Political Wisdom

Last night I went to hear a panel of political bloggers at KU’s Dole Institute of Politics called “Blog to the Chief.” It was very interesting in lots of ways, not least the discovery that at least on the metalevel, conservative and liberal bloggers have pretty much the same take on blogging. For instance, I was very interested to hear Joan “McJoan” McCarter from Dailykos, Scott Johnson from Powerline, Erick Erickson from Red State, and Jerome Armstrong from MyDD all agree that the leftie blogosphere has a sense of community and social movement, while the right side of the blogosphere is mostly a bunch of individuals attacking the mainstream media. And it was fascinating to hear Patrick Hynes’s (of Ankle Biting Pundits and blog advisor to John McCain) explanation for it: People on the right think that they’re smarter than everyone else (“you mean we’re not?” quipped Erickson), and that means each person starts his own blog, and then after a while the inspiration dries up so no movement gets formed. And, not surprisingly, they all agreed that the lefties are more effective.

There were lots of ways in which many of the points these folks were making apply to fandom — my favorite was probably a point McJoan made at the very beginning that politicians need to understand that you don’t talk at a blog, you have to get in there and interact and show up in the comments. It’s a smart audience and they know when they’re being used instead of engaged. On the right, Erickson responded that the Republicans are only just now figuring out that they need to learn to work the blogs while Democrats got it several years ago. He said blogs are more likely to harm than hurt you, but you have to engage them.

The parallels are pretty obvious, I think, if you’ve got an online fanbase: they’re going to be more effective (and easier for you to work and work with) if they’re organized into communities instead of a whole lot of loosely connected individuals), and you’ve got to be in there interacting with them if you want them to really get behind you, even though you might not like what they have to say about you all the time. People want and expect real connection with the figures around whom they rally and if they believe you really care about, understand, and value dialogue with them, they’ll work for you.

They also had some interesting thoughts on Barack Obama’s social networking site which I’ll return to tomorrow. I promise not to turn into a political blogger, but remain intruiged by the similarities between rallying voters and rallying fans.

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.

A digression about teaching

This has very little to do with this blog, but I just wanted to share parts of a really nice letter I got recently from a former student. Those of you who aren’t in the education business yourself ought to know how much those of us who are love hearing things like this. I think they go unsaid too often:

Dr. Baym,

It has been quite some time since I spoke with you, but I wanted to contact you because out of all of the courses I participated in at Kansas, your courses have stuck with me the most. Your class in Internet Communication was way ahead of its time. In 2004, we were just beginning to discuss the impact of Facebook was having on the way we socialize on the internet. [...] Many of the topics and issues we covered in your course on Internet Communication come up every single day in my life. [...] I just wanted you to know that I think about your class and what I learned in it almost every day. [...]

Teaching is a lot like gardening — you plant seeds. Some of them never sprout, some bloom profusely within weeks, some keep growing back and others have one good season, others take root but don’t bloom for many seasons. Once you’re out of our classrooms, we never know the long-term impact we might have.

So if you have a favorite teacher from days gone by, send him or her a letter and make someone’s day like this person did mine.

More on MOG

…and the adventures in trying out new music social networking sites continues:

When last we saw me and MOG, I was expressing tremendous frustration that their software was taking all day to learn what I had in my collection and slowing my machine down terribly while it did it. Well, it did eventually do an amazing job of capturing my collection — too amazing in some ways, I’m not sure I want every single bootleg I’ve got up there for all to explore, even though I think they’re all from bands who don’t mind. However, I did ultimately uninstall the “Mog-o-meter” plug in because it continued to slow down my machine tremendously. I have a Mac G4 that is not even 2 years old. If it can’t run on that without making Firefox take forever to open a new window from scratch or switch between Firefox and Word, that’s not good. So another way of tracking listens down :(

[in fairness, as a last.fm fan I'll say that I've heard their MacOSX client is a memory hog too, but since they have an open-source API that allows others to develop plug ins, I've been able to keep using the all but invisible iScrobbler plugin that has no impact on computer performance]

So MOG’s big thing is blogging (I assume “MOG” is meant to conjure “music blog” with potatoes in the mouth). They have some nice features in this regard:

– Upload an mp3 built into every blog entry window. Great idea but aren’t they BEGGING for lawsuits?!?!?!?!

– “Explore the MOG-o-sphere” which compiles everyone’s blog entries into a single stream, and has columns on the side for the ones that are the day’s and all-time top entries (based on user votes).

– A single button “like it” feature that enables people to easily mark a blog as one they like.

I figured the best way for me to test out this would be to repost some of the blog entries I’d posted over at last.fm and compare the responses. At first I was flattered that everything I posted was instantly liked by one person, until I realized that ALL blog entries were instantly liked by one person, and that the one person was the system itself. All in all, the comments I’ve gotten on the posts on MOG are so inferior to the quality of comments I got on last.fm for the same entries that I’m not sure I’m going to continue the experiment. For instance, in response to the post about bands I saw in 1982, on last.fm I heard from other old folks who’d seen some of those bands too and had reminiscences to share and from teenagers who were listening to them now and thought it was cool that I’d seen them then. On MOG I got “I was born in 1982.” Wow.

The blog entry that had the most likes on the MOG-o-sphere last time I checked was a profanity laced trashing of other users.

I’m sure there is good music blogging on there, but you wouldn’t know it without searching.

There are several problems with the design of the blogging system – if you’re going to make blogging the centerpiece of your system, you need to give people ways to treat it like a blog. The blog needs a page of its own rather than an eternal column on your profile. You need to be able to have archives with links. You need to be able to highlight what you think are your own best or most liked posts in sidebars. None of that is there.

Now it’s not the fault of the system if it’s attracting people with little to say, but it doesn’t make me want to stick around or contribute.

End analysis thus far: not impressed. The enhanced blogging has great potential for people who mostly want to write about music, but I don’t think they’ve done a good enough job setting it up to really make it superior to any other way of blogging about music that’s out there.

Meet the Smithereens

One of my favorite albums ever is also one of the first I ever heard, Meet the Beatles (I still have the mono vinyl my parents bought when it came out). Now New Jersey powerpop band, The Smithereens, has just released a track-for-track remake of the whole record in order entitled, not surprisingly, Meet the Smithereens (“the Jersey beat meets the Mersey beat” they say). And where did they get this wacky idea?

The idea of covering the Beatles at all, DiNizio says, came from a concert the Smithereens performed at an Abbey Road on the River festival in Louisville, Ky. After that, he recalls, “We started to get e-mail from fans, When are you gonna do a Beatles tribute album?’ We put the word out on the Internet to Smithereens fans and got a terrific response. Then I had the brainstorm to do [Meet the Beatles!] and it was full speed ahead from there.”

Very silly, and can they really better what the Beatles did (I want to hold your hand still makes me grin every time I hear it), but who cares? It’s great to see a band have fun and listen to their fans at the same time.

I saw them a LOOOOOOOONG time ago because the opening band was Paul Kelly and the Messengers. Paul Kelly was great. The Smithereens were boring. Maybe I’d have liked them better if they’d been doing Beatles covers!