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Social Software, Music & Laptop Karaoke – a Musing in G# Major

By August 3, 2004websites

Using technology to collaborate in new ways has been a hot topic for years. My work E-mail program is called ‘Groupwise.’ It’s mostly used in our firm as an E-mail program, but you can see that Novell intended for it to be a more robust collaborative tool than just email. These days you hear the term ‘social software’ bandied about a lot. People are still trying to create applications that allow workers to share information. But workers are busy trying to hoard key information (not share it), or they are trying to learn the basic shortcuts for simple tasks that they do everyday (quick test: how many people know what ALT+TAB is a shortcut for?) and don’t have time or motivation to learn about ‘social software.’

Meanwhile, in the non-work environment social software is taking off. For example, Napster was one of the most successful social software applications ever written. Why is that? Was it because the application interface was easy to understand? Was it because Napster spent a lot of money on advertising and user-training?

No, it was because Napster allowed people to get free music from other people on the Internet. People like music, and they like free music even more (it’s why people used to listen to the radio, before it became…well, completely useless). But, the free music boondoggle is mostly over now. Napster was shut down and then transformed into a for-pay service that’s not doing so well (surprise, surprise!). KaZaa flourished but then the RIAA started filing lawsuits and the software became a Petri dish for spyware and pop-ups, all of which combined to make the music-sharing experience there not worth the trouble. One bright spot occurred when Apple created the iTunes Music Store, which made it easy to get music easily at a reasonable cost over the Internet.

So is the ‘Social Software’ boon of music over? Who knows? Certainly the free music file-sharing era is on the downcycle. But what about the fun (and perfectly legal) act of recommending music to your friends? The Internet could somehow still be good for this, right?

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Apple’s iTunes Music Store, which is an Internet music tool, allows the creation of iMix lists, which lets users discover new music based on the recommendations of others. And emergent services like MusicPlasma allow people to discover new music based on music that they already like. But, somehow these Internet tools aren’t really getting us to an exciting new place in the field of recommending new music to folks.

I think that eventually the Internet will find a way to create a model that does work so that people can find new music. But, for now, the record companies are more interested in locking down their content with DRM technology (i.e. ‘digital rights management’ software), so the odds are low that a viral music recommendation system (which is needed to popularize new artists) is going to evolve on the Internet anytime soon.

But I have an idea for how it can happen on a smaller, more intimate, network than the Internet. And the music companies won’t even mind. (Well, theoretically). So, as as Miss Ann Elk would say, here is my theory.

Let’s say you have cool bar in your town. One where young people and eclectic people hang out and listen to live music. There’s a pool table in the back so, even when there isn’t live music, people still come in to hang out. Or they serve great coffee and have a lending library of books and couches where people lounge around. The atmosphere is such that people are inclined to strike up conversation with people that they’ve never met, but whom they see are regulars at this bar.

In New Orleans, I’m thinking of a bar called Dos Jefes as my example. It has all the stuff I just mentioned, plus more (e.g. it’s a cigar bar). But there is one thing that is missing from Dos Jefes: it needs a wireless network, and it doesn’t even need to be connected to the Internet. Why not? Isn’t the whole point of an establishment having a Wi-Fi connection that it brings in people who want to surf the web for free?

Yes, and maybe those are the sort of patrons that the bar wants to attract. But then again maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I’m talking about music and social software. Remember?

So, here’s the concept. You create a wireless network and allow people to use their computers to tap into the house sound system and play music on that system from their computers. Obviously, you do this during slow hours and when there is no live music playing. After awhile, you start to get people coming in to hear new music that is ‘recommended’ to them by the people who are using their computers to broadcast to the house sound system.

How, technically, could you set such a system up? Easy, use Apple’s Airport Express/AirTunes system. I’ve used this system in my home and, trust me, it can do the job (cost: $125). The slightly trickier part is the social management of the system, as opposed to the technical one. The bar owner will have to have a way to let people ‘take control’ of the sound system that prevents the system from being monopolized by one or two people. Perhaps, you have a Conch Shell that you pass around that represents who is currently allowed to access the system (remember Lord of the Flies‘?). The social system that will evolve will vary from bar to bar and from community to community. But the key is to create a system that makes it fun for people to go to the bar and share their music. I guess the best analogy is that it is a Karaoke bar without the live singing.

If it evolved correctly and became manageable you would start to have people sharing their music with other people in their immediate environment. If you play a really cool song that no one has heard of they are going to come over and talk to you to find out more about the artist. Hey, for a few minutes you’re the hip one at the bar, and you’re not even in a band.

At some point people start competing to showcase truly unknown music (think of the indie artists here) because the ‘cool factor’ is all about offering good music that no one has heard of, or at least that most people have not heard of.

I think it would be most cool if, eventually, many, many bars evolved that had this model. And better yet would be if most of them developed a simple rule: the only music you could play is stuff by people who hadn’t signed with a major record company –only music by lesser known and independent artists. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world? I think so, and I hope it happens soon.

Meanwhile, if you want me I’ll be over here reading Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.

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