Share, don't broadcast

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What happens when you listen to music? I mean internally, in your own head and body, what happens? Sound waves are absorbed, and a coherent aural message of one sort of another is communicated. If the music strikes you as worthy or memorable or powerful or in any case creates a positive impression, an engaged sense of joy or satisfaction or contentment arises, seemingly from within. The more engaged the inner response, whether this engagement is even fully conscious or not, the more it may provoke physical movement---anything from a tapping foot to a swaying torso to the all-out need to dance.

The magic of music is this internal alchemy that transforms sound to personal meaning, and the delightful, typically idiosyncratic way the experience of this personal meaning unfolds. Some people may feel a great stillness overcome them when listening to meaningful music; others may not be able to stop moving. Some may feel compelled to be alone; others may want and need to be in community. Some may laugh; some may cry. And of course reactions will change, even within one individual, depending on the music, the mood, the circumstances. Music is that rich, and our relationship with it is that mysterious.

Listening to music in a glass house

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Unless, of course, you happen to be in charge of a social-media company, in which case there is really only one reaction to music that you are interested in: that everyone shares everything they're listening to with everybody else. "Music is made to be shared," is not only a Spotify tagline, it appears to be the guiding principle of 21st-century technology-company excursions into the music industry to date, a reality if not born with then certainly encouraged by Facebook's ballyhooed effort to introduce so-called "frictionless sharing" into users' news streams.

As an experiment in information dispersal, frictionless sharing was a bust (so far), but the 24/7 sharing mentality remains strong among music services, as everyone from Pandora to Rdio to Songza not only offers automatic Facebook sharing of everything you listen to, but often seems to require you to go out of your way to turn it off. Streaming services seem to believe that people want and need to listen to their music in a glass house, where everyone can effortlessly see what you are listening to at all times.

Sharing is supposed to be a two-way street

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To my old-school way of thinking, there are many things wrong here, ranging from the disregard for basic privacy to the radical misunderstanding of the concept of "sharing" that drives this relentless feature in the first place. Sharing, after all, is in reality a two-way street, involving mutual recognition and consent. One-way broadcasting is not "sharing." (Then again, social media companies do have a hapless way with language--look no further than what one of them has done to the word "friend.")

The more I've thought about this, however, the more I realize that my dissatisfaction here is prompted by more than what may simply be 20th-century concerns about privacy and/or language usage.

Most of all, I am unhappy about non-stop, social-media-style "sharing" because I feel it demeans music, turning something that is first and foremost a deep, internal experience into a unyielding, external kind of currency. To insist that anything anyone chooses to listen to at any time must be constantly and continually broadcast to all friends, family, and acquaintances seems to me both to overlook and to undermine music's deep, multi-faceted purpose. Music is made to be heard. Sharing is an option, not an imperative.

Posting everything to Facebook is vomiting

Of course it remains a beautiful and humanly connective thing to hear a wonderful song and want someone else to hear it too. And of course we are social beings and sharing our tastes is part of how we navigate through and present ourselves to our various communities. But there is, I contend, a big difference between taking the time and effort to bring a piece of music to a friend or family member's specific attention and the kind of sharing social media promotes. Making a mixtape for a friend is sharing. Letting your streaming service automatically post everything you listen to your Facebook stream is vomiting.

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To be sure, there is often great power in experiencing music with other people. But the reality of music's potent role in communal experiences does not mean that the inevitable purpose of its existence is to be shared. And it certainly does not require a commercially-enforced paradigm shift wherein human beings are cajoled if not bribed (by the offer of the free service) into believing that listening to music equates to telling their friends and family about every song they listen to online.

The idiot's version of sharing

In fact, I question whether the kind of music sharing that social media pushes on us has anything to do with the power of communally heard music---the power of which is based on a mutual, three-dimensional experience. A musician playing in real time and space for a rapt audience is an entirely different thing than watching a series of play buttons flow by in your news stream. The live musician isn't "sharing," her or she is playing and singing and emoting---making music, in other words---and you, in the audience, are part of the process, experiencing the music's previously mentioned mysterious effects.

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It's too bad that social media companies seem so fixed on promoting their idiot version of sharing when at the same time our online streaming services are powerful platforms that makes the genuine sharing of an unprecedented range of music wonderfully possible. Maybe you and your cousin have an itch to get to know Portuguese fado. In the past this would have been difficult and probably expensive. Now you can each dive in and send links to one another of your best finds. And yes you can still send your out-of-town girlfriend a thoughtful mix, now without the hassle of packaging it up and waiting in line at the post office.

The honest, connective benefits of genuine sharing

But the honest, connective benefits of genuine sharing are not, apparently, enough to satisfy a music streaming service's bottom line. There's not enough data in it. Social media companies have become famous (I'd say infamous) for their insatiable need to know things about us. That is why the default nature of the frictionless sharing of music online is so disingenuous. They love presenting this kind of sharing as the obvious thing you want and need to do because they are the ones who want you and need you to do it.

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In the meantime, how about the rest of us take a deep breath, and begin focusing anew on the "listen" button rather than the "post" button? Music does wonderful things to us, deep inside. And there is so very much of it now to listen to. Go exploring, far and wide. And, when you find something you have never heard before that moves you to sing or dance or laugh or cry, think of a friend who might really like it too and take the radical step of reaching out as an individual, one to one. Write an old-fashioned email and say, "I was thinking of you. Check this out."


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