Having railed against last.fm’s communication screw up on their last beta where there were a gazillion excellent design comments met with “we don’t want design comments,” I’ll give them credit for making the point explicit up front this round. Plus it looks like there are some nice changes afoot, including some design ones.
They have developed an algorithmic “taste-o-meter” so that when you check out someone else’s profile, you see a low-medium-high-super ranking of how many artists you share in common (weighted somewhat depending on how much you listen). I got a shout from a user there wondering whether I thought this would change who friended whom — would people use the ranking instead of their own perceptions and with what consequences? Another ‘friend’ on there commented he finds it offensive “as though last.fm is telling us who we can associate with.” There is already grumbling about the algorithm (aren’t there always in each and every service on the net that uses algorithms?), and the staff agree it needs tweaking. Given that some of my self-chosen friends are “super” matches, while my closest “neighbors” (those who the system thinks have taste closest to my own) are only “medium” matches, I’d say it might be the neighbor algorithm that needs tweaking. My own feeling on it: when I look at user pages, it’s the first thing I look at. If I’m a sample of one, my guess is that it will have an impact on how people perceive one anothers’ profiles. How it will affect friending is an open question. I have always had the sense that people ‘friend’ one another on there for many reasons other than shared musical taste. Very few of my ‘friends’ on there are those I think share my taste, they’re much more likely to be people with whom I’ve had an interesting interchange or two or who I already knew offline or elsewhere on the net. (Besides, no one on last.fm seems to have that good a match to my listening anyway, which is not surprising given how long it’s taken to build my narrow music collection and said collection’s strange mix of 80s alt american stuff and 00s swedish pop). Effect of the taste-o-meter is certainly a study waiting to be done.
They are also making the artist pages quite different so that all last.fm generated information appears on the left and user-generated input is made much bigger and appears on the right. I like this too because it makes more of user input, although some artist shoutboxes are full of either “they suck” or “she’s hot,” neither of which are the developers’ fault.
It looks like they are fixing the issues with their player taking iPod listens into account, another constant complaint of many.
They’ve built in a nifty flash player you can use to listen in-page and they’ve restored the ability to download (some) songs. When I look at my dashboard, the list of recommended songs I can hear all of now includes 3 I can download free. That is awesome.
And perhaps best of all, they have integrated something users have been asking for forever — events listings. It looks like there are a few glitches to work out there, but the basic idea is that artist pages will include tour dates and other important info and user profiles will have links to events for artists they listen to. You can mark which events you plan to attend and see what events your friends are going to, so it ought to help with body-to-body meet ups as well. Cool!
I still wish that they would focus on improving its basic functionality first and foremost instead of playing with its look and very small things, although some of these are important big things (especially the events). Would people rather have the taste-o-meter or the ability to capture more streaming listening? I am sure there is lots of backstage improvement going on that users don’t see, but the constant changing of this and that while leaving the basic ways we are supposed to input music, navigate the site, and the search functions woefully confusing and/or inadequate really works against them.
However, the staff communication is much better in this beta round (probably helps that the feedback is so much better too) and I give them kudos for that.