MySpace is drumming up buzz for their upcoming redesign, and one thing’s already clear: it’s all about music. Playlists will be shared, songs will be recommended and, most importantly, there’ll be updates on everything you’re listening to, sharing automatically every time you press play. How do we know? Because Spotify pulled off the trick nearly perfectly, and, for all the jokes, surprisingly few people have been horrified to see their Spotify history show up on Facebook.
The backlash against print companies’ social readers came almost immediately, in part because no one likes to feel like someone’s reading over their shoulder. The pipeline to Facebook had a hard time capturing the nuanced reactions people have to written media. Lots of complicated and ambivalent thoughts were being collapsed down into “Russell Brandom read this.” It was embarrassing. It didn’t work.
Music feels different. The nuanced reactions are still there, but for the most part, they can be expressed by appreciative head-nodding. Translating that into a Facebook post isn’t so hard, especially since we’re so used to listening to music in public. People still feel conflicted, but it’s a shallow conflict, and nobody seems to take it seriously anymore. In the long run, everybody likes everything.
It wasn’t always this way. People used to have serious, mods-vs.-rockers identity crises — or, more recently, Backstreet Boys vs. Korn. It was an old-fashioned culture fight, and everyone had to be very clear about which side of the line they fell on. There was no way to build something like Rdio in that culture. The scene had to change and, to nearly everyone’s surprise, it has. After a few decades of genre-mixing, everyone’s a musical omnivore and remarkably difficult to embarrass. Even the most painfully hip of music critics will take a break to talk about their love for Rihanna, and unironic Bieber-love is at an all-time high. As a result, the most common response to Spotify’s frictionless sharing is a friendly joke, instead of the rage explosion you see when Facebook tweaks their privacy settings.
Compare that to television, where fandoms turn insular almost immediately and nearly everything qualifies as some kind of guilty pleasure. If the words “Russell Brandom watched seven episodes of Gallery Girls” ever showed up on Facebook, I would have to retire from the internet in shame. It’s a real problem for sites like Hulu, that host great content and get little-to-no social boost from it all. The problem isn’t the form but the content.
Software has been just as important in getting here. One of iTunes’ first features was the ability to play songs from other libraries on the same network. File-sharing services like Napster, Kazaa and Soulseek pushed the norms further, opening all the music on your computer up to whoever you were sharing with. Anyone with a secret yen for showtunes suddenly had a hard time keeping it to themselves. That meant relating to music in a different way. Add in the move to streaming, and can see the slow shift towards living in public happening over the course of a decade, with sounds and appetites mellowing out along the way. Television may get there eventually, but it’s going to take a long time.
In the meantime, MySpace is trundling into one of the few markets where people are actually happy to make their user data public. There are lots of ways to build on what Spotify has started, particularly with algorithmic music recommendation (“Pandora with a social layer” would be the buzzword version). Most of these ideas haven’t been tried out anywhere else, for the simple reason that they can’t be. We’re willing to share music in a way we’re not willing to share anything else. As strange as it sounds, MySpace may have a head start.