Facebook community fail

The devil’s promise with Facebook Connect was websites and communities wouldn’t need to worry their pretty little heads about user management and communication infrastructure. There was one true social network; and it lived in Facebook. All the site needed to do was cede their member login and identity to Facebook. In exchange, Facebook would bring to the site the real social network – all of your users, and all of their friends who use Facebook to share your good word. But it doesn’t work that way. I’d written about this in principle, but got bit by it in practice about a month ago.

I’m co-organizing an event on Social Media for Voter Education with California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. The event was originally scheduled for May 27, but the Secretary came down with strep and cancelled on the afternoon of the 27th. I used Facebook to manage the RSVPs. When I got the call from the Secretary’s office, I tried to use Facebook to notify the eighty-ish people who had signed up and said they would or might to come to the event that night. Unfortunately Facebook adds a delay if you want to send email to “many” people. That message didn’t get out until later that night. I used Twitter, an email to co-organizers, and old-fashioned social networking got the word out, but there were still some people who traveled to the event, only to find the “Postponed” sign on the door.

Facebook was the intermediary between our event and the participants, and when it came to crunch time, Facebook didn’t come through, and didn’t have a reliable way to reach people. Facebook has no obvious interest in making it effective for organizers to communicate effectively with the community. For an organization that needs reliable communication, outsourcing community management to Facebook isn’t a good deal. Groups are much better off with systems that let them manage and communicate with their own communities, using social network services as overlay but not as a core component.

If you are interested in the event itself, it has been rescheduled to July 29 at 7pm in San Francisco. I’m still using Facebook, because that’s the only way I can reach the people who signed up for the original event. And for the next event, I’ll want alternatives to Facebook with reliable communication.

Punk icon loves Elton John – fashion is out of style

Earlier this week, record label head, old skool LA punk Brett Gurewitz tweeted that he loves Elton John. He’s not kidding. His Last.fm playlist is linked on his bio. The queen of pop piano is number 3 in the most-played artists list, next to the Killers, the National, David Bowie, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem.

Back in the day, the punk ethos was aggressively opposed to middle of the road, safe, pretty, pop/rock music that got radio airplay and commercial success. If you were cutting edge, then you liked things edgy, dark, weird, ugly, distorted. Either brutally curt or meandering.

The thing is that when you are a rebel, you are defined by your enemy. In retrospect, maybe the taste of the avant garde was harmed by the dominance of the commercial. To be hip, you needed to sneer at music that was popular, pretty and well-structured. That eliminated a lot of mediocre and well-forgotten schlock, but also cut out a lot of music that, in retrospect, was great or good.

So Gurewitz saying he loves Elton John comes across a radical statement. Now, Bad Religion the band always liked melody, and maybe they were never as punk-elitist as the Bad Religion fans I knew back in the day. Publicly coming out for Elton John, or Crosby Stills, Nash and Young (or pick your fashion poison) is an expression of the spirit of the time right now.

By contrast, Jim O’Rourke, the Chicago avant-guitarist who completed the studio production of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, appears to have hipster contempt honed to a fine art. While Wilco is less avant garde than it thinks it is, O’Rourke on his home turf is a master of truly “out” experimental improv. In 1999 and 2001, he made a couple of albums, Eureka and Insignficance with stripped down and much more straight structure and melody.

Seemingly in exchange, the lyrics are misanthropic edging at times into sociopath territory (seriously, I’m not gonna link to 3-way, having friends with disabilities who’ve had problems with fetishist stalkers). These albums seem like they’re intended to be a rude joke on bourgeois fans of artful music who’d love the elegant spare guitar and not bother to listen closely to the lyrics until it’s too late.

But the joke is on O’Rourke – the economic structure that drove the hostility is crumbling. The message from Gurewitz is that in age after the fall of the megahit, you don’t need to hate on things that are pretty and people who fall for the pretty. You can pick and choose, because pretty doesn’t mean selling out anymore.

As the big hit model fades these days, a lot of people are listening to older stuff. Only 35% of 2008 album sales were for 2008 releases; the lowest ever measured. Some of the older stuff is deep back catalog that never was popular. And some of it is music that once was both very popular and very unhip.

So we’re going through older stuff to find the things that were good even though they were popular. Part of the difficulty here is that the popular stuff was way overplayed – we’re retrieving it not from obscurity but from seemingly knowing it too well. The catchy tunes are stuck in our heads and our guts whether we like them or not, whether they ever were good or not.

When Cake covers Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, people think the band is being ironic, but they say they’re not, and I believe them. Sincerity is the new sincerity. Art-guitarist Bill Frisell covers Streisand’s People because he likes the tune (there it helps that he’s an instrumental guy and leaves out the words). The cool thing is to find what speaks to you and what you think is genuinely good, and rescuing songs from decontexualized top 40, where all you heard was fashionable sound.

p.s. Epitaph is a Socialtext customer.

p.p.s. Edited to cut a few paragraphs on my personal explorations of the tensions & relationships between the popular and the specialized. Folks who are interested can find that thread on Last.fm and occasional link notes on FriendFeed.

Paying for Caltrain

This week I went to a meeting of the Bay Rail Alliance, where the topic was paying for Caltrain. The agency is facing a grim deficit because it depends on earmarked state transit funds that are regularly raided for other uses.

To close an immediate budget gap, Caltrain is making changes including increases in parking fees and charges for employer-funded transit passes, and cutting back on mid-day service. Based on overwhelming community feedback, a worse proposal to eliminate weekend service was taken off the table.

Even with these changes, Caltrain’s revenue is unstable, unlike Bart, which gets some of its funding from local taxes. So the Bay Rail Alliance is interested in investigating potential sources of regional funding. If you’re interested, look for updates on the Bay Rail Alliance website.

While the operating budget is iffy, the capital situation looks promising. The Bay Area is a candidate to get stimulus funding targeted at high-speed rail. Since the stimulus funding needs to go to shovel-ready projects, what this means in practice is that stimulus funding would go to items including Caltrain electrification, and preparing the Transbay terminal to handle the long-awaited extension of Caltrain to the water’s edge. See Transbay Blog for good detail and ongoing coverage.

There are two underlying system problems that make these things a lot harder than they should be. The first is the underlying structural bankruptcy of the California budget process. The calls for reform seem to have quieted down a bit during the knock-down dragout budget battle in Sacramento but hopefully will pick up after the battle. (Comments on what’s going on would be welcome.) If reform goes anywhere, it will need a large constituency, and part of the alliance ought to be green; transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and raiding transit budgets is not the way to get change.

The second system problem is the fragmented of the bay area transit system, were 26 seperate agencies serve a metro area of 7 million. Better regional governance would remove a lot of un-needed friction in creating a great system, but would take major reform.

iTunes, Last.fm and the politics of folksonomy

So, I’m listening to some perfectly nice folk/country/bluesish music by Eric Bibb in iTunes and I notice that the Genre column has the recording listed as Blues. I enjoy the multi-dimensional space of folk/country/blues/rock/etc, and like stuff at varying points in the coordinate matrix. This is the only album of Bibb’s I have, and I suspect it’s on the folkier side of his folk/blues mix. The reason this particular recording is categorized as “Blues” seems to be, er, at least as much visual as auditory.

For alphabetical reasons the song following Bibb is Eric Clapton’s cover of Going Down Slow, written bySt Lous Jimmy Oden and popularized by Howlin Wolf. Clapton’s cover is classified as Rock. The Clapton tune is much straighter blues than most of that Bibb recording. But Clapton is more vulnerable to sunburn.

Does anybody other than me find this aggravating? It seems *late* for this to be an issue. Obama likes star trek and jazz, he has the right to his choices as do the rest of us. Why do I need to look at this obsolete marketing category that classifies music ethnically not sonically.

Aha! The Last.fm tag cloud does a better job of things. The top tags for Bibb are blues, acoustic blues, folk and singer-songwriter. The top tags for Clapton are classic rock, blues, blues rock, guitar, singer-songwriter.

This issue is less vital than the discrimination that keeps gay families from legal protections of marriage, and other issues where real people get hurt by badly applied categories. It’s is more superficial than #amazonfail, the category mistake that pulled books on gay and lesbian themes out of Amazon search results and hence into more limited sales prospects.

The genre categories in iTunes are annoying throwback to the bad old days where music access was partitioned by segregated radio station. The result of the bottom up social network folksonomy is yet to fully express itself and yet to be measured. But I’d much rather look at the more nuanced, more accurate, less stereotyped tag cloud.

Google book settlement – what can we do?

The Google book settlement may be the most important undercovered tech policy / digital rights issue live today. And because it deals with the trailing edge of the long tail, it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

What is this about? The Google books project was sued by the representatives of a small fraction of the millions of out of print books that it scanned. Instead of taking the case to trial, Google hammered out a settlement, which now needs to be approved by a judge.

The problem is that the settlement as it was written, has major anti-trust and anti-consumer implications. The settlement as written gives Google the exclusive right to scan out-of-print books and make them available. Anyone else – a competitor like Amazon, or an academic institution, or a person – would risk getting sued if they also wanted to digitize books. Legal scholar Pamela Samuelson called out the problems in The O’Reilly Radar Blog.

So is this a done deal? Not necessarily. The judge has the power to accept the agreement as written, require modifications, or reject the agreement. There are strong arguments to keep it but fix it.

Professor James Grimmelmann of New York Law School has written a clear paper explaining how to fix the settlement — remove the monopoly aspect by giving the same terms to future participants, and putting the public at the table by mandating library and reader representation on the registry board. A more detailed summary of Grimmelman’s recommendations can be found at the Law Librarian Blog. Months before the #amazonfail debacle, Grimmelmann recommended a provision that would prevent secret censorship by silently delisting books.

The US Justice Department is investigating anti-trust implications of the settlement, and the judge extended the deadline for parties to file briefs in the case by five months, from July to September.

So what can we citizens do? While individuals can’t lobby directly — this isn’t a legislative issue where you can contact your congress critter — parties with an interest in the case can express opinions to a judge.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is recommending modifications including putting book scans in escrow. Public Knowledge also plans to file comment advocating keeping the settlement but modifying it to address problems with competition and access to orphan works. The American Library Association has weighed in. The Internet Archive and Consumers Watchdog have registered comments with the justice department, as reported by the New York Times.

But this issue isn’t getting as much attention as it deserves. It deals with the trailing edge of the long tail – works that are out of print, where the authors can’t be found. Issues that deal with new technology and consumer access – net neutrality and social media privacy seem more sexy. But over time, access to the scholarly knowledge and cultural resources locked in “out of print” works has cumulative value. Granting monopoly privileges is a slow drain on freedom, rights and knowledge.

Some of the larger organizations that often get engaged to protect consumer rights and digital freedoms — including Free Press, Consumers Union, and the Center for Democracy and Technology had not yet gotten involved when I last checked (before the original deadline). They may have gotten involved since — I’ll check, and would love to hear from folk in the know.

If you are a supporter of EFF, Public Knowledge, or the Internet Archive, thank them for their support on this issue. If you are a supporter of other groups that advocate digital rights, consumer protection, and academic freedom, please let them know that you care about this issue, and ask them to weigh in.

Wilco: I am trying to break your heart

“When you strip it down, it just sounds like a folk song.” That’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco talking about their music early in the 2003 documentary about the making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I watched this weekend after recently digging YHF out of the garage. Tweedy is right. Pull off the sonic layers and add half the words back to the fractured lyrics, and you have accessible, good folk and rock’n’roll. The live performances of Tweedy and the band make that clear. This music is not that hard.

But YHF was off-center enough that Reprise Records dumped the band when Tweedy wouldn’t take their advice to make the music more accessible. Wilco put the recording on the internet in the iterregnum before Nonesuch, another division of Time Warner, picked it up. Internet distribution only heightened interest in the recording and helped fans stay keep up with the band before the record came out.

The Wilco saga was a fairly early sign of the breakdown of the oligopoly. The tactics to try to preserve the economic scarcity of physical distribution in an age of digital download were unsustainable. The fact that YHF is a problem at all is a problem. Jim O’Rourke, who gets a speaking part of about 15 seconds, on the other hand, who was brought in to help production, is a ringer for music that resists easy. Nobody’s asking him about commercial music; that would probably keep the documentary from being produced.

Suroweicki argued in Slate that the conventional reading of artistic victory against commercial philistinism doesn’t hold because after all, it was another division of Time Warner that picked up the record; others have observed that Reprise didn’t have to have the grace to let the band buy their contract out. Still, Tweedy and manager didn’t have to have the balls and economic confidence to reject the advice to tone down the eccentricity and up the catchiness.

Interesting that it was Howie Klein, the music exec turned political blogger, whose ouster led to Reprise rejection of the record. Among other things, Klein has been one of the curators of the wonderful “Late Night Music Club”, a virtual fireside chat with youtube clips across wide range of excellent and interesting music irrespective of fashion and nominal genre. Communities like NLMC are taking the place of the radio playlist for music discovery, and that’s for the better.

In the Lefsetz Letter an entertainment industry lawyer makes the nostalgic argument in favor of the role of massmarket hits at creating common public consciousness. But the trade always was too high, in segregation, genre-focus, overplay, and the loss of cultural context in a narrative focused on hits. (Not to give Lefsetz a hard time; reading his blog, he is otherwise in favor of digital distribution and taking advantage of the long tail.)

Maybe we’ll eventually get a good “digg” for aggregating and voting up digital plays, which can play the role of a zeitgeist track. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, since it wouldn’t prevent people from discovering long-neglected performances on YouTube and discovering wonderful stuff through the playlists of friends and acquaintances. Network math works like that – there’s still a tall head in the age of the long tail – it’s just that you can get to the long tail now and you couldn’t before.

p.s. interesting that the Wikipedia definition of Playlist is now dominated by digital tools and the digital definition.

Green optimism

A few really good signs in recent months. In April the Honda Insight hybrid became the best selling car in Japan. Not the best selling hybrid, or best selling in some other niche. The best selling car.

Also, in 2008, “For the first time, investments in green energy overtook investments in fossil fuels for power generation ($140 billion vs. $110 billion)” according to a UN study. This is investments for power generation, not transportation fuel, but see above – electricity becomes automotive fuel.

The overall math on worldwide energy supply is scary but these are very good signs.

Backing up music with Windows and Mac

There are some things that Apple makes easy, and others that stay complicated. If you have more than one computer – especially if you have Mac and Windows – handling backup and synchronization is a pain.

I use a Windows machine mostly as a media player at home, and a MacBook for work and mobility. I had most of the iTunes library on the Windows machine, and a few things that I had bought on impulse while using the Mac. I wanted to use the Windows machine (an XP laptop with a busted battery and some Logitech speakers) as the main media player (because I own it), and the mac for sometime listening. I wanted it all backed up, ideally in a couple of places, and I had a 300G USB hard drive for backup.

Here’s what I needed to do:
* locate and import some missing backup files from a dead computer into the main collection (the key was to search for a distinctive song title)
* reformat the hard drive to FAT32 so that it could be read/written from Windows and Mac. It had been formatted so that Windows could read/write but Mac couldn’t write.
* use the external hard drive to move the Mac library onto the PC laptop
* carefully copy the Mac files into the PC folders (there were a few artists for whom I had different albums on each)
* turn on “Sharing” for the windows machine so I can listen at home

This multi-step process took a little bit of figuring out, with the help of Google and some nice folk at the Apple store. Once I figured out the steps, the implementation took a few hours but was pretty straightforward.

I signed up for an online backup service, but didn’t use it because it seems like it will take a few days to back up my collection and that’s not practical. To make a second backup that’s not in my house, the way to go seems like a USB keychain that lives in my bag or wallet. I’ll rip some CDs and see what size I need.

As the next step in the project, I’ll become the last person on the digital planet to RIP my CDs. Why am I only now getting around to ripping CDs and organizing a digital music collection? To make a long story short, I hadn’t taken care of the digital music collection because until Apple and the labels took off DRM I considered the digital stuff disposable, and bought as little DRM’d music as I could. I had spent the time in Austin mostly focusing on Austin music, mostly on CD. When I got to the Bay Area, I was heads down on work for a bit.

When I came up for air, I wanted to “true up” my music collection and taste; I didn’t want to just listen to the things I already liked and things that are nearly identical. So I’ve been doing a little exploring with the help of last.fm and youtube and wikipedia. That’s a longer story that may or may not make it to blog form.