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Summary:

Soundcloud’s decision to make soundwaves central to its offering seemed like it a gamble — but it’s paid off. So is the company now leading a movement of web services who choose to wear their data on the outside?

soundcloud-weatherman

I remember the first time I saw Soundcloud, the website that lets you share and listen to audio. It looked great, worked really well and felt right. But I couldn’t help staring at the scratchy, squiggly lines that represented tracks and thinking ‘is putting the waveform at the center of things really sensible?’.

This technique seemed really nerdy. And to me — as somebody who has spent his fair share of time inside audio editing programs — it just felt as if the waveform was too far from ordinary people’s experiences of sound. I thought it would just make the site look more technical than it needed to be, and could hamper Soundcloud’s chance of success.

Turns out that I was wrong.

The site is now doing really well. It’s one of Berlin’s top startups, and we listed it as one to watch in our GigaOM Euro 20. Just last month it announced that it had more than 8 million users, and recently I even heard somebody talking on BBC radio about how much they loved it. And here’s the thing: it’s success isn’t despite the waveform but — at least in part — because of it.

To me, the waveform meant “work”, but to millions of other people it means “play”.

But I think there’s something else going on here besides me just misreading it. It seems to me that Soundcloud’s approach is — consciously or not — part of a broader shift: one that takes us towards services exposing the guts of what they do in ways that would have seemed impossibly geeky just a few years ago.

Look at something like Wikipedia, which makes its DNA readable and is now an indisputable part of the cultural landscape. Or Twitter, which really thrives on exposing connections between people — making the way we are connected very clear through layers of information, or shorthand like “@” or “RT”. Or what about when you are inside iMovie and editing a piece of footage and you scrub backwards and forwards through the clip.

These services all make hay, in one way or another, by wearing their structures on the outside: they wear data exoskeletons.

This isn’t just about layers of complication. True enough, it is amazing how people who are otherwise technically illiterate seem to keep on top of Facebook Facebook’s increasingly byzantine, constantly changing systems — but that’s not what I mean.

I’m talking about a different way of looking at things, of feeling the web. Perhaps it is a move towards what James Bridle calls the new aesthetic. Bridle, who thinks mostly about publishing, uses the term to talk specifically about a new way of looking at the future — but I think it holds true for what I’m talking about too.

Here’s how he explains it:

What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder.

Sometimes simply being able to see something allows us to wonder at it. Sometimes, as with Twitter, it’s about making the connective tissue — in their case messages and conversations — a living part of the service. Sometimes, as with Soundcloud, it’s the idea of having a visual or physical representation of a previously invisible concept.

This isn’t always new. The truth is that we’ve often had physical representations of sound — a piece of vinyl, a tape, a CD — and it’s only in the last few years, with the move to non-physical formats that we’ve lost the conception of what music looks like. But Soundcloud’s adoption of the waveform is perhaps the purest we’ve seen. It’s not just a package: you feel like this is what music would actually look like (in a way, it is).

Is the data exoskeleton a brutal industrial statement? Is it the equivalent to architecture’s structural impressionism, like Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building, or the Pompidou Centre? Or is it gentle reminder that the service is based on something real, like having a room with exposed brickwork that simply shows the craft that went into production?

And should web services do more to show you that you aren’t just trading in strings of intangible data, but in thoughts, in ideas, in effort?

I wonder if we’ll see more services like this emerge, and whether it’s possible that websites that can use this idea carefully will have an advantage over others.

Shot of Twitter used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Guspim.

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  1. Interesting. This ‘exposing the guts’ has been a phenomenon elsewhere: the fad for ‘clear’ bottles and liquids (e.g. shampoos), clear spirits v. brown, ‘engine porn’ cf. Ferrari, Porsche, and of course the watch-making industry. Maybe that carries over into online too.

  2. I think you miss the mark with Soundcloud, which was built by and for electronic musicians. The soundform is the digital equivalent of looking for the breakdowns or changeups in a piece of music on vinyl.

    Most buyers of electronic music on vinyl will listen when buying by skipping through tracks, listening to various bits and pieces of the music, finding the breakdowns by looking at the vinyl and moving the needle forward to where we wanted to listen.

    This is why the waveform is attractive. If you look at any other music application, be it an editor, composer or digital dj’ing application you will see the same thing; waveforms being used to scrub music.

    It has nothing to do with ‘guts’, the waveform is the tactile interface in Soundcloud, people aren’t just hitting play, they are scrubbing audio, just like they would do if they were listening to records at a record store. You hit on this, but albeit as an afterthought.

    1. Well said. That’s kind of my point — though as you say I only hinted at it, rather than said it out loud. Building a service for musicians is all very well, but that doesn’t get you millions of users directly (though it can indirectly).

      I had been concerned that the waveform was something that was still too much ‘inside’ the software; Soundcloud’s made me realise that there is no ‘inside’ any more. I’d underestimated the broader literacy that mainstream users have with services when they do this delicately.

  3. Olivier Rosset Friday, November 11, 2011

    waweforms was already the standard for years on softwares. it was a normal representation for kids. soundcloud made it online and that was a hit.

  4. The next step after seeing it, is able to customize it, to suit it to your own taste. One of the reasons why more people are getting Android phones than any other kind of smartphones these days, is the ability for people to customize Android, rather than being locked into someone else’s vision.

  5. I like SoundCloud, the only thing that annoys me is the timeline of comments which always pops something up when I hover over it…

  6. I think what’s really going on here is you thought you were special because you took a liking to audio engineering. The truth is anyone can get into audio engineering or other user-friendly applications and do just as good and know just as much as you. That’s the real point.

    1. Partly, yes, you’re right: that’s why I misread the appeal of the waveform. But you also misread me: I’m not an audio engineer, I’m just an ordinary person who has messed around with this software, and sometimes used it in my job (podcasting etc).

      In that I am as much a part of the movement I’m talking about as somebody at the other end of the funnel. I am not any more adept or special or qualified than somebody who (say) has a pair of decks or goes to a lot of gigs or spends a lot of time organising their iTunes library (which covers a lot of people).

      My realisation (which may be way behind the curve, but hey) is that the prevalence and accessibility of the software has become so wide that the artefacts of it are no longer linked to the software: they just *feel* like music. That’s an important tipping point.

  7. Erik Martino Hansen Sunday, November 13, 2011

    I come to think of the phrase from architecture: Form follows function.

  8. Sound #cloud is one of Berlin’s top startups, & listed as one to watch in our GigaOM Euro 20 http://t.co/NDsUhUpa

  9. “Why I was wrong about Soundcloud” #visual #trigger http://t.co/QdMOTCmG

  10. North Shore Daily Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Wrong about Soundcloud — Tech News and Analysis – http://t.co/lXsp02ZA

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