Been quiet on SocialCreature the past month as I’ve been head-deep down the MirrorLAnd rabbit-hole. Surfacing for a quick nod to the remix contest that just launched with the release of Chapter 2.
If you or someone you know are a knob-fiddler type person, and you’d be interested in having your music become the soundtrack for the new video by Khameleon808, the creator of the Glitch Mob’s Tron:Legacy “Rerezzed” video, then you should check out:
Last week, my friend Kris Krug flew down to the Gulf of Mexico on the TEDxOilSpill Expedition, a week-long project to document the crisis in the Gulf and bring a first hand report back to the TEDxOilSpill event in Washington, D.C. on June 28. Kris, a photographer, web strategist, and self-described “cyberpunk anti-hero from the future” (though, technically, from Vancouver) was there as part of the team of photographers, videographers, and writer traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana documenting the current situation in the coastal communities affected by the oil spill. (Kris’s shots from the expedition have also appeared in National Geographic photo essays: 1, 2, 3).
Talking with Kris — who has been one of the earliest and staunchest supporters of my writing here at Social-Creature (the header image on this site is one of his photos) — he suggested that while it’s not my usual ‘beat,’ if I felt so inspired, I should write some words about this situation.
Early morning thunderstorm off the coast of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
The truth is that there is something in this endlessly tragic mire which I’ve kept thinking about over and over during the course of the now 69 days since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. And that recurring thought — beyond how devastating and heartbreaking this entire situation is — is how utterly foreign and disturbing it feels to be this completely powerless to do anything about it.
As a generation, mine has not known powerlessness. We have known no great war. No great depression. We were born a decade after the last U.S. draft ended. Our childhoods were filled with images like these:
We were weaned on the sense that something could be done. A single person could stand up to a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square. People could tear the Berlin wall down. People could undo the totalitarian Soviet regime. By the time we got to high school, the Internet had arrived, followed quickly by college and the birth of the social web. The digital revolution added an unprecedented amplification to this sense of our own personal agency. Just over the past few short years we have experienced how sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have offered platforms for us to do something.
Last summer, the Washington Post called the aftermath of the Iran election a “A Twitter Revolution.” As police tried to suppress demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the declared results of the presidential elections in a place halfway around the planet, Twitter let the world know exactly what was going on, on the ground in Iran even as outside journalists were barred from the country. It was instantaneous, unfiltered, real, and it compelled our attention. The U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance on the site at the time in order avoid disrupting communications among tweeting Iranian citizens and the rest of the world. Ordinary voices of dissent had never had access to such mass media before, and just bearing witness, just knowing their struggle, just retweeting and communicating was an act of solidarity with those citizens of Iran who were protesting, and an act of defiance against the forces that would have them silenced. It was doing something.
Six months ago, after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, a place of no real political or economic importance, these digital tools helped mobilize the aid and compassion of the entire world almost instantly. Within just a few hours a text-based donation service was set up for the American Red Cross’s relief efforts. In just 2 days of the earthquake the program had raised over $5 million from over a half million different mobile phone users. Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti Foundation, also running its own text donation drive, raised another $1 million. It was a watershed moment. Never had so much money been raised for relief so quickly after a disaster. The digital tools facilitated this, but what drove people to make those donations was the desire to do something even if it was just giving a few dollars to help alleviate suffering.
Our brains are primed for [belief in the supernatural], ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic.
We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.” The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus’s thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.
Oil coming on shore.
As an alternative to these external supernatural forces it’s become increasingly popular to reclaim a sense of power in the face of chaos or tragedy by elevating control of our inner selves to this transcendent status of godliness. In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America Barbara Ehrenreich recounts, in a chapter titled, “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer,” how getting diagnosed with breast cancer led to her first introduction with the cult of “positive thinking.” The “Pink Ribbon Culture,” she writes, is defined by a mantra of “positive thinking” that is so extreme, at times it paints cancer as a “gift, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude:”
In the mainstream of breast cancer culture there is very little anger, no mention of possible environmental causes, and few comments about the fact that in all but the most advanced, metastasized cases, it is the “treatments,” not the disease, that cause the immediate illness and pain. In fact, the overall tone is almost universally upbeat. The Best Friends Web site, for example, featured a series of inspirational quotes: “Don’t cry over anything that can’t cry over you,” “I cant stop the birds of sorrow from circling my head, but I can stop them from building a nest in my hair,” “When life hands out lemons, squeeze out a smile,” “Don’t wait for your ship to come in… swim out to meet it,” and much more of that ilk.
The cheerfulness of breast cancer culture goes beyond mere absence of anger to what looks all too often, like a positive embrace of the disease. As “Mary” reports, on the Bosom Buds message board: “I really believe I am a much more sensitive and thoughtful person now. I was a real worrier before. Now I don’t want to waste my energy on worrying. I enjoy life so much more now and in a lot of aspects I am much happier now.” [Another] such testimony to the redemptive powers of the disease: “I can honestly say I am happier now than I have ever been in my life — even before the breast cancer.
One survivor turned author credits it with revelatory powers, writing in her book The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening that “cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live. Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine.”
The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer [from] an injustice or tragedy to rail against.
There was, I learned, an urgent medical reason to embrace cancer with a smile: a “positive attitude” is supposedly essential to recovery. It remains almost axiomatic, within the breast cancer culture, that survival hinges on “attitude”…. [the belief] that a positive attitude boosts the immune system, empowering it to battle cancer more effectively.
You’ve probably read that assertion so often, in one form or another, that it glides by without a moment’s thought about what the immune system is, how it might be affected by emotions, and what, if anything, it could do to fight cancer. The business of the immune system is to defend the body against foreign intruders, such as microbes, and it does so with a a huge onslaught of cells and whole cascades of different molecular weapons.
In 1970, the famed Australian medical researcher McFarlane Burnet had proposed that the immune system is engaged in constant “surveillance” for cancer cells, which, supposedly, it would destroy upon detection. Presumably, the immune system was engaged in busily destroying cancer cells — until the day came when it was too exhausted (for example, by stress) to eliminate the renegades. There was at least one a priori problem with this hypothesis: unlike microbes, cancer cells are not “foreign”; they are ordinary tissue cells that have mutated and are not necessarily recognizable as enemy cells. As a recent editorial in the Journal of Clinical Oncology put it: “What we must first remember is that the immune system is designed to detect foreign invaders, and avoid our own cells. With few exceptions, the immune system does not appear to recognize cancers within an individual as foreign, because they are actually part of the self.”
More to the point, there is no consistent evidence that the immune system fights cancers, with the exception of those cancers caused by viruses, which may be more truly “foreign.” People whose immune systems have been depleted by HIV or animals rendered immunodeficient are not especially susceptible to cancers, as the “immune surveillance” theory would predict. Nor would it make much sense to treat cancer with chemotherapy, which suppresses the immune system, if the latter were truly crucial to fighting the disease. Furthermore, no one has found a way to cure cancer by boosting the immune system with chemical or biological agents.
But despite all the evidence to the contrary, you can see the appeal of believing in the power of “positive thinking” anyway, can’t you? Instead of waiting passively for the treatments to kick in, breast cancer patients can now “work on themselves;” monitor their moods and “psychic energies.” In other words, the idea of a link between subjective feelings and the disease, fabricated though it may be, gives cancer patient something to do.
And this applies far beyond cancer, to any kind of overpowering misfortune. “We’re always being told that looking on the bright side is good for us,” writes Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, in a review on the back cover of Bright-Sided, “But now we see that it’s a great way to brush off poverty, disease, and unemployment, to rationalize an order where all the rewards go to those on top. The people who are sick or jobless — why, they just aren’t thinking positively. They have no one to blame but themselves.”
It’s not that we’re assholes. It’s just that we desperately want to believe the world is a far more just place than it actually is. As David McRaney, journalist, and author of You Are Not So Smart, a blog about the workings of self-delusion, writes in a post about The Just World Fallacy, humans have “a tendency to react to horrible misfortune, like homelessness or drug addiction, by believing the people stuck in horrible situations must have done something to deserve it.” Here is the Just World fallacy in action:
Oh, wait. Actually, THAT guy IS an asshole. As is Rhonda Byrne, creator of “The Secret,” who, in the wake of the 2006 tsunami, citing the law of attraction, announced that disasters like that can happen only to those who are “on the same frequency as the event.”
A flock of Brown Pelicans on some rocks in Alabama.
While, clearly, suggesting that the poor little pelicans (or anyone else) signed a deal with the devil or somehow attracted the oil spill upon themselves is just waaaay the fuck further out in looney-land than anyone who is not an asshole cares to travel, at their base, all these delusions are simply coping mechanisms. A way to synthesize a sense of being less powerless than you really are; a way to deal in the face of extreme evidence to the contrary. Because the reality is that feeling like we have NO control whatsoever, like our lives are simply dried up leaves in the autumn winds of chaos, like any choices we make are utterly meaningless and futile is actually terrible for our mental well-being and our health. Note: this is not the same as saying “thinking positive will cure your cancer,” it’s saying that extreme stress factors are, indeed, bad for you. Duh. “Torture a lab animal long enough,” Ehrenreich writes, “as the famous stress investigator Hans Selye did in the 1930s, and it becomes less healthy and resistant to disease.” In a post on Learned Helplessness — McRaney writes:
If, over the course of your life, you have experienced crushing defeat or pummeling abuse or loss of control, you learn over time there is no escape, and if escape is offered, you will not act – you become a nihilist who trusts futility above optimism.
Studies of the clinically depressed show that when they fail they often just give in to defeat and stop trying.
A study in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed in nursing homes where conformity and passivity is encouraged and every whim is attended to, the health and wellbeing of the patients declines rapidly. If, instead, the people in these homes are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active.
This research was repeated in prisons. Sure enough, just letting prisoners move furniture and control the television kept them from developing health problems and staging revolts.
In homeless shelters where people can’t pick out their own beds or choose what to eat, the residents are less likely to try and get a job or find an apartment.
Perdido Beach, Alabama
The underlying thread here is always about control, or the loss of it. Chaos is unbelievably traumatizing — personally, and to us as a species. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, have been studying the impact of the 9/11 attacks on male babies since 2005. Their just recently published findings reveal that in the aftermath of the 2001 tragedy pregnant women miscarried a disproportionate number of male fetuses. In September 2001, the death rate of male fetuses compared with female increased by 12 percent. That’s 120 extra losses in a single month. The theory behind this phenomenon is likely an evolutionary adaptation. Women have adapted to produce what, Tim Bruckner, the study’s lead author and a professor at UC Irvine, describes as “the alpha male.” Which could explain why male fetuses are more sensitive to their mothers’ stress hormones than female ones. When a pregnant woman experiences some sort of crisis — whether personal or not — her male baby is more vulnerable to be miscarried. In times of prosperity and security, male fetuses are more likely to be brought to term, because there’s a greater chance that they’ll be healthy and robust. During periods of scarcity, however, male miscarriages are much more common. Indeed, the phenomenon reported by Bruckner & Co. has been observed before — reduced male birth rates have been reported during other instances of national stress or suffering, like economic recessions or natural disasters.
Surface oil burns in the Gulf of Mexico as part of the oil spill clean-up.
Which brings us back to the Gulf of Mexico and the worst environmental disaster in US history; the cold, strange, numbing sense of a profound national powerlessness seeping in as we see sickening photos of helpless animals drowning in oil. Just thinking about how you can’t do anything about it for too long will make you want to check the fuck out of this whole story. I know. I want, as much as anyone else, to have something to be able to do to make all of this stop.
To a large extent this is completely new territory for my generation. Nationally, we have never been faced with something we couldn’t “do” something about. As the child of parents who lived through WWII, Refuseniks, no less — the 1 and a half million Russian Jews who were trapped in the Soviet Union, denied permission by the government to leave the country, in my parents’ case, for a decade — I know, personally, just how sheltered my generation’s childhood has been in contrast. It’s unprecedented for us. We’ve had so little practice at facing situations where we couldn’t just do something, at fighting them, at living through them. Not 9/11, not the financial crisis, not the wars in between, it’s this oil spill that is my generation’s unfortunate turn to figure out how to stand in the face of powerlessness.
In a Huffington Post piece a few weeks ago on why he “Co-opted BP’s Twitter Presence,” Leroy Stick, the alleged name behind the anonymous @BPGlobalPR twitter account, which posts ingeniously scathing commentary on BP with satire so black as to befit the disaster the company has wrought, wrote:
I started @BPGlobalPR because the oil spill had been going on for almost a month and all BP had to offer were bullshit PR statements. No solutions, no urgency, no sincerity, no nothing. That’s why I decided to relate to the public for them. I started off just making jokes at their expense with a few friends, but now it has turned into something of a movement. As I write this, we have 100,000 followers and counting. [Currently, almost 179,000]. People are sharing billboards, music, graphic art, videos and most importantly information.
If you are angry, speak up. Don’t let people forget what has happened here. Don’t let the prolonged nature of this tragedy numb you to its severity. Re-branding doesn’t work if we don’t let it, so let’s hold BP’s feet to the fire. Let’s make them own up to and fix their mistakes NOW and most importantly, let’s make sure we don’t let them do this again.
Right now, PR is all about brand protection. All I’m suggesting is that we use that energy to work on human progression. Until then, I guess we’ve still got jokes.
A small quote of inspiration to the affected fishing community at a bait and tackle in Dauphin Island, Alabama
In the introduction to Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich writes:
Americans did not start out as positive thinkers…. In the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers pledged to one another “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” They knew that they had no certainty of winning the war for independence and that they were taking a mortal risk. Just the act of signing the declaration made them all traitors to the crown, and treason was a crime punishable by execution. The point is, they fought anyway. There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.
We must find that courage now. To keep paying attention. To not tune out the story of this tragedy. To not let futility or apathy or simple delusion take over. We must have the courage to see things as they really are, to bear witness to what’s happening in the gulf, and we must have the courage to fight for answers, to fight for institutional change in the policies that have lead to this disaster, and to work for new solutions. The TEDxOilSpill event I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is bringing together researchers and leaders to explore new ideas for our energy future, and how we can mitigate the crisis in the Gulf, is a start. There are also currently 126 local Meetups happening in conjunction with the event in 30 countries around the globe. We have to have the courage to do what we can, until we can actually do what we must.
That courage is, literally, what America was founded on, and I hope my generation discovers we too possess a reserve of it.
Having worked in the music industry for the better part of my career, with concert promoters, music festivals, and musicians, this is a topic very near to my heart — you may even recognize a few passages in the deck from my recent All Your Music Are Belong To Us post — but the trends and ideas presented below are as relevant to the biggest consumer brands, or the indiest creative capital producers as they are to music acts. So without further ado, here’s how you Connect or Die:
Writing about the aftermath of the public outcry against Tropicana’s packaging redesign earlier this year, which ultimately led to the OJ cartons reverting back to the original art, I mentioned Mountain Dew’s “Dewmocracy” campaign — an interactive, story-based online game which resulted in 3 new Dew flavors designed and developed virtually entirely by fans.
Now that there’s a buzz about Tropicana’s openness to fan-feedback in general, and about its packaging design in particular, why not create a platform for people to submit their design ideas? How might Tropicana lovers re-envision what that OJ carton could look like given the chance? In fact, why pick just one new design? How about different winning carton designs printed in “limited editions”? Why not deliberately set out to discover and promote emerging artists, giving them their first break of mass exposure through orange juice cartons in grocery stores across the country? If it’s art, suddenly there’s a whole new reason for choosing one OJ brand over another. It’s not just about a “campaign,” it’s an opportunity to create culture.
Mountain Dew, it seems, has already been putting this exact idea to work, (of course). Similar to Evian’s partnership with famed designers like Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Paul Smith, Mountain Dew has rolled out the third installment of their limited edition artist bottles under the Green Label Art series.
With these aluminum canvases, Mountain Dew not only taps into the urban indie art culture by supporting artists Claw Money (NY), Jeff McMillan (LBC), Nathan Cabrera (LA), Pushead (SF), Stephen Bliss (NY), UPSO (Toledo!), and Evan Coburn (LA), it also moves the Pepsi beverage deeper into lifestyle brand territory. There is also more artwork to check out, as well as computer wallpapers from each artist to download on the Green Label Art site. Plus, I’ve seen these new bottles over the weekend, and they’re pretty damn cool-looking, for only slightly (less than a dollar) more than a regular soda bottle. Super smart.
A form of urban music that became popular with Latin American youth in the early 1990s, and, after mainstream exposure in 2004, spread to North American, European and Asian audiences. Reggaeton blends the West-Indian music influences of reggae and dancehall with those of Latin America, such as bomba, plena, salsa, merengue, latin pop, cumbia and bachata as well as that of hip hop, contemporary R&B, and electronica, combined with rapping or singing in Spanish. While it takes influences from hip hop and Jamaican dancehall, it would be wrong to define reggaeton as the Hispanic or Latino version of either of these genres; reggaeton has its own specific beat and rhythm, whereas Latino hip hop is simply hip hop recorded by artists of Latino descent. Reggaeton’s origins represent a hybrid of many different musical genres and influences from various countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States. The genre of reggaeton however is most closely associated with Puerto Rico, as this is where the musical style became most famous, and where the vast majority of its current stars originated.
Here’s an example, Daddy Yankee’s “Rompe”:
I’d heard the term, Reggaeton, out at certain parties in L.A., but I didn’t really know what it was until KXOL-FM relaunched in 2005 as Latino 96.3, bringing the Reggaeton format to the airwaves. After a while, I’d been finding myself stopping the dial scan every so often at 96.3 to catch the end of some song even though I couldn’t understand the lyrics. My answer to my friend at the time was that I didn’t think I’d heard it enough to fully like it yet, but I probably would. It didn’t occur to me until my friend pointed it out, that it was a strange way to respond to a question of music taste.
Not too long after I fist started going to raves, back in high school, I discovered Jungle. If you don’t know what Jungle is, it’s a type of electronic dance music which emerged in the mid 1990’s as an offshoot of the UK rave scene. Encompassing drum and bass, oldschool jungle, and ragga, the genre is characterized by fast breakbeats (typically between 160–190 bpm) and heavy sub-bass lines.
Here’s an example, Aphrodite’s “Bomber Style:”
When I discovered Jungle, I had only just gotten into a relationship with hip hop a few years prior, when I started 9th grade at a public, urban high school, and then fallen into the questionable companionship of entry-level rave trance (a la Paul Oakenfold, etc.), so when I first heard this stuff, it sounded way too fuckin’ cacophanous and chaotic and fast and just plain weird. I distinctly remember a time when I just didn’t get Jungle. I didn’t get how to understand it. I didn’t get how to like it. And I sure as hell didn’t get how to dance to it. Then my best friend at the time, who’d been going to raves before I started, and had once been a ballerina, showed me. You just had to move a different way. You had to get onto a different rhythm. And as soon as I figure it out, I started to really like, and then just completely LOVE Jungle. By the time I’d started hearing Reggaeton, I knew from past experience that if I listened long enough to start to understand the sound, I would come to like it.
It turns out the line between being unfamiliar with something, and not liking it is very slim, indeed. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the Aeron chair, which would eventually redefine the entire office chair category, was originally despised and deemed ugly when it was first market tested. The Aeron was a complete departure from the office chair norm, and didn’t mesh with the prevailing cultural proclivities for seating comfort in general (think: La-Z-Boy recliner). But after two years, the Aeron became the most popular chair in Herman Miller history, and the most widely imitated office chair in general. How did something that was once considered ugly become beautiful?
Office chairs in people’s minds had a certain aesthetic. They were cushioned and upholstered. The Aeron chair of course isn’t. There was nothing familiar about it. Maybe the word ‘ugly’ was just a proxy for “different.” The people reporting their first impressions misinterpreted their own feelings. They said they hated it. But what they really meant was that the chair was so new and unusual that they weren’t used to it…. Buried among the things that we hate is a class of products that are in that category only because they are weird. They make us nervous. They are sufficiently different that it takes us time to understand that we actually like them.
The problem with market research is that often it is simply too blunt an instrument to pick up this distinction between the bad and the merely different.
And perhaps nowhere is that nervousness more acute, or that distinction more obscure than when it comes to music.
Much depends on culture. Just as we’re hard-wired to learn a language, but not to speak English or French, our specific musical understanding, and thus taste, depends on context. If a piece of music sounds dissonant to you, it probably has to do with what sort of music you were exposed to growing up, because you were probably an “expert listener” in your culture’s music by about age 6, Levitin writes.
By the time I was six years old, 85% of the music I had heard was classical violin. My mother is a violinist, and when I was younger, performed with many orchestras and symphonies, both in the former Soviet Union, and then in Boston, where I grew up after we emigrated. She has also been teaching violin for longer than I’ve been alive, and as a child the sound violins was so constant and ubiquitous around the house that I developed the capacity, which I retain to this day, to sleep right through an afternoon full of violin lessons going on around me. The other 15% of the music of my early childhood consisted of Russian folk-rock music by the likes of Vladimir Vysotsky (imagine a Russian sort of Bob Dylan — in fact, the genre Vysotsky defined is precisely what Gogol Bordello is currently perpetrating as a zany new indie sound, which I gotta say is pretty freakin’ weird to witness.) I didn’t really start hearing ANYTHING even remotely in the vicinity of contemporary popular American music until I got to the U.S. (by that time I was almost 7), in large part due to the efforts of the Soviet government to achieve that goal.
Anyway, the point is, the music that I was acculturated to became wholly irrelevant in the new culture I found myself in just at the moment when I had become an “expert listener.” When everything sounds dissonant, nothing sounds dissonant. Not any more dissonant than anything else, anyway. I suspect, much in the same way new languages become a lot easier to learn if you’d had to learn a new one when you were little, new music sounds and genres, for me anyway, are a lot easier to learn to understand, and ultimately appreciate because of this history. It’s why the question “What kind of music do you like?” has always made me uncomfortable. I have watched as other people draw on instantly accessible answers, but for me, sentences like “I like hip hop” or “I like electronic music,” have become learned responses, like fragments memorized from a phrase-book for emergencies in a foreign country. The answer to that question is never really about what kind of music you happen to find structurally, acoustically, or thematically appealing, anyway. No, what that question is actually asking is: “What kind of music do your friends like?”
As Walker writes:
It’s the “social” theories of music-liking that get most of the attention these days: systems that connect you with friends with similar tastes, or that rely on “collaborative filtering” strategies that cross-match your music-consumption habits with those of like-minded strangers. These popular approaches marginalize traditional gatekeepers; instead of trusting the talent scout, the radio programmer or the music critic, you trust your friends (actual or virtual), or maybe just “the crowd.”Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
One of my co-workers, a married dude, loves the Calvin Harris station on Pandora, which is basically straight up Gay House (that’s Gay House as in the music genre, not the epithet). Were the station defined by its cultural information, as opposed to strictly by sound, it’s much more probable he’d simply assume this wasn’t for him, and not venture any further. Which, as Walker writes, raises some interesting questions:
Do you really love listening to the latest Jack White project? Do you really hate the sound of Britney Spears? Or are your music-consumption habits, in fact, not merely guided but partly shaped by the cultural information that Pandora largely screens out — like what’s considered awesome (or insufferable) by your peers, or by music tastemakers, or by anybody else? Is it really possible to separate musical taste from such social factors, online or off, and make it purely about the raw stuff of the music itself?
What Pandora’s system largely ignores is, in a word, taste. The way that [Pandora founder Tim] Westergren might put this is that it minimizes the influence of other people’s taste. Music-liking becomes a matter decided by the listener, and the intrinsic elements of what is heard. Early on, Westergren actually pushed for the idea that Pandora would not even reveal who the artist was until the listener asked. He thought maybe that structure would give users a kind of permission to evaluate music without even the most minimal cultural baggage. “We’re so insecure about our tastes,” he says.
(Or as Gladwell might put it, “nervous.”)
While his partners talked him out of that approach, Westergren maintains “a personal aversion” to collaborative filtering or anything like it. “It’s still a popularity contest,” he complains, meaning that for any song to get recommended on a socially driven site, it has to be somewhat known already, by your friends or by other consumers. Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice.
He likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’”
This anecdote almost always gets a laugh. “Pandora,” he pointed out, “doesn’t understand why that’s funny.”
Much as cultural information attaches to music, music attaches information to culture. Piggybacked like parasites onto unwitting sound-waves are all manner of cultural and identity definitions. The “What music do you like?” question is also intended to be responded to as: “What scene are you in?” After all, you don’t just like hip hop or punk or emo, you ARE hip hop or punk or emo. And even with mainstream artists, saying you’re a fan of Garth Brooks or Adam Lambert or Muse or Jay-Z is more than simply giving an example of the sort of musical style you enjoy, it’s an admission of your cultural affiliation, of your individual and social identity.
As Walker writes:
The cliché that our musical tastes are generally refined in our teens and solidify by our early 20s seems largely to be true. For better or worse, peers frequently have a lot to do with that. Levitin recalled to me having moved at age 14 and falling in with a new set of friends who listened to music he hadn’t heard before. “The reason I like Queen — and I love Queen — is that I was introduced to Queen by my social group,” he says. He’s not saying that the intrinsic qualities of the music are irrelevant, and he says Pandora has done some very clever and impressive things in its approach. But part of what we like is, in fact, based on cultural information. “To some degree we might say that personality characteristics are associated with, or predictive of, the kind of music that people like,” he has written. “But to a large degree it is determined by more or less chance factors: where you went to school, who you hung out with, what music they happened to be listening to.”
Basically, what “scene” you were in. And social groups tend to very easily become self-selecting, especially online. In a recent NPR story, “Facebook, MySpace Divide Along Social Lines,” social media researcher danah boyd talks about the findings she’d first brought to light two years ago on the way the online social world is dividing up — just like the real world — into self-segregated communities: “The fact is that young people, and for the most part adults as well, don’t really interact online with strangers. They talk to people they already know. And when you have environments in which people are divided by race, they’re divided by class, they’re divided by lifestyle, when they go online, those are also who they’re going to interact with,” says boyd.
As I have long asserted, myself, from my contrasting experiences in the worlds of independent music and corporate marketing, boyd suggests that one of the reasons so many business analysts are writing off Myspace is because THEY don’t belong to the social groups that use it. “Millions of daily users are still logging in [to Myspace],” she says, “and it’s really interesting how many people in very privileged environments know not a single one of them.”
Not only will the process of polarization tend to play out in virtual communities in the same way it does in neighborhoods, but it seems likely to proceed much more quickly online. In the real world, with its mortgages and schools and jobs, the mechanical forces of segregation move slowly. There are brakes on the speed with which we pull up stakes and move to a new house. Internet communities have no such constraints. Making a community-defining decision is as simple as clicking a link. Every time we subscribe to a blog, add a friend to our social network, categorize an email message as spam, or even choose a site from a list of search results, we are making a decision that defines, in a small way, whom we associate with and what information we pay attention to. Given the presence of even a slight bias to be connected with people similar to ourselves – ones who share, say, our political views or our cultural preferences –
(or our musical tastes)
we would end up in ever more polarized and homogeneous communities. We would click our way to a fractured society.
As the entire web becomes one ever-expanding, amoebic social application, it becomes increasingly harder and harder to “log out” of this cultural segregation that seems built in to the very nature digital space. In a recent New Yorker article on Google, Ken Auletta, writes:
The more “personalized” [the consumer data that Google collects each day], as [CEO] Eric Schmidt said, the better the search answers. “The more we know who you are, the more we can tailor the search results.” [Google co-founders, Larry] Page and [Sergey] Brin often say that their ideal is to devise a program that provides a single perfect answer.
This preoccupation with mathematical efficiencies triggers various alarms. In “The Big Switch,” Nicholas Carr writes that Google would like to store as much information as possible about each individual — what might be referred to as “transparent personalization.” This would allow Google to “choose which information to show you,” reducing inefficiencies. “A company run by mathematicians and engineers, Google seems oblivious to the possible social costs of transparent personalization,” Carr writes. “They impose homogeneity on the Internet’s wild heterogeneity…. As the tools and algorithms become more sophisticated and our online profiles more refined, the Internet will act increasingly as an incredibly sensitive feedback loop, constantly playing back to us, in amplified form, our existing preferences.” Carr believes that people will narrow their frame of reference, gravitate towards those whose opinions they share, and perhaps be less willing o compromise, because the narrow information we receive will magnify our difference, making it harder to reach agreement.
As much as there is a conservative pull within us to seek out the familiar and the safe, the example of Pandora shows there is an equally as great liberal a pull to discover and explore the new (altho that balance may be different from one individual to another). There are already so many social sites and applications being developed to enable the former, what we need now are more UNsocial ones. Applications that offer us the opportunity to discover and explore the new and unfamiliar, applications that allow us to confront diversity, and offer us new ways to expand our tastes and define ourselves.