The thing with Ping

Posted September 24, 2010 in social media  |  No Comments so far

Ping, which launched a few weeks ago, is a social network for music built on top of iTunes. So far it’s been a bit of a damp squib. Immediately after launch some were extremely enthusiastic about it:

The future of social commerce… It can tell me who my friends think are cool… Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes.
Om Malik, GigaOM, 1st September 2010

Others, however, were more guarded:

The interface is still buggy and slower than molasses in January at the North Pole during a legitimate Ice Age. And that slowness is a big turnoff and an inherent factor of working within iTunes. We don’t love Ping yet, but we don’t hate it, either.
Jolie O’Dell, Mashable, 1st September 2010

In the last few weeks discussions about Ping have become increasingly negative. Analysis of online chatter published by Buzzstudy on September 15th showed that:

With the exception of a huge spike on the day of its release, Ping chatter has been surprisingly low… [sentiment analysis revealed that] iTunes Ping was clearly the most negatively talked about service.
Buzzstudy, September 15th 2010

Some recent coverage of Ping has the tone of a post-mortem, an instructional case study of historic business failure, with inside sources dishing the dirt on what went wrong:

…Apple launched Ping without insight from a major part of the industry: the A&Rs and digital marketing teams, the people whose job it is to connect artists with fans. Perhaps this accounts for why Ping is so, well, boring.
Austin Carr, Fast Company, September 22nd 2010

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the breakdown of talks with Facebook has been to blame, and indeed Facebook is being portrayed as a bit of a villain:

“Working with Facebook as a large company is challenging at this stage, very similar to mid-late-90s Microsoft,” says one Silicon Valley veteran.

Dan Frommer, Business Insider, September 21st 2010

A lot of the problems with Ping are pretty glaring. You’re only allowed to like three pre-defined genres of music, artists are added to the system manually, and you can only use it within the iTunes application. When you think about it, it seems like it was conceived as the antithesis to everything we’ve learnt about successful social networks in the last five years.

But there’s another big problem that I associate with Ping. It’s not a flaw in Ping itself – it’s something that Ping has brought into focus, something more general about the relationship between music and social interaction. In a nutshell, the problem is this: do people really want to know what music everyone else is listening to?

Don’t get me wrong – music plays a huge part in my social life. Most of my closest friends are people I got to know through shared musical tastes and activities. Social discovery and enjoyment of music is important to me, and I don’t think people should be separated into isolated bubbles of mutual musical ignorance.

But at the same time I don’t think that social discovery & enjoyment of music works well in the larger social networks, which is what Ping aspires to be. Broadcasting one’s musical taste to the world at large doesn’t feel right. I wouldn’t put my Last.fm listening history on my LinkedIn profile, for example, and I don’t think I’d gain much from seeing that information on other people’s profiles.

Music is one sphere of life where there is still a strong case for communities of interest, rather than communities of acquaintance. It provides a great example of how most of us partition our lives, similar to the famous “work/life balance”. Religion and politics are other examples. Some relationships, especially professional ones, can work better when these subjects don’t take centre stage.

For me at least, music networks are better if they are decoupled from the larger social spaces and allow me to control how much of my musical taste leaks through into them. And this is a basic problem with Ping as I see it. A Facebook-sized, music-based network that uses real names and forces people into a set of pre-defined genre boxes doesn’t really fit with how a lot of people engage with music. Music is a social experience, yes – but it’s a private one too.


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