- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

In the 1960s, when Roger McGuinn was flying high as the lead singer of the Byrds, fan mail sent in by the bagful would be answered by someone hired specifically to sift through the pile of letters.
Now, 30 years later, Mr. McGuinn does it himself by e-mail.
“I never really answered my own fan mail, but I do answer e-mail,” Mr. McGuinn says. “If somebody sends me a written letter, I think, Wow, how archaic.’ “
Mr. McGuinn isn’t the only star who communicates with fans by e-mail, but he may be one of the most prolific.
“E-mail is a very low-commitment type of communications device,” says Irv Rein, a professor of communications studies at Northwestern University and author of a book that examines the marketing of celebrities. “It seems to me what determines whether or not they’re going to answer is how busy they are.”
Celebrities generally send bulk e-mail messages that give fans the impression of being directed exclusively to them, Mr. Rein says.
Mr. McGuinn doesn’t send form letters, but he doesn’t exactly write lengthy responses, either. “I’m brief, to the point, but polite,” he says.
Rocker David Bowie uses his official Web page to post diary entries every three days and to talk with fans via organized chats.
“It’s an experience he happens to enjoy,” says Bill Zysblatt, Mr. Bowie’s business manager. “He spends a fair bit of time in the chat room.
“The Internet basically allowed him to say, Stop sending letters. I’ve found a better way to communicate with you,’ ” Mr. Zysblatt says. “It’s an interesting and bizarre process.”
Liz Bird, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has been studying the interaction between fans and stars on a bulletin board dedicated to a popular TV show.
E-mail is a very safe yet intimate way for the fan and the star to communicate, Miss Bird says. For the celebrity, it also is an opportunity to learn what a fan really thinks without the awkwardness that can come from meeting face to face.
That’s what appeals to David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
“People who are frequently a little flustered if they meet you in the street are much more open on the Internet,” Mr. Crosby says. “They’ll actually be able to tell you what they’re thinking.”
E-mail also is a great way for stars to keep in touch with their fans, he says.
“It’s very easy for people in the entertainment business to get too ivory-towered-out,” Mr. Crosby says.
Of the 50 to 100 e-mail messages he receives each day, Mr. Crosby responds to 20 or so that are curious or interesting to him. People who write asking whether he’s going to play a certain song in a concert probably won’t get a response, but folks who live outside the United States probably will.
He says he prefers answering e-mail to responding to written fan mail.
“It’s much easier, and it’s a very good thing, man,” Mr. Crosby says. “It encourages people to be literate… . It forces you to compose your thoughts.”
Alan Fraser of Manchester, England, has written to Mr. McGuinn about a dozen times since 1997, often inquiring about Mr. McGuinn’s relationship with Bob Dylan.
Mr. Fraser was a little surprised to learn that the Roger McGuinn posting messages to the Dylan news group was the Roger McGuinn.
But not all e-mails are love letters.
Mr. McGuinn recalls receiving an e-mail from someone in Canada who compared him critically with Mr. Dylan and said he wasn’t very good.
Another e-mail came from someone in California who claimed to have one of Mr. McGuinn’s guitars that had been stolen in the 1960s.
“I said if it was mine, I would like it back, and he got on this whole thing about my integrity and calling me a liar,” Mr. McGuinn says.
After those two negative experiences, Mr. McGuinn says, he stopped visiting news groups, including one dedicated to discussing the Byrds’ music.
“At one point, I thought it would be fun for them if I could drop in,” he says. “The crazies ruined it.”

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