Anastasia Goodstein says this about how social networks have changed the relationship among music fans and between fans and artists:

While the future of MySpace may be questionable, I have to credit the service with transforming the relationship between artists and fans…In this case technology created a feeling of intimacy between bands and fans…Online listening parties, sharing concert photos, mashing up video footage, posting pics of “inspired by” looks or lip synch tributes, or just adding that digital layer of communication with other fans all really blew up on MySpace. How cool is it to have developed a virtual friendship with a fellow fan of a particular artist and then get to finally meet him or her in person at a concert to share the “live” experience?

The internet completely undercut what used to be the big media marketing machine (as you point out with MTV, radio, etc.), making it much harder to become the kind of icons we grew up with, but for those who do break through (Gaga, Bieber), their fame is often fueled by fans who have grown up with an expectation of “mutual adoration” with all the social media bells and whistles.

The impact of this transformation goes way beyond cool. The sense of intimacy that comes from an online relationship between musician and fan helps to restore music to its rightful place in our social and community lives. Recorded music has always had this threefold existence: it’s a commodity (the record, cassette or CD you buy and put on yourself) and it’s an experience (listening), but just as much as either of those, it’s an identity.

Particularly among younger music fans (those who are busy connecting with the Gagas and Biebers online), music is a form of identity — a way of telling the world who you are and what you’re about, and a way of reinforcing your own sense of self. The identity value of music is tied to an implicit community: being a Green Day fan connotes something different from being a Mariah Carey fan because it’s a statement that you’re part of this group of people over here (black eyeliner, punky hair) and part of that group of people over there (black eyeliner, pouffy hair).

But the “this group” and “that group” used to be pretty notional — maybe you and your two or three buddies who were just as keen about the same band. Now you’re connecting with the thousands or millions all over the world, so the implicit claim that goes with the identity of being a particular kind of music fan now comes with literal membership in an actual group of like-eared souls.

The implication of that shift is massive, and not just because it cuts down on the immediate isolation that comes from being the only musical theatre fan in your high school (hypothetically speaking, of course). It means that music, long the bastion of youth forays into identity construction, now becomes a passport into the experience of community participation.

Online music fandom becomes a very safe playground for young people to experiment with core community concerns like boundary patrolling (like whether Soulja Boy counts as hip-hop), managing inter-group relations (should Ke$ha wear Native American headdresses?),  and governance (“no bashing Miley!“)  Through these debates they can develop a rudimentary understanding of what it means to be part of a community, how to navigate and negotiate with fellow community members, and most crucially, how to balance group with individual identity.

These are crucial skills for participating in both the on- and offline worlds, and will only grow in importance as we spend more and more of our lives in the community spaces of the social web.