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Pro/Con: Your Data Could Be Your Life

Why Making Listening More Public -- and More Private -- Alters Our Relationship to Music

: Pro/Con: Your Data Could Be Your Life

Steve Jobs’ recent passing and the launch of social media-integrated/influenced tools like Facebook Music, MOG, Rdio, Spotify, Turntable.fm, and Emotional Bag Check have both played a role in the wave of speculation and analysis about the digital music industry, namely listening as performance.

One of the most interesting aspects of digitizing music is the way it’s made listening simultaneously more personal and more public than ever before. The internet enables you to post, stream, share, vent, condemn, discuss, or praise music in a shared space. The iPod enables you to listen to your own music privately anywhere you are, affording you the ability to shut out or let in the rest of the world at will.

By altering our listening habits to the extremely public (the internet’s free-for-all real time data barf) or the extremely private (the iPod’s “autistically insulated portable sound-womb,” description courtesy of the excellent-as-always Simon Reynolds), we’re obviously monkeying with the way we mentally file, categorize, and develop relationships with our music. And as a result, the ways music and personal memory, music and emotional connection intertwine are changing, too.

It’s a touchy subject, one with no “right” solution -- and really, it isn’t necessarily a problem that has to be solved -- but as I see it, there’s definite upside and a weirdly insidious downside to the situation.

PRO: Enables new, easy ways for people to form personal bonds over music.

Unless you’re willing to expend a lot of energy taking a revisionist approach to your own listening history, when you use Facebook Music or Facebook plugins for Spotify, MOG, etc., everything you do with your music library is on display. Your skeletons are pushed out of the closet, so it’s up to you to counterbalance them with calculated street cred-restoring choices. You can also tell when someone’s trying to desperately catch up on listening to new releases, or rediscovering old favorites. The whole process is akin to a more invasive surreptitious peak at someone’s record collection.

I asked MOG’s PR Director Marni Greenberg what she thought was more personal -- this new phenomenon, or an in-person conversation about music. She replied, “People live their lives online. The new tastemaker is now the person with lots of friends on Facebook who is sharing their musical preferences. Now that people are able to see what their friends are listening to, they have instant access to music recommendations.”

It’s a good point; these services are definitely more personal in that access to this exhaustive data takes the collection-browse/casual conversation aspect one step further. It affords yet another way to play voyeur on social media by encouraging you to put two-and-two together (real-time listening choices + status updates) and speculate what’s going on in that person’s life that could be influencing his/her listening choices. The non-stop feed also doubles as a way to discover new music and learn the spectrum of a person’s taste, something that might make you reconsider what you previously thought about him/her.

The collaborative playlist options Rdio offers and the hive-mind online DJ service Turntable.fm offer add an aspect of competition to the mix. Both are designed to mimic the process of discovering music through word-of-mouth, but on a larger scale. Says Rdio’s Joe Armenia, “Rdio takes listeners directly from the conversation to the music in real-time, eliminat[ing] any downtime in the discovery process.”

Rdio’s collaborative playlist function lets you release your curated playlist into the wild, opening it up for deletions and additions courtesy of the people you follow -- or all Rdio users, if you wish. Turntable.fm’s democratic DJ service lets you occupy “rooms” with fellow users. You can take over a room with friends or try your luck with strangers, playing songs and voting your peers’ selections up or down.

All these services are tidy microcosms of the internet’s ability to simultaneously dehumanize and personalize any activity. Thanks to services like these, your outlets for word-of-mouth music discovery aren’t limited by distance and time -- but it’s tough to liken the experience to actual dialogue about music. It’s peer interaction conducted in isolation -- ultimately not wildly different from listening to your iPod.

Emotional Bag Check manages to retrofit some humanity into the mostly-faceless process of online music discovery. The homepage is split into two sections: one allows you to type in a dilemma you’re having, enter your email address, then receive a music recommendation from someone who thinks they know just the song to help you work through your problem. The other side of the homepage lets you read a brief description of someone's emotional baggage, then recommend a song you think might help that person work through the problem. It’s all done anonymously, but in ways that hit home, encourage people to think about their personal relationship with songs and recommend sympathetically. To me, it’s the perfect tool to bridge the gap between the privacy/publicity extremes the internet creates. It gives the song recipient an inkling of the sender’s personal relationship to the song, and the act creates new emotional associations for the song’s recipient. The delivery process infuses empathy into the too-often faceless, impersonal act of trading and sharing music online.


CON: Knowing that all of the minutiae associated with your listening habits is archived doesn’t force you to use real-life memories to mentally archive your music.

Based on our track record with dishwashers, cars, and calculators, once a machine starts doing something for us, we stop doing it ourselves -- and online listening is following suit. Facebook Music and Facebook plugins for Spotify, MOG, etc. create a chronological archive of all the songs you’ve been listening to. iTunes tracks the number of times you’ve played a song, reminding you which songs are your favorites among the thousands of MP3s you’ve no doubt amassed. Said Greenberg, “By enabling Last.fm Scrobbling, MOG listeners can track songs they’re listening to on MOG, which are then added to their Last.fm music profile for a complete personal listening archive complemented with graphs illustrating a user’s top artists, albums, and tracks.” With data this rich, what incentive do you have to use memories or personal associations as a way to keep track of your tastes and preferences?

Services like these perform the same function much better, more accurately, and more comprehensively than your mind ever could -- plus, these catalogues are so vast that users' "music collections" are nigh limitless. However, as Scarface taught us, saturation and excess are also isolating. There’s something to be said for using our unreliable mental narration, hazy memories and messy personal histories to keep track of our tastes and preferences. The process creates a seamless connection between your own story and the art itself, bringing you closer to the music in doing so. It doesn’t induce the same kind of “measure up” anxiety we get when encouraged to compare ourselves to others. Making listening a public performance makes the process a little less relaxing. Now, you’ve got an audience to entertain.

In a somewhat related performative anxiety phenomenon, we’ve (ironically) extensively documented increasing numbers of concertgoers spending the whole show trying to capture the performance on video or through pictures. When you’re experiencing a concert through a camera lens or listening to your headphones at top volume, you’re coolly distancing yourself from the experience, observing rather than experiencing, putting your archival tool between you and the art. Putting your personal listening habits on public display or viewing a concert through your smartphone’s camera lens in order film a video you’ll share online could bring other people closer to your experience. It might introduce them to a new artist or give them a chance to see a concert they may not otherwise have seen -- but it distances you from your own experience, turning you into an impassive archivist. These shouldn’t be objective activities!

The solitude an iPod provides is similarly distancing. You can be anywhere, surrounded by people while shutting them out with your own private soundtrack. You might be listening to music in public but it’s not the same experience as hearing a song over a soundsystem at a bar, or throwing on an LP while you and your friend are sitting around and letting the music fill your living room. An iPod is an isolating experience, shutting you in with your music rather than providing a soundtrack to a conversation or experience that’s happening. I don’t tend to develop memories with music the same way I used to, now that I do the vast majority of my listening on an iPod while commuting, taking care of errands, or running. I feel like I'm still experiencing and engaging with the world -- but in a solipsistic way, letting the music soundtrack what I see but using the device to sequester myself.

To a certain degree, I can’t help but wonder if the ability to carry our all of music and its associated data with us -- physically via iPods, intangibly via archived data streams, or photographically -- de-incentivizes the need to use memories and personal associations to mentally catalogue our music. I don’t think this phenomenon has made -- or will make -- us love or appreciate music any less, but it’s for sure and certain (and sad) that the emotions and impulses that accompany your music selections process aren’t watermarked in those MP3s and will never appear in the data stream your friends see.

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