Discovering ourselves online

As an over-forty, it’s a cliché that I’m an immigrant rather than a native to the land of digital.

(Having grown up in the age of the microcomputer, I’m arguably more steeped in the stuff of tech – and more at home in code – than a lot digital natives, but we’ll leave that for another day.) It’s similarly a truism that my generation and our elders have a world in living memory that seems sepia-tinted in its bizarre distance from today, before the web and mobile phones. This is the small change of the dinner conversation of the middle aged, and the reflections that it prompts – ranging from utopianism to more nuanced critique – have been the stuff of previous articles on the Unthinkable website.

What’s less widely remarked is that our generation can also remember a whole series of avatars of the digital world that seem almost as antique and irretrievable as the payphone, Teletext and the writing of personal letters. We remember cultures and habits that were swept away without comment and certainly without lament in the breathless excitement of the arrival of Web 2.0. GeoCities, chat rooms, MySpace – the web as an untidy playground of creativity, anonymity and experimentation with identity. We also have the perspective to observe the ways in which networked experiences have retreated from the open web into spaces that are more controlled and proprietary.

We’ve been focusing in different ways on the theme of ‘digital discovery’ over the past couple of months. Here, and in the context of this historical perspective, I want to consider the relationship of digital discovery to identity and self-expression, and the related issue of the degree of openness that we allow that activity.

Leaving the Bartok out

There’s a long cultural history to this. Analogue technologies enabled us to make a display of our tastes. The spines of books on bookshelves have always had something to say to visitors about the reader – whether matching series of leather-bound tomes in libraries, connoting gravity and wealth in equal measure, or the more modern phenomenon of an identity emerging from the sum of the parts of each book’s (or least each publisher’s) personality as expressed in colour and type. When records and later cassettes and CDs came along, they therefore had a physical design template to follow. And of course, books and records have also always afforded the opportunity to strew, with more or less purpose, face up on tables. There’s a fabulous scene in Play It Again Sam where Woody Allen’s character agonises over what record to put on to impress his date, Oscar Peterson or Bartok’s String Quartet no.5. In the end he opts to ‘play Oscar Peterson and leave Bartok out so everybody can see it’. The dilemma at the heart of that scene has played out across different technologies over the 45 years since the film was made.

Which brings us back to digital. Digital forms of cultural consumption present a conundrum (again, especially to us immigrants). One the one hand, I can fit a thousand books on my Kindle or tablet, but it’s much harder to advertise my reading to the world on the train, or to visitors on my shelves. Similarly, my music collection is no longer visible in the same way. At the same time, if we can get the technology right, digital networks offer us a vastly bigger audience for our consumption choices and tastes. The first – and still most exciting – place where I came face to face with that possibility was in using Last.fm.

Discovery as display

In case you’re not familiar with the service, Last.fm is a music database which monitors the listening habits of its users in order to build up a profile of what they are listening to and then uses collaborative filtering technology to recognise connections and similarity between artists, and thereby to offer recommendations to its users for new music. For example, maybe you listen to John Coltrane; many other users who listen to John Coltrane also listen to Ornette Coleman; you might like to try Ornette Coleman. Last.fm also provides a ‘Taste-o-Meter’ to gauge your musical compatibility with other users, and have experimented with various kinds of streaming experiences, based on your or others’ tastes or recommendations.

And the remarkable thing is that this all happens in public. So it’s a performance of identity in the same way that the upload of photos to Flickr was a performance. It belongs to a sensibility in which the web is one big public space, populated by objects and assets that are persistent, and presupposing that users wish to share openly and use the web as a canvas for self-expression, whether as creators or consumers. Like Flickr, Last.FM was also conceived as a web service, with APIs and software enabling users and developers to plug into other contexts. So Last.FM tracks what you listen to through MP3 players across devices as well as platforms like Spotify. This was all before Facebook came along and got us used to the idea that we would do our sharing in a sort-of-public place, but one that, we hope, is generally inaccessible to complete strangers.

Last.FM had other work to do than just helping us find music that was new to us. It was also a place for us to advertise our tastes and thus mark ourselves out as belonging to a certain sort of group (or not, if that’s our poison – I’ve yet to find other like-minded individuals to join my ‘fans of JS Bach, Silvio Rodríguez, Sun Ra and Richard Hawley’ cult). So important was this work of constructed identity that it caused users anxiety that there were certain sorts of listening (radio, records, CDs, live music) that were invisible to Last.FM’s software. Great effort went into polishing our profiles, with one friend of mine even going so far as to replay silently on MP3 all the tracks he’d listened to on CD. And I confess to the opposite kind of obsessive behaviour – cleaning up my data after my wife or kids had been listening and I’d forgotten to disable Last.FM’s monitoring.

Why did we care so much? Because all this had at least as much to do with self-presentation as with discovery. I could count on the fingers of one hand the times that I followed Last.FM’s recommendations and found anything I actually liked. It was much more exciting to use the Taste-o-Meter to check my compatibility with my friends (or with complete strangers who happened to share at least some of my odd musical kinks).

Who I am and who I say I am

The idea of tracking attention data and offering recommendations has now been more widely popularised by mainstream services like Spotify, and of course carried over into other media such as movies, TV, books and even gigs. So we’ve grown accustomed to thinking about such recommendation services in a fairly utilitarian and literal way – in other words, we expect the recommendations to be useful and relevant, and we use them to discover things that are new to us that we will like. In some cases (step forward, Spotify) these recommendations can be quite astonishingly useful.

But there has been a bifurcation – Facebook also encourages users to explicitly list tastes in books, films, sports teams etc, which, alongside our ‘likes’, represents an opportunity to craft and hone an image that we would like to project to (some of) the world. (I’d like everyone to know my impeccably sophisticated taste in Calvino, Greene and Murakami and I might not mention the Robert Galbraith or CS Lewis – that kind of thing.) Letterboxd performs a similar service specifically for movies, Goodreads for books, Songkick for gigs (beautifully integrated with Last.FM data, by the way, to offer a recommendation service that I find genuinely indispensable), Spotify’s playlists for music: a carefully constructed digital ‘we are what we eat’ of cultural consumption – the Bartok left out so everybody can see it.

And then in the hinterland where we actually do our consumption there are more private and useful algorithms that generate recommendations that shape our viewing and listening. It’s no accident that these often happen in a commercial environment: although Amazon’s recommendations remain, for me, the bluntest and worst available on the web, they are built on the sound principle that well-targeted recommendations can drive either purchase or, as in the case of Netflix or (again) Spotify, loyalty. If services like these have anything to do with identity, it is to do with the id rather than the ego. By harvesting data that we generate willy-nilly about our attention or purchases, such services build a more honest picture of who we are and are thus able to offer more useful recommendations. But the honest picture is probably not one that we want to share too widely, whether because it relates to one too many episodes of whatever we use for TV comfort food, lingerie purchases or the Dummies Guide to writing online articles.

There’s also the problem that TV episodes and catalogue items are transient. Again – they don’t belong to the world of persistence and openness beloved of some of my generation of digital idealists. It’s easier to build a sense of identity in relation to a long tail of cultural objects that isn’t vanishing piece by piece before your eyes.

Web services generally need to make money in order to survive, and the retreat from openness is often driven by that commercial imperative. But the spirit that animated Last.FM – of a web where passionate fans could limn their identities in public, in relation to an effectively limitless catalogue of all the music information on all the digital devices in the world, is, I believe, one that still has something to teach us. Facebook has given us more control over what we share with whom, but in a paradoxically opaque manner in that it holds our data and sets (and often changes) the rules about what happens to it. It lets us leave the Bartok out so everybody can see it, but it doesn’t educate us as citizens self-confidently inhabiting a digital polis. It would be great to see more of Last.FM’s kind of open approach applied right across our lifelong processes of digital cultural discovery.

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