Aside from his terrible title pun, the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings is a very smart man, and his book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll should prove valuable to anyone interested in how people are discovering, and will discover, new music and other media as the digital age progresses. There’s a lot of talk these days about celestial jukeboxes, long tails, folksonomies, the tearable web, “some rights reserved,” and other modern concepts in arts, marketing, and commerce, but Jennings has pulled them neatly into a sensible, readable package dense with ideas and reflecting a very positive outlook.
The internet has enabled us to easily find virtually anything we want. Hence we have, as Jennings says, “what fans used to dream of… Our problem now is scarcity of attention.” The book details what entrepreneurs and thinkers are starting to do, and might yet do, to try to capture and focus the attention of consumers and fans of music, movies, videos, etc., and the new ways in which those fans, through technology and community, are “foraging” for their media sustenance.
I deliberately used both terms, “consumers” and “fans,” because as Jennings makes clear through the use of a pyramid concept that will probably look familiar to marketing managers, there are four types of music listeners: Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals, and Indifferents. People in these different groups discover new music in various ways. “While Savants [people for whom music is an essential part of their identity, and who often play a creative or leadership role among fans] and Enthusiasts may choose their friends based on what music they like, Casual listeners are more likely to choose their music based on what their friends like.”
The pyramid can also be expressed (top down) as Originators, Synthesizers, and Lurkers. But either way, “communities do not require majority participation in order to be successful and to generate content and relationships that their members find valuable,” and a “cycle of influence” among these groups “can significantly affect the word-of-mouth reputation of a book, film, piece of music, or game.”
Jennings explains the difficulties and the potential for “gatekeepers” who try to generate meaningful popularity “charts” in a context where means and opportunities for distribution and consumption are very inconstant. He also talks about the changing roles of intermediaries like reviewers (in the age of blogs), editors (Last.fm doesn’t have them; the All Media Guides do), and human and automated “DJs.” Regarding the last, Jennings makes the important point, in a chapter called “Cracking the Code of Content,” that “The power to program becomes more important as the range of material available to us on demand keeps on growing.” We use music in a variety of ways – active listening is only one of them – and we have an expanding number of technologies and techniques we can employ to discover music and program personal playlists.
Networking and blogs, he says, “provide the means to reconnect fans and audiences who are rarely listening to or watching the same thing at the same time now that so much is available. The new breed of smart intermediaries will look for ways” to give us the sense of shared experience that the hegemony of Big Media has fostered, and to “enrich…those experiences by adding contextual information and opportunities to communicate or contribute.”
The key strength of this book is Jennings’s strong background in sociology, psychology, and marketing, combined with his understanding of the latest technologies in use, and in development, for the dissemination of media. He creates a neat synthesis of the intersection of human nature and technological trends. It might be too neat, in fact. The “rock ‘n’ roll” part of his title triumvirate refers to human creative energy: personal expression, anti-authoritarianism, sexuality, and the “do-it-yourself ethos” now being expressed in blogs and wikis. But another part of what one might call the “rock ‘n’ roll” spirit is a tendency towards chaos and destruction.
Jennings more than ably presents a wide-angle perspective on technology and media discovery. He acknowledges technological hurdles yet to be overcome, the need to police social networks, and the vulnerability of discovery and recommendation engines to being gamed by the unscrupulous or antisocial. But his analysis mostly ignores political matters like net neutrality, privacy concerns, and censorship, any of which could stomp on the beautiful, networked world of sharing like Godzilla on Bambi. Perhaps that’s a subject for a different book. But it hung over me like a small dark cloud throughout my reading of this one, despite its sunny disposition and smiling forecast for the future of media and popular culture.