RIP David Bowie, Internet Pioneer
Long before MySpace, the late rock star was focused on connecting with his fans online.
As a rock legend, art and fashion pioneer, and leader in overturning gender norms, David Bowie will be remembered for many things. Put this near the top: he was a technological visionary.
In 1998, Bowie, who died Sunday after a battle with cancer, set up his own Internet service provider, BowieNet. It was never designed to compete with the ISP giants of the era like AOL and Prodigy Online. It did something more powerful and far more prescient instead: predating the likes of such Internet dinosaurs as MySpace and Friendster, Bowie’s portal to the Internet also functioned as a fan community, connecting the artist to his listeners through technology in a way that wouldn’t feel out of place in 2016.
It was a natural evolution for a man who in 1996—yes, 1996—released his new song “Telling Lies” online and netted 300,000 downloads. Not impressed? Back then, people spent an average of 30 minutes online a month (and downloading a single song could take up all of that).
Internet 1.0 was taking off around the time that BowieNet went live, but Bowie saw the true extent of the disruption that was coming. “We’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying,” he said in an interview in 2000. In 2002 he sounded eerily close to predicting today’s ubiquitous streaming services when he told the New York Times, “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity.”
Bowie’s innovative prowess didn’t end with foretelling the Internet’s impact on the music industry. The man who invented Ziggy Stardust also sold Bowie bonds, an innovative financial tool that promised investors a share of his future royalties. And he launched the online bank BowieBanc, which he used to issue a credit card with his face on it.
BowieNet shuttered in 2006, and it will not go down in history as one of the Internet’s greatest triumphs. But as we pause to remember the man famous for his music, sexiness, and swagger, his forays beyond rock stardom underscore how wide his genius truly ranged.