“Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?”
– Maureen Dowd to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter
Here’s a fun fact: this sentence is less than 140 characters (it’s actually just 85). This sentence is only 36 characters. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The idea that Twitter posts are incapable of conveying meaningful information is a fallacy, one based on simple ignorance of the facts. Oh yeah, and that last sentence was 135 characters. Take that, haters.
For those that have decided to live under a rock for the past 3 years (and with the current recession, I don’t blame you), Twitter is a rapidly growing social network that allows users to broadcast short messages (or “tweets”) to whoever is following their twitter feed. These messages are limited to 140 characters, and can range from updates on one’s current location/activities to random musings and ideas. One can also reply to tweets, allowing for feedback in addition to extended conversation between users. In fact, conversation is a big part of twitter, one that its detractors appear to fundamentally misunderstand.
In a way, twitter can be seen as the merging of e-mail and instant messaging, a kind of slowed-down chat room. People say what’s on their minds, and when other people find the time, they respond. This is a part of why the 140-character limit makes sense; when you’re conversing with someone in real life, do they blabber on and on like they’re dictating a LiveJournal entry? You’d probably feel like you were being lectured, and you’d get sick of that pretty fast. No, good conversation is a continuous exchange of small ideas, and that’s why Twitter succeeds where LiveJournal failed: people like to hear from their friends, but they don’t like to hear a 5 paragraph dissertation on their week. Twitter encourages users to express themselves efficiently, in a form that other people can process without feeling overwhelmed. With this in mind, it’s very strange to hear critics complain about Twitter feeling “overwhelming” while simultaneously lamenting that the posts are too short. Would they prefer being deluged with essays? To further compound the hypocrisy, this entire discussion about the evils of social media is being enhanced and accelerated by the same connectivity that the critics deride. It brings back memories of the outrage over Facebook’s News Feed; membership of protest groups skyrocketed as friends learned of them via the News Feed itself.
But let’s not waste time discussing why the critics are short-sighted and ignorant (that last paragraph was 1363 characters, after all). What’s more important is how social media and the internet are changing the way we operate, especially in terms of music. We all know how the internet has lowered barriers to distribution, making the major record labels more obsolete with each passing day. However, this isn’t just about distribution. It’s about the creation of music itself.
Let’s begin with something we’re all familiar with: YouTube. Earlier this year, an Israeli musician by the name of Kutiman created seven music videos and posted them to YouTube, as well as embedding the videos on a website, Thru-You.com. Sounds ordinary enough, but these were not ordinary music videos. Rather, they were themselves composed of homemade videos taken from YouTube and remixed by Kutiman, creating a new piece of music from the component parts. Listening to the component videos on their own, it’s striking to see how much amateur musical material exists on YouTube; people have posted videos of themselves playing random guitar riffs, piano melodies, even a capella rapping.
In a sense, Kutiman’s Thru-You project was a passive collaborative effort, the work of many musicians assembled by a single bandleader. This process draws on a rich tradition of reworking music to create new music, one that stretches beyond the remix era and back to the notion of cover songs. Yet Thru-You takes the remix to a new level; while Girl Talk created new music by sourcing pop recordings, Kutiman created new music by sourcing the global community. His remixed videos included material from people who had little more than some skill and a webcam. It’s also important to note that their participation was never solicited in advance; they willingly provided music with virtually no purpose, and Kutiman was able to harvest this raw material and organize it into a new form. In a sense, this parallels the success of other social media projects such as Wikipedia, which created an enormous database of knowledge using input from total strangers on a volunteer basis.
This is the power of social media: it creates a platform for people to communicate, and by doing so, it evolves in ways that nobody predicted. Some collaboration is more intentional, however. Sites like indabamusic.com have been specifically designed to facilitate musician collaboration, allowing artists to post unfinished tracks with requests for additional instruments, or even edit tracks together in an online session. Remember when Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello collaborated via mail, and they felt it was so unique that they had to call their project The Postal Service? Yeah, that was so 20th Century.
Social media also breaks down the traditional barriers between artist and audience. Twenty years ago, conversing casually with your favorite musician might’ve been a dream come true. Now, it’s just a few clicks away on Twitter. Stars of the indie world such as Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear and Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes update their twitter pages on a regular basis, and appear to be very responsive when it comes to answering tweets from fans.
Beyond social media, the internet has been having a subtle yet compelling effect on the evolution of music in general. By giving listeners access to an unprecedented amount of music spanning every genre thinkable, the internet has provided the means for a massive cross-pollination of influences. Artists are exposed to an incredible diversity of styles, and many end up incorporating these styles into their own music. In a sense, this explains the widespread pluralism of modern indie rock, and why bands like Battles and the Dirty Projectors so often resist categorization.
In the end, while critics may have worried that a techno-centric future would destroy traditional notions of community, the internet has proved deftly capable of creating a new kind of community, one which breaks traditional boundaries and allows communication on a level never thought possible. In the future, everything is faster… even the speed of creativity has been increased. It will be interesting to see where music evolves from here, as the concept of genre begins to disintegrate into something excitingly amorphous. There may come a day when someone asks you what your favorite band sounds like, and you’ll give them a quizzical look and reply, matter-of-factly:
“It just sounds like music.”