Social Web

Turntable.fm: A Social Medium That's Actually Social

Happy avatars listen to music in the Turntable.fm "room" named Coding Soundtrack. i i

Happy avatars listen to music in the Turntable.fm "room" named Coding Soundtrack. Courtesy of Turntable.fm hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Turntable.fm
Happy avatars listen to music in the Turntable.fm "room" named Coding Soundtrack.

Happy avatars listen to music in the Turntable.fm "room" named Coding Soundtrack.

Courtesy of Turntable.fm

There's no better time than summer to discover new music. Bands careen across the country playing shows and festivals, while their songs set the soundtrack at parties of all kinds. For those saddened by summer's retreat and its attendant impact on befriending equally zealous music fans, meet Turntable.fm. The ability to share music online has been around for at least a decade, but this new site makes listening to music on the realtime Web a truly social activity.

It was at a pool party last month that I met Nate and Ali, a couple of like-minded new music aficionados. We bonded over their impeccable taste and made plans to see some shows together this fall. When I asked where they find new music, the conversation quickly turned to Turntable. They invited me to spin in a "room" full of their friends the next day, which I did.

Think listening to music with complete strangers might be awkward? It's not. In fact, it's exciting.

If there's a free spot on the DJ stand, you can start playing songs from a queue you've created using Turntable's library, or by uploading mp3s. Voting tracks up or down moves a needle that gauges the temperature of the room, making the listening experience a democratic process.

The DJ gets the boot if negative votes pile up. It's done with a modicum of kindness, though. And because each DJ can play only one song at a time, there exists an implicit etiquette: You have to wait your turn. The virtual social code may have been dictated by the terms of Turntable's licencing agreements under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, but the result is a social media site that feels refreshingly civil.

Then — after waiting patiently — it's finally time to play your jam. You survey the avatars in the room for signs of life with the intensity of a bird of prey. After what feels like an eternity, one starts bobbing its football-shaped head, digging your music. And then another. And another. You begin to understand the kind of camaraderie that is only bred through mutual admiration.

Turntable surpasses its competitors by luring users into a social context that is both gratifying and validating. In a simple chat window, conversations flow naturally. It may not match the gravitas of a Twitter tête-à-tête, but the comments are more substantive than those on the average YouTube video. And because they happen in realtime, they possess a communal immediacy that you won't find on Facebook. And it is relentlessly communal. Likely due to rights restrictions, there must be at least one other person in a room with you to hear more than a preview of a song.

The site is still in beta and has its kinks to work out. Though free, it is currently available only in the United States and requires that you are Facebook friends with someone who is already signed up to gain entry. The music library, supplied by MediaNet, is not as robust as that of other services like Spotify, so you won't find the newest of the new. And unlike Spotify, you can't put together a playlist to send to friends. Still, the site's core value is in providing a social experience around music listening, not to provide the ultimate music library experience.

Bands have already begun to debut songs there, which could pose a challenge to sites like SoundCloud and HypeMachine, whose emphasis on new music have made them trendy spots for leaking tracks. An iPhone app is slated to launch next week, which could remove one major barrier to entry: The experience is so engrossing that productivity becomes next to impossible. When Turntable goes mobile, users will be able to spend as much of their free time as they like without the desk (or the guilt).

Questions have been raised about Turntable's legality. Labels could still try to make life hard for the nascent service. On the other hand, music personalities like legendary cool kid Sir Mix-A-Lot jumped on the bandwagon early, while megastars Kanye West and Lady Gaga even contributed to a $7.5 million investment round last month.

That hint of cool is what keeps you coming back. It's a hunch that you might just be the dopest DJ in the room — even if that room is actually full of cubicles and you're not a DJ but a coder.

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