Nearly a decade ago, Lady Gaga fans were introduced to Jo Calderone.
Calderone, a striking Italian-American from New Jersey, was in a kind of love affair with Gaga. When Calderone wasn’t appearing in a menswear fashion spread for Vogue Hommes Japan or heading to Bikram yoga classes, he was tweeting at Gaga, giving interviews, walking the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards and even sitting atop the star’s piano as she pounds its keys in the middle of a cornfield for her “You and I” video.
Thing is, Jo Calderone doesn’t exist.
Well, to be clear, he does, but only as Lady Gaga’s drag alter ego. His appearance, however, was the thing that convinced Keene State College associate professor Amber Davisson that Gaga might be worth taking a closer look. What she found was a clear framework for how this pop star created her own community, a framework that could help to build crowds for associations, too.
“Lady Gaga is a perfect person for what it is I do because she is someone who thinks about the media in a multi-platform way,” Davisson said.
Davisson, who researches communication and rhetoric, studies global media and the interconnectedness of various media forms, like, for example, how someone may watch the United States presidential debates on both CSPAN and through the lens of Twitter and Facebook. She also considers how the candidate debating in that scenario would have to understand the different ways their message is being digested, too.
That’s what Davisson was thinking about when she started to study how Lady Gaga interacted with her fans. In thinking how someone can utilize the different methods we all have to communicate in an increasingly complex technological world, Davisson saw how the emergence of Gaga’s alter-ego as a clear example of that.
“It showed a really sophisticated understanding of a lot of different media formats, and what she could do with them and how she could play with them,” Davisson said. “She’s not just doing a trick on YouTube. … It was also a very sophisticated presentation of self, so it was all of the things the different media formats would let her do, but she was only able to do it because of a very sophisticated understanding of how she was presenting herself and her identity.”
Lady Gaga invented an entire person, created a story and convinced other brands and media platforms to go along with the stunt. It was, really, just a complex way of giving her audience yet another method to communicate with her and about her.
The relationship between a media personality and a viewer or fan is something that’s long been studied. Called a parasocial relationship, Davisson’s favorite example is when TV viewers echo the greeting when a news anchor tells them “good morning!”
“We want to think of parasocial relationships as somebody who has a relationship with a media personality is crazy,” Davisson said. “We talk about that like being the obsessed fan. But that’s really not what it is. It’s something all of us do.”
And Lady Gaga builds on that relationship in two ways.
First, she is up front about the performance of her media personality.
“It’s a little like if you’re somebody who watches ‘The Simpsons’ and you get all the references,” Davisson explained. “You feel like an insider when you’re someone who understands all the references, when you’re inside the joke, when you get a thing better than anyone else does.”
She does this, too, by being part of the media that manufactures culture.
Second, Davisson said, Lady Gaga creates spaces for her fans to interact with each other, at one point even having her own social media platform. In effect, she’s hosting a conversation about herself, and it makes her fans feel more connected to her.
“Everything is a performance, but everything is her at the same time,” Davisson said.
At its core, this framework is applicable for groups in different kinds of settings outside the realm of pop stars, alter egos and glittering stage performances.
“There’s not a far stretch between what Lady Gaga did and what Obama did in 2008,” Davisson said. “He made people feel like they were part of something. He made a lot of people feel like they were part of something.”
So, how do we make our own community?
The key is in something communication professionals call interpolation.
Davisson used an example to explain the concept: Imagine you’re walking down the street, and a police officer shouts, “hey, you!” The moment you realize this officer means to talk to you, that’s interpolation.
“They didn’t address you specifically,” Davisson said, “but you heard yourself whenever they said ‘you.’”
Lady Gaga’s example is in how she created a community for her fans, whom she calls Little Monsters.
“To some extent, she was inventing that community,” Davisson said. “But the people who heard it said, ‘that’s me.’ They didn’t hear she was creating a community for them. … They heard her saying something they already were.”
Defining a community for which you want dedicate buy-in requires the same messaging.
“There’s a sense that you’re inventing your community, that you’re inventing the values of the community, inventing the slogans and the way you’re going to talk to each other, the dress. You’re deciding what all of your community norms and values are,” Davisson said. “But there’s an alternative approach to this, rhetorically, which is you talk about this like this is who we always were, and this is fundamentally who we are.”
The difference is in not just forming a community, but in identifying a community, and then creating messaging that makes that clear. It’s something that could be particularly helpful when an association looks to move its membership to action in some way, like, for example, in lobbying lawmakers for specific legislation or explaining to a new audience why they should join.
“You have to frame it in a way that when the audience hears it, you’re not asking them to adopt an identity. You’re not asking them to join your association,” Davisson said. “You’re asking them to realize they’ve always been a part of it.”