Apple blows its chance to create an online music community

by Laurie Laker, guest writer

A quick glance around the average CC classroom provides a glimpse into a world riddled with veiled marketing genius—a world in which there is no greater power than Apple. Macbooks and iPods surround us, holding us at the friendly and eager-to-please gunpoint of sexy, clean lines and limitless adaptations. Having already stolen our laps and our ears, Apple now looks to rob us of our social lives, too.

Ping is Apple’s latest brainchild. Bundled with the newest edition of iTunes, the tenth major release of the music program, Ping promises social networking with a focus. Music lovers worldwide are now able to link up using Ping and its built in system of connectivity options to “follow” both artists and fans alike. In principle, it sounds like a wonderful idea—a world unified by a common love for music.

Music, even more than other types of media, relies on whispers traveling through small communities to gain traction. You hear about new music from your friends, from your local stores and from the radio. If you hear a great opening act from a lesser known band, you check them out after the show. The soundtrack to one of your favorite films might feature great bands, so you buy their music and recommend it to your friends. The economy of music revolves around intimate social moments, and the social aspect behind this common adoration for sound and song is something we all appreciate and would loathe to lose. Apple gets that, and with Ping the company wants to transform the word-of-mouth community into a nice addition to its iTunes music store.

Nowhere do we see the communal aspect of music more than at an independent record store like the Leechpit. Just east of campus on Weber, it’s one of thousands of well-loved and well-established (but quickly dying) record stores across the country. A local mecca for music lovers and hipster stylists, the Leechpit harkens back to a time when you would walk into a store, talk to a knowledgeable proprietor, and leave with five new records by bands you’d never heard of before. And while pierced and tattooed employees are always glad to plug a newfound band, they are just as willing to trash musicians they feel are undeserving of any praise, or worse, record sales. One of my all-time favorite movie scenes comes from High Fidelity, a story about a snobbish vinyl record store on Chicago’s south side, in which a customer enters the record store and is promptly harassed into buying a record:

Barry: “[The Jesus and Mary Chain] always seemed what? They always seemed really great, is what they always seemed. They picked up where your precious Echo left off, and you’re sitting here complaining about no more Echo albums. I can’t believe that you don’t own this fucking record! That’s insane. Jesus.”

It’s within the context of these social interactions of yesteryear that Ping, despite its encouraging basic concept, falls flat. Barry, a tough hyperbole of a character, shows that the social aspect of music is sometimes a little more complicated than “liking” or “not liking” a band or a song. Ping fails to make room for arguments around music and a joint social analysis of which bands rock, which bands suck, and why.

When I first logged onto Ping, it was an accident. I had meant to click on the link for the iTunes store, but instead clicked the one below it. I was taken to a blank screen that informed me that I was “not following anyone” and invited me to “find people to follow by searching for a name, inviting friends, or choosing from the people we recommend.” Ping works, or should work, by allowing me to follow the purchases, interests, and small blogs of my friends and favorite artists, though I could not find many “leaders” to take me into their world of musical preferences.  I ran searches for the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and several of my friends whom I know to have Ping accounts. No luck.

This is no accident. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Ping limits the people whom I can keep track of to those who have online iTunes accounts. This cuts the available user market from over 500 million regular iTunes users down to about 160 million. Among artists, it limits me to those who are licensed to sell their music through the iTunes music store. The whole notion behind social networking is that anyone and everyone can get involved and be active within the realms of digital communication and sharing. Unlike the informed experts at the Leechpit, social networks draw on collective preferences to steer me towards what I want. Apple is cutting off its own nose to spite its face, perhaps not realizing just how detrimental to its reputation this may become.

When creating my account, I was allowed to choose three favorite genres of music. The aim of these choices is to link you with artists you might not otherwise know about. This feature covers the networking aspect of the program and some semblance of the beauty that lies in discovering new music. But why only three? I have dozens of genres on my iPod; why not on Ping? I chose alternative, singer-songwriter, and blues, and Ping recommended that I listen to Katy Perry. Now, I don’t begrudge anyone who listens to Katy Perry, but I must say that she doesn’t fit into any of the above stated categories of music, and is hardly new or interesting.

This strange approach to suggesting new music to a Ping user makes clear something of Apple’s grand plan for the program. At the end of the day, the program is neither social (it doesn’t actually care about what my friends or I think), nor a network (it refuses to be inclusive). Ping works on the logic that I will like the music my friends will like, but a real social site would leave more room for a more substantive discussion about why, and not just whether, music is worth listening to. Even within this method that enforces the idea of music as a quick commodity, the program still doesn’t have the user base to recommend songs I actually want to listen to. Ping is neither here nor there. It fails as a platform for a substantive discussion on music and as a means of recommending music.

Steve Ediger is the IT Director at UWC-USA, my old school. With decades of experience in technology of all kinds, Ediger found himself frustrated with the conceptualization of Ping: “Apple has a decent shot with the iTunes base, but they’ll need to back off the money aspect to really draw people in. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a major old-style corporation that really understands the importance of community over immediate profit,” he said.

This highlights Ping’s greatest fault. It is, simply put, a moneymaking venture for Apple. I accept that a major multi-national company such as Apple needs to continue its expansion as a business. What I cannot wrap my head around is how a company that has built its entire reputation on user-friendly products and platform integration can so readily ruin such a great concept.

In an age of digital music, where downloads run riot over chart sales, consumer freedoms and participation within the confines of the industry have become more crucial than ever before. Apple, with its vast empire of applications and appliances, has gone a long way toward taking over the musical universe we all inhabit. The ambition of the company is admirable, and it’s natural to expect that Ping will improve with time. For now, though, I’ll stick with the Leechpit employees for music recommendations. If nothing else, they seem to know that I abhor Katy Perry.

Title image from

Ping PDF


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