At the end of September, Facebook announced its grand plans to hook itself into as many aspects of its users’ lives as possible. Information provided by members—struck-up friendships, employment histories, hungover status updates—would be organized into timeline form, thus allowing people to retrace their virtual steps. Integrated into this slightly terrifying prospect was a component that allowed people using certain digital-music services (iTunes is one notable exception) to back-announce their listening habits in real time. Or, rather, forced them to do so; quite a few people were surprised when their friends commented on errant listens to pop tarts or dad-rockers that didn’t quite fit their taste profile.
Broadcasting listening habits online is nothing new; last.fm, a British listening-history tracker that started as a computer science student’s school project, has been humming along since online music’s dark ages (also known as 2002). But bringing song-by-song updates into the flow of news offered up by Facebook’s new ticker, which essentially turns the news of what friends are doing on the site into a CNN-worthy scroll of constant information, turns the passive act of listening in front of a laptop into a performance of sorts.
The performative aspect is weird, to be sure. I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder whether people noticed when I called up, say, Roachford’s 1989 Britsoul gem “Cuddly Toy,” a track that was lost to the sands of time and cracked VHS tapes of MTV’s late-night programming before I unearthed it while tooling around Spotify’s “related artists” function last week.
The Swedish digital-music service landed in the States with much fanfare earlier this summer, and I went from being a skeptic who’d seen far too many similarly hyped digital-music services crash and burn to being someone who uses it both to play catch-up with recent releases that might have been inadvertently shuffled to the bottom of the promo pile and to revisit once-forgotten tracks from years gone by. It’s not perfect by any means, particularly for people on the side of those crafting and releasing songs; just ask any musician who has received a paltry royalty check for not-insignificant numbers of streams or any labels that have yanked their music from the service because they see it as a money-losing proposition—but it has an elegant enough interface and its iPhone version is the closest thing to the once-elusive idea of the portable celestial jukebox.
And watching people from various eras of my life tick off the songs they’re listening to—Van Halen, Cody ChesnuTT, Megafaun, Public Enemy—has been pretty fun. The digital age has ushered in an atomized-listening atmosphere where the storied 12-album-a-year buyer of yore has been replaced by people who can call up nearly any song their memory might conjure up; charting those habits is increasingly impossible, but the small glimpses into others’ laptops offered by Facebook’s tracking have inspired me to dig into catalogs that I might not have given a thought to otherwise. (Not to mention that contrasting the discourse that pops up around listening habits on Facebook—”I love this record,” “Where did you first hear this”—to the topics discussed by people farther down the music-discourse rabbit hole, where much virtual ink is spilled on topics like the plumped lips of one chanteuse or the self-consciously “edgy” actions of a young rapper because topics like those are easier to coalesce page views around, is a nice reminder of why music’s such a rich topic to cover.)
Where this data—and its attendant commentary—will eventually go is another story. The comprehensive way that the once-piecemeal status updates have been organized into an overarching timeline of one’s digital life raises quite a few red flags about where personal memory and online oversharing intersect, and at this point, trusting any free online service to not sell the data its users offer up to marketers is about as naïve as believing in the claims put forth by infomercials. But for now, there’s still a thrill at peeking at these running diaries of musical habits; it’s the 2011 equivalent of running your eyes over a record collection or a bookshelf, only with a real-time aspect added.
Performative listening, of course, is essential to the live-music setting; even those people who are standing there stock-still while a band whacks away at its instruments are making a statement on what’s happening in front of them. This weekend’s All Tomorrow’s Parties I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in Asbury Park had an array of reactions: there was the bobbing of heads during Oneida’s eight-hour marathon in the middle of a bowling alley (there was bowling, too); there were the sing-alongs requested by the long-reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum before he launched into some of his more beloved pieces of damaged folk-punk; there was Voice contributor Chris Weingarten getting pulled on stage by Public Enemy to contribute a line to “Don’t Believe the Hype”; and there were, of course, quite a few as-it-happened updates broadcast to social networks by people who were splitting their concentration between what was occurring on stage and letting their not-as-lucky friends know that they were experiencing something particularly mind-blowing. (I say this as someone who got particularly broadcast-happy while watching a man named Lord Sinclair call a bingo match while dressed up as Nick Cave, screeching lyrics from “Release The Bats” and other songs from the Australian dark lord’s catalog in between numbers and letters while sporting an askew moustache and a bald-spot wig.)
Is it the lack of passivity that makes broadcasting those sorts of updates seem more obnoxious, or is it the idea that something’s actually happening while the typing’s going on, and the real-time updates might be causing the overexcited broadcaster to miss out on something entirely?