Sparky232221 is My New BFF: A Foray into Social Networking, Not Just Social Media

My #1 Neighbour

I love this social media stuff. But how much of it do I actually practice? Well, a decent amount as a blogger, I suppose. But I’m quite light on the social networking side of things. I don’t have a ton of friends lists all over all sorts of sites. I don’t have a MySpace, Virb, or Facebook page. Why is that?

I figure it is because I tend to use social media sites for my own convenience, not for the purpose of networking. In fact, I like the “collective intelligence” angle a lot more than the networking angle.

For example, I don’t use del.icio.us because I want to make friends. I use it first and foremost because I used to use three machines quite a bit… and many browsers on those machines. I hated not having synced bookmarks. What I actually used to do is put my bookmarks on an HTML page on my server. That way I could always navigate to them. Enter del.icio.us—now I just save them to my account and access them wherever I want.

But del.icio.us has this cool feature that allows you to see how many people have bookmarked a page. Click on that and you can see how they saved it… what tags they used… descriptions they left… etc. An example I like to give is that if you see someone tagged it as “inspiration”, you can—with one click—see what other pages have inspired that person. If they are into the same stuff as you, this can really help you find relevant content. This is collective intelligence.

I’ve never gone as far as saying, “wow, this dude has wicked cool bookmarks—he’s gonna be my friend.”

Another example is Flickr. The other day, I was looking for a nice photo of Trot Nixon to use on a forum. While searching the entire user base for photos tagged “trotnixon”, the one I actually ended up using was uploaded by one of my Flickr Friends.

I don’t use Flickr too much for the collective intelligence though… except around conference time. I use it for my own storage and really keeping in touch with people I already know via their photos. I’ve added people as Flickr friends after meeting them… generally not before (using the term “meeting” loosely here… I have friends I’ve never met).

Side topic: I hate that when you add someone as a Flickr contact you have to decide if they are a Friend… or just a contact. I realize there are some permissions-based features that go along with that, but gosh… I don’t want to add someone as a contact just to have them add me as a friend and then be like… WTF? That jerk? Also, I don’t want to add someone as a friend and then have me just be a contact. Then I just look needy…

So, I’ve never searched Flickr and thought “wow, she has sweet photos—she’s my new friend.” I had never done that on ANY site.

Well, until now.

I have gushed about last.fm since my buddy Nick got me to join. Now I adore it. I love the collective intelligence side of it. Just about every time and artist I haven’t heard in a while comes up on the shuffle, I command+tab over to the last.fm.app to see how many scrobbles (plays) that artist has. Generally, you’ll get some in the tens of millions. The really indie folks are under a million, generally. Every once in a while you get someone below 100k or even (gasp!) 10k. Lowest I’ve seen for a band that I listen to just like I would any other band (like, not friends of mine or something) is Calendar Girl, clocking in at a lackluster 287 scrobbles. In fact, I was their #2 listener last week (with a whopping five plays).

Last.fm is like fantasy football for audiophiles. Every Sunday, instead of checking out Tom Brady’s yardage, I’ll check and see what I listened to over the last week… who rose up my charts… who moved up my Top Artists Overall chart. Last.fm has a friends feature that lets you easily see what they’re listening to. I added Nick. Once I listened to enough music to allow the algorithms to make a good judgement, last.fm told me that Nick and I have “Very High” compatibility rating on the Taste-o-meter.

However, once I listened more, last.fm also presented me with “Neighbours.” Neighbours are not friends. They are the people in the system who have the musical tastes most similar to you. Think about this. Imagine if the whole world scrobbled their music listening. Imagine if you could find that one person in the world with taste just about exactly the same as yours?

Well, even if everybody in the world did this, I think I’ve already found mine. Sparky232221.

This one’s just plain freaky. Just about my entire chronic music-listening life, Teenage Fanclub has been my favorite band. They’re a Scottish quartet (well, three guys with revolving drummers over the years). They are my #1 artist on last.fm. They are Sparky’s #1. Another Scottish outfit, Mogwai, is my #2 artist. They are certainly my favorite among highly active bands (TFC is in the latter stages of a brilliant career that used to see them much more prolific). Mogwai is Sparky’s #3. Who’s Sparky’s #2? Why that would be Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo—who happen to be my #4. The only thing keeping us from having the same artists in our Top Threes is my obsession for The Arcade Fire lately (Sparky has The Arcade Fire at #30).

Not only is Sparky my #1 neighbor, I’m his. In fact, I’d like to see the algorithms results. He is so far ahead of my #2 it is not even funny. I introduced myself to Sparky (maybe we’ll call him Mark because—well—that’s his name) on his shoutbox with a ” Wow… holy… you have fantastic taste in music. :)” We keep an eye on each other’s charts now. It’s cute. It’s fun.

But finding that other person that is so freakily like you it is scary is not just bout “cute” and “fun”. I recently had the chance to do a teenie tiny amount of work for a Cambridge, MA startup called PatientsLikeMe. Their service does kind of the same thing, but for a far more noble cause.

PatientsLikeMe was started when Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with ALS. His brothers rallied around him, shocked by how little was being put into finding a cure for this terrible disease. Jamie Heywood became a “guerrilla scientist”—leaving no stone unturned to try to get to the bottom of the cause. Stephen Heywood, with friend Jeff Cole, started PatientsLikeMe.

PatientsLikeMe is a networking site for patients of life-altering diseases. It started with ALS and, in March, expanded to include multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. PatientsLikeMe allows patients to track their progress—weight, treatments, symptoms, how those symptoms were effected by the treatments, dosages, etc. All of this is then fed into an algorithm which shows them—here’s where the name comes from—patients like them. People going through exactly what they are. So much for feeling like you’re alone when you are faced with something like this.

Jeff and Ben are fantastic people and I’m watching the site closely to monitor their progress. Social media isn’t just all about meeting new friends. It can really be about changing your life—connecting you with people (not just information) that you never would have been able to discover before.

Essentially, the reason why the web was built.

5 Comments

  1. On June 7th, 2007 at 10:48 pm Nick Peters said:

    I agree, I don’t use those sites to make new friends, but rather I like to check out what my friends like and to discover new things. If a friend bookmarks something interesting, I’ll check it out. If a friend listens to a band I’ve never heard them, I’ll check them out (I’ve heard a lot of great bands this way). In the case of last.fm and neighbors, it’s a great way to find new music since you know these people have pretty similar taste, but music taste does not define the person, thus me never befriending them (unless it’s a cute girl :-P)

  2. On June 13th, 2007 at 9:46 am mark said:

    Interesting approach. I’m still way down the learning curve on all of this. I do keep an eye open for like minded individuals, usually stumbling upon them through surfing forums or finding links to pictures in their project archives.

    I wonder if what you are on to here, could be linked to a genetics study? Match musical tastes, (or anything really) to some genetic or social variable(s). Could you envision some new visual mapping application that could overlay and draw upon the information from these social media networks? I’m not entirely sure of what I’m proposing, it’s just a thought that there is a possibility of something bigger built upon what you’ve found.

  3. On June 13th, 2007 at 9:52 pm Adam Darowski said:

    Kind of a mind-blowing proposal a bit, but at some point, you have to wonder what all of this true personal preference sharing could lead to.

    Think of all the data that The GOOG has. What if they start buying up companies, like say, Last.fm (though they were recently bought by CBS, so that won’t happen until Google buys CBS… half kidding)? Now they have our search preferences, our music preferences… let’s buy NetFlix. There’s our movie preferences. At some point this can populate a damn good model of what society as a whole… likes. And that could revolutionize marketing and advertisement.

    A technology like OpenID that could link all of our social profiles together would help this along. There are tons of profiles out there… if you can start tying them to one individual identity, it lets you know infinitely more about that person. Sure, I know that my Last.fm pal Mark likes Teenage Fanclub. But linking social accounts could tell me what he searches for on the web and what books he reads, etc. Then you can find out even more if a person is similar to you.

    Albeit still vague, it’s an interesting concept.

  4. On June 15th, 2007 at 7:56 am Mark said:

    Being the “subject matter” in Adam’s original post I’m drawn to add some comment to his observations.
    I agree with his myspace / flickr sentiments and view last.fm as having a different type of attraction to these “people” sites – my online persona is fairly anonymous with the music saying who I am rather than pictures, words and some thrown in quirkiness or pretentiousness. I might not get millions of hits or a network of thousands of friends, but that’s not what I think Last.fm is about.
    It’s power to pair myself & Adam, listening to the same music on opposite sides of the planet, is something that would have required many hours trawling through other social networking sites making friends whereas last.fm only requires you to sit and listen whilst it does all the social networking for you.
    To me having 10 people you can truly relate to and count as musical peers (cheers for SSP tip by the way Adam) is a more useful social tool than having a list of friends who have merely stumbled across your page and like your picture.

  5. On June 15th, 2007 at 11:09 am Adam Darowski said:

    The key about last.fm is… I don’t have to change anything that I do as part of my day to day activities. I just listen to music as I always have. They process the algorithms in the background and introduce people to you. Maybe it’s not fantasy football for audiophiles… maybe it is eHarmony. :)

    a more useful social tool than having a list of friends who have merely stumbled across your page and like your picture

    Yeah, but… one of the coolest things WAS your picture. :)