Another way to make me happy

So maybe I expressed just a wee bit of jealousy that Tama Leaver made a LOLtheorist out of Henry Jenkins, but deep in my heart of hearts, the truth is, I’d rather be made into a comic strip any day. Joel Orff already did me that honor in illustrating the story of my friendship with Slivka of the band Thirdimension, of my early and lasting affection for R.E.M., and now he’s done it once again with a wonderful illustration of my love affair with The Wrens (click for full size):


One of the lessons I take from all of this is that as cool as algorithmically generated data visualizations may be, there’s still a major place for the warmth of the human hand. I especially love the third frame in this cartoon which nails the mood perfectly.

If you’ve got stories, send them his way, he’s always looking for rock ‘n’ roll fan tales.

How the Internet Transformed What it Means To Be A Music Fan (The Short Version)

This is a short essay I wrote for something that’s not going to happen afterall, so I thought I’d post it here instead.

Music has always been about connecting with other people. Sure it fills our hearts, lifts our spirits, and all that good stuff, but it also gives us a rack to hang our hats on. We identify ourselves in terms of the music we like. Music is one of the topics new acquaintances talk most about and some reliable predictions about other people can be made based on musical taste alone. We know this from experience, and research bears it out as well.

When I was coming of musical age in an Illinois college town in the late 1970s and early 1980s there were two, and only two, places to be and be seen: the independent record store and wherever the local bands and the smaller touring acts played. As soon as I was old enough to take a bus, I was hanging out at the record store after school. As soon as I was old enough to sneak into bars, my social life was built on which bands were playing when and who was hosting the afterparty. Those places still matter (though the indie record stores are sadly disappearing), but layered on top, around, and woven through those there are now countless websites.

Contrary to popular conception, the use of the internet for music fandom did not begin with MySpace. Many very early users of what became the internet were hardcore Star Trek loving Deadheads. No sooner had they realized that this computer network they were making might be good for something more than distributing data backups than they started using it as fans, designing new architectures to help them connect around the pop culture phenomena they loved . There’s a strong argument to be made that fans connecting to other fans have been a driving force in the internet’s continual evolution. As we use the internet to reach one another and maximize the fan experience, fans are becoming increasingly important forces in the evolution of the music industry. We’re not just consumers anymore. We’re critics, promoters, retailers, organizers, and sometimes relational partners, redistributors, or reconfigurers (and, depending on who you ask, thieves).

The fact that people use the internet to socialize around music comes as no surprise. Using social groups as an excuse to indulge in music and using music as a way to connect to social groups have roots as old as music itself. But the internet changes the dynamics of being a fan, and the relationships amongst fans, musicians and labels. The internet’s got five qualities that together make this possible.

The internet transcends space: Music used to be intensely local. Eventually touring, and later recording and broadcasting, meant that the music could spread beyond its place of origin, but fans couldn’t. Sure we could throw the sleeping bag in the Volkswagen minibus and join a roving commune of Deadheads, but we couldn’t do that and go to school or hold down a full time job at the same time. Our ability to reach other fans was based on who was in our local circles, and our access to magazines, fan club mailings, and other media that already had the power to transcend space. Now we connect to other fans in far off places without going anywhere. Lots of us do it from work. We’re all together nowhere and everywhere. This has implications – we can find a critical mass of other people who are into obscure tastes. We can find music from far off places we might never have heard. Acts that would never be heard outside their region get heard all over the world, and fans discuss and dissect what they hear in networks spread throughout and across nations.

The internet transcends time: The thing about record stores and bars is that they have hours of operation, and if you can’t be there then, you can’t be involved. The internet is always on. Forums, blogs, and social networking sites let us connect with other fans and find the artists we love or will love on our own time. This, along with the transcendence of space, means that many more people can actively participate in groups socializing around music. The band may not be playing, but their fans are still congregating. The afterparty may not be as fun without physical copresence, but it never ends.

The internet offers unparalleled reach: It used to be that a really lucky fan might get a show on the local radio station, but there was no way we could have a regional or national, let alone international stage. The access barriers were too high. It’s still not a world of equality, but the internet is the first communication medium in history that gives an individual the same technical platform for communicating to a mass audience as a multinational corporation. Sites built and driven by fans are frequently more successful at rallying fans than those built by musicians, let alone labels. Participation in fan sites dwarfs participation in official sites across the internet. Bloggers have become at least as important as professional music critics. Individuals have as big a stage as they have the energy, talents, and persistence to make for themselves. Bands aren’t the only ones “making it” through the internet. Increasing numbers of fans are finding industry employment through devoting time to their passion on the internet. Others are appropriately content to find that their newly expanded reach offers them access to a small set of likeminded cohorts they would never have otherwise found.

The internet is permanent, archived, and searchable: Conversation is gone when it’s over. The party is passed when it’s ended. Most of what goes on online (at least in venues that don’t depend on real-time interaction) is still sitting there, indexed by Google and waiting for your hit. We can eavesdrop on discussions that happened months and even years ago. This means that over time fans can – and do – build impressive collaborative databases of music knowledge. Fan sites are goldmines of detailed discographies, concert chronologies, lyrics, tablatures, and so on. Fans have always been experts, but the internet enables them to take this expertise far beyond what any individual could ever offer and to make it visible and usable to others elsewhere.

The internet transcends social distance: In the internet’s early days, optimists daydreamed that once online, all those things we use to judge each other — things like race, sex, age, and appearance — would stop mattering. That was wrong, they still matter online, in all the same troubling ways they matter everywhere else. But even as people recreate social distance in online spaces, there are also ways in which distance is transcended. Take, for instance, the relationship between musician and fan. Pete Townshend’s been quoted as saying that on account of blogging, “at a concert where the Who play to what looked like 20,000 roaring people I also have a more intimate sense of connection with some of the audience.” Lesser musicians go trolling for online ‘friends’ in social network sites, and once every great while, on MySpace and elsewhere, through online interaction the term ‘friend’ comes to mean something more like “friend” than “fan.” As Thomas Dolby recently told the industry:

There’s been an interesting evolution on the relationship between the industry and fans. It’s not crystal clear yet. Music fans and musicians belong to each other. The role and the obligation of the intermediary is to empower that relationship to happen more easily and more effectively without the wastage that’s sent the industry down the toilet in the last few years. Labels want to push their own brand, but the fans don’t care about that. Kids want to feel they’re being brought closer to the music and the musicians that they admire. All you, as intermediaries, should be doing is facilitating that relationship. You’ve got to put the fans and the musicians first.[…]

My first album went gold, my second album didn’t. Nobody knew who the fans were — they were just units sold. Now, I can see reviews on blogs when I get back to the hotel after a show. I can blog. I can get comments immediately. There’s a closeness with the fans that never existed before, on radio playlists or royalty statements. I’m a tech guy as well as an artist, so I can do this all myself, but a lot of artists need help with that, and you need to help them.

For the musician, a sense of personal connection to fans adds new emotional depth and reward to that relationship. For the fan, a sense of personal connection to musicians becomes almost an expectation. The labels and musicians who are able to provide that will be the ones that do best.

If all that sounds like a utopian spin on the status of fans in the age of the internet, I suppose it is, at least from the fans’ perspective. The internet has made fandom more rewarding. We can connect with so many more fans, find so many more things to be fans of, find out so much more about the objects of our affection, and often we can make connections directly with those who make the music we love. We can gain status by staking our identities to the bands and scenes we love and developing expert credential s through online interaction. [And all this says nothing of the power we have to create and distribute our own materials, including those we make out of what others have already done.] The fearmongers may cry: but this is killing the local record store! This is taking us away from our local music scenes! The internet is killing the recording industry! Not true. The record stores are being killed by the labels and the big box stores with whom they make exclusive deals, not by the fans. And local music scenes continue to thrive. Local ties aren’t weakened on account of the internet. As for the recording industry, it seems to be pretty good at killing itself without fans pulling any triggers.

As industry’s predominant reaction shows, whether change is good or not depends on whether you’ve gained or lost power. The newly empowered fans can be seen a tremendous threat to the people who’ve run the business for so long, what with all their desire for connection, attention, input and respect. The major record labels, with a few exceptions, have reacted with terror, casting fans as pirates and, at least in the United States, taking them to court. Indie labels are doing a lot better at recognizing that an empowered fan can be a magnificent ally. Musicians, with a few sad exceptions, seem to get it as well, though, like many enlightened labels, a lot of them have a long way to go in figuring out how to work it. Rule #1 for those feeling fear about navigating this new world: Trust the fans. We’re your allies, and if you’re good to us, we’ll give you love and do our best to keep you in business. Rules #1 for those without fear: Celebrate! It’s an exciting time in history to be building social lives around music.

Visualizing Music, take 200

Jean at Clicknoise beats me to covering the NYT article about Andrew Kuo, artist and hardcore Bright Eyes fan, who has taken visualization of his obsessions to new heights. At his blog, Emo + Beer = Busted Career, you can browse through page after page of visualization of his fascination with music.


Visualizing listening and other rock and roll related information has been a recent theme in this blog (see here, here, and here). Kuo’s stuff is cool, for sure, as are the visualization charts.

The REAL next step, though, is not individuals generating charts for their own self-representation, or even individuals generating images for group representations.

The next step is social visualization, where as in the site Martin and Fernanda at Many Eyes have built, everyone can generate visualizations, no special expertise or artistic talents necessary. fans have been figuring out ways to automate generating their own and others’ visualizations, as RocketSurgeon lists here.

And then things will REALLY get interesting when we have ways to do it automatically. I should be able to click on a button and generate visualizations from any Web 2.0 site that’s got tons of data stored about me without having to import, export, and traverse sites. I should be able to visually compare myself to others. I should be able to explore network charts of our connections, bubble charts of our overlapping tastes and interest, time lines of our common experiences. All these sites (, MySpace, Facebook,, digg, etc) are about amassing data and making connections. They make us lists, they make us charts. They make lists and charts out of the data of crowds. Why don’t they make us pictures?

It will really get exciting when we can all play with the same visualizations so that we can compare our selves in a common image. We should be able to visualize not just the Bright Eyes concerts Kuo has been to, we should be able to visualize all of them together, and we should be able to mark which ones we’ve been to so we can compare our own attendance records, favorite song performances, and other things that get fans all hot and bothered. I’d love to see a visualization of all R.E.M. concerts — with setlists — and have embedded within it the concert attendance records of everyone who participates in, for instance. Many Eyes enables this (see the comments on the Library Things Top 50 Books visualization for an example), but it’s far from automated and even further from mainstream.

How to make me happy

It’s really not hard, just make me one of these!

(click for full size)


Too bad for the rest of you, it’s already been done.

This is a visualization of my listens over the last two and a half years.

Thank you David Maya! Get yours here (if you’ve got Windows).

iLike’s CEO on the Wonders of Facebook Integration

iLike’s Facebook application continues to add hundreds of thousands of listeners every day. As I write it’s got just under 2.2 MILLION users just 2 weeks after its launch. In contrast,’s official application has 62,000 and MOG’s even fewer. The other day I speculated on whether this had led to a decline in visits to Ali Partovi, iLike CEO, explained in the comments that:

a) given the explosive growth on Facebook, we intentionally disabled various aspects of — including all email notifications, newsletters, etc — deliberately hoping to temporarily reduce our traffic to conserve server capacity for our Facebook app.

b) despite these efforts, the massive Facebook traffic caused daily outages all last week, not only on Facebook’s own servers but also on ours, taking out both the iLike FB app and

While I won’t be surprised to see a time when users are “switching” in significant numbers to use iLike on Facebook, I don’t think that’s happening yet.

As of now, the users of still greatly outnumber the users of iLike on Facebook (perhaps not for long!). Also, we have not yet announced our Facebook app to the iLike mailing list, nor have we interlinked the two databases — so users on can’t (yet) easily switch their accounts over to Facebook. As these things change over the coming weeks, it will be interesting to watch — indeed a lot of users might switch permanently to using iLike on Facebook instead!

My curiosity was piqued by this last sentence, and especially it’s enthusaistic tone, as though people leaving for iLike-the-Facebook-application might be a GOOD thing. So I followed up on that, and here’s our conversation:

Nancy: It sounds from your comment like iLike would be quite content to have its users using the site from within Facebook vs going to Is that right? And what are the implications of that for how sites like iLike operate in the future?

Ali: Well, we know that iLike’s functionality, no matter how good on its own, can be even better when deeply integrated in to the Facebook platform. Although we’ve barely started the migration of functions from to Facebook, already we can tell that iLike on FB will be *better* for the consumer than on its own.

Having accepted that, the rest writes itself. There’s no way we’d try to fight an uphill battle against what’s best for the consumer. And fortunately, in contrast to the precariously-balanced “Myspace widget ecosystem,” making $ on the FB platform is no harder than making $ on our own site. In fact, the business model doesn’t change at all — the only difference is that it will take more effort to build and maintain multiple versions of our site (especially if we need to support more than one such platform, if FB’s competitors create equivalent platforms of their own).

N: In what ways do you think iLike on FB is “better for the consumer?” How is its functionality improved through FB integration?

A: The #1 way people discover music is through friends, and iLike’s mission is to facilitate that. Facebook enhances this in two key ways: 1) instant personalization. On our dot-com site, each new user needs to tell us their music tastes, invite their friends, and get those friends to tell us their tastes. Whereas on our Facebook site, we already know your tastes, your friends, and their tastes, so we can offer you a personalized experience automatically. 2) Not another social network. People don’t wanna go somewhere separate just for music — they want music to enhance their existing online social life. For example: where would you rather see a notification that your buddies are going to see Snow Patrol: on a separate music website, or in the Facebook news feed that you’re already checking five times a day?

N: As I understand it, right now iLike Facebook users are not linked to users, so people might be running 2 accounts with you. Is that right? And if it is, will the accounts eventually be linked?

A: That’s correct — people’s existing accounts on are not (yet) linked to their accounts on Facebook. This is an interim situation that we’ll hopefully resolve in a few weeks. We had only a few weeks to build iLike on Facebook so we postponed some of the bigger tasks… what you see today is just the beginning!

N: I’ve heard that the main source of iLike revenue is through Ticketmaster. Is that accurate (and hence why it doesn’t matter where on the web iLike users are using iLike)?

A: As an ad-supported site, we can make as much money on our Facebook app as on our own dot-com site — perhaps even more! Regardless of which site you visit, we can learn your tastes, recommend new music or concerts to you, provide links for you to buy, collect affiliate fees, and show you ads along the way. In fact, on our Facebook app, we know more about you, so we should be able to make more money by showing you more relevant ads.

N: You’re suggesting you see iLike eventually operating through multiple sites, not just Facebook. Are there any plans in the works to launch applications for other platforms?

A: There’s no other platform out there (yet) that remotely approaches what Facebook offers today. Will Facebook’s competitors successfully launch something competitive? That’s the Web2.0 question of the year. Strategically, I don’t love being dependent on a single platform; but I’m also not sure the market has room for another. There’s an enormous network effect that favors everything on the same platform.

N: It seems that particularly in the last few months we’re seeing increasing trending toward the fusion of what used to be multiple sites — startpages, widgets, Facebook applications. Do you have any general thoughts or insights on the opportunities and challenges of this trend?

A: I see it as not just a trend, but an epic Darwinian clash between platforms. Over ten years we’ve seen the gradual evolution of a “widget syndication” model, where companies push features out into embeddable snippets. Against that gradual trend, the Facebook platform is a massive evolutionary leap: rather than extending my website through widgets, I can now build an entirely new, more powerful site from scratch with the awesome building blocks that Facebook offers. Which approach is better? Only time will tell, but my prediction is that those who embrace Facebook’s platform will beat those who don’t. I don’t see Facebook’s Platform as part of a trend in the evolution of widgets, except in the sense that the emergence of mammals was part of a trend in the evolution of giant reptiles.

N: Finally, are there any other things you think I (and Online Fandom readers) ought to know about iLike that I haven’t asked about?

N: It’s amazing that our Facebook app has gone from zero to 2 million users in less than two weeks… I don’t know of any new technology in history growing that fast. And we’ve only just begun :)