Conducting interviews for my story on ethnomusicology graduate students, I was struck by how much the students use social media in their research. It shouldn’t be surprising—websites like MySpace and YouTube have changed the face of music distribution in the last decade. Now even spending time on Facebook can help students advance their dissertations.

Alisha Lola Jones and Adrienne Alton-Gust, AM’06, graduate students in the program, told me about the ways social networking was integral to their research. Jones uses multiple media when studying the role of black men’s gender and sexuality in gospel music, which is frequently performed in churches that use the Internet. If she’s researching a gospel musician who is part of a church that broadcasts its services online, “I need to view the service streaming to understand how they come across to their audience,” she explains. She also follows churches on social media, some of which actively encourage their congregations to spread the electronic word. “Preachers will say, ‘Tweet this,’” regarding announcements. One minister Jones follows who preaches on the radio even live-Tweets his own services. “He’ll get his assistant to post statuses as he preaches.”

Meanwhile Alton-Gust, who describes herself as “naturally introverted,” says, “I don’t think I could have done this project without Facebook.” When she first started exploring the role of music in drag performance, she’d take photos and video of the shows she attended as a way to remind her what songs the performers danced to. “As way of giving back, I want to share the pictures with the performers, so I would send them a message on Facebook, saying, ‘Please feel free to tag yourself.’ They usually respond with a friend request and then would let me know when they were performing next.”

This friendly outreach had the unexpected benefit of building the students’ personal and professional networks. “Other performers would see that we had these people in common and they’d send me a request too because clearly I’m a supporter of the art.” Alton-Gust, who is heterosexual and married, has been so accepted into the drag performance community that she says, “I’ve also gotten friend requests from people who assumed I was transgendered because they saw that we had transgendered friends in common.” She laughs: “I don’t think I do that good a job with my makeup!”

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