Researching How Communities Share Music Via iTunes

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by: David Jennings

This research paper on patterns of sharing iTunes music in an office, presented at the CHI (originally Computer-Human Interaction) conference yesterday, is the other side of the coin from the personal-stereo research I reviewed in my last posting.

Where that research was about using music to reclaim public space as private space, this paper is about how people project and present their identities in social settings, through their music collection. Where I was disappointed that the personal-stereo research had little to say about the music itself, this research is very much concerned with the choices people make between different musical selections, and how they relate to their personal collections. As the press release puts it,

Employees in a mid-sized U.S. company reported that they consciously worked to portray themselves in certain ways through the collections of music they shared with co-workers, some of whom they barely knew. Sometimes their self-portrayals were misread by co-workers with different musical interests and knowledge. Nevertheless, music sharing served to build a community within the workplace.

As well as the differences, there are similarities between this study and the personal-stereo research. The methodology is similar, being based in both cases on a mix of interviews and observation. For the sociologically minded, both studies share a concern with the issues of 'presentation of self in everyday life', as originally mapped by Erving Goffman and others.

There's scope for amusement in this latest study, as in cases like the office worker who is reported to be "worried about what his co-workers would think of the Justin Timberlake and Michael McDonald music he had purchased for his wife" (my sceptical italics).

Alongside this are more profound issues about the social influences that often fall under the rubric of 'word of mouth'. These influences can have major impacts on what music people listen to and pay for. Of course, these influences have been around since well before the era of iTunes. "We found that sharing your music is actually quite a strong personal statement", one of the researchers is quoted as saying. No big surprise there. As a teenager among non-sporty friends in the early '80s, sharing my music was the personal statement, and I've referred before to my experiences of sharing unfashionable music at break time, using good old cassette technology.

Times have changed culturally and technologically. Music no longer plays quite such a central role in what sociologists call 'youth subcultures'. What this new research highlights are some of the technological changes and their social corollaries. In the days of swapping or playing cassettes in the office, you could show just a small sliver of your collection and 'filter' it in terms of how it made you look. With networked iTunes, the parameters change because, for example, a much larger slice of your collection may be available (making it harder to censor the embarrassing selections), and it's possible to have playlists that are anonymous.

The research concludes: "One of the greatest challenges for technical innovation in music sharing may be in allowing designers to make the leap between treating music sharing technologies as personal music listening utilities and treating music sharing technologies as online communities". Discerning patterns in these sharing practices — detecting lines of influence, and the kinds of variation that are and are not tolerated in a group — could have significant value for understanding how to provide new ways for people to discover music, or new ways to promote it.

The full research paper will be in the CHI 2005 Conference Proceedings, available after the conference is over. Below is the Abstract of the paper, which I trust it is OK to reproduce (if not, let me know and I will remove it as soon as I get the message).

Listening In: Practices Surrounding iTunes Music Sharing
Amy Voida, Rebecca E. Grinter, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA;
Nicolas Ducheneaut, Palo Alto Research Center, USA;
W. Keith Edwards, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA;
Mark W. Newman, Palo Alto Research Center, USA.

This paper presents a descriptive account of the social practices surrounding the iTunes music sharing of 13 participants in one organizational setting. Specifically, we characterize adoption, critical mass, and privacy; impression management and access control; the musical impressions of others that are created as a result of music sharing; the ways in which participants attempted to make sense of the dynamic system; and implications of the overlaid technical, musical, and corporate topologies. We interleave design implications throughout our results and relate those results to broader themes in a music sharing design space.

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