Play that funky #music

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
National Correspondent
Yahoo! News

by Virginia Heffernan

A sweeping new free app from Twitter, Twitter #music, styles itself as a “music-discovery app.” Even though “discovery” is tech-world jargon these days, the word is promising in this context. It means that Twitter—which in seven years has both exploded in popularity and suffered a slow-mo identity crisis—has decisively found a purpose.

Twitter #music manages to crystallize what’s great about Twitter, and justify, for now, the faith that 200 million users have in it.

So: Why “discovery”? Before I tell you about the intriguing but imperfect #music app—just download it; it’s free for the iPhone and on the Web—I’m going to spell out at some length why that word elegantly gets to the heart of an existential question: What is the Internet?

It starts with an anecdote. Not long ago, I was talking to a programmer at Google who kept referring to “Google queries.”

“Don’t you mean Google ‘searches’?” I asked.

He meant queries.

At Google, he explained, they now see users as entities who come to the World Wide Web with specific questions: How tall will the Freedom Tower be? What does the Dalai Lama believe? Is this mole dangerous? Customer satisfaction, in this framework, is answers, direct hits. Action and reaction. Question mark? Period. And done.

Did you notice, Web users, that we’re askers now, and not searchers? That's a serious reclassification. Questions are simple; searches are, in contrast, thorough and wide-ranging, the work of cowboys, scientists and inspired lunatics like Carrie Mathison on "Homeland." They end in revelation or madness—nothing so banal as consumer “satisfaction.”

With Google, we are no longer searching, we are querying. Our endpoint as Google users is a terse answer, which appears like Jeeves of the old AskJeeves, officious and prompt.

In a literal way, this seemingly subtle shift in the way Google frames the World Wide Web and its users means that Google returns mostly Wikipedia and Google’s own boxed-off factsheet in response to our “queries.” For example, “Hiroshima” returns Wikipedia and a Google box with info about the dates of the atomic bombings. Nowhere from the page-one returns would you even know that a man named John Hersey had once written an article—and then a book—called “Hirsoshima” about those bombings, and that that book was among the most beautiful and necessary works of literary journalism of all time.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going. A visitor to the Web is less likely now than ever before to encounter even the obvious literary and journalistic responses to their inquiries on the Web. They’re less likely to have spontaneous encounters with prose and images. They’re less likely to be surprised or enlightened, to find something they didn’t know they wanted or needed, to be stunned or sent on a detour that might elevate their existence. But they’re also less likely than in earlier Web days to be disappointed or to have the old, dread experience of information overload once known as “drinking from a fire hose.”

In aiming to avoid that fire hose effect and make the unruly and astonishing contents of the Web seem tame and satisfactory, Google has flattened them. And, not incidentally, disincentivized all forms of journalism while incentivizing the creation of fact sheets, databases and encyclopedia entries.

This would be a sorry, almost tragic state of affairs were it not for the non-Google Web, which I like to call Twitter.

Why do you go to Twitter? To find out specific information? No. Twitter is notoriously unreliable for flat-out facts. Occasionally you go for eyewitness accounts of breaking news, or to crowdsource something. But if you really use Twitter, you use it to be surprised, to find things you didn’t know you were looking for, to be amused and amazed and bugged and inspired, and to ... discover.

That’s why I was pleased when I saw that Twitter had seized this word with its new app, which positions users to encounter new music, without actually being a music site. (Twitter refers app-users to the ample holdings of Spotify, Rdio and iTunes.) By finding music that shows up under the #NowPlaying tag, the app pulls music together onto charts called “popular” and “emerging”: The first is basically blockbuster tracks everyone’s playing, and the second is tracks that are just weirdly but observably kicking around among the billions and billions of tweets that comprise the site.

The instant I saw this, I knew that Twitter had found itself. The #music app is easy to navigate and nifty to look at, with glittery mosaic-style thumbnails of Twitter accounts ripe for the clicking, and a cool analog-era turntable graphic that appears when you want to magnify the song you’re playing. It also shows that Twitter has now recognized itself as a massive, kaleidoscopic database. Rather than get people to “query” it, though, Twitter has sorted its own holdings—in this case, what musicians people follow and what tracks they are listening to—so that you can readily bump into stuff you’ve never seen before.

The discovery happens fast, and it’s fun. I thought I listened to a decent amount of music, but I had heard of not one of the 140 acts on Twitter’s Emerging list the other day. “The Nothing Part II,” by someone called Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, caught my ear. I started following @ladylamjams on Twitter, which led me—via the #music app—to the musicians that @ladylamjams follows. From there, I found St. Vincent (@st_vincent) whose song “Cruel” I promptly listened to. Both songs and both musicians have been on in heavy rotation almost ever since.

Compare this with what happened when I put “What new music should I listen to?” into Google. Google, which by now should know my very soul since I pour so much data into to it, blessedly didn't point me to the Wikipedia entry on “music.” But it did send me to Esquire Magazine’s search bait: “Songs Every Man Should Listen to 2012.” Hosted, somehow by a pinup figure, who is qualified to teach me about music because she is “the lover of John Legend,” I was presented with a song called “Get Got,” which is “like Frank Zappa sped up and remixed by TV on the Radio.”

I gave speedy Zappa a pass, quit querying on Google and went back to searching for retreating beauty, amid the chaotic glamour of Twitter #Music.

You can follow Virginia Heffernan on Twitter