Bits and Books: Libraries, the Internet and Meeting the Needs of Twenty-first Century Patrons


Social networking has opened up amazing new ways to let users share their favorite stuff with their friends, while allowing marketers to see the flow of ideas around a particular online ecosystem. So it’s not surprising that for more than a year, rumors swirled that Apple was working on some sort of home-grown social network that tied into iTunes.

I just don’t think we were expecting that when it finally came out this month, we’d be staring at iTunes Ping.

To say that I’m disappointed in Apple would be putting it mildly. In its current state, Ping is at best a beta product.

Now, in general, I like Apple. I appreciate that they work harder than anyone else to make things work well and I think their taste is second to none. However, I’m not a zealot and so I have no problem saying that Apple sometimes makes decisions so pig-headed and cynical that they infuriate me. Ping is a perfect example of this cynicism hiding beneath Apple’s glossy “experiences”.

Who are these “Beatles” you speak of?

The biggest and most glaring flaw I can see in Ping is that it only works with artists and albums represented in the iTunes Music Store. Yes, I know that Apple is out to make money and that they love vertically-integrated products, but I’m surprised to find that a company that claims to love music as much as Apple would think no one would miss the ability to list bands like The Beatles, who are not sold in the iTunes Store but who are incredibly popular bands. In comparison, Ping’s chief competitor, Last.fm, allows me to share my listening habits regardless of whether that artist’s music is sold online. The ability to spread the word about any song or artist in my music library allows Last.fm to build catalog entries for unsigned indie bands and ones who just aren’t sold online. As a result, Last.fm’s catalog is deep and wide, the way your average Tower Records was back in the day.

In comparison, the iTunes Music Store is more like one you’d find at your local mega-retailer like Best Buy, Walmart or Target: sure, it’s large, but it focuses on big artists who’ll sell a lot and so suffers from a lack of depth and breadth. By limiting Ping to stuff sold in the iTunes Music Store, Apple is effectively operating a closed system, in which people can’t show off their love for an indie band…or even a mega-band like Radiohead that just isn’t in the Store. When all of this is taken into account, the question becomes, “What’s my incentive for participating in a social network that doesn’t let me share my true tastes?”

Where we say, when we say, how we say

Ping also works in only two places: on an iPhone (or iPod touch) running iOS 4.1 or greater and in iTunes 10. Yes, lots of people use iTunes and many iPhone users have upgraded to iOS 4.1, but great social networks allow input from other sources. Twitter, Facebook, Last.fm and others all have ways of letting people use the service without requiring them to use one specific app. Ping works well on the iPhone, but it seems rough in iTunes on the desktop. As Gruber says:

Ping on the iPhone feels like a decent native client to a social network. Ping on the desktop (Mac/Windows) feels like an afterthought to iTunes — one little source list item halfway down the list, with content that doesn’t seem designed at all. Not that it’s poorly designed, but un-designed. It takes the shape of default iTunes Store content.

While I agree with this sentiment for the most part, I’ve found Ping on the iPhone to be less useful than I’d have thought. For starters, there’s no way for me to “ping” my love for a track I’m listening to; all I can do is share my purchase history with my circle. Second, Ping won’t give me recommendations for stuff I’ve played recently and won’t even let me recommend an artist to the people I’m connected to. Does this sound like a meaningful social network to you?

Fixing Ping

What Apple seems to have done, in essence, is to take my iTunes Music Store purchase history, added a mediocre recommendation engine and dressed it up as a social network. I’m sorry, but that’s not revolutionary and it’s certainly not at the level of quality that users expect from Apple. To put it bluntly: these are the shenanigans I’d expect from someone like Microsoft.

If Apple wants Ping to become a first-class social network, they’re going to have to do something very uncharacteristic and loosen their grip on their users. Part of “social networking” entails allowing users to create interesting new connections and therefore have some control over the direction the system takes. Ping, on the other hand, is a closed loop, a hermetically-sealed echo chamber where users can only participate within the bounds of what Apple sells. As influential as Apple is, there’s an awful lot of music out there that people enjoy, but that isn’t in the iTunes Music Store, so Apple will simply have to accept that there’s more to music than the selection at your local Walmart.

In its current state, iTunes Ping is almost useless to anyone who has an extensive catalog of music in their library. Until I see some dramatic improvements in it, I can’t see a good reason to use it.


Hi, I'm Rob. I'm a librarian, a gamer, a generally-creative troublemaker and an unabashed nerd, looking for cool, fun, smart and beautiful things in the world. I'm passionate about literacy, games (both board and video), open source, movies and more.


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