Walls Come Tumbling Down

Turntable

Turntable.fm really ties the room together and in the process blurs the line between online and off

The development of social media tools has taken us from the dark ages of communication to, some might say, an age of Enlightenment.

Facebook and Twitter, in their rises as platforms, created usable social graphs, and social apps represented the first use of social tools. But for much of their existence, through Facebook Connect, the use of these tools has been along the lines of a monkey smashing something with a rock or poking something with a stick. All of a sudden the monkeys have fired up power drills, table saws and jackhammers.

New services such as turntable.fm, built right on top of the social graph rather than dealing with it as an afterthought, do much more with it and with our multiple devices than we envisioned even a few months ago.

At its most basic and in its earliest stages, social media made connections between people for the sake of connecting them. Twitter's name was a dead giveaway. As Jack Dorsey, one of the microblogging service's founders, told the Los Angeles Times in 2009, "We came across the word 'twitter' and it was just perfect. The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and 'chirps from birds.' And that's exactly what the product was."

Birds, for the most part, chirp to let each other know where they are. They are essentially saying, "Hey, I'm over here," and updating constantly with, "Hey, I'm over here." They may throw in the occasional "Yelp" about a particularly abundant source of berries. Baby barn owls shriek through the night to say, "I'm hungry. And hey, I'm still over here!" This describes at least half the people you follow on Twitter.

By the time Twitter came around, originally as an sms update service, even our cell phone conversations had mostly devolved into a series of updates about location. A typical call: "I'm around the block. I'll see you in two minutes." Our technologies have simplified our communications by making them so frequent and easy. In fact, it's not uncommon for a technology's very existence to be the main topic of conversation (just look at Google+ during its invite stage).

The first-ever Twitter message - sent on March 21, 2006, by Dorsey: "Just setting up my twttr." Not exactly "What hath God wrought." Tying these networks into existing platforms, publications and services was the first step (à la Facebook Connect log-ins, Twitter-enabled comments and Facebook phonebooks on Android devices), but the next trend will be building useful ways to incorporate these networks: in essence, places with real-world consequence where people can congregate digitally.

To see this progression, one need only look at the initial uses of various social media. Facebook in its infancy did very little. In the recent press conference launching Facebook's Skype video-chat, CEO Mark Zuckerberg harked back to the early days of The Social Network, circa 2004: "There wasn't that much to do. You could, like, update some interests on your profile." He offered the stat that users, on average, shared .1 things a day. His face kind of lit up weirdly when he said it, too.

Social networking is at an inflection point, Zuck argues. For the last five to seven years, he says, "the narrative has mostly been around connecting people." Story after story in the trade and consumer media exulted at how many millions were signing up for Facebook or Twitter, and those that didn't mention the millions and billions of users dwelt on the companies' millions and billions in valuations; most did both. "That chapter is more or less done at this point," Zuckerberg declares. Now that we are all connected, what are we going to do with each other?

Zuck thinks he knows: "The driving narrative for the next five years is not going to be about wiring up the world, because a lot of the interesting stuff has already been done. It's about what kind of cool stuff you're going to be able to build and what kind of social apps you're going to be able to build now that you have this wiring in place" - what he calls the "social infrastructure."

Social media is in the process of becoming not only the latticework that connects us for the sake of connecting us but also the place to hang other platforms and services we use - a structure that makes them possible. In other words, it's not the phone company; it's the power grid.

Turntable.fm is perhaps the first great service built on the social infrastructure. It connects people for a single-minded purpose in meaningful ways, and blurs the line between the online and offline worlds to the point of obliteration. It joins people around a fierce and common point of passion - music - and throws them into a place where they can share and argue and bond. Once it goes cross-device (mobile and tablet apps are reportedly in the works, and are no-brainers), Turntable will be not just a service but a space for people to take with them, one that will shadow them throughout the day.

Many sites may now have Facebook Connect and Google+ capabilities built in or within their mobile apps, where you can, for example, see articles your friends have recommended and comments they've made. This isn't all that we're talking about.

Turntable interlocks with social media as if the service and the platform were gears in a watch. The watch in this case is the resulting streaming music service, in which five djs take turns playing one song each. This is not an app that sits in Facebook or even on top of it. The concept itself is social, and Facebook, in a sense, operates within it. It won't work unless there are others around, and your enjoyment and use are maximized when you find and communicate with your own circle of friends, drifting like a bubble into other homophilic circles.

The start-up grew out of the detritus of Stickybits, Turntable founders Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein's previous effort to tear down the walls separating the off- and online worlds. Goldstein describes Sticky Bits as a social barcode-scanning service and says only that Turntable evolved from it, though not exactly how that evolution came about. The idea for Stickybits, nothing less than tagging and quantifying and interacting with the real world digitally, sputtered, likely because the bar for adoption may have been too high for the casual user. Users downloaded a barcode scanner to their smartphones and scanned real-world bar codes to read user-generated reviews, tweets, videos, photos and comments related to the product, as well as offers from brands for discounts for the product or related products or services (for instance, scanning a snowboarding jacket could yield discount lift tickets at a local mountain). There were also Foursquare-like challenge badges, where users could earn free stuff. In addition, users could generate and print their own barcodes for personal items.

If you haven't succumbed to the addictive quality of Turntable yet, how it works is this: the service consists of an extremely simple (and seemingly iPad-proportioned) interface - the room. Anyone can create a room, but there must be at least one other person present in order for the DJ to play music (a requirement laid out in the licensing agreement, which stipulates that a listener cannot know what song will play next - hence DJs take turns after each and every song). There is a game aspect, whereby others in the room vote a song "lame" or "awesome." Enough "lames" and the song gets skipped.

Members accrue points for "awesomes," which they can use to upgrade their avatars. The songs can come from Turntable's deep music library (powered by MediaNet, with additional deals such as the agreement reached with bmi in July, further ensuring the service does not get sued) or can be uploaded by the user.

In addition to the five DJs, others wait in the audience for a turntable space to open up. To get the interactive and game elements right, Chasen and Goldstein brought in St. Petersburg, Russia-based SoftFacade to design the user interface, the general look and feel of the icons and other features. SoftFacade ceo Anton Zykin told me, "They wanted a more playful, game-like interface, like Guitar Hero." Strictly viewed as a music service, Turntable is like a radio station where friends and acquaintances pick the tracks, or a discovery engine based not on any sort of sophisticated algorithm (à la Pandora or last.fm) but on a human element of exploration that leads to discovery. It made Spotify seem, if not wholly, at least partially irrelevant, a month before that streaming music service's launch. Early investors, including First Round Capital, Polaris Ventures and Chris Sacca, certainly see the service's potential. A recent $7.5 million round (bringing the total valuation to $37.5 million) was led by Union Square Ventures and reportedly included Lady Gaga and Kanye West.

Turntable launched itself using the Facebook social graph: to get in, you had to have a Facebook friend already using the service. This is why the site was originally predominated by start-up geeks. Which, interestingly, demonstrated some of the potential usage of the service: as many of these start-ups are collections of people in far-flung locations, office rooms for communing during the workday became popular. Coworker members could listen to songs together and chat from across the country - like the best team-building exercise you never planned. With the preponderance of young coders, however, every room seemed inevitably to degenerate into nonstop dubstep after a few hours.

But the early days are long gone. The outside social integration was like any other: people on the service tweeted or posted to Facebook that they were djing in such-and-such a room, and with a click their friends and followers were right there with them. And by June mentions of "Turntable" on social media were exhibiting the classic exponential hockey-stick trajectory when plotted on a graph.

According to Compete data in May, the first month of its beta launch, turntable.fm had 3,442 visitors. By June that number had reached 135,823. By July the number of members signed on to the service was estimated as high as 300,000.

You now wander the rooms set up where DJs are playing, either choosing based on the type of music playing (or the room name), going to a room where a Facebook friend or someone you follow on Turntable is at already or clicking through random rooms as on Chat Roulette.

The latter experience can be disorienting, hurtling you from electronica rooms to a group of Japanese ravers who think it's the height of humor for everyone to switch to the same avatar, to a nest of people who love the '80s, to dueling banjos, to bangra, all in the space of moments. Stopping to chat may only heighten the weirdness. Turntable still has not had its Beiber Moment (traditionally, the point at which Justin Beiber begins using a service), but it had a Sir Mix-A-Lot Moment, when the '90s rapper djed a room complete with custom avatar. Still, the fact remains that the viral spread of the service is only one aspect of its social integration. One of the things that makes Turntable interesting is that its Beiber Moment could happen at an actual Beiber concert.

Unlike, say, Second Life or even Farmville, which are inherently isolationist, Turntable invites real-world interaction.

Public screens, the social media of the past and the future, represent the pivot point for Turntable. Imagine a concert where, between sets, the audience is invited to take to the turntables on the big screen via their mobile devices, and you're almost there. Throw in playing music along with the other guests at a friend's wedding you couldn't make it to, and you're most of the way there.

There is now even a third-party site aiming to bridge the real and virtual worlds via turntable.fm. Turntable Battle hosts real, live events powered by turntable.fm DJs in various cities and makes a game out of pitting cities head-to-head. The real crowd listens to the music and votes, while the larger virtual crowd does the same. Turntable Battle tallies up the "awesomes" and "lames" and posts the results to a leader board.

Turntable Battle takes the game element of turntable.fm to a logical place, one it might well have gotten to on its own. The combination of live experience and service, made possible by the melding of mobile and social platforms, is leading us toward a new age. Some call it Web 3.0 (the same thing they seem to call nearly everything), and others call it the Living Web. Whatever you call it, for the time being it seems to be moving to a syncopated dubstep rhythm.

Tags: social media
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