By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES — Everywhere you look, people are going about their lives to the tunes of their own personal soundtrack. They sweat through “YMCA” at the gym, pound out programming code to Rammstein’s brutal beats and nurse broken hearts with a mournful Bach cello concerto.
In the last few decades, technology has transformed music from a social gathering experience to an intensely solitary one in which donning a pair of headphones in public is equivalent to shouting, “Leave me alone!”
But in a move that shows the pendulum is swinging back toward a more social listening experience, Facebook just rolled out a feature that allows users to listen to music online with their friends — and host virtual DJ parties.
“You can listen to the same song, at the exact same time,” Alexandre Roche, a product designer at Facebook, wrote in a blog post last week announcing the new feature, “so when your favorite vocal part comes in you can experience it together, just like when you’re jamming out at a performance or dance club.”
The concept of “social listening” is a modern day twist on the days when friends got together to take turns playing music for each other. A Saturday night’s entertainment meant bringing a stack of albums and a six-pack to someone’s house.
On Facebook, listeners can be miles away, engaged in different activities but still be sharing a narrow slice of life.
“Someone else can be going about whatever they are doing, and through music, you can just jump into that reality and experience what they’re experiencing,” Roche said in an interview. “If they’re having a bad day, you can experience that with them. If they see that a friend is listening with them, it might even brighten their day.”
The key is in simultaneous listening. It’s a concept that until recently has run counter to the nature of the Internet and other modern conveniences that have allowed people to time-shift their lives as easily as pressing the pause button on TiVo. Birthday messages can be written months in advance and scheduled for delivery on the appointed date. An entire year’s worth of “Entourage” can be vacuumed in one sitting.
But that “asynchronous” lifestyle has loosened some of the social mortar that binds people.
“There’s a powerful experience you get when you hear music with someone else,” Roche said. “You have these shared, connected moments with your friends.”
If Facebook’s new feature sounds like deja vu, it may be because there’s a similar service called Turntable.fm that allows users to take turns playing DJ in virtual rooms. The service took music geeks by storm last year and is being used by some artists such as the rapper Wale and dance music group VHS or Beta to introduce new albums.
There are notable differences between the two. Turntable.fm rooms are generally open to all other users whereas Facebook’s listening sessions are private, limited to friends of the host. Facebook users are able to further fine-tune which of their friends are able to listen in, preventing, say, bosses from eavesdropping.
But there are similarities as well. As with Turntable.fm, Facebook listeners can chat together via an instant message feature within the site.
The Facebook feature works with two streaming music services presently on Facebook — Spotify and Rdio. But the company said it expects other services will follow suit in the coming weeks.
For Facebook, the feature hints at the company’s ambition to be the online entertainment hub of the future. Though the feature currently works only with streaming music, one can easily entertain the possibility that the platform can extend to videos as well, said David Pakman, a New York venture capitalist who invests in media and technology startups.
The idea, Pakman said, is to establish the social network as an indispensable conduit for its 750 million users and their far-flung friends, re-creating “real-life” social interactions within Facebook.
If that’s the case, feel free to bring your favorite brew and pass the virtual popcorn.