November 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm

How The World Will Shape Itself to Please Social Butterflies

The old staleness: hiring an expert to design soundscapes for bars, restaurants, museums, and the like.

The new hotness: allowing the sonic environment to shape itself around the musical preferences of the people in the room.

The catch: If you’re the private type, your taste will be left out of the equation. Everyone else will have more fun than you.

This idea of having environments automatically reflect the predilections of those who inhabit them seems like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s already established fact, though not many people likely realize it yet.

Let me explain. You know how most of the music services we listen to these days “scrobble” what we hear to Facebook and/or Last.fm? Well, outside developers can access that information — with your permission, of course — in order to shape their software around your taste.

At the moment, most developers of Facebook-connected apps we’ve spoken with are able to mine your Likes (when you “like” something on Facebook) and profile information (when you add a band, book, movie, etc. as a favorite thing within your Facebook profile).

However, as we recently confirmed with a Facebook software developer (who was not speaking for Facebook at the time but as an independent developer in his free time), third-party software developers can also access your listening data — each song you’ve played in any Facebook-connected music service and possibly what your friends listened to as well. Video plays and news article reads are also counted, if those sources are connected to Facebook.

Don’t freak out — you have to give these apps permission to harvest this data. But once you do, they can start building their service using information about what you listened to in another service.

Right now, this is starting to happen in the world of software (if I listen to “We Ah Wi” by Javelin on MOG, Spotify can find out if I give them permission to do so). Soon, due to mobile devices’ locational awareness — also opt-in — these preferences will leech into the physical world.

Here's the page on Facebook that explains how the developer of one service can access your behavior in the others.

Don’t believe me? The first app I saw that was capable of selecting music based on the people at a location was the poorly-named Youzakk (try telling someone about that in a crowded bar), created at New York Music Hack Day in February.

I tried to explain this concept to a FourSquare executive in March, but he didn’t seem to get where I was coming from. Regardless, FourSquare will be a big part of this — but not as big as Facebook, whose “social graph” accumulates your behavior in all sorts of areas, which can be accessed by third-party apps, and which, like FourSquare, lets you check in to places or broadcast your location by associating it with your activities.

To be clear, I’m not referring here to apps that let the crowd DJ a venue by selecting songs actively (see Roqbot, Playmysong, Sparkify, Hey I’m, and others). Those apps are great for music uber-fans who get a thrill from choosing a song for people. Years ago, those people probably would have been college radio DJs.

I’m talking about the kids who used to sit around on the quad listening to that station. The more interesting option for mainstream users is music selections that automatically shift in response to the people in the room. The new DJs? Well, they will simply be the social butterflies who are most permissive with their personal information.

Here are some more apps for real-world locations that can adapt music based on the preferences of these social butterflies:

  • Crowdjuke: Winner of an MTV O Music Award for “best music hack,” this web app pulls the preferences of people who have RSVPed to an event and creates the perfect playlist for that group. Attendees can also add specific tracks using a mobile app or even text messaging from a “dumb” phone.
  • Automatic DJ: Talk about science fiction; this one lets people DJ a party merely by having their picture taken at it.
  • AudioVroom: This iPhone app (also with a new web version) makes a playlist that reflects two users’ tastes when they meet in real life. There’s no venue-specific version of this, but there could be (see also: Myxer).

In order for these and other inevitable apps like them to work, a user must do two things: A) Connect their Facebook or Last.fm account to a music service to which they listen a great deal, and B) Check in to locations, or perhaps even broadcast their locations to selected services all the time.

If you do those things, congratulations: The world will shape itself around your taste, whenever you enter a venue that understands the value of keeping you happy. If not, well, you’re on your own, so to speak, and will increasingly be subjected to the taste of those social butterflies around you who don’t mind letting services track what they’re listening to and where they are.

It’s a choice we’ll all have to make. In fact, we’re already making it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Miles Gehm