Virb’s Slick First Impression

In my ongoing quest to explore music social networking sites, I spent some time over the weekend playing with Virb, which is yet another forthcoming MySpace killer social network that’s right now in an invitation-only beta. It’s somewhat music focussed — musicians and labels can create accounts and upload their music, it has a download plugin that logs iTunes listens and calculates top song, artist, album charts and can show real time listens. It has no streaming music except what bands upload, which leaves them wanting in comparison to sites like, MOG, and iLike. It’s Virbtunes plugin only tracks iTunes listens, not those using any other players or mp3 players which is also a major shortcoming, but it is blissfully invisible.

But Virb’s not meant to be a full service music site (the same company’s site PureVolume strives for that) and it does way better than any of the music sites I’ve seen at integrating blogging, video posting and picture posting. It also has a module-based design that they make very easy to customize — you can turn modules on and off, choose what their titles are, move them around, and mess with the color scheme to your heart’s content and still have a hard time making it ugly. It’s a nice format for a flexible range of self presentations, you can really choose what to emphasize about yourself. If you’re css-literate, you can muck with your code, and there are some really nice looking pages on there (and some that are, shall we say, less successful in their creative expression). Textonic has a good overview with screen shots. Mashable’s take:

Virb is what MySpace would be like if it actually worked: a nice design, simple and intuitive navigation and just as much (perhaps even more) customization – not only can you edit all your profile’s colors and fonts in the basic view, but advanced users can edit the css and html, as well as building custom modules (basically snippets of html that make it easier to organize the various items on your page). There’s photo sharing too, of course, plus video-sharing, tagging, groups, comments, messaging and all the other standard features. Coming from the makers of PureVolume, there’s also a strong musical element: a download called Virbtunes works like MOG or, tracking the music you listen to in iTunes and making recommendations. And just like on MySpace, bands also have special pages from which you can grab tracks to populate a player on your own profile.

As most of the beta testers have pointed out, it’s pretty impressive. There’s certainly some ill-will towards MySpace in the design and developer communities, and there’s already a buzz generating around the product that’s similar to the niche brand-power of 37Signals. There’s clearly no chance that the majority of MySpacers will switch, but the real question is whether Virb can roll out in time before the users go elsewhere.

I started a group (“Scandinavia!”), which attracted 2 members from Iceland who I didn’t know plus Avi (who invited me) joined it. I found one person I know offline on there and one I used to know. My initial sense is that unless you were invited into or used your invitations to import a social network you already built elsewhere, there is not enough going on there to make it super sticky yet, so I agree with Mashable that the roll out time is a key issue.

It gets me thinking about all kind of questions:

What is the upper limit in how many online social network sites a person can actively maintain a presence? You can craft an identity and refer people to other places on multiple social network sites, but there’s a cap on how many you can really spend time engaging.

Given that, and given that there are now hundreds if not thousands of social network sites to choose from, what makes people choose to invest in the sites that they do?

Is there a balance of specialized and niche sites in the portfolio of one’s online self?

What are the different strategies people use in choosing these sites to craft just the right multifaceted identity?

How and to what extent do those strategies and self presentations incorporate and rely on our fandom for music, for specific bands, for sports, tv, movies, sneakers, wine… ?

And what about the grownups?

Any thoughts on this from personal experience, things you’ve read, conversations you’ve had, studies you’ve done, etc welcomed. I’ve come to learn lately that there are more interesting people lurking on this blog than I knew, so tell us what you think.

Also, I have some Virb invitations left if you want to explore.

Mourning Fans

In their constant frenzy to report on the really important issues, the media have been giving a lot of coverage these last couple of days to fans going to the internet to mourn she of the blond hair, huge smile, large breasts and empty head who died unexpectedly instantly transforming herself into a phenomenon more important than the continued violence in Iraq or build up to I don’t even want to know what with Iran. It seems like a good moment to reflect for a second on the value that online mourning can have.

My own experience with this came last May when Grant McClennan of the legendary Australian band the Go-Betweens died of a heart attack at age 48. The Go-Betweens had been one of my favorite bands for many years, and Grant left behind a huge catalogue of beautiful and strange songs. The suddenness of his death was heartbreaking. I never met him but it left me reeling for days and still breaks my heart to contemplate. The (official) Go-Betweens Message Board immediately shut down all other threads and opened a tribute thread. When they shut that thread down 3 weeks later, there were over 1500 messages, including several from other well known or influential musicians. I read through those and sobbed, but I also felt better to know that he had affected so many others at least as powerfully, and often more powerfully, and to feel the sense of communion with all the others in pain at his passing even though we were geographically so far apart.

Grant was only half of the Go-Betweens, and much as the fans mourned and felt so very sad for his family, we also felt beyond horrible for Robert Forster, the other songwriter and Grant’s almost life-long musical partner. There was also consolation in knowing that the online messages we contributed might offer solace to Robert, and indeed they did. After a few days he wrote:

Today I went to the website and read some of the magnificent tributes that have flown in for Grant. People for some days have been telling me of the beautiful things written there. And today I felt well enough and strong enough to go in and read. I thank you all. In time I shall read every one of them. I see familiar names scattered from our past. The vast majority I don’t know. All of you Grant and I have met through our music. Your words and thoughts I find very, very moving. I sense the love and understanding for Grant and his music, and I take the support you send to me to my heart.

It chokes me up to read that, and that kind of says it all about the power of the internet to connect artists and fans.

Wrapup of week’s online music developments

In case you don’t follow these things as closely as I, there were some interesting developments (or potential ones anyway) in online music delivery this week. First, Steve Jobs published an open letter urging record companies to drop DRM (yet he showed no interest in dropping DRM from any of the independent records sold through iTunes music store), and now EMI is considering selling their whole catalogue as non-DRM mp3s. EMI has often been one of the more forward-thinking majors on this issue, so if anyone’s going to lead, they’re good candidates.

Meanwhile on a different front, and Warner Music Group reached a deal to allow the entire WMG catalogue to be streamed through’s radio, which will dramatically increase the size of their streamable catalogue and ought to get more people listening to more WMG music. Good news so long as the indies don’t get too squeezed out of rotation as a result. also debuted their new upgrade this week, about which most users seem to be saying “and the point is…?” Major usability issues left untouched, radio moved to the center of the screen where no one seems to want it (as they made clear during the beta only to be, once again, ignored). But the exportable radio feature is massively cool, though I still can’t get it to embed in this page (I did get it to embed just fine in my KU site). Those of you yearning to listen to NancyRadio, can however find it here.

I hate to rag on because overall they do a brilliant job and I am, frankly, totally addicted to the site and I so desperately want them to be flawless (fandom, anyone?). They did incorporate one of the pieces of feedback I insisted on in the beta (though the implimentation left something to be desired). Plus my explorations of the alternatives thus far have shown me that they all have problems and I still think that for most purposes, is the best of the alternatives.

But as I have groused about on this blog before, seems to make the same mistake over and over again, which some users have characterized as “adding bells and whistles” while not getting the core problems fixed. And it does trouble me no end that this is now the second beta period in a row where the #1 dominant response from the subscribers doing the beta testing was left unchanged in the upgrade. I think it leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of users who cared enough to give feedback, and I think the attention to things like radio placement, which was not broken, paired with seeming inattention to things that are broken also makes users question their priorities. I see in this the classic tension and power struggle between fans and producers, in which producers want input and feedback only if it supports what they already want to do, but to give the fans/users what they want outright is just giving up too much control. I know from running the Association of Internet Researchers that you can never get it right for everyone, for everything you do to please one group, another group will object (for instance, with our conferences, people wanted more diversity and more time to present their papers, but they also wanted fewer concurrent panels). But when feedback is totally consistent, I think you ought to give the people what they want, even if it’s not what you want them to want.

(p.s. I know some staff read this from time to time, please feel free to respond in comments!)

What a good fangirl am I

Didn’t want to let this one fall between the tracks — the wonderful Joel Orff, whose praises I have sung here before — has done another comic strip illustrating one of my tales of fandom. Actually, it’s not just any of my tales of fandom, it’s the big one. The one that consumed and defined me for years. It’s odd now to have moved past that phase enough that I can share the story in a format like this. At the time I hardly ever told anyone, lest it seem too much like boasting, or like exploiting celebrity for my own gain (someone who was my friend at the time told me it took him a long time to realize I didn’t talk about so as not to seem egotistical about it, he thought I didn’t talk about it because I was too conceited to share it with others). But now that it’s ancient history, I’ll claim that piece of me out loud.

Hunters and Peckers

The music social network/mp3 download site Amie Street is getting a lot of positive buzz for its innovative business model. Bands upload mp3s that are initially free to download. The more they’re downloaded, the more expensive they become, eventually hitting 99 cents if they’re smash hits. Users can recommend the tracks they like and if they lead to lots of downloads, those early adapters get credit to buy other downloads. It’s got the social networking element so that if people like another person’s recommendations, they can create friendships and then see the songs that their friends have recommended.

I like the idea as I think it benefits both bands and fans. I’ve said before that one of the great pleasures of music fandom is making recommendations that other people like, and the way this is done to feed back to both artists and fans is really nice. It’s an intruiging way to monetize taste making talent as well as musical talent.

One thing a quick glance at the site will reveal is how important this makes the ability to write about music. Several of the recommendations say things like “this rocks” or “I love this song” or “this is better every time I hear it.” Not very helpful. Others are cryptic: “Like a slightly annoyed robot who slowly discovers hope,” “Nice song, alternating between two Ideas. Very original.” A few actually give a hint of what it might sound like: “Swing-y with a touch of soul…yum,” “Think Beatles/McCartney/John Denver, what a mix but it works.”

I think that like many music sites, this appeals to a particular kind of music fan, a “hunter” — someone who’s willing to go out and listen to a lot of things they don’t like in order to find something they do. This has been my experience of Reverbnation as well. Being told something is “indie” or “alternative” or that it “totally rocks” is a long way from there being a good likelihood I’m going to like it.

I figure I’m more of a pecker — I want that yummy seed mixed by someone (or an algorithm) that knows a lot about the dietary habits of a bird like me already or prepared by someone with highly similar taste. I don’t like listening to lots of stuff I don’t like en route to finding the stuff I do. Either that, or I want thick description, like mp3 blog writers who spend a paragraph or two telling me about the band and the song they want me to hear. It doesn’t mean I end up liking all I hear, but the hit rate’s high enough to keep me paying attention instead of throwing up my arms in despair and hitting shuffle on the collection I’ve already amassed.

Right now, all these social network music sites are being promoted as appealing to “music fans in search of new music” without differentiating amongst the kinds of searching for that music we’re willing to do. I predict that this ever-expanding marketplace is going to break down into niches based on the different search strategies people enjoy.