Networks of shared experience

Jefferson Provost has written a thoughtful essay on music sharing as viral marketing. He writes, in part:

The big issue here is how serious music fans decide what music to buy. I'm talking about the people who maintain large CD collections and spend a lot of money on music -- the customers that the music industry should be holding close to their hearts. These people not only spend a lot of money themselves, but they influence their less musically-inclined friends. These people tend to have idiosynchratic tastes, and are picky to the point of snobbishness. They don't buy music based on music industry mass-marketing. They buy it based on hearing it and liking it, and the way they hear new music is by sharing it with friends. Radio used to play a part, too, but consolidation has turned music radio into a steaming pile of crap, so what's left? Networks of like-minded friends sharing music are what's left. [Jefferson Provost]
Over the past weeks, I've been watching -- and participating in -- a fascinating experiment that aims to recreate the process of collaborative discovery that was Napster's greatest achievement. Ever heard of HeavyConfetti? Me neither, but I'm listening to Tito now on Webjay. The MP3 versions of these smooth Pat Metheny-inspired acoustic guitar tracks are licensed under Creative Commons. HeavyConfetti's e-commerce backend, somewhat puzzlingly, turns out to be: "email me and we can work something out." Maybe they should sign up with Magnatune, which has worked out a friendly but less casual purchasing model:

How much do you want to pay?

(50% goes directly to the artist, so please be generous)

But smoothing out the payment process matters only when there are people who want to pay. Let's look at some of the evolving ways to arrive at that state of mind. SebastiƩn Paquet recently posted a blueprint for a blog-based music recommendation network. Alf Eaton responded with an implementation that connects the dots between reading weblogs that talk about and link to freely-available MP3s, aggregating those weblogs, converting an aggregated page to a playlist, and -- directly from the player -- inserting a track into a Webjay playlist.

Here's what the process looks like. From this page of African griot tunes by Dembo Jobarteh, I used Alf's SMIL bookmarklet (drag to your toolbar) to synthesize a playlist of the MP3s linked on the page, and launch the player:

While the tune Allah la ke is playing, I click Recommend this tune using Webjay, and here's the result:

One more click adds the tune to my African griot playlist. Slick, huh?

I'm not much of an audiophile, to be honest, and there are lots of other people who will get more deeply into music-blogging and playlist-sharing than I'm likely to. But the process at work here is deeply fascinating to me, and generalizes to other realms. Every kind of digital experience can thrive in the virtuous cycle of the blogosphere: use it, capture part of it, link to it, write about it, search for it, read about it, aggregate it, rinse, lather, repeat.

Consider another kind of digital experience: software. The ability to try before I buy is great, but it's so much more powerful to tap into the shared experience of a knowledgeable user of the software I might want to buy. That's why Paul Everitt's spontaneous demo seemed like such a revelation.

I once read an interview with Michael Kinsley, right after he stepped down from the editorship of Slate. What had he expected Web publishing to be, the interviewer asked, and where had the medium fallen short? His answer was immediate and precise. He'd thought of the Web as a medium for shared experience. So, for example, music reviews and film reviews would quote from, rather than merely describe, songs and movies. That mostly hasn't happened yet, for both legal and technical reasons, but I see signs of a breakthrough. In the long run it has to happen. We crave access not only to intellectual products, but also to other people's experience and understanding of those products. When we focus on sharing experience -- which is sometimes, but not necessarily, the same as sharing product -- we'll unleash powerful economic forces.

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