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Facebook Music: A Big Vision, Mostly Unrealized

ImagesGuest post by Michael San Pascual of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

In late 2011, Facebook and several online music services sought to redefine how people share and discover music. New apps promised to broadcast our listening activity to Facebook in real-time and highlight trending songs among friends. For the most part, users have responded positively to this development, but hindsight reveals that Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for music on Facebook hasn’t been entirely realized. 

At the last Facebook conference, f8, Zuckerberg released the latest version of Open Graph, his company’s developer platform, and a new class of Facebook apps. Users could now enable third-party apps — including Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify — to publish activity to Facebook. As Zuckerberg described in his keynote, the driving focus of this was to help users “discover new things through [their] friends.”

Next, Zuckerberg broke down this goal into three ideals: providing “frictionless experiences,” capturing “real-time serendipity,” and “finding patterns” in friends’ activity. Together, these were meant to capture the essence of Facebook’s new emphasis on real-time sharing and discovering, particularly via mobile devices.

A year later, the music experience on Facebook has gotten easier, but still could be much better. Zuckerberg’s three ideals haven’t been reached and aren’t in demand.

“Frictionless Experiences”

A truly frictionless experience online takes only a few clicks and requires little effort from the user. Common functions are easily accessible, while the aesthetic is clear. 

Sharing music from streaming services to Facebook is frictionless. Active sharing options — such as sending music to your wall and to individual friends — are within reach, while streaming activity is automatically published. If anything, listeners may feel like they’re sharing data too easily, as their guilty pleasures are often exposed.

Closet Demi Lovato and Carly Rae Jepsen fans will be happy to know that they can control their sharing preferences within their streaming service of choice. Spotify, for instance, allows users to denote a specific listening session as “Private.”

Sharing music from within Facebook itself is a practical feature and is currently being tested. But for now, sharing remains tethered to streaming services. Casual users may not be willing to open Spotify to post music onto Facebook, but sharing is simple enough for those who make the effort. 

Discovering music from Facebook, however, can be rather cumbersome. Users cannot listen to posted music until they’re signed up with a streaming service. Then, when they click “play” on a posted song, a pop-up asks to open either the streaming service that their friend originally used or the user’s preferred service, if the song is available. So if an Rdio user posts a song, a Spotify user can click and open it from Spotify. Finally, the streaming service opens and plays the music. Although the experience is straightforward, it’s still one click and one app too many. 

The reality is that most users want to stay on Facebook and would rather share and discover music within the social network. SoundCloud has recognized this, and enables members and non-members alike to stream straight from the Facebook post, just like a YouTube video.

“Real-Time Serendipity”

To encourage serendipitous interaction, Facebook made Ticker, a small, real-time feed that features friends’ activity, including when they listen to music. By clicking on music posts in Ticker, users can actually listen along to music with friends in real-time and chat about the song. A notification alerts users when a friend listens along with them, positively reinforcing listeners to publish more activity. 

But people won’t just click on anything their friends are listening to. Unless the music is by a familiar artist or posted by a trusted source, people are likely to gloss right over the information — at most, subconsciously storing the artist’s name for future investigation. 

Music is a universal topic that could jump-start serendipitous conversation between friends and non-friends alike, but discovering it on Facebook in real-time hasn’t quite caught on. It’s not really something that users demand, and is often more trouble than it’s worth. 

“Finding Patterns”

Facebook’s criteria for music news is a good start, but it remains unrefined.

At f8, Zuckerberg used two examples of “interesting” activity. The first was a friend’s published playlist; that’s qualified, since curating music takes time and effort. His other example was multiple friends listening to the same artist simultaneously. This is also logical, since it says something about the music’s popularity within the user’s circle of friends. 

But an important quality that’s surprisingly absent from Facebook’s rubric is relevance to the user’s taste. Listeners often find themselves uninterested in the music that appears in their feed because it’s irrelevant to them. To maintain user engagement, Facebook must be more selective about publishing music news. 

Users have supplied Facebook with a wealth of personal data that can be leveraged to filter more compelling music news. For example, Facebook could determine that a user who “likes” The Fray’s page would probably be interested in a friend’s published Keane mix. The user could read the news and sample the playlist with at least some level of confidence that he will like it, even if he’s never heard of Keane.

Personal listening patterns can be found on Facebook profiles, although the location is well hidden. This section summarizes a listener’s favorite songs, playlists, and artists. Most people don’t have it on their profile yet because they’re not streaming.

If Facebook made an effort to personalize music news, users would click on songs more confidently and more often. They should expect relevant, engaging news on their feed, as Facebook has the resources to find and unearth interesting patterns.

The Potential

Music on Facebook already shows potential, but until it’s woven into the fabric as seamlessly as YouTube videos, it won’t be absolutely frictionless. Without a way to share and discover music on Facebook, it expects too much from the user.

In The Socially Integrated Web, analyst Mark Mulligan envisions a “universal player” that “will let you playback music from any one of your music services.” This would appeal to users who may not be willing to leave Facebook to stream their music. If the player were structured like a Facebook Chat window — made to collapse into a tab at the bottom of the page — it would blend rather nicely with Facebook’s design.

The News Feed is the main entry point for users who are introduced to streaming services, but the reality is that it’ll take time for most people to embrace music on Facebook. Consider the critical reception of other advancements, like the initial backlash against News Feed and the continued reluctance to switch to Timeline.

Zuckerberg has identified some key qualities that people look for when sharing music on Facebook. Now, it’s up to him and his team to perfect the user experience, reconsider the value of real-time serendipity, and redefine interesting patterns.

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