[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]
I enjoy Last.fm a great deal. That's less, I think, for its admittedly rather limited utility to me at this point, and more for its set-it-up-and-forget-about-it aspect. There's a silent promise that it is taking note of what I'm listening to, and that at some point in the future this information may be of some use to me. In the meantime it's all going into the communal pot to help other people. If you can make your peace with companies storing a great deal of information about you in this way (and if you can't, I'm afraid that you may not enjoy the rest of your life very much), there is a definite social good that can come of it. By telling Last.fm what I listen to -- what the pathways of my taste are -- I am contributing to someone else's enjoyment. Indeed, the more people like me share their listening tastes with Last.fm, the higher the chance that it will allow me to discover something genuinely new which thrills and excites.
(There is also, of course, the danger that we travel in packs and never discover anything new outside our particular cultural envelope, a trend which Oliver Burkeman discusses in his latest Guardian column.)
There is at least one more immediate benefit to society, however, and it's one that at first blush seems horrifying. It dispenses with the guilty pleasure -- the ability to listen to a track, watch a movie, or enjoy a book without the knowledge of others.
The guilty pleasure allows you to maintain a distance between your carefully constructed public identity (perhaps the face you show to friends alone; perhaps the profile you showcase in front of some wider public) and the things you enjoy by 'slumming it'. I'm certain that much of the work of cultural discovery -- finding unknown artists or writers, chancing upon sounds that refresh popular music -- happens by accident or by exposure to works under the liberating cover of anonymity.
But it's also an inhibitor of cultural development, building walls around blocks of content believed to be discreet and in some way -- usually unrelated to their artistic merits -- antagonistic to one another. One doesn't listen to Tosca and Tosca side-by-side.
When I picked up Kylie's Fever a few years ago and listened to it obsessively for a weekend, a friend emailed to make the observation, with a great deal of mockery, that it didn't exactly fit with the avant-garde jazz and austere IDM that I had been listening to for the preceding few weeks. Had my critical faculties been replaced by those of a thirteen year-old?
Well, it's no good being ashamed about these things any more. Shame requires the ability to hide, and Last.fm doesn't let you do that at all. The exercise of snobbery as a substitute for critical faculty is going to become very much harder, because everybody's cultural preferences -- their true preferences -- are that much more visible. We're one step closer to the democratization of taste.
So here's a challenge: if you're a music critic, why not make your Last.fm profile public for all to see?