What are you talking about?

One big piece of the success of MySpace has been its direct tie to musical taste. Here’s a psychological study that has some provocative hints for why music might work particularly well in the context of a social networking site:

A recent study put participants in same-sex and opposite-sex pairings and told them to get to know each other over 6 weeks (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2006). Analysing the results, they found the most popular topic of conversation was music. [...] The number of people who talked about music was surprisingly high. In the first week on average 58% of the pairs discussed music compared to 37% of all the other categories of conversation combined. Other categories included books, movies, TV, football and clothes.

Why then do we use music as a first port of call in getting to know another person? We probably think that music is indirectly telling us something about the other person’s personality. For this reason, the second question this study tried to answer was: how good is music as a measure of personality?

To measure this, participants were asked to judge people’s personality solely on their top 10 list of songs. [...] Overall the results showed that music preferences were reasonably accurate in conveying aspects of personality. Of the five traits, it was a person’s openness to experience that was best communicated by their top 10 list of songs, followed by extraversion and emotional stability. On the other hand, music preferences didn’t say much about whether a person was conscientious or not.

One of the points I made in my work about online community is that people tend to study online social dynamics, processes and formations without paying attention to the topics around which they are organized. But understanding what people are talking about is absolutely critical to understanding how they’re doing the talking and thus the microprocesses through which they are forming relationships and communities.

One need only look at the comments on YouTube posts to realize that in many ways, video sharing doesn’t lend itself to conversation that builds connection and community the same ways that music sharing can. But music sharing still falls short of serial drama in its ability to keep a group of people sustaining ongoing conversation over time.

The other point that emerges from this study is the centrality of fandom in defining who we are, how we understand one another, and the voluntary relationships we form.

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