[13 September 2009]
Mighty social networking platforms like Facebook and Myspace have made the listing of interests and tastes standard practice, but the act of crafting a public profile implicitly encourages posturing and subtle deceptions—these services invite their users to cultivate a respectable self-image for projection and dissemination, and few, if it can be helped, care to sell themselves short.
Last.fm, by contrast, seems to offer a sense transparency and truth few other social networks can; users still craft personalized profiles for browsing and befriending, but the lists now write themselves. The site employs a function called “scrobbling”, a plug-in for media-playing software that records listening habits over time. The information collected is transmitted automatically to Last.fm, where charts of collected data adorn each user’s public profile. Anybody interested, whether registered with Last.fm or not, is welcome to browse the profiles of any site member, whose scrobbled music is viewable according to a variety of criteria, ranging from which artists they’ve listened to in the past seven days to which tracks they’ve listened to most since joining the service.
Unlike some of the more frequently vilified social networking platforms, Last.fm smartly sidesteps accusations of vacuity by asserting its own narrow usefulness: scrobbling purports both to aid users in finding other users with similar listening habits (these users are presented as “neighbors”, and they are organized according to how much overlap there is between your most-listened-to artists and theirs), and, more importantly, to recommend music based on perceived preferences. Ideally, Last.fm operates like a discerning, vocal friend, introducing you to new people and new music it reckons you’ll like.
And given that Last.fm boasts over 30 million registered users worldwide, it’s a good bet that the service’s judgment is appealing. Or are people joining Last.fm for different reasons? For me, it was a simple as observing my own habits—for several weeks after initially installing Last.fm’s music scrobbling software in early 2006, I studied the tracking and charting of my listening habits with scientific rigor. The concept of being presented with what I perceived to be my true taste in music—that is, what I was really listening to day to day, rather than what I liked to think of as my favorite artists or albums or songs—had a kind of narcissistic appeal. Even merely noting trends in habit (such as, for instance, my tendency to play the first half of an album almost twice as much as its second) turned out itself to be an interesting little exercise. I might not have been using the service as it was intended, but the scrobbling occurred behind the scenes and required no activity on my part beyond listening to music as I always did—at the most it was trivial fun, and at the least it was a background process in which I had nothing invested.
But then, about a year into my uninvolved scrobbling, a fault in the service suddenly struck me: My charts didn’t factor in duration. Scrobbling gave equal weight to a ten-second hip-hop skit as it did to a 60-minute ambient piece. I conceded that most songs were indeed around three minutes long, and thus scrobbling by track count alone was probably still the most accurate method for tracking listening habits, but I couldn’t help but be irked by the look of my charts. It seemed a misrepresentation. At the time, I’d been listening to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops more than just about anything else, but as the tracks on that record spanned upwards of an hour, my Last.fm profile registered just a few listens. This, I thought, was hardly the transparent examination of my taste in music I had once determined it to be.
So I cheated. I chose the briefest Basinski track and played it on repeat overnight, in order to stack my chart and (in my mind) more accurately represent what I’d been listening to. In a single fell swoop, I had just obliterated the inactive transparency of scrobbling. I had adjusted my natural habits in accordance with how I wanted the results to look—I’d regressed to just the sort of conceited posturing and image cultivation the avoidance of which had compelled me to join this service to begin with, undermining the supposed “reality” of the charts by shaping the chart for the chart itself. I had, in effect, ruined Last.fm. And I suspect I’m not the only one.
In his book Discipline and Punish, French cultural and political theorist Michel Foucault applies Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the panopticon—a model of prison wherein a centrally positioned guard may view any prisoner at any time without their awareness—as a broad social metaphor. The idea behind the panopticon is that a prisoner, aware that he may be under the surveillance of a guard at any time, will internalize the surveillance and act at all times as though he were being surveyed.
For Foucault, not only were institutions of power applying the panoptic model outside of prison (as in the installation of CCTV cameras in public spaces, where, as in Bentham’s prison, the pervading threat of being watched does the job of physically watching), but contemporary society was itself coming to resemble a sort of panopticon. Now it was merely the threat of being “surveyed” by other people that caused the average citizen to internalize surveillance and act in accordance with not just legally acceptable conduct, but proper social conduct as well. Our image of normality is maintained by acting in a way that will be perceived as normal by other normal people.
The advent of the social networking age seems to indicate a whole new scary era of social panopticism, the threat of being surveyed easily and anonymously broadening rapidly, but such an assessment is crucially misguided. Participating in a social network is fundamentally active, willed; all potential surveillance is limited to the parameters of what one chooses to project—which pictures one chooses to tag, what thoughts one decides to tweet. The panopticon, recall, is a prison; it is inactive, and the surveillance to which one is subjected extends beyond that which is delicately selected and offered.
And so it’s only Last.fm, only scrobbling—which, once activated, operates entirely on its own, as an unconscious background function—that channels the essence of Foucault’s social panopticism. Last.fm users are faced with the threat of anonymous observation and surveillance, and thus the surveillance is internalized. The awareness that anybody can check in on their habits at any given time without their knowledge or consent causes users to consider their habits with that very awareness in mind. Thus the way we listen—what we choose to put on and how often or for how long—is affected by the very fact of scrobbling’s recording. What we choose to hear is watched, and we choose differently because of it.
Not everybody is so conscious of their charts and profile, mind. I’m sure many forget that Last.fm is even scrobbling, and I’m sure others still just don’t care about maintaining a certain image. But the panopticon’s effects manifest themselves in ways which are not always obvious—after all, you always actively or consciously behave differently in public than you would if you were alone—though the internalized surveillance still has a significant, if subtle, effect.
One typically avoids embarrassment if the potential for being seen exists, and the same is true of those Last.fm profiles. “Turn My Swag On” may be a guilty pleasure, but do you want everyone to know that you played it 25 times last week? And what if Sonic Youth is your favorite band, but your profile shows that you’ve not had them on in a while? Might you be tempted to thrown on Goo for the sake of charting it? Even if they’re not just selected with scrobbling in mind, are your decisions informed or affected by your awareness of the figures and the charts?
Of course, the system isn’t perfect. Last.fm allows users to delete items from their charts, effectually allowing people to have more control over their surveillance than a true panopticon would. Similarly, Last.fm’s scope and pull is incomplete—many users listen via iPods and iTunes, but some spend equal time with turntables and traditional radios, formats the service just can’t scrobble. But once your account is set up and your profile activated, you’ve willingly entered a system that’s about as close to a legitimate panopticon as social networking has become.
The distinction is that this isn’t a panopticon of normality and legality, but one oriented exclusively around taste. Last.fm is an exercise in the effect of surveillance on habit when that habit comes to stand in for interest and taste. 30 million people worldwide are in subtle ways changing the way they listen to music, their selections (in the most extreme cases) informed by an unconscious desire to project a cultivated image of cool rather than any kind of true or pure desire. Will we ever listen to what we want, when we want, again?
Calum Marsh writes film and DVD reviews for Slant Magazine and music reviews and features for Cokemachineglow. He co-authors a column about obscure and under-appreciated films, ReFramed, which is published biweekly by PopMatters.