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The trouble with scrobbles

The trouble with scrobbles


You know how people define character as "how you act when nobody is looking"? Well, with scrobbles, somebody is always looking.

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Imagine, if you would, that you're 16. Some friends of yours want to go to a party. You're not going to know everybody there, but that's part of the appeal, right? So you go, and it's pretty chill. A bunch of artist-types, and you're sort of discovering yourself as an artist these past three months, and you're learning so much, trying to write down band names and obscure film references in a hidden notebook.

But then somebody brings out a joint. A minute later you realize almost everybody but you has been drinking an alcoholic beverage of some sort. The last thing you want to do is cause a scene, of course. You finish up your conversations, scrunching your nose at the horrible pot smell, but making it through, somehow. You find your buddy in the kitchen, who is spiking Dr. Pepper with some clear liquid. It's no big deal, not a big thing, but you've got to take off. You slap him on the back. "Catch you on the flip, right?" You think about miming six-shooters, but he's talking to a girl, so you just turn and walk away.

Luckily, you drove yourself. You fire up the old Ford Taurus, and over-analyze everything your whole 20 minute drive home. Or is that the second-hand pot talking? When you step inside, your mom is turning out the lights, a book tucked into her arm. "I thought you were going to a party?" You tell her what happened. Exactly what happened. Except the part with your buddy and the Dr. Pepper.

She's so, so proud of you. She feels like she can really trust you. It's embarassing, but you hug. She goes to bed and you get some ice cream and watch three hours of Friends re-runs.

Now, imagine it's five years later. It's 2011 now, and you're in college. You're listening to Rdio on the "Your Network's Heavy Rotation" station. Suddenly, without warning, you're listening to a band called "Starfucker," and it's not even very good. You hit skip, but now it's some antisemitic named "Wagner." Even worse. Next song: "Fucked Up." Next song is from We Bought A Zoo (Motion Picture Soundtrack). Finally! You let out a huge breath of air. And then you clinch up again. You rapidly tab over to Facebook. There, scrobbled for all the world to see: everything.

You quickly delete all the offenders from your recently-listened list, but is it too late? The phone rings. It was too late. "Mom? Yeah. Yeah, I know. You did raise me better than that. Look, mom, I can explain! I KNOW he hated the Jews. No, that isn't 'cool now.' I swear."

Scrobbles mean never getting to say you're sorry. It's a self-telling narrative. It's reality TV now, not a fiction film. You're Jessica Simpson, and you didn't know buffalo wings were made out of chicken, not Leonardo DiCaprio who "didn't know" Jack Nicholson had become a sort of father figure to him. But maybe it's more than that.

In case you're unfamiliar, a scrobble is when you do something (like listen to a song), and then that something is tracked into a log. It could be private (like how iTunes tracks everything you listen to), or displayed publicly (like on or Facebook). Most every scrobble-related service lets you edit or hide your activity, or disable scrobbling at will, but the default is displaying everything you do to everybody you know, and usually everybody you don't know as well.

Generally I really like this. I think I have pretty great taste, and when that taste is shared automatically it allows other people to share in the things I'm enjoying, and even kicks off conversations that wouldn't have happened otherwise. But there's a fundamental change here in how we act as humans. I'm not the first person to notice this, Laura has a great editorial on how we self-edit thanks to Facebook and scrobbles.

You know how people define character as "how you act when nobody is looking"? Well, with scrobbles, somebody is always looking. One of the things Laura draws parallels with is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. It's a prison designed to allow guards to monitor the activity of all the prisoners from a central vantage point, but with no clear knowledge on the prisoner's part of when exactly he's being watched. Jeremy Bentham called it "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example." Except this time, nobody is exerting this power over our mind, but instead we're exerting it over our own minds.

I have no idea when somebody might look at my scrobbles, but the very fact that they might changes my behavior. So, does it change me? Maybe, maybe not.

The story above about the party is purely theoretical. I never got invited to those sorts of parties. But here's a true one:

One afternoon, my mom had to go shopping. I was on the computer, as usual, and she merely asked me to keep an eye on my brother, and take a break from the screen to jump on the trampoline with him at some point. Well, I didn't jump on the trampoline with him. I never even broke eye contact with my PowerMac 6100, in fact. When my mom returned, she asked me if I'd jumped on the trampoline. I told her I had. A few minutes later she noticed that there was junk all over the trampoline (ye olde recreational equipment scrobble).

"How did you jump on the trampoline with all that stuff on it?" she asked.

I broke down and confessed. I felt horrible, not only because I lied to my mom, but I missed a perfect opportunity to hang out with my brother and play around on the trampoline.

Now, I don't remember at all what I was doing on my Mac, it was truly inconsequential (and never scrobbled). But my feelings of deceit and a missed opportunity have helped form me into the person I am now. Not every scrobble is this important in the grand scheme of things, but I do see a form of self-editing in how I act. I might not listen to an album I'm interested in because I'll know it's going to show up on my scrobble, or maybe listen to an album I'm not enjoying extra hard just to troll (or impress) my Rdio friends. If I'm really conscious about it, I'll just turn off the scrobble broadcast, and do what I want. But I don't always remember to be conscious.

Everything I ever watch on Netflix, or purchase on Audible, has been recorded for all time. How has this impacted what I watch or listen to? It's hard to know, because it's so subconscious at this point. I don't think these things end up fundamentally changing what I truly like, that's more visceral and inherent in who I am, but I do think it keeps me from knowing what I truly like, at least in some small, more subtle way. Maybe I just like that one hook on that one Lady Gaga song, even if I verify that I dislike her album and overall image or message.

If I always act like somebody is watching, will I ever learn how I'd act if nobody was? Who knows, maybe Starfucker is really great.