October 31, 2005 – 10:16 pm
Here’s what I’ve been working on for the last little while. It’s (hopefully) the final draft of the conference paper I’m presenting in Amsterdam in a few weeks time. It’s pretty long – we’re talking close to 7,000 words – so don’t feel obliged to read it. It’s here because I’m releasing it under a Creative Commons licence so that anyone who wants to excerpt or republish or make derivative works or whatever they like can feel free.
If you do feel inclined to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Make suggestions, corrections, alterations and suggestions for further reading – though it may take a day or two before I get onto that.
There is no ‘We’ in ‘iPod’
This paper examines the ways in which portable, personal digital audio devices interact with the social construction of relationships and ‘community’ both within and between audiences and media content providers. While it might appear on the surface that the introduction of iPod-like devices leads inevitably to an individualising and isolating media experience, the truth is more complicated. The author proposes that the apparent shift from an age of the collective audience and corporate media producer to an era of the individual consumer and solitary content creator is a deceptive and overly simplistic construction, and that the shift to digital and computer-mediated means of consumption and production, while not without its problems, has generated new possibilities for community and human interaction.
The iPod is a device designed to personalise the experience of music: one’s own music collection in one’s own ears. In many important respects – not least as a portable, personal stereo, but also as a cultural icon and marketing phenomenon – the iPod resembles the Sony Walkman. But instead of an album’s worth of material on a cassette tape, the device can, for most people, hold an entire collection – the music from their own life with which they can create and assemble their own private soundtrack.
In the book ‘iPod Therefore I Am’ (D. Jones, 2005b) author Dylan Jones celebrates his portable music device, and the opportunity it affords him to reconnect with his personal and social history of music – a history he then feels compelled to share with his readers at some length. Of the book’s 300 pages, over 90 are made up of lists of songs. Whole chapters are given over to the speculative construction of a fictional ‘missing’ Beatles album and meetings with pop stars that have profoundly impacted upon his (and many of his readers’) formative tastes. While this stands as a potential criticism of the work, it sheds an important light upon the connection between musical experience and identity, the connection between that identity and the construction of social groupings and societies themselves – as well as the simple motivation to share musical experience with other human beings.
However, marketing lecturer and former record label owner, Markus Giesler claims that rather than reinforcing those characteristics of ourselves that make us human, the increasing ubiquity of iPods and other personal portable music devices is instead part of a larger evolutionary shift in human experience: the rise of the cyborg consumer:
Consumers often say the iPod… is no longer just an instrument or a tool, but a part of myself. It’s a body extension. It’s part of my memory, and if I lose this stuff, I lose part of my identity. (Kahney, 2005)
To some critics, Timothy Leary’s counterculture call to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” (Leary, 1965) has finally taken hold, and that this personalisation of media has resulted in a disconnection from communities and an isolation from one’s surroundings. The iPod enables the listener to physically occupy a social space whilst being enveloped in a sensorial cocoon, deaf to the “urban orchestra” (Sherman, 2004) around them. In a world where media can be customised and made personal, Sunday Times columnist Andrew Sullivan laments the death of society:
Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished. Atomisation by little white boxes and cell phones. Society without the social. (Sullivan, 2005)
But to understand the experience of listening to the iPod as a means of consumption, and its impact on social interaction and the construction of communities, it is necessary to consider the iPod as part of an ecology of media that extends beyond the mere consumption of music and speech-based programming. The iPod both enables and is enabled by a complex infrastructure of technologies, political economies and organisations that exist both online and off. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, in a recent opinion piece for the Mercury News, wondered:
If the digital music player, with its ubiquitous earbuds, seems like a device that isolates, just wait. It may well bring us closer together. (Pang, 2005)
One of the strongest impulses for a music consumer is to share the music they enjoy with others – and there is also a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from being recommended music you may not otherwise have heard. Despite the attempts of many of the owners of controlled works, rather than isolate musical lifeworlds, iPods and related technological culture tend to inspire new and unexpected ways to share music with others – and not just people that inhabit your social circle.
The iTunes music store enables users to publish their own playlists and direct others to purchase individual tracks or entire lists based on their recommendations. The store also publishes lists compiled by music celebrities so that their fans can share in the musical tastes and influences of that celebrity as an extension of their fandom. However, the music with which an iPod can be filled can come from a number of different sources. People load them with their own CD collection and they buy music from the iTunes music store (either search based, by browsing and sampling or by online recommendation through published playlists) – but this is seldom sufficient to load a large hard drive with music files. According to DownhillBattle.org (Anonymous, 2004), Apple had only sold roughly 21 songs on the iTunes for each iPod owned – and it seems unlikely that the vast majority of iPods are virtually empty. Music sharing online stems beyond peer to peer networks and manifests as hundreds of mp3 blogs (Anonymous, 2005f) in which music enthusiasts share their knowledge of and (for short periods of time) mp3 files of songs they enjoy and wish to recommend. A 60 gigabyte iPod Photo can hold as many as 10,000 songs – or about 800 albums. Faced with a large empty space on their portable music player, iPod users frequently seek music elsewhere: the collections of friends and family as well as music downloaded from the Internet – whether legally, illegally or some grey area in between (and many such areas exist).
Users are often disappointed to find that their iTunes-purchased music will not work on many devices, cannot be effectively backed up and cannot be loaned to friends the way that CDs, tapes and records could be. The legal tension between the claim of control of intellectual ownership and the principle of fair use leads to both an aggressive public relations campaign by the recording industry and an online consumer rights movement dedicated to breaking DRM and allowing music customers to retain the right to listen to their purchased music in the ways they were always allowed to prior to internet distribution.
In fact, iPods and their associated technologies of online music distribution are calling into question that very legality. The purpose of copyright is to incentivise creativity and not to prevent use or control the ways in which new technologies can be employed. Blogger Zephoria notes:
The RIAA (and other such organizations) have been so successful at getting their media distributed that they have become culture. In turn, this means that they are the building blocks in which communication occurs. At this, they balk. Do they have the right to? Do they have the right to limit culture built on top of culture? If i want to tell my story using the cultural elements that have become a part of my life, do i need to recognize the RIAA and such as the controllers of culture? This is a dangerous limitation. (Zephoria, 2005a)
Despite their appearance as a search engine with which songs can be located and anonymously downloaded from a faceless network cluster of shared music, peer to peer file-sharing networks are, in fact, social spaces. Usernames stand in for identities, and ‘power’ users whose large online collection reliably reflects and expands the tastes of many other users act as connectors between music consumers and musical artefacts. Rather than simply search for music by artist or song title, these connectors can be returned to for recommendations and for browsing their collection. With no reason of personal gain to make music available online, these uploaders are instead motivated by the network’s own organic hierarchical systems of status and kudos. However, the recording industry is most aggressively targeting those power users who upload enormous quantities of music for distribution. As a result of this “Crush the Connectors” strategy, Internet commentator Clay Shirky envisions a retreat into smaller social music sharing groups that form a less densely connected space than Kazaa or Gnutella are today.
Most file-sharing would go on in groups from a half dozen to a few dozen — small enough that every member can know every other member by reputation. Most file-sharing would take place in the sorts of encrypted workspaces designed for business but adapted for this sort of social activity. Some users would be members of more than one space, thus linking several cells of users.(Shirky, 2003)
As a media player, iTunes already has the capability of sharing music libraries across networks, so that colleagues can listen to each other’s music collections (without the ability to copy them), as long as they share the same subdomain on the office network.
Music sharing and recommendation exists in other social configurations online – for instance, software that enables sharing through collaborative recommendation algorithms. Open source application iRATE Radio (A. Jones, 2005a) is a filtering system based on ratings the user gives to tracks the software downloads, and compares those results with ratings given by other users in order to suggest new tracks to listen to. The music is then downloaded from websites which allow free and legal distribution of their music. While this method of collaborative music consumption may seem a very disconnected and entirely virtual social structure, the resulting choices made by the software are formed by a community of users, rather than in response to individual preference.
Downloaded music is not only a group activity for small and disconnected groups, however. In June 2005, the BBC made their own recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies available online for a short period of time. During that two-week period, over 1.4 million copies were downloaded from their servers, which created an audience who were, as a result, engaged in a shared media experience that rivals television or radio audiences in terms of sheer (near-)simultaneous participation (A. Jones, 2005a). Despite the fact that the BBC owned all of the ownable rights to the music, the experiment caused alarm within the music industry for fear that wide access to performances of classical compositions, that are for the consumer more durable than simply a radio broadcast, would challenge the sales of their own recordings. While this debate overlooks issues of quality that are of great importance to the classical music purchaser (the mp3 files were encoded at 128kHz, which is a noticeable degradation from CD quality) and the social and cultural motivation to make classical works more widely accessible to a public who might not ordinarily purchase those types of recordings, it did signal a change in the way that public broadcasting could be reconfigured in the light of new technologies (Timms, 2005). The BBC has begun to reconceptualise audiences, society and culture in the light of the iPod and its related online technologies.
A great deal of audio consumption happens on the road. A significant proportion of radio listening happens in cars, and public transportation is a common environment for listening to personal, portable devices. The commute to and from the workplace is typically an asocial or non-social segment of the day. Many workers drive solo while listening – and even those commuters who are surrounded by others will often not speak to their fellow passengers on the bus or train. However iPod users often identify each other by the telltale white headphone cables, and on some of these collective journeys, or out on walks, the practice of “Podjacking” – briefly listening to another’s iPod music by swapping headphone plugs – has become a recognisable phenomenon on buses and trains in some metropolitan centres.
It’s very strange… It’s almost like you’re being a DJ for the other person…. It’s very gratifying if you see someone dancing around to the music you’re listening to. It’s a great feeling to see other people enjoying your music, and my tastes are fairly bizarre. (Kahney, 2003)
Drivers are also sharing their music collections on the road. A research project in the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon has resulted in the concept of roadcasting – a wireless technology that enables nearby fellow travellers – even those in other vehicles – the opportunity to ‘tune in’ to each other’s digital music stream. Analogous in some ways to extremely localised music-only radio, roadcasting achieves more than simply broadcasting a pre-set selection of tunes to a geographically constrained area. The technology uses collaborative filtering to enable listeners to mix and match playlists over an ad-hoc network. (Anonymous, 2005k) According to developer Jim Garretson:
The Roadcasting system brings together people with common interests — both musical and otherwise — as the system also learns what radio personalities, commentators and podcasts drivers like… As a result of this, communities can form around particular radio stations. The audience members are highly likely to enjoy the community they’ve found, since they have much in common with other community members. (McNulty, 2005)
And although it is being compared to pirate radio and seems likely that the recording industry would be strongly opposed to the sharing or localised broadcasting of music in this manner, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s illegal. In a Wired News article about the technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Jason Schultz explained:
It’s quite similar to how (Apple Computer’s) iTunes works, with its subnet sharing… in that they can stream the music and listen to it, but as soon as they log off, it all disappears. Many people consider that to be fair use, because of the ephemeral nature of the music. (Terdiman, 2005)
Listening to audiobooks and other spoken word content is a popular use of the iPod and in the past year, freely accessible programming has been increasingly available via the distribution technology known as Podcasting . Podcasting is often likened to radio that can be time-shifted: downloaded, transferred to a portable device and listened to later (Dvorak, 2005). While some radio stations do utilise Podcasting as an ancillary method of programme distribution, the large majority of podcast programming is made by hobbyists and amateurs, or as a supplement to some other professional activity (more comparable, in that respect, to the practice of blogging). Originally, podcast pioneers Dave Winer and Adam Curry conceived of the idea as a way for people to “take the Internet away with you and listen to it on headphones” (Newitz, 2005). Despite some criticism as a mere fad, destined never to find an audience within the mainstream (Coursey, 2005), Podcasting is increasingly ubiquitous and – despite the clearly Apple product-derived name – even Microsoft have given up the fight and have begun using the term in public communication, as well as having high-level strategy meetings with ‘podfather’ Adam Curry (Anonymous, 2005l).
Many commercial broadcasters view podcasting as an extension of their existing broadcasting infrastructure and economic activity, or as simply a method to “grow our audience” (Saghir, 2005) – while others look for a successful model of monetisation for the new medium (Twist, 2005) – or simply a testing ground from which new talent can be sourced. However, monetisation of podcasting (particularly through advertising) requires the ability to measure the effectiveness of the medium in terms of its market penetration. While it may seem that podcasting is a successful phenomenon that has taken off exponentially in the year or so it has been in existence, advertising columnist Crystal King pinpoints one problem when attempting to determine its potential for advertisers:
It’s very measurable when it comes to how many people download the podcast but we can’t tell how many people listen to it — or how many times they listen to it. (King, 2005)
But the social organisation of podcasting goes beyond new (and fairly speculative) configurations of audience that can be exploited for commercial gain along traditional models. For some, podcasting is a method of opening up the broadcast market and embracing the open source model as a potential template for a new broadcasting environment – or, perhaps more significantly, a strengthening of an existing but marginalised broadcasting environment: community radio. Mike O’Connor’ Sex and Podcasting (O’Connor, 2005b) was (until its closure at the end of October 2005) a podcast about community podcasting. In an episode entitled The Other “Community” In Community Podcasting (26 July, 2005), O’Connor spoke of the importance of Podcasting within a community rather than simply to a community, and highlighted the practice of Podcasting as a social activity in and of itself:
Having a group of people that you talk about Podcasting with and get ideas and trade experiences and so on – I think that’s a great thing… I hang out with a group of podcasters that call ourselves ‘Podcast Minnesota’… and if I wasn’t part of that group, I probably wouldn’t listen to quite the variety of podcasts that I do. But the main reason I think that group is so great is the ability to share tips and help each other out and look out for each other and keep an eye on what’s going on – and all that good stuff. (O’Connor, 2005a)
Online, podcasters are gathering, organising and creating computer-mediated communities despite the fact that the niche topics of their programmes may not coincide in any way. The sharing of information about podcasting is a dynamic and active process. Some moderate or contribute to weblogs that give advice to new or improving podcasters (often with lessons drawn from the craft of radio programme-making) (Herrington, 2005), while others discuss issues surrounding podcasting in online message boards and email discussion lists, such as the Yahoo! Group simply entitled ‘Podcasters’ (Anonymous, 2005h).
Despite often hyper-niched subject areas, podcasters can often build audiences online because unlike traditional radio content, the audience is not configured geographically. On the Podcasters Yahoo! Group, J. Wynia makes a case for the strength of communities of interest instead of communities of place:
For instance, in a given town of 50,000 people, there may be only 1 fan of a certain obscure band. Online, there may be 10,000 fans of that band. Put those 10,000 people in one place and it will seem overwhelming. (Wynia, 2005)
But podcasting is not simply a platform for niche and amateur content, however – and for the past year, many traditional radio broadcasters worldwide have been distributing their programming online via subscription to RSS feeds containing enclosures (the Podcasting distribution methodology) and mp3 download. The BBC has been particularly progressive in this area and for almost a year have been running a trial podcast initiative from their website, involving most of their nationally broadcast stations (Anonymous, 2005a). Likewise Canadian public broadcaster CBC has started distributing programmes via podcast technology, and are interested in the ways in which the technology might reconfigure the relationship between public radio and audience. CBC broadcaster and podcasting commentator Tod Maffin notes:
“We hope to get content from average people who will effectively become citizen producers.” (Newitz, 2005)
But more than simply make and consume audio content for portable mp3 players, podcasters and their listeners are exploring online social activity around that programming. Examples include the use of Wiki technology to collaboratively generate programme ‘shownotes’ (Anonymous, 2005m) that detail the content of the audio of each episode of the podcast. Others are using Bittorrent (Anonymous, 2005b) – an open source file distribution technology that shares the internet connection of each listener (with their permission) to distribute the files widely without causing expensive bandwidth costs to their own centralised fileserver, thereby constructing a socially mediated infrastructure of content delivery. A recent open source application release called Auto RSS Torrent allows podcasters to post their files to the internet as they normally would, and the usually complex task of generating and seeding a bittorrent is automatically processed (Lerhaupt, 2005).
Beyond the creation of podcasts in a social environment, the practice of Podcasting to niched community segments, Podcasting as a method of engaging in the existing broadcasting infrastructure and Podcasting as socio-technological distribution methodology, Podcasting is also taking on a role as a political force. Perhaps predictably, political activists have taken to podcasting as a means of communication and organisation amongst their membership as podcasting affords a speech based programme format similar to radio without the restrictions of speech placed on scarce spectrum by government regulators or commercial providers. Less predictably, politicians are beginning to see the medium as a new way of connecting with their constituency – and soliciting votes. A New Zealand recording firm began podcasting unmediated half hour policy speeches by political leaders during the recent general election in that country. The speeches are then divided into smaller segments that are indexed by topic, “so if a listener only wants to hear about education segment, they can”. (O’Neill, 2005)
Reconfiguring the music industry
As a speech medium, Podcasting has flourished. However, one of the difficulties with podcasts as a popular media form has been the difficulty of music licensing. Music that has been commercially released typically has rights associated with it that prevents it from being incorporated into a podcast programme for distribution, even given the fact that the programme maker is typically running their hobby podcast at their own expense, rather than for profit. However, there is a growing body of music that exists outside of this obligatory rights arrangement. Some musicians and record labels are electing to make their music ‘podsafe’ – freely available (and actively encouraged) to be incorporated into podcast programming at no cost (Anonymous, 2005i). As a result of the media ecology surrounding the iPod, a new social organisation of music makers and music industry professionals has evolved outside of the traditional music model represented by the BPI in the UK, the RIAA in America, RIANZ in New Zealand and the NVPI in the Netherlands.
The media ecology centred around mp3 files, portable media players and the world wide web offers musicians and the music industry a promotional platform which allows them to do things that would have been unthinkable in a business environment characterised by the physical pressing, warehousing and distribution of records and compact discs: free music . Comfort Stand Recordings (Anonymous, 2005c) is just one example of an entire record label dedicated to giving away all of its music, complete with artwork and liner notes. Under this model, the act of redistribution is actively encouraged rather than tightly restricted. One significant advantage for artists whose work is represented by the record label is the ability to develop a live audience base familiar with and enthusiastic about their music, and generate a revenue stream that lies outside the making and selling of ‘units’. Free music is neither exclusively a gift economy, nor is it a surrender to lawless environment infested with thieves and pirates – but a workable commercial model that sometimes feeds into the existing music industry infrastructure. One act that has recently proven the point with some considerable force is Sheffield-based band The Arctic Monkeys. The band established a considerable fan base by connecting with their audience on the social website MySpace and by giving mp3 files of all of their demo recordings away on their own website. Listeners who enjoyed their music recommended it to others, and the promotional message was propagated virally. This strategy played a significant role in the band’s success, and in recent weeks they were signed to Domino (label home of popular Scottish act Franz Ferdinand) and debuted in the UK pop charts at number one with just a single to their name and no album to back it up (Barton, 2005).
Similarly, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy views peer to peer filesharing as a community of music fans and supporters rather than a den of thieves. Because of a hiatus between record companies, the band’s album A Ghost Is Born was available on internet p2p networks for a year before it was officially released and several hundred thousand copies were downloaded. However, rather than view each download of their album as a lost sale, Tweedy notes that digital made music freely available online is analogous to radio airplay for promotional purposes. The record industry was initially suspicious of radio as a free method of distribution (why would people buy music they can hear for free?) and yet it proved to be a major factor in that industry’s success, and made stars of many of its artists. As Tweedy explains:
We live in a connected world now. Some find that frightening. If people are downloading our music, they’re listening to it. The internet is like radio for us…What if there was a movement to shut down libraries because book publishers and authors were up in arms over the idea that people are reading books for free? It would send a message that books are only for the elite who can afford them. (Jardin, 2005)
Online, recording artists can now interact with their audiences in different ways – and vice versa. Deerhoof is a critically acclaimed American-based rock group that is just one act that has made individual tracks from the multitrack sessions of their recordings available for download. They are encouraging fans to remix their work and post it to the website for other fans to enjoy. (Anonymous, 2005n) This level of interactivity and engagement with both the artists and the community that centers around that artist is enabled by online and iPod culture.
Outside of the music industry, the ability to make and share music as an amateur and social community activity is enhanced by the iPod ecology. Apple’s iLife suite includes Garageband software – a sophisticated entry level computer music creation package that allows amateur artists the opportunity to create professional-sounding multitrack recording capabilities supplemented with sequenced realistic software instruments (Mossberg, 2004). Garageband users share and discuss their creations online at websites such as iCompositions.com (Anonymous, 2005d) – a supportive and active global community of music-makers for whom music is not a commercial activity. However, music making technology goes beyond the ability to capture or create a performance on a musical instrument – real or virtual. The music curriculum in British secondary schools has recently expanded to incorporate the creation of remixes, music videos and ‘mashups’ as a means to learn music through exploration on the SoundJunction website – a project of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in conjunction with industry (Hanman, 2005). A tech-savvy ‘iPod generation’ may not always have ready access to a violin or a trumpet, but access to the Internet is less of a barrier – especially with computers in schools being readily available.
Not just an audio player
The popularity and success of iPods and the iTunes media player has resulted in a number of third-party add-ons. Some of these accessories are simple enhancements to the device (such as an iPod case) and others are essentially coding hacks that enable the software to do things it was clearly not designed to do. For instance, NiceCast (Anonymous, 2005g) is a piece of add-on software for the Macintosh that enables iTunes to stream playlists over the web at selectable bitstreams in order to create what the programmers describe as a ‘personal internet radio station’. There are also sites online that explain ways to increase the effective radiated power of the Griffin iTrip – a third party device (illegal in the UK) designed to use FM transmission to send music from the iPod to a nearby stereo – for instance from the glove compartment to the car radio. Hacking the iTrip and boosting its power enables a rudimentary low power FM microbroadcasting station (Torrone, 2004).
William Bright’s iSubway Maps (Bright, 2005) is an application that provides interactive graphical representations of many of the major subway systems in American cities. Despite receiving a ‘Cease and Desist’ order from Apple’s lawyers for the use of the word iPod in his product, the application is designed exclusively for that platform and expands its potential as a device for navigating your way in the world, rather than isolating yourself from it.
Apple themselves have also been developing the potential of the iPod as more than just a music player. Although the iPod Video has been criticised as ‘Steve Jobs’ Folly’, and although it is perhaps too early to chart any trajectory for the new device (Rojas, 2005), it seems indicative of the trend to make personal, portable devices more and more a platform for social interaction. In contrast to portable audio, portable video is in many ways a far more social experience, if only because there are no ‘eyebuds’ that could make the output a solitary phenomenon. But perhaps even more than the impulse to share personal audio, the impulse to share images is very strong – and to an extent, the iPod itself encourages that sharing by nature of its portability and compatibility with media platforms designed for socially-configured viewing (such as television). As Cory Bergman points out:
You can put it in your back pocket. You can’t do that with any of the current portable media players. And the iPod can plug into your TV or laptop to watch video full-screen (Bergman, 2005).
Family photos, baby videos and other visual programming can be easily carried, shown and shared (not transferred or replicated, but enjoyed collectively) when the device is realistically portable, can be shown on a device that exists in almost every home and can contain a collection, not simply a single videotape’s worth or one set of photo prints.
Some commentators predict video podcasting as the next iPod-centric social phenomenon (Bergman, 2005; Graber, 2005) though others have criticised the digital rights management restrictions that iTunes applies to videos. While based on the same FairPlay technology that applies to the audio for sale at the iTunes music store, the restriction goes beyond the purchased file and affects the way in which your physical media is accessed. You can transfer music from (or ‘rip’) CDs that you’ve bought in order to listen to them on your iPod and using the iTunes platform, you can also burn compilation CDs of music that you’ve purchased. The same, however, is not true of your DVD collection or the video files that Apple sells online. And although monetising Podcasting has proved difficult, advertisers believe that unlike audio content, portable and online video content is a rapidly growing potential market for “15 and 30 second pre-roll video ads” as well as an “ad curtain”(Schafer, 2005) that borders a playing video for its entire duration. Although this might not sound like the ideal user experience for small screen video content, investment in the medium for that reason is likely to mean a significantly higher chance of success and popular uptake (ibid).
Social iPoddery and Web 2.0
The combination of RSS feeds and social tagging has enabled what some commentators are calling ‘Web 2.0’ – a manifestation of the internet which goes beyond mere interactivity into engagement and community-defining activity (Zephoria, 2005b). This engagement with content is beginning to reshape the ways in which listeners are engaging with audio content. According to Tom Coates, the BBC Radio and Music Interactive Research and Development Team – of which he was until very recently a member – are currently engaged in an experimental in-house project to allow users to “collectively describe, segment and annotate audio”. The application of social tagging (a user-driven and collaborative form of taxonomy that attaches meaningful key words to files (Oliveira, 2005)) and wiki-style multiple user editing is intended to be applied to BBC radio content available for download online, thereby allowing for both an easily text-searchable database of spoken word material (formerly a significant challenge) and a ‘folksonomic’ approach to sharing and recommending programming (Coates, 2005).
The practice of adding personally-meaningful keywords (‘tagging’) as a form of information classification evolved into a form of computer-mediated social interaction and recommendation on websites such as the bookmarking site del.icio.us. Using RSS feeds, del.icio.us members can subscribe to the latest bookmarks tagged by other members using any chosen keyword (for instance, ‘jazz’ or ‘mp3’). The bookmark will then direct them to webpage or file stored online. When a member of del.icio.us tags a file or webpage with that keyword, the subscribed user is notified and can be directed to that page. Other bookmarks by members whose tastes align with the user can also be followed so that recommendations extend beyond the narrow tagged keyword into the sharing of broader personal taste, and into loosely configured online social spaces. Users meet online as part of the act of finding information (or, quite often, music) that they are interested in (Todras-Whitehill, 2005). The emergent Web 2.0 model is both informed by and interacts with the ways in which contemporary consumers choose to use their media – and the media ecology surrounding the iPod and its related technologies are central to this shift.
The uses to which this media can be put and the kinds of social groups that they can reinforce and enhance are also constantly expanding. At present, iPod technologies and RSS feeds are being embraced by education organisations as a potential platform for knowledge transfer delivery and support. Stanford University has launched an iTunes service that enables students and other interested listeners to hear over 30 lectures from Reunion Homecoming 2005, and there are plans to expand that service and add video (Anonymous, 2005j). Coventry University has provided an mp3 downloading scheme that is “designed to provide a “safety net” for those students who find attending lectures before midday difficult.”(Anonymous, 2005e)
In a blog post entitled ‘Massively Parallel Culture’, The Long Tail author Chris Anderson observes :
Rather than the scary fragmentation of our society into a nation of disconnected people doing their own thing, I think we’re reforming into thousands of cultural tribes, connected less by geographic proximity and workplace chatter than by shared interests. Whether we think of it this way or not, each of us belongs to many different tribes simultaneously, often overlapping (geek culture and Lego), often not (tennis and punk-funk) (Anderson, 2005).
There are many reasons to be optimistic for the social implications of the iPod and its media ecology. Blogger Joe McCarthy (Gumption) writes:
I think that many of the potentially isolating technologies can help to broaden rather than narrow our perspectives and experience… My hope is that as iPods and wireless communication technologies converge, we’ll see interesting new ways to gain greater awareness — and, perhaps, appreciation — of the people in our midsts. (McCarthy, 2005)
However, although the iPod, iTunes and their contemporary technologies do offer new ways of connecting to other people through music and spoken content, it also affords a kind of isolation that is not so much a disconnection from one’s surroundings as much as it is a degree of control over the interaction with that environment. In a Wired magazine article about his ethnographic research into iPod use, Dr Michael Bull notes:
It gives them [the listener] control of the journey, the timing of the journey and the space they are moving through… They are controlling their space, their time and their interaction … and they’re having a good time. That can’t be understated — it gives them a lot of pleasure. (Kahney, 2004)
And Bull also concludes that the mere physical appearance of wearing a portable music device allows for a degree of control over social interaction in those public spaces:
The earplugs tell them you’re otherwise engaged. It’s a great urban strategy for controlling interaction… You feel safe if you can feel people there, but you don’t want to interact with them… How often do you talk to people in public anyway?
The ways in which technological innovations impact upon social structures is complex, but the alterations to our communicative environment are important in that they re-inscribe our sensory surroundings and thus our understanding of the world around us. The notion that iPods merely act as an isolating and exclusionary force is clearly an overly simplistic and superficial observation about headphone listening in public places – yet, the counterposition, that the iPod is a socialising force in an interconnected world of podcasters, universities, political organisations and online conversation is also too narrowly restrictive.
In fact, the social implications of the iPod are simultaneously isolating and inclusive, and the degree to which those two opposing forces come into play is negotiable by the listener as an active participant in the process, not merely a victim of a technologically deterministic process that goes on outside of their control.
Anderson, C. (2005, 15 June). Massively parallel culture. Retrieved 29 October, 2005, from http://longtail.typepad.com/the_long_tail/2005/06/tribal_culture.html
Anonymous. (2004, 28 April). Itunes per ipod. Retrieved 29 October, 2005, from http://www.itunesperipod.com/
Anonymous. (2005a). Bbc radio: Download and podcast trial. Retrieved 29 October, 2005, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/downloadtrial/
Anonymous. (2005b, 17 October). Bittorrent and podcasting needs a closer look! Retrieved 29 October, 2005, from http://www.geeknewscentral.com/archives/005046.html
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