited. He always preached [that] it’s about the experience, the new.”
It helped that Bowie wasn’t simply looking to capitalize on the rise of the internet. As the 1999 ZDTV interview at the top of the post reveals, he was already hooked on it himself. “The first thing I do is get e-mails out of the way,” he says, describing the average day in his online life. “I’m e-mail crazy. And then I’ll spend probably about an hour, maybe more, going through my site.” Even in the early days of “the controversial mp3 format,” he showed great enthusiasm for putting his music online. He continued doing so even after technology surpassed BowieNet, which discontinued its internet service in 2006. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic keeps much of the world at home, many high-profile artists have taken to the internet to keep the show going. David Bowie fans know that, were he still with us, he’d have been the first to do it — and do it, no doubt, the most interestingly.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.