It is no secret that I love the Internet. I love it because it makes me laugh uncontrollably. I love it because it is a source of endless knowledge. But most of all, I love it for the shared experiences it provides.
The most memorable times in my life have been shared with others. From my first sleep-away camp in 6th grade to, more recently, spotting meteors in a field with friends, these experiences were all lent intensity and meaning by the presence of others. Of course, there are the bad memories too: the pain of trying hard to fit in at a new school, the shame of falling short when teammates counted on you. Those, too, depended on others sharing the experience, defining it for what it is.
More and more so, these social situations that impact us so strongly don’t have to take place in physical space. The internet is getting better and better at creating authentic, palpable, and meaningful shared experiences between human beings.
I’ve been following Turntable.fm with curiosity and interest these past few weeks because it does such a good job of doing just that. Who knew that mere avatars and a shared sonic environment could make a motley collection of far-flung IP addresses feel like they… well, aren’t just that?
But even as it excels in creating these experiences, it has surfaced numerous problems in the process. The main problem that I’ve noticed is that, unlike shared experiences in physical space, interactions on Turntable tend to have a curious asymmetry to them. By this I mean that, for the average Turntable user, giving is easy, taking is hard.
Here is one possible (and commonplace) scenario:
You enter into a room full of people. Your avatar is one of 20-odd generic graphics, and your username is whatever you feel like setting it to be at the moment. Everyone else here is a stranger. The song that’s playing isn’t very good, so you openly voice your opinion in the chat: “This song sucks!” Your opinion is immediately shot down. “Your music taste sucks,” someone retorts. Another chimes in: “yea screw you go listen to some justin bieber” The words are just letters on a screen, but the sting to your ego is real. You leave angry and vow never to return to these losers.
What just happened?
“You” (our hypothetical user) found it easy to give, to vocalize without thought to consequences, but that doesn’t mean there are none. Indeed, others thought the same thing and now you are feeling the consequences directly in the form of anger and disgust. Giving is easy, but taking it is… well, hard.
It’s hard because we’re human, and unfortunately for us, the Internet’s de-facto interaction idiom today encourages us to act as if we aren’t.
But… we are. And the affect engendered in us by shared experiences will always shape who we are, to give us good memories or bad ones, to make our lives unbelievably good—like lying on the cold grass with your friends, waiting breathless for the next streak of light to illuminate the heavens—or jaded and miserable.
Services like Turntable have a critical responsibility to themselves and their users. Beyond dodging the next music licensing bullet, beyond concurrent user counts and fighting server fires, beyond even financial stability, Turntable needs to ensure that the magic it has harnessed—that of creating unbelievably authentic feelings of togetherness—is used to create amazing shared experiences. Because frankly, an overflowing bank account and bulletproof servers don’t matter a bit if you are letting your users create bad memories using your service.
One last final thought (and this is by no means a new idea): when competitors eventually arrive on the scene, they will find it much harder to compete if Turmtable’s existing users associate it with positive memories. Positive memories are irreplaceable and hard to recreate, so it generates loyalty. And loyalty forgives flaky servers, insufficient features, or other minor (but fixable) failings.
For the love of people, of human beings, I hope the internet will continue to evolve and find new ways of encouraging positive shared experiences. Though tactics like badges, reputation points, and real-life identification have been employed with varying degrees of success, there is still a lot of work to do. As for Turntable, I’m curious to see how it continues to grow. And as for myself, this is something I will be cradling in the back of my mind as I pursue my Master’s thesis in the Fall.