Tristan Rodman

Brown University

December 2012

 

This Is You:

Turntable.fm and the Digital/Physical Divide

 

I. Partying in Cyberspace

            I'm sitting in my music theory class, waiting for the professor to begin when my friend Hank taps me on the shoulder: "I don't know if you're interested, but Balam Acab is throwing another Turntable.fm party tonight, I'll send you the URL if you want." Hank tells me to follow Balam Acab on Twitter so I can be notified any time one of these parties pops up, since they tend to be fairly spontaneous. Balam Acab is an electronic musician. He's put out one album and one EP on Tri Angle, a record label that specializes in his style of slow, hip-hop influenced ambient music.

            I go to Twitter, and find a link that takes me to a Turntable.fm room. Both the Twitter account and the Turntable.fm room are named SSSLLLOOOWWW, which Hank told me earlier was the name of the party. The description for the Twitter page reads, "~URL CLUB EVENT WITH DREAMS AND FANTASIES OF BECOMING IRL PHENOMENON ~ WE <3 2 SHARE SOUNDS~" and lists as its location "BETTER THAN IRL." SSSLLLOOOWWW embraces the online as its own locality, taking ownership over its occupation of virtual space (URL refers to refers to a web address, while IRL stands for "in real life"). On any given night, a SSSLLLOOOWWW party could pop up, and when it does, it's accompanied by a flurry of social media promotion: tweets, re-tweets, .jpeg flyers.

 


            Around 11 PM EST, I log on and find a party already in progress. Three avatars stand behind their laptops, bobbing their heads along with the music. Speakers point out towards the crowd, who turn alternately to the DJs and to each other. Everybody in the room is either DJing or on the dancefloor. I pull open a chat window and find Hank. He tells me that Balam Acab performs in these rooms under the username "keentodie," and that the nights move through "a lot of different moods." Despite the mood shifts, the music does take on a particular identity. The parties are called SSSLLLOOOWWW because the music resides at a low tempo, often with long periods of cavernous ambience. There's an emphasis on bass and non-traditional percussion.

The music continues to flow, and I hear a number of things I like and want to go back to later on. Turntable's interface points me towards sites where I can purchase the music I'm hearing: Amazon, iTunes, Beatport. I find, however, that much of the music played in the room isn't available because it hasn't received a proper release or is otherwise hard-to-find. Hank explains this: "the unspoken rule is that you bring new stuff, or, like, 'rare' stuff...[I] haven't had time to dig, these days...Balam Acab lives with his parents, so he's got an advantage"

            I alternate between intense, attentive listening, and letting the music play in the background while I attend to other tasks. Every couple of songs I'll run back to my computer and add to the list of music I want to explore further. I tucker out around 12:30, but at the time I left the party was still going strong. Oftentimes, they will go until 5 or 6 in the morning.

I attempted to go back to the Turntable.fm room and the Twitter links that led me there during the research for this paper, but found that the room had been deserted and the tweets had since disappeared. Much like an underground warehouse party, SSSLLLOOOWWW left no trace.

 

 

II. Introduction

Turntable.fm is a service that allows users to congregate in online rooms and take turns playing music for each other. When you first enter a Turntable.fm room, a pop-up bubble greets you by displaying your avatar and saying, "Welcome to Turntable! This is you." The emphasis is theirs. Their mission statement is as follows:

"We believe music is better with friends. Listening to music has always been one of those experiences that's better together, whether at a concert or hanging out with friends. But the digital music revolution so far has been defined by a solitary experience. Turntable is bringing the social value of music to the digital music experience by letting people experience and discover music together."

Above the statement sits a graphic of six avatars wearing headphones, the cables of which are all linked together. Turntable's mission statement presents a bold claim: its service brings "the social value of music" into the digital realm. By opposing this to reports of a "solitary experience," Turntable.fm presents the "social value of music" on the Internet as something to be experienced in a group, or with friends. But what, exactly, is the nature of this experience, and how much of it is necessarily "digital"? Does Turntable.fm offer anything that couldn't be found in physical space?

This paper will look at discourses surrounding Turntable.fm as a social technology, use electronic producer Balam Acab's Turntable.fm "parties," as a case study and conduct a close analysis of Turntable.fm's user interface. Social technology discourses question Turntable.fm's business model, bring up debates on copyright and legality, and explain the site's role in digital music consumption. Balam Acab's Turntble.fm parties show how users employ the website's format to create a local scene situated in online space. The user interface features abstractions of everyday objects, situating the avatars in familiar surroundings. These three sections lead to a discussion of the perceived difference between the physical and the virtual. Following Jonathan Sterne's argument that the digital "doesn't re-organize the process" of audio reproduction, this paper will argue that the digital also doesn't reorganize the process of social interaction around music (Sterne 2006: 99).

I'd like to start by offering three elements of the "social value of music" that Turntable.fm provides. These are by no means definitive or comprehensive, but offer a jumping off point for further discussion. One social value of music is subcultural capital. In the SSSLLLOOOWWW party, Hank mentioned that there's an expectation to "bring new stuff." This aligned with much chatroom talk I observed where users spoke in order to display extensive knowledge of the music being played. Much like Sarah Thornton describes in her work on UK club culture, social cache can be attained on Turntable.fm by displaying knowledge of a specific set of songs (Thornton 1996). A second social value of music is the importance of digging, and unearthing material to be archived. Hank also mentions that he hasn't "had time to dig these days," which gives other DJs "an advantage." Similar to Joseph Schloss' exploration of hip-hop beatmaking, Turntable.fm users invest themselves heavily in introducing their friends to new or obscure songs they've discovered (Schloss 2004). And a third social value of music is to achieve flow within a social space. The SSSLLLOOOWWW party goes all night, and Balam Acab lambasts users when they disrupt the vibe: "GUYS U R MAKING AWARD MOVES." Turntable.fm sets take on characteristics of a DJ set, which Mark Butler describes as "a unity...DJs create an unbroken flow of sound [and] minimize the distinctions between individual tracks, so that the emphasis is on the larger whole rather than its components" (Butler 2006: 49).

 

 

Importantly, all the scholarship and examples cited above come from practices grounded in physical space. While at first glance it may seem that Turntable.fm should be treated differently because of its location in cyberspace, I will argue that practices found on Turntable.fm are no different from those in physical space, and should be treated and theorized no differently. The communities on Turntable.fm are not virtual, though they may contain avatars. The Internet has come a long way from Rene Lysloff's Internet as "Softcity," "one gigantic ghost town" whose "inhabitants exist as disembodied nomadic identities with no simultaneity of presence, only a collective solitude" (Lysloff 2003: 23-24). Turntable.fm's Internet is both live and alive, as its users experience both spatial co-presence and temporal simultaneity (Wurtzler 1992). Users of Turntable.fm also communicate using synchronous methods of communication. Researching modes of computer-mediated discourse (CMD) Susan Herring finds two main categories for methods of communication on the Internet. In synchronous communication, "sender and addressee(s) must be logged on simultaneously, and messages are more ephemeral, scrolling up and off participants' computer screens as new messages replace them." In asynchronous communication, "messages are stored at the addressee's site until they can be read," like e-mail or a message board (Herring 2003: 3). Synchronous modes of discourse also "impose temporal constraints on users that result in a reduction of linguistic complexity relative to asynchronous modes" (Herring 2003: 6). The reduction of linguistic complexity has become deeply embedded in the style of synchronous communication, such that it even bleeds over into asynchronous modes. This reduction is responsible for acronyms like "IRL." For Balam Acam and the SSSLLLOOOWWW party, the reductive language is a fundamental element of the night's aesthetic. For Turntable.fm, the synchronous chat window is key to the experience of liveness, and the site's goal to let "people experience and discover music together."

Writing in 2011, Nathan Jurgenson noted the tendency for scholars and social media users alike to binarize the digital and the physical. Jurgenson terms this tendency "digital dualism." The world is either on-line or off-, and with these two realms comes a number of additional suppositions. Often, it's believed that the online is somehow less authentic, but as the Internet develops in an increasingly social direction, it's necessary to acknowledge how social media services "both impact and are impacted by the physical world." Jurgenson offers "augmented reality" an alternative to digital dualism, which views "that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once" (Jurgenson 2011).

As I was researching this paper, Jurgenson updated his theory to allow for a few more positions on the digital dualism/augmented reality spectrum, proposing four categories in place of the original two. Strong digital dualism views the digital and physical as fully different —they "do not interact." Mild digital dualism holds that the digital and physical are different realities, but that they "do interact." Mild augmented reality describes the digital and physical as part of the same reality, but as having "different properties" even though they do interact. And finally, strong augmented reality proposes "the digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties" (all emphases his). He also provides a flow chart for determining which term to use (Jurgenson 2012).

While Jurgenson's terms are useful for determining one's individual stance and point of view on the physical/digital divide, the term "augmented reality" inherently suggests that the digital stands separate (augmented) from the real. Introducing his work on the virtual environment Second Life, Tom Boellstoff argues that, "It is not only that virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life; virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our 'real' lives have been 'virtual all along.' It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human 'nature' to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being" (Boellstorff 2008: 5). Boellstorff's line of analysis here presents a good antidote to Jurgenson's "augmented reality" term. Boellstorff shows why we can view the digital and physical under the same umbrella: virtual worlds emphasize how mediated our physical lives are, and as a result, they're merely another element of mediation. In the case of Turntable.fm, this comes across in the interface and modes of interaction—that the virtual space is configured like a physical space signifies how similar the two really are. Boellstorff, in the same paragraph, goes on to note another way of looking at the digital/physical divide, "in virtual worlds we are not quite human—our humanity is thrown off balance, considered anew, and reconfigured through transformed possibilities for place-making, subjectivity, and community" (Boellstorff 2008: 5). While initially this analysis seems at odds with Boellstorff's first conception of "virtual all along," it makes sense that "in virtual worlds we are not quite human," since, in this case, even elements of our physical lives can be virtual.

Indeed, Turntable.fm users find themselves negotiating the digital/physical divide on a consistent basis. The "social value of music" found on the site is that of many physical communities, yet these physical communities are already deeply mediated, and deeply embedded within the virtual. I was introduced and invited to Balam Acab's SSSLLLOOOWWW party in my music theory class, but then communicated with my friend in a real-time synchronous chat. The GUI (graphical user interface) for the site places users in a room with familiar DJ equipment, emphasizing just how mediated any listening environment is. For Turntable.fm, URL and IRL exist in the same world, and have the same properties, showing us that we've been "virtual all along." As the pop-up says when you log on and see your avatar for the first time: "This is you."

 

II. Turntable.fm: History and Function

            Turntable.fm was founded by Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein and launched in May of 2011.  The two funded the site using money they had amassed from a previous endeavor called Stickybits. Stickybits let users place barcode stickers in physical spaces. Users could then use their mobile devices to scan the barcodes and post notes to one another—"a virtual version of scribbling on the wall" (Helm 2012: 69). From the get go, the two were exploring the boundaries between digital and physical, designing services that allowed online space to become an integrated extension of the physical world—services that offered augmented reality. When Stickybits sputtered out, Chasen turned to Goldstein with the idea for Turntable.fm. Throughout their collaboration, Chasen did the bulk of the coding and execution while Goldstein operated the business and big picture (Helm 2012).

            The site plays host to a large number of rooms that users can enter. The rooms are generally themed, and have guidelines ascribed by the room's creator. These range from genre-themed rooms like "Dubstep" and "DJ Wooooo's Dance/House/Electro" to rooms that cater to a specific environment or situation, such as "Indie While You Work" or "Chill Or Be Chilled." The first time you use the site, a series of bubbles pop up introducing you to the Turntable.fm experience. The first of these bubbles was mentioned in the introduction: you see your avatar and are told...

"Welcome to Turntable! This is you. Turntable is the fun way to listen to music and play your favorite songs for you friends and strangers, in real-time, for free."

Clicking "get started" brings up the second bubble:

"DJ music. DJ's play songs for everyone in the room. You can become one too and start earning DJ points!"

Then the site takes you through the rest of its features:

"Rate songs. Like what you hear? Clicking 'Awesome' will award the DJ a DJ Point. Enough 'Lame' votes and the song will be skipped."

"Chat. Show some love! You can talk to others in the room in real time."

"Get Ready to DJ. Pick some songs to play when it's your turn on the deck."

There are a couple of things worth elaborating upon in Turntable.fm's introduction. For starters, it stresses "real-time" significantly, seeing spatial co-presence and temporal simultaneity as key to its social function (Wurtzler 1992). This becomes even more apparent when examining the user interface, which I'll do later in this paper. It's also important that while Turntable.fm involves elements of interactive games, it avoids using the term in its own language. Calling the site a "game," would involve a level of competition, which would be antithetical to Turntable.fm's otherwise egalitarian copywriting ("You can become one too"). There is, however, significant social cache to be garnered by amassing DJ points, as DJ points can be used to purchase new avatars. The more points an avatar costs, the larger it is, and the more space it takes up in the virtual room.

Turntable.fm also offers a large catalog of music to select from. These songs are licensed under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and integrated with the site through MediaNet, a large media database. If the song you want to spin isn't available, Turntable.fm will also let you upload an .mp3 from your own hard drive. At its initial launch, Turntable.fm had no deals in place with record labels, and operated under the same clause in the DMCA that allows Pandora and 8tracks to stream music to users for free. These sites, however, claim to be "non-interactive." But because Turntable.fm used clauses in the DMCA (a US-only law) to license music, record labels forced the site disallow users from overseas access to the service. This cut the site's popularity and momentum significantly, and took geographic diversity out of its user base. Turntable.fm struck a licensing deal with labels in 2011, though international access has yet to be restored (Helm 2012, Kafka 2011).

The popularity crunch is where Turntable.fm finds itself today. In a profile of the site, Burt Helm outlines the key ideological difference between Turntable.fm's two founders: "Chasen believes [the user dropoff] is because of problems with the product— that the model is based on users' being intensely involved, when other music sites can play in the background. Goldstein, meanwhile, has wondered whether they just never got the word out far enough to hard-core music fans instead of techies" (Helm 2012: 70). Helm crunches the numbers offered at Turntable.fm's 2012 SXSW keynote and finds that there are (on average) "just 317 people on the site listening at any given time" (Helm 2012: 70). Chasen faults the experience, finding it too heavily social. Goldstein just believes that they haven't found their target demographic.

In addition to dealing with a usership dropoff, Goldstein and Chasen also face the same issue that confronts every startup: monetization. The way that the business decides to monetize will ultimately speak volumes about how it views the "social value of music." While Turntable.fm has yet to pursue any singular direction, we can take a look at how engaged users suggest the site make money, and analyze the possibilities and implications of the different paths.

Posting on Quora, an online question and answer service, Parth Shah suggests that Turntable.fm "should aspire to be the best place on the web to listen to and discover music" and that features "that don't enhance the music listening & discovery process in any way, should not be considered" (emphasis his). To this end, he proposes five possible strategies, outlined below.

I.               Recommendations for DJs

"Using the tracks in DJ's current queue and the current mood (what kind of tracks are being "awesome"ed?) of the audience, generate recommendations (only visible to the DJs) about what to play next... Once the recommendation system is in place, I imagine adding 'Sponsored Recommendations' should not be hard."

II.             Affiliate Fees

"Create & offer deals to buy similar music or the entire album when a user expresses an intention to buy a track. Also, when a significant number of users "awesome" a track, create a group buying deal on the fly. This might be far-fetched, but the higher level idea is to let the audience influence each other in shopping for music."

III.           Let DJs sell their original creations

"If we could let the DJs sell their original music on Turntable.fm (while taking a cut), it would be awesome for both the DJs and the audience. I'm not considering any complexities due to copyrights, etc here."

IV.           Let DJs purchase virtual equipment

"Create a virtual store for DJ gears - mixers, turntables, lights, etc. Again, awesome for the audience."

V.             Private rooms

"As the service grows, one of the challenges for the users would be to deal with trolls or poor DJs in the room. Allow users to make their room private and exclusive for a small monthly/annual fee."

All these suggestions align with various views of the "social value of music." The creation of a group flash sale would cement Turntable.fm's users as members of a local online scene. Turntable.fm would function like a local record store, allowing listeners to congregate and discuss with an eye towards discovering and purchasing new music. Private rooms would turn Turntable.fm into an invite-only club, upping the subcultural capital of those who are in-the-know enough to be let in. The other suggestions (III and IV) imagine Turntable.fm as a record store, while suggestion I imagines the service as a pay-for-play radio station. In these examples, the main decision seems to be how Turntable.fm imagines its space. Is it a club, a record store, a listening party, a chat room, a club? More likely, it's all of the above. The Internet allows this multiple-function, yet the models for space and monetization remain deeply imbricated with conceptions of already-existing physical objects and frameworks.

 

III. The Interface

With that in mind, let's pay some attention to how Turntable.fm currently presents its space. The interface features a table with avatars situated behind the devices they're playing music from. These graphics could either be a Mac laptop, a Windows laptop, or an iPhone. These are the "DJs," and they're prominently featured at the top of the room. The heads of the avatars peak over the devices, nodding along to the music. These devices can be customized with various "stickers." On the sides of the room are two speakers, and clicking on them will toggle the volume on/off. The rest of the avatars, the "listeners" congregate in the middle of the floor. Some avatars are larger than others. These avatars require DJ points to purchase, and come across as a visual representation of a user's subcultural capital. Foremost in the window is the meter on which users can rate songs either "Lame" or "Awesome." It closely resembles an applause-o-meter. On a sidebar on the right is the queue, where users can add music to play next, and the chat window, where users can send messages viewable by the entire room.

Turntable.fm's interface relies heavily upon familiar objects to create its space. The laptop graphics feature stickers just like many people have on their own laptops, and the speaker icons control the volume. This follows the design philosophy of skeuomorphism, where, though not necessary for function, elements of prior and familiar designs are incorporated into an interface to suggest how to use a feature. This could be as frivolous as the faux-leather of a calendar application or as practical as putting three-dimensional buttons on a calculator application (Manjoo 2012). Importantly, however, skeuomorphism illustrates particularly well Boellstorff's argument that we've been "virtual all along," showing us that the digital has the same visual properties as the physical.

It's also worth noting that using familiar visual elements maintains the same social and power dynamics of physical space. Studying computer interfaces, Cynthia and Richard Selfe find that "the map of the interface is oriented simultaneously along the axes of class, race, and cultural privilege" and that "it is also aligned with the values of rationality, hierarchy, and logocentrism characteristic of Western patriarchal cultures" (Selfe and Selfe 1994: 491). Building upon these findings, Gopinaath Kannabiran and Marianne Graves Peterson conduct Foucauldian power analyses of interfaces to "extend the existing political consciousness beyond the process of design itself" (Kannabiran and Peterson 2010: 698). Their work shows the deep-rooted connection of power dynamics within user interfaces, and makes the important note that "The designed system is neither neutral nor a passive background upon which the interaction happens" (Kannabiran and Peterson 2010: 697). Indeed, for Turntable.fm, the interface serves to maintain the power dynamics of the dancefloor in its virtual space: the DJ is at the head of the room, elevated on a platform, and users who have accumulated enough "DJ points" to purchase new avatars appear larger than others. It's not just subcultural capital that gets transported with visual metaphors, it's also an entire set of power dynamics, suppositions, and privilege.

While conducing research for this project, Turntable.fm did some interior decorating, launching a new version of their interface. The main difference of the new interface is that it expanded the room size considerably. The DJs now play on a stage with a wall of speakers behind them, and the Lame/Awesome meter has been lifted above them, also displaying the current song. The rooms can also now get significantly crowded, as Turntable.fm accompanied this update by lifting the 200-person cap on rooms. Through the course of my research, I've seen Turntable.fm grow from figures in the range of the 317 users at any given time that Burt Helm calculated (observed in early October), to multiple rooms having over 100 people at a time, with many more hosting 40 or 50 people (observed in late November). It is not clear whether the expanded interface is a response to or cause for this growth, but they certainly go hand in hand.

 

IV. Conclusion

The new Turntable.fm room looks like many different things at once: a dance club, a live music venue, a small stage at a record store. The lines continue to blur between virtual and real. When Turntable.fm threw a party at South by Southwest last May, Goldstein handed masks out to audience members that turned them into living Turntable.fm avatars. Turntable.fm brings the social value of music from the physical to the digital while simultaneously blending the two realms. It's easy to view this as reality, augmented. But as I noted in this paper, Jurgenson's version of the term "augmented reality" implies a separation of the physical and digital even while arguing for their cohesion. To understand the digital and physical as part of the same world, we need a term that reflects their deep mutual implication. For this I suggest "mediatized reality," not as a catchall term for digital/physical synchronicity, but as a descriptor for the experience of participating in an event that shares many properties of both the physical and digital. In this regard, Turntable.fm exists as a mediatized reality: the user experience is deeply implicated in physical conceptions of sociality, yet exists a virtual space. As a mediatized reality, Turntable.fm has not significantly altered the social processes we engage in around music. It's simply transposed it to another locale.


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