Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Theory of Mind / The Shared Experience / The Passive Experience

The discussion of the future of radio has reached a feverish pitch. What's being debated is whether or not radio is in denial, and that the current business model is out-dated and obsolete. The Internet offers unprecedented possibilities, including interaction and customization.

Furthermore, many new custom radio sites have cropped up to take advantage of this potential. The idea behind custom radio is that you tell the site what you like to listen to, and it generates a custom station tailored to your preferences. It's a bit like those recommendation tools that and Netflix use. The big heavyweights are currently Pandora and Last.FM. But there are newer start-ups which aim to take these guys on. The most recent being Jango, MeeMix, and Radionomy.

All of these custom radio services tend to be based on either a "nature" approach (such as Pandora), which analyzes the underlying attributes of the song to determine what songs you might like. Or, the service is based on a "nurture" approach (such as, which looks at who else has listened to the song, and then attempts to recommend other songs that were recommended by a similar group of people. Steve Krause has provided an excellent overview of how these services work, which can be found here.

I have used most of these services at one time or another, and while I used to be impressed with the technology, I found myself getting either bored or annoyed with them pretty quickly. To paraphrase Roger Waters [commenting on the first non-Rogers Water Pink Floyd album, Momentary Lapse of Reason], I feel that these stations are nothing more than "a reasonable facsimile of radio".

To give you an example of what I mean by this, check out Condition30's ZenStrings music (all free mp3s). Condition30 has developed an engine which can effectively generate a song that never ends and never repeats. The application they had in mind was for video games, which often suffers from overly repetitive music. When I hear ZenStrings, it all sounds like music, but it also sounds very bland and forgettable, and it never really builds to anything. It's a reasonable facsimile of music.

Getting back to the live DJ. What makes them any better? After much thought, I have concluded that it boils down to three key points:

  1. Real DJs can predict how you might react to what they're playing, and can craft their sets accordingly. The most advanced DJs are not viewing their sets as "a bunch of songs in a row", but rather as compositions unto themselves. Many techno DJs take this a step further, and even understand how your mind is working in various altered states, and customize their sets accordingly. To be sure, creativity is at work, but a key aspect of creativity is being able to imagine how your work might be perceived under various circumstances. In general, this ability is often referred to as The Theory of Mind, and is a cornerstone of the human condition.
  2. Live streams provide a genuine Shared Experience. I believe that radio is the last great bastion of the shared experience. The Internet, as collaborative as it is, is surprisingly bereft of Shared Experiences. It is one thing to tag a photo, or write on a Facebook wall, but these all happen out of sync. Nothing comes close to the emotional pull of a true shared experience. If you've ever gone down a roller-coaster with a good friend or companion. If you've ever done something cheeky or naughty with someone else. And, if you've ever had sex. You will know what I am talking about here. For me, listening to music with others provides that shared experience. It may not always be at the forefront of my mind, but when that certain song comes on, I will knowingly grin to my friends, and that's all it takes to have that feeling.
  3. Radio is in essence, a passive experience. This is a good thing. However, because the Internet invites so much interactivity, some people believe that radio should also be interactive. However, radio that requires or expects that I interact with it is not what I'm looking for. I like being able to do other tasks while enjoying radio. I can do my work, I can drive the car, I can make dinner, I can read, I can socialize with my friends. All while listening to radio. Radio relaxes me. Anything requiring interaction requires decision making. Decisions stress me out.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. If I'm wrong, or you disagree, I'm all ears. As those who know me, I'm pretty open minded, even to ideas that I'm inclined to disagree with.

Stay TUN3D.