Fixing a Hole in the Social Web

Last sum­mer, my friend Karl Mar­ti­no shared this post from Scott Rosen­berg on Face­book some time ago and I got a lit­tle excit­ed. Could blog­ging real­ly be back? I’ve writ­ten about the death of music blogs and Jere­mi­ah declared the gold­en age of tech blog­ging dead back in 2011. What Rosen­berg hit on in his fol­low up — the migra­to­ry pat­terns of the “hive mind” — made me think less about plat­forms and more about the sin­gu­lar tool that enabled blogs to real­ly become pop­u­lar: RSS.

Google Read­er rode off into the sun­set back in 2013. Noth­ing real­ly replaced it, despite a race to rebuild it. Before any­one declares blog­ging’s back, let’s be hon­est with our­selves: RSS made the blog­gy core of the web pos­si­ble. Right now, I have a bunch of tabs open and I’m click­ing through to addi­tion­al posts and form­ing thoughts and respons­es. This was only pos­si­ble using “read it lat­er” tools.  In the blog­gy hey­day, I would sub­scribe to count­less blogs and refresh Google Read­er end­less­ly to keep up as they col­lect­ed through­out the day. You’d think I was describ­ing Twit­ter or Tum­blr or Face­book, but these leaky net­works are sieves com­pared to the net RSS provided.

Two reflec­tions:

  1. the social web cre­at­ed the sense of FOMO that keeps us refresh­ing feeds cease­less­ly so we make sure we don’t miss a thing. It’s impos­si­ble to be a part of the dia­logue if you miss it completely.
  2. The notion that “if news is impor­tant, it’ll find me” is true only if you hope to cement your solipsism.

In many respects. the social web has evolved into the online equiv­a­lent of Jacques Lacan and Judith But­ler cor­re­spond­ing in pub­lic via aca­d­e­m­ic jour­nals. We can all read the arti­cles, but they’re not real­ly talk­ing to “us.” Sure, the social web enables us to par­tic­i­pate, but that par­tic­i­pa­tion too often feels like tweet­ing at celebri­ties, in the hopes of the odd fave or retweet.

I’m not sure any­thing can be done about that last bit. Part of the prob­lem of say­ing “blog­ging is back” in any mean­ing­ful way ignores how the scope and veloc­i­ty of infor­ma­tion online with­out new ways to cap­ture a dai­ly digest of what hap­pened. Remem­ber when you’d check Google Read­er and it would be loaded with updates from every blog you fol­lowed that reflect­ed the lat­est press release hit­ting the wire? Now the social web is the same echo cham­ber that rever­ber­ates to reach every time zone online. What’s miss­ing from the social web today — and what made blog­ging in the ear­ly days so great — was that peri­od where it felt like you “knew” “every­one” online. To bor­row from Bene­dict Ander­son, we can’t recap­ture those “imag­ined com­mu­ni­ties” that cre­at­ed a sense of inti­ma­cy and shared under­stand­ing on the web.

The clos­est I’ve seen any­one come to acknowl­edg­ing this gap is ThinkUp, which takes stock of your activ­i­ty in the social web. But quan­ti­fy­ing activ­i­ty isn’t the same as chang­ing behav­ior. Bene­dict Evans tweet­stormed about “dis­cov­ery” and I think it sums things up nice­ly as it relates to how con­ver­sa­tion has evolved online. I’ll end here.

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Playlist

When Music 2.0 first arrived on the scene, it treat­ed user­s like data entry clerks. Sure, every­one dressed it up as “user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent,” but it all hinged on some moti­vat­ed indi­vid­ual updat­ing a data­base for a ser­vice that was­n’t pay­ing them. Those ser­vices most­ly died out, either because peo­ple lost inter­est or some­thing new­er and shinier replaced them. In any case, they asked way too much of users.

The music ser­vices that sur­vived from that era under­stood fun­da­men­tal­ly that their users chose their ser­vice because they want­ed to lis­ten to music. Beats Music takes that a step fur­ther; rather than focus dogged­ly on “dis­cov­ery,” Beats recon­tex­tu­al­izes the music you love. For me, that means Beats rec­om­mends artists whose albums lan­guished for too long at the bot­tom of a box in a clos­et. Now I can fall in love with them all over again.

But that on it’s own isn’t enough to dis­tin­guish a music ser­vice from the rest of the pack. Curat­ed playlists and push noti­fi­ca­tions do. Plen­ty of ser­vices offer the same library, give or take, but none were espe­cial­ly good at antic­i­pat­ing what I want­ed to hear. You could go search­ing for things, but that’s over­whelm­ing. Beats Music makes it sim­ple and offers sug­ges­tions. Instead of search­ing end­less­ly for a par­tic­u­lar album, I just dive into an intro­duc­to­ry playlist of an artist I’ve overlooked.

Best of all? They hired real­ly out­stand­ing crit­ics to pull togeth­er fan­tas­tic playlists. Beats did­n’t just hire them to cre­ate playlists willy nil­ly; there’s real strat­e­gy at work. Try as I might to lis­ten to every­thing, I still sought crit­i­cal short­cuts or a point of entry into an artist’s body of work. If you’re a recov­er­ing com­pletist, you can famil­iar­ize your­self with Luke Vib­ert one moment and Way­lon Jen­nings the next. It does­n’t hurt that most playlists were curat­ed by the same crit­ics I came up with in the Aughties.

Most­ly, I’m just jeal­ous of kids who get to expe­ri­ence music like this. For more, here’s Eric Har­vey’s essay on the devel­op­ment of stream­ing music over at Pitchfork.

The Art of January Releases

Malkmus and Jicks

It’s March and SXSW is wrap­ping up in Austin, which is the kick­off to the spring push in the music indus­try. What am I still pay­ing atten­tion, too? The lat­est Jicks record, Wig Out at Jag­bags. What else? The Against Me! album, Trans­gen­der Dys­pho­ria Blues.

Why? The answer is sim­ple. Both are Jan­u­ary releas­es. Jan­u­ary is a great month for media Moneyball. The owned the media cycle for a qui­et month and noth­ing real­ly rose to dethrone them in Feb­ru­ary, at least from a cov­er­age per­spec­tive in the social streams I fol­low. Will these albums be over­looked or giv­en short shrift come year end? Sure, but who cares? How much are year end lists worth in 2014 any­how? (Could be a lot; tell me if I’m wrong.)

Jan­u­ary is the per­fect month to release an album. Ever since LCD Soundsys­tem released their debut in Jan­u­ary 2005, I’ve asked why more bands don’t do this. Break away from the March and Octo­ber cycle, make as much noise as pos­si­ble and then tour if you can. This is espe­cial­ly genius with a “lega­cy” artist like Malk­mus, who has a pret­ty well-defined fan base. Maybe this bought him some addi­tion­al expo­sure. Jan­u­ary offers more “run­way” for an artist than the com­mer­cial claus­tro­pho­bia of March.

But why is it so smart to push an album before March rolls around?

A few reasons:

  • Crit­ics are just like us! They make res­o­lu­tions! Things like “I will lis­ten to more music this year.” Put out an album in Jan­u­ary and you’re the sole beneficiary.
  • There is no oth­er news. I must’ve read 4 or more fan­tas­tic, gen­er­ous inter­views with Malk­mus and prob­a­bly twice as many with Against Me!‘s Lau­ra Jane Grace.
  • Release an album in Jan­u­ary and you get expan­sive “nar­ra­tive space.” Malk­mus’s sto­ry is nowhere near as grip­ping as Lau­ra Jane Grace’s, yet the nar­ra­tive that he’s been with the Jicks longer than Pave­ment shone through and the cov­er­age human­ized him unlike ever before. The inter­play with his kids’ lis­ten­ing habits was fan­tas­tic and the image of him singing to Avicii in a mini­van amazed me.

If you still think release dates are mean­ing­ful inas­much as it allows you to pre­pare for a news cycle, break free of the old meth­ods. To apply some busi­ness speak from Havard Busi­ness Review, adopt a blue ocean strat­e­gy and get your client out there in the open. To bring it back to Bil­ly Beane, find the mar­ket inef­fi­cien­cy and take advantage.

How to Use Twitter Like a Human Being

I love Twit­ter. It’s my favorite social net­work. I start­ed using it in 2008 when I went to SXSW Music. I imme­di­ate­ly saw its val­ue for cov­er­ing live events. That fall, I used it exten­sive­ly dur­ing the Phillies’ post­sea­son cam­paign. Twit­ter is a great plat­form for your pas­sions. Except when it isn’t.

Some­where along the way, Twit­ter changed. My friend Mark cap­tured one key dif­fer­ence in his tweet below.

For all the talk about being authen­tic and engag­ing on social, you’ll often find that the most fol­lowed accounts are noth­ing more than linkbots with a human face. It’s a head-scratch­er. At a time when peo­ple com­plain of infor­ma­tion over­load, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple will fol­low accounts that recy­cle memes and oth­er online flotsam.

If that does­n’t depress you, A Tale of Two Twit­ter Per­sonas will. MG Siegler writes:

For me, giv­en my back­ground and line of work, that’s obvi­ous­ly tech­nol­o­gy. But I too have oth­er inter­ests — shock­ing, I know. Film is def­i­nite­ly one. Beer is def­i­nite­ly anoth­er. And sports is way up there. Yes, some peo­ple in the tech indus­try are as obsessed with sports as any­one else in the world. Blasphemy!

What does per­son­al brand­ing mean when the most pop­u­lar social media accounts lack personality?

Anil Dash on Streams and Pages

I for­got that the stream ver­sus page debate start­ed over a year ago. Here’s Anil Dash’s roundup.

As Choire notes, this real­ly only works if you ditch own­ing your con­tent. There was an inter­est­ing debate on that last sum­mer. Mar­co Arment argued against Medi­um, while Scoble more or less stopped blogging.

I think this takes us back to Madri­gal on the stream. We’re liv­ing in a media envi­ron­ment where live­blog­ging is the norm. We want to fol­low break­ing news in real time and we want to watch heat­ed debates unfold on Twit­ter from the social side­lines. But if we care enough, we want to read analy­sis, too.

Madri­gal’s point on FOMO is crit­i­cal here. There are com­mu­ni­ties on the web that want to be in on every­thing as it hap­pens. That does­n’t work because under­stand­ing does­n’t scale. This may explain why jour­nal­ists TL;DR their own stuff in social. The chal­lenge isn’t a ques­tion of for­mat but rel­e­vance and the lat­ter is chal­lenged by the former.

We need to be bet­ter edi­tors in every sense. We need to iden­ti­fy what’s impor­tant and nec­es­sary. We can’t dip our toe into the stream and learn by osmosis.