(20MIN READ) Looking closely at the history of the Deadhead community, Christopher Michael observes the gradual migration of a close-knit community previously gathering at concerts and in parking lots into different online spaces. Social platforms can be fruitful to the growth of a community, however, they come with their downsides too. A focus on the development of the Dead’s New Age ideology from a utopian-driven idea to its contemporary co-option across the political spectrum sheds light on the dangers of the digitalization of communities while offering a positive outlook.

The Grateful Dead and the New Age

Cultural critics often speak of the 1960s as the dawn of the New Age, implying a cultural shift that saw young people in western countries take interest in psychedelics, eastern religious practices, and alternative ways of living. In her book, The Chalice and the Blade, cultural historian Riane Eisler argues that believers in the New Age wanted society to move from “dominator” modes of culture toward more egalitarian “partnership” modes.1 For radicals living through the sixties, this shift signaled the potential for a revolutionary metamorphosis of humanity. As Eisler argues, this shift felt particularly utopian as there was widespread investment in dismantling the patriarchal, dominator modes that had ruled much of western society, and an interest in creating new ways of being rooted in humanistic principles.2 During this period, as the psychedelic revolution unfolded, proposals for utopian futures were put to practice in countercultural projects, spiritual communes, and the sexual liberation movement.

    Many utopian projects of the sixties eventually lost steam, and much of the once-radical New Age ideology have since been co-opted for capitalist means. Communes have disbanded, political groups succumbed to in-fighting and state pressure, and many of the most revolutionary died far too young. Yet, some believers in the New Age have survived into the 21st century, and there are still those who preach the utopic message of this time. In the United States the most prominent among them is the Grateful Dead, a jam band formed in Palo Alto in 1965, which  gained a mass following in the ensuing decades. While the band officially disbanded following guitarist Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, core members Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann continue to tour with a revolving lineup, which many fans still refer to as The Grateful Dead and which still attracts large crowds to their live shows.3 The group was initially born out of the folk revival and psychedelic movement happening in California, with founding members Weir, Garcia, and Lesh joining together after playing in similar psychedelic folk bands. They quickly gained notoriety on the West Coast and began rubbing shoulders with icons of the early New Age movement like Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and Owsley Stanley.

    The Grateful Dead stood out from other groups formed at the end of the sixties due to their incredibly devoted and faithful following. Deadheads—a term coined by Village Voice critic Robert Christgau in 1971—formed an active community that would follow ‘The Dead’ from show to show, having all day parking lot tailgates where they would sell and take psychedelics, form impromptu marketplaces for hippie wares, and be surrounded by a like-minded community.4 5
Scholar of religious studies Erik Davis writes that, “Deadheads became the closest thing we’ll probably ever see to mass psychedelic religion,” capturing the quasi-religious nature of The Dead’s followers.6 With quasi-religious conviction Deadheads gathered (and continue to gather) around the idea of a utopia that The Dead preached: an America where free love, psychedelics, and life outside the law allow people to live a freer life, more in touch with nature and unburdened by restrictions of the state or patriarchal notions like the nuclear family. The Dead’s utopian vision aligned with key New Age ideals, like using psychedelics to challenge societal notions, life outside patriarchal authority, and a return to the natural world. The Dead, however, shied away from much of the revolutionary leftist politics that shaped the early New Age, favoring a broad, and oftentimes vague, promotion of free love and psychedelics to appeal to a wider audience.

    With the rise of the internet and online platforms, Deadheads gradually moved their gatherings and practices online. In the past, Deadheads relied on meeting in physical spaces: record stores, festivals, parking lots. These, however, are increasingly replaced by virtual spaces. Reddit forums, YouTube channels, Instagram meme pages, and Facebook groups have become preferred channels for Deadheads wishing to connect with their community in the present. Deadheads have a unique history in online spaces, and cultural critic Fred Turner notes that Deadheads were one of the first groups to use internet forums to connect with one another.7 For example The WELL (short for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a virtual community started by the Whole Earth network, became an extremely popular digital meeting place for Deadheads in the eighties and nineties.8 In this way, Deadheads have gained a unique literacy towards online platforms, which they have used to further their community outside physical space. In the current iteration of the internet, dominated by public platforms which rely on user-generated content, Deadheads utilize the tools afforded to them to proliferate their community, though these platforms are not without their drawbacks. Considering how Deadheads have adapted to these platforms presents insight into how utopian ideas of the New Age can thrive within contemporary digital spaces. It also shows how these platforms influence communities and their ideologies.


On May 3rd, 1968, during protests against the academic administration at Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, the Grateful Dead snuck into the locked-down college to play for student radicals as part of a publicity stunt concocted by their tour manager, Rock Skully. On that spring afternoon, hundreds gathered peacefully around the band as they played on the Low Library Plaza. The scene began to look less like a demonstration and more like a festival, as those who gathered turned on and tuned in to the show—to borrow a quote from psychedelic philosopher and friend of The Dead, Timothy Leary.9 The Dead, who were not largely known in New York at this time, charmed the students with their performance, the crowd dancing along, enchanted by their music.

    Today, footage of this performance lives on YouTube, the Super 8 recordings having survived through half a century to find a new home online.10 Uploaded by YouTube user davidaron60, whose page boasts “Deadvids 24/7,” the video has racked up 900,000 views in the nine years it has been online. Scrolling through the comment section, one finds responses from an eclectic variety of Deadheads; from those discovering The Dead for the first time, to those who were present at the 1968 show and can now relive the experience through its documentation. For some, the video brings back fond memories of watching The Dead in their early days and experiencing the idealism of the early New Age movement. One user sums up their nostalgic feelings watching the video. They comment how: “Without these films, it's difficult to believe times like these ever occurred.”11

    Digital spaces like the YouTube comment section have become popular places of exchange for Deadheads. These spaces serve similar functions to festivals or lot meetups, though interactions are fundamentally different in the virtual landscape. In both offline and online spaces the community can gather to reaffirm shared ideals and preserve their group mythology, but the virtual space is more like an asynchronous stream of information one can opt in and out of. The digital space offers a different functionality to the physical in that it can act both as a space for active community engagement and as a static archive, preserving user generated content. Platforms like YouTube allow for real time engagement with active conversations in the comment sections, and these conversations are preserved as long as the platform exists or chooses to preserve them. This arrangement is not without issue, one of the main ones being that YouTube archives them at its discretion. Yet YouTube, as the most dominant video platform currently on the internet, allows for a massive population of Deadheads to access the same recorded materials despite geographic or temporal barriers. The number of views on a single video often far surpasses the number of attendees at a single event. Even the largest gatherings of Deadheads (like the 1973 Festival at Watkins Glen which had a reported 600,000 people in attendance) do not compare to the millions of views many Grateful Dead videos receive.12

The most popular comment on the video mentioned above, written by a user named David Harrah, gives an example of how these forums typically work.13 This commenter writes about being at the 1968 show and shares some personal context. Harrah describes the intimacy and joy they felt while being there, even stating they got a chance to talk to Jerry Garcia once the band had finished playing. This personal account adds a further layer of reality to the video by adding context from the time period. Harrah concludes by writing “What a great flashback!”14 When physically attending a show or gathering, it is not uncommon to encounter older Deadheads with stories like these. However, in physical spaces these stories can usually only be shared with a few people, and they often become clouded in the audience’s memory over time. In virtual spaces, an archive of one’s personal history is kept as a digital record, better preserving these memories. Comments like this are also testaments to emotions once lived. For some, they act as digital simulacrum, imitating these feelings but never fully reproducing them. For others, however, comments like these can serve as inspiration to seek out their own encounters with the physical Deadhead community, and are supplementary to such experiences.

    These types of interactions and community gatherings are happening elsewhere online too. On Instagram, Grateful Dead meme pages have become a favorite of Millennial and Gen Z Deadheads. Among them @fad_albert, an account with over forty-five thousand followers, has become particularly popular.15 Run by Alaina Stamatis, a record store owner from Boston, the page provides personal insights as Stamatis translates her experiences from Grateful Dead lots into meme form. Scrolling through them, one can gain a unique sense of what attending Dead shows is like. The meme topics range from sneaking drugs past security, to Grateful Dead mythology, to learning the differences between a wook and a custy (two hotly contested subgroups of Deadheads)(Figure 1).16 For both those who regularly attended shows and those who have never set foot on a Dead lot, such accounts (re)create the experience of gathering with the Deadhead community within a virtual space. They provide a digital meeting place for them to turn to within their everyday lives, and for times when they cannot physically be together.

    As virtual spaces, these do not arouse the visceral, emotional response of being at a show, rather they are supplementary to those experiences. Digital spaces like YouTube and Instagram allow Deadheads to temporarily relive, or simply imagine, the feeling of being at a show, surrounded by their community. For younger generations of Deadheads, digital forums can provide a jumping off point for joining the larger community, often being the first point of contact with the music of The Dead and its history, and eventually lead to attending actual shows. In this sense, the digital becomes a bridge to the physical. For older Deadheads, digital forums are sites of memory, spaces that allow them to access recorded materials from The Dead’s heyday. Like the aforementioned YouTube commenter, older Deadheads share their experiences from previous eras, and in turn these personal histories are digitally preserved. While digital spaces cannot provide the transcendence of a physical event, they have come to serve a crucial role for the community. In recent times, however, we have also experienced their unexpected pitfalls.

Conspirituality and Digital Deadhead Spaces

The rise of alt-right conspirituality has been a growing issue within American digital spaces. The alt-right, as a loose collection of far-right groups and individuals, is “characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes.”17 Some scholars have noted the rise of “conspirituality” among these groups, a trend which seeks to appropriate New Age imagery and ideology and apply them to alt-right messaging and conspiracy theories in order to gain sympathy for conservative politics.18 New Age worldviews, despite initial ties to radical politics, can be politically obscure and have been co-opted across the political spectrum in our current era. For example, the New Age ideas of autonomous self governance and self reliance have a certain appeal to right-wing groups, which the alt-right seeks to exploit for modern right-wing aims.19 As The Grateful Dead were born out of New Age ideology, their digital spaces are also prone to alt-right conspiritualist intervention. Especially as The Dead were more apolitical than some of their New Age counterparts, their lack of a coherent political philosophy leaves their online spaces particularly susceptible for alt-right ‘trolls’ who wish to spread right-wing ideology. Where many Deadheads online favor left-wing politics, or simply disagree with alt-right politics, these trolls can be detrimental to their experience on these sites.20 While you may see the odd Trump flag or anti-vax sticker in physical Deadhead spaces, this issue is unique to virtual spaces as conspirtiualist and alt-right trolls will often flood comment sections, making their presence seem larger than it actually is. This both discourages the growth of the online community and, as the digital often acts as a bridge to the physical, can harm the Deadhead community more generally.

    An interesting example of alt-right conspirituality overlapping with Deadhead culture online can be found on the now defunct Instagram page “Deadheads for Donald Trump.”21 The account has roughly 1,500 followers and used to post Grateful Dead themed Trump memes. There are images of Trump on acid blotters, Trump superimposed on the “Workingman’s Dead” album cover, and a “Steal Your Face” skull wearing Trump’s haircut (Figure 2). This page was particularly active in 2016 during Trump’s first presidential campaign, and tried to gain sympathy from Deadheads by utilizing Grateful Dead and New Age aesthetics to promote Trump—a typical strategy for alt-right conspiritualists. While on the surface Deadheads and Trump supporters may seem opposed to one another, The Dead’s utopian ideas of life outside big government is enticing to modern conservatives and leads to the formation of these groups on online platforms. Like their New Age counterparts, The Grateful Dead promote to their followers an anarchistic philosophy, encouraging them to go against the state by taking psychedelic drugs or living lives outside the mainstream. Their anti-elitism is particularly attractive to Trump supporters and the alt-right, as these people also view themselves as fighting an elite and going against the government. The Grateful Dead’s promotion of “freedom,” while rooted in psychedelic counterculture that was opposed to right-wing ideology, shares enough in common with the anti-government agenda of the alt-right that allows for such conspiritualist interpretation.  

While pages like Deadheads for Donald Trump may only be followed and interacted with by a niche group of conservative Deadheads, conspiritualists and right-wing trolls can also be found flooding comment sections in more popular digital Deadhead spaces. For example, on a YouTube interview for Headcount—a non-partisan organization that “promotes democracy” without any explicit political affiliation—where Bob Weir spoke about the (non-partisan) importance of voting, conspiritualist-aligned YouTube users took to the comment section to berate Weir for his involvement in the political process.22 Of the 98 comments on the video, a majority seems to be upset with Weir for voicing his opinion on voting. Users posted that Weir is a sell-out, and there is agreement that Jerry Garcia would never talk about politics. One commenter states, “Well at least Jerry ain't around to see this crap.”23 Many of these users had New Age and Grateful Dead symbols as avatars, and chimed in with statements like “TRUMP 2020 !!!!” and “Ron Paul 2012!!”  One commenter, Duke Raul, whose avatar is a hippie skeleton with Grateful Dead lightning bolts for eye, commented “Stick with the music Bobby…” (Figure 3). While this comment reflects a sentiment many Deadheads may agree with, going onto Raul’s channel finds a page filled with right-wing Covid-19 conspiracy theories (a current favorite amongst conspiritualists) and affiliations with right-wing groups.24 This user illustrates the way that conspiritualists will influence groups like Deadheads by taking on New Age adjacent aesthetics and sentiments, in order to promote far-right conspiracy.  For those unfamiliar with the nuances of Deadhead spaces, seeing commenters with associations to the alt-right in digital Deadhead spaces can deter them from interacting further in these groups, and prevents wider community growth.
    Deadheads are not a politically homogenous group. For example, a 2015 poll of ‘Baby Boomer’ Deadheads showed that 46% of self-identified Republican boomers viewed the Grateful Dead favorably compared to only 37% of self-identified Democrat boomers.25 Younger Deadheads tend toward leftist politics, with initiatives like @bernyourface on Instagram, which existed to promote Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign through the use of Deadhead aesthetics.26 The issue, then, is not that differing political opinions exist in these groups, but that the aims of the alt-right, like promotion of white supremacy or pro-fascist beliefs, are largely at odds with the messages of Deadheads. The Grateful Dead promote New Age ideals of general love and positivity, which, while they may be somewhat vague and apolitical aims, are not compatible with the vitriol of alt-right groups whose goals are largely to spread hate. To come into a digital Deadhead space and see such groups dominating comment sections is discouraging and can be a challenge for the online community. Recently there has been much pushback to these sentiments within other Deadhead forums. For example on a Reddit thread titled “A true deadhead is an anti-racist. If you’re not, you don’t appreciate the dead or anything they’ve ever done,” a Reddit user reposted a quote from current Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge about the importance of Black American influence on the Grateful Dead’s music.27 The thread was filled with other Reddit users who agree with the sentiment, with some expressing a commitment to anti-racism as Deadheads. This post was directly opposed to some of the messaging by alt-right and conspiritualists in other online spaces and more in line with the messages of acceptance typical of The Dead and the New Age.


Despite the Deadhead community spanning over half a century, it has been able to maintain a thriving digital presence. With active Instagram meme pages, archival YouTube channels, and Reddit forums, Deadheads are able to grow their community further online, often introducing younger generations to The Dead. In The Dead’s early days (the late sixties and seventies), the Deadheads relied on members to go to a Dead show and attend Dead lots in order to be a part of the community. Since the introduction of The WELL and other online forums in the eighties, digital spaces have become equally, if not more, important.28 Especially considering that the current touring band Dead & Company have announced that 2023 will be their final year playing live shows, online spaces will continue being fundamental for the growth and preservation of the Deadhead community as their physical presence wanes.29 Moving from predominantly physical to predominantly digital spaces comes as a natural progression seeing the strong history of the community in internet spaces, adopting from The WELL to contemporary platforms.

    It is useful to turn to Deadheads to contemplate what an intentional digital community can look like. Especially considering their downfalls, like the issue of conspiritualist trolls and a lack of coherent political messaging, other communities are able to learn from these shortcomings and infiltrations to create stronger bonds in online spaces. Establishing firm political or moral boundaries for instance, creates a clearer framework that stops the spread of harmful ideologies. Replacing currently used social media with other platforms like Discord allows for better community management and moderation. Further, the digital presence of the Deadheads, who use digital spaces as supplementary to their physical gatherings, serves as a guide on how to blend the virtual and the material, and utilize digital communities to grow physical ones and vice versa. @fad_albert, for example, often promotes her Dead cover band Owlsley’s Owls in her posted memes, encouraging other Deadheads to come out to physical shows and events.30  Despite their shortcomings, digital Deadhead spaces remind us how utopian communities can find new life in virtual spaces.


1︎︎︎ Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and The Blade, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988, p. xiv.

2︎︎︎ Ibid.

3︎︎︎ The current iteration of the band uses the title Dead & Company and tours with musician John Mayer as a frontman. In the past they have toured as The Dead and The Other Ones. While the band is largely the same, and has historically had a rolling lineup, they have officially retired the Grateful Dead name in respect to Garcia’s passing

4︎︎︎ Christgau, Robert. Dead Heads Pay Their Dues. Village Voice, Dec. 1971.

5︎︎︎ These pre-show parking lot spaces are often referred to as the lot or Dead lots, and numerous activities such as makeshift marketplaces happen there

6︎︎︎ Davis, Erik. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. North Atlantic Books, 2015, p. 24

7︎︎︎ Turner, F. (2008). From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of Digital utopianism. University of Chicago Press.

8︎︎︎ Ibid.

9︎︎︎ Timothy Leary was an American psychologist who heavily promoted the use of psychedelics. He was an important figure for the psychedelic revolution of the sixties, and “turn on, tune in, and drop out” became his motto during this time.

10︎︎︎ Accessible via YouTube: Grateful Dead - 05-03-1968 Columbia U. (video)

11︎︎︎  Yeti Vanmarshall. Comment on Grateful Dead - 05-03-1968 Columbia U. (video).

12︎︎︎  Lichtenstein, Grace. Festival at Watkins Glen Ends in Mud and Elation. New York Times, 30 July 1973.

13︎︎︎ David Harrah. Comment on Grateful Dead - 05-03-1968 Columbia U. (video). YouTube, 19 Aug. 2015,

14︎︎︎  Ibid.

15︎︎︎  Accessible via Instagram:

16︎︎︎  These terms are contested, but a Wook generally refers (in a derogatory way) to an extreme hippie who has devoted their life to taking drugs and attending jam band shows. A “Custy” (short for customer) is a poser, who may be a yuppie or have a normal life outside of their hippie interests, and get this name because they are an easy target to rip off while being sold drugs. 

17︎︎︎ This definition comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website:

18︎︎︎ Ward, Charlotte, and David Voas. The Emergence of Conspirituality. Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol. 26, no. 1, 2011, pp. 103–121

19︎︎︎ For example, John McClaughry, writing for the Libertarian publication Reason in 1980, describes libertarian themes in Mark Satin’s New Age Politics, arguing that there were more similarities than differences between the two groups:

20︎︎︎ For example, @fad_albert, and similar younger Deadhead accounts, were major proponents of left wing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and used Deadhead imagery to promote his campaign. An example of that can be found here:

21︎︎︎ Accessible via Instagram:

22︎︎︎ Accessible via YouTube:

23︎︎︎ Zach Simpson. Comment on Bob Weir: Voting and the politics of the Grateful Dead. YouTube, 19 March 2022,

24︎︎︎ Accessible via YouTube:

25︎︎︎ Schwarz, Hunter. Grateful Dead Fans: Surprisingly Republican. The Washington Post, 1 July 2015.

26︎︎︎ Accessible via Instagram:

27︎︎︎ u/k9jm. A True Deadhead Is an Anti-Racist. If You’Re Not, You Don’t Appreciate the Dead or Anything They’ve Ever Done., 14 Oct. 2020,

28︎︎︎ Ibid.

29︎︎︎ Strauss, Matthew. Dead & Company Announce Final Tour. Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 23 Sept. 2022,

30︎︎︎ An example of that can be found here:


Davis, Erik. Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. North Atlantic Books, 2015.

davidaron60. Grateful Dead - 05-03-1968 Columbia U. (Video). YouTube, 12 June 2013,

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and The Blade, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988.

MyHeadCount. Bob Weir: Voting and the Politics of the Grateful Dead. YouTube, YouTube, 17 Mar. 2010,

Schwarz, Hunter. Grateful Dead Fans: Surprisingly Republican. The Washington Post, 1 July 2015.

Turner, F. (2008). From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of Digital utopianism. University of Chicago Press.

u/k9jm. A True Deadhead Is an Anti-Racist. If You’Re Not, You Don’t Appreciate the Dead or Anything They’ve Ever Done., 14 Oct. 2020,


Christopher Michael is an artist and writer currently living in Philadelphia, PA (USA). He is interested in exploring folklore and spirituality as they relate to digital cultures and virtual worlds.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022