staying in touch with pop culture

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Whatever happens to the “swing” movement of the late 1990s? Me neither. The last time I looked in it was going gang busters. So what happened?

Everyone interested in contemporary culture has a tough time keeping up with all cultural developments that interest them. I am thinking about books, magazines, cds, music videos, zines and the profusion of experiment they represent. This isn’t so bad if our interests are narrowly defined. Somewhere out there, there’s a magazine editor getting the job done. But most of us have a several interests, driven by a breadth of enthusiasm, or at least curiosity. (We are all anthropologists now.)

Normally, the marketplace would solve this problem by creating a “clipping service” with summary comment. But as far as I know, there isn’t such a thing. The magazine/CD Blender tried something like this a few years ago. But it didn’t have the breadth I wanted. Sarah Zupko’s excellent does this but it is more academic, more mediated than I want (for these purposes). Arts and Letters Daily does a nice job for, well, arts and letters, but it doesn’t have extraordinary pop culture cover.

What I don’t want is someone demonstrating their pop culture chops. They may know a area inside out, but I want something that a) takes nothing for granted, and b) is really inclusive. Entertainment Weekly satisfied both conditions (and supplied very good reviews by Lisa Schwarzbaum) but I have got out of the habit of reading it in print and access to the website is restricted.

This might be something that could be handled in an emergent way by a Friendster variation. Everyone posts the things that interest them and eventually we find the people who post the things that interest us. (If anyone knows of such a thing, please let me know.)

Surely one of those pop culture virtuosos wants to step up. The demand is there. The business model is not hard to imagine. The VCs are opening the pockets once more. The suppliers of pop culture are eager for exposure. A great many music videos are already on line, waiting for reference.

Perhaps, I’m missing something. But then that’s the problem.

5 thoughts on “staying in touch with pop culture

  1. Steve Portigal

    Remember collaborative filtering? It was going to be this totally hot technology. I imagine (although I haven’t paid attention) that various online book retailers still use it (look, my stupid RSS reader won’t let me type the last letter in the alphabet in text because it uses it as a toggle for full-screen mode so I’m forced to adapt my prose to avoid that letter).

    Anyway, this technology would take a bunch of your preferences and match them to preferences of others. You liked Rain Man but hated Star Wars? Then you might like Death Race 3000.

    Your mention of social software is apt, I think, because everyone considers social software for the outcome and ignores the process. The fact is, it’s FUN to expand your network, to add links, to grow and make lists, even if you don’t mine it. Similarly, one collaborative filtering site had me totally hooked because I entered enormous numbers of films, with rankings. It’s neat to have all that stuff in one place, to be able to pull up your top 100 films – I can NEVER remember the great films of the last year, let alone the ones from 4 years ago or beyond. So putting the time into ranking what I’d seen was great, even if it never produced useful recommendations that I wanted to act on.

    Terrifyingly, the company went under or got bought by Macromedia and all my data went in the bin, without so much as a note or a handoff to me. We’re talking HOURS of painstaking work to create an archive of what I’ve seen.

    I guess this is completely off the topic, but my point was “collaborative filtering” was supposed to save the world and do something like what you are suggesting. It was the opposite of the web providing more channels of “points of view” – it could provide more channels of super-democratised-masss-input.

  2. LK

    steve and grant,

    glad you guys are bandying on this topic. it’s related to something i’m working on right now…which is akin to an ‘idea matching’ service for wireless/mobile devices delivering cultural information.

    in late mid/late 90s a woman named patti maes from MIT i believe developed an online music recommender system called firefly but i can’t remember exactly what happened/didn’t happen…will have to refresh my memory (inside joke to grant)

    for the mobile environment there’s a promising new technology called icy pole that you might want to take a look at. here’s a link and here’s the overview:

    IcyPole Can Make You A Walking Music Sampling Station
    The new IcyPole smart-phone application from AgentArts, Inc. uses Bluetooth to seek out other in-range devices that contain music that may be of interest. Once the application detects locally available music that matches the user’s own music profile, the device alerts the user and allows wireless music sampling as well as a range of community features. AgentArts gave a preview of the system to attendees at the JavaOne Conference, but no other information, other than the press release.

  3. LK

    oh god, some quick googling, and it turns out firefly was ruined by microsoft. well first it was purchased by microsoft then shut down. apparently the technology is used to “power its eCommerce efforts”, whatever that means. how did something with such great consumer utility end up swept aside?

    link to article from wired:,1284,21243,00.html

    article overview:

    12:15 PM Aug. 12, 1999 PT

    When Microsoft shuts down next week, it will mean the end of one of the Net’s oldest and most historically significant communities.

    “In preparation for the launch of Microsoft Passport, we will be shutting down this Firefly Web site and its associated services on August 18,” reads a message posted 4 August to

    Not exactly a stirring epitaph for one of the Web’s pioneering discussion forums.

    After all, Firefly is more than just another failed Microsoft Web venture. As far back as 1996, the technology, and the community that piggybacked on top of it, stood out as one of the most potent properties anywhere.

    In essence, Firefly was a collaborative filter — a technology that asked users what they liked, learned their tastes in music, then got them in touch with people having similar tastes.

  4. Grant

    Steve and Leora, thanks for the comments and link. Collaborative filtering ought to be the answer but clearly it needs some work, new players, and deep pockets. The closest I get to this sort of thing is Amazon and they have yet to impress. This is the problem of a diversity of interest. It keeps “wrong footing” the technology. I remember Firefly and remembering signing up and thinking “this is going to be tremendous.” Then nothing and now I know why. It does seem to me that a small band of smart programs with a feeling for popular culture could create a lot of value here, for us and for them. Thanks, Grant

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