Last week Apple released a music-based social network called Ping. Steve Jobs described Ping as “sort of like Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes” and lauded it as an amazing new way to discover new music.
So is Ping the next great social network? What does this mean for MySpace Music and other music-related social sites like Last.fm? Today we’ll discuss these questions and more as we walk you through Ping’s basic functionality.
Ping is located inside of iTunes 10 right under the iTunes Store in the menu on the left side of the screen. Clicking on this for the first time will allow you to setup your Ping account.
Both artists and individuals have Ping profiles. Here you and others see information about your recent activity, the music you like, the people you follow, etc. Artist profiles are nearly identical to that of individuals aside from a link to their iTunes artist page and a list of their upcoming concerts.
Right off the bat you’ll find a little annoyance with your profile picture. With Facebook, Twitter and most other social networks, uploading a profile image merits an instant change. With Ping you actually have to wait for your picture to be approved. This process took about a day for me and will no doubt vary from user to user.
Other than that, most of the setup is automated and you can be up and running in minutes. The only other manual steps are selecting your taste in music (up to three genres and ten specific songs) and finding friends.
Apple has implemented a simple but effective system for protecting your privacy. When you setup your Ping account, you have three distinct Privacy options: Allow anyone to follow you (like Twitter), require approval (like Facebook), or simply don’t allow following (like a hermit).
After you create your account you can still go in and change this setting anytime you choose. On your profile page, click on “Edit Profile” and scroll down to see the options shown above.
Music I Like
On the top right of your Ping profile is an automatically generated “Music I Like” section featuring ten album art thumbnails of music from your library. This can either be manually set or automatically generated.
I let Ping auto-generate mine with disastrous results. My wife has plenty of music on my computer and as you can see it’s affecting my good name. I can’t have my friends thinking that I sit around listening to Jewel and Eisley all day!
Fortunately, Ping allowed me to save myself from ridicule (somewhat) by hand-picking some of the music I actually like to display in this category.
Though the album art is what is shown on your profile, you actually search for and select specific songs to display (the song info is shown on hover).
The largest section of your profile is the Recent Activity feed. This is similar to your Wall on Facebook in that it shows all of the people you’ve recently followed, the items you’ve posted and the things you’ve “liked.” It’s different than your Facebook wall in that, though people can comment on existing posts, no one can make a new post.
Each user and artist you follow also has a Recent Activity feed where you can see what they’ve been up to. To step back and look at everything, your Ping homepage should have a Recent Activity feed that is a conglomeration of all the information from everyone in your network (like the Facebook news feed.)
Using the controls at the bottom right of each item in the list you can post, like or comment on anything in the activity feed. You can also preview and purchase songs and video right in the feed. As always, iTunes song previews are limited to thirty seconds.
Ping for iPhone
If you’ve upgraded to the most recent version of iOS, Ping should pop up in the iTunes application on your iPhone or iPod Touch (iPad version still to come). Keep in mind that the app shown below isn’t your music app but the actual iTunes store app. Ping is displayed as a new button along the bottom.
The iPhone version of Ping contains all of the features you find in the desktop version and is arguably a much better experience. Ping for iPhone feels easier to navigate and requires less hunting to find what you’re looking for.
Much of this is due to the fact that the various sections are accessible via buttons along the top rather than awkwardly on the right as with the desktop version.
Why Ping Rocks
From a business standpoint, Ping is an excellent idea. What looks like and feels like a social network in reality is a cleverly disguised new interface to the iTunes store.
Ping encourages customers to take a more active role in music purchasing and encourages them to make frequent trips back to see what new content has popped up. Users can “like” and “post” songs or albums that they’re interested in directly from the iTunes store and any content that they purchase is automatically included in their activity feed, thereby turning every Ping user into an iTunes advertiser.
As I mentioned in a previous article, Ping has the potential to become a truly profitable social network, something that’s not been too easy for other networks to accomplish.
As a user Ping is cool because it does in fact have the potential to help you discover new music by keeping you up to date on what your friends are recommeding and what your favorite artists are up to.
Why Ping Sucks
Though the ideas and intentions behind Ping are brilliant, after giving it a significant run through, I can’t help but be disappointed in the execution. Bottom line, Apple has a lot to learn about social networks.
First of all, Ping isn’t very easy to just pick up and use. Despite the fact that I’m both an extreme Apple junkie and a social media addict, Ping still took quite a bit of “figuring out.” Much of this is due to Ping being confined to iTunes. It feels like it should be in a browser, but it isn’t. This means that virtually none of the basic browser features that have become standard over the last decade are available to you in Ping (bookmarking, changing your URL, etc.)
If you want to share your profile with someone, you have to right click on your name and hit “Copy Link.” Yeah, that’s intuitive. Then someone pastes that into a browser which then opens up iTunes, which then takes you into Ping; it’s a mess.
Further, basic features that you expect are either in odd places or missing entirely. I mean, who ever heard of a social network that doesn’t let you send a message to a friend!? Sure you can make a comment on a post, but you can’t actually just talk to anyone outright.
Further, finding friends is a pretty lame and work-intensive process. Come on Apple, no Gmail, Facebook or Twitter integration? Just about every new social site that pops up allows you to automatically check on your friends from these three sources… but not Ping (Facebook import existed for almost a half a day before getting yanked). This leaves you searching for your friends individually by name; good luck finding the right Joshua Johnson in a year when there are 8,000 of us on Ping. You can invite friends via email, but that’s a decidedly non-automated way to go about it.
Also, while I’m whining, Ping is a dumb name. First of all, it doesn’t make me think of music at all (I don’t care if iTunes makes a “ping” noise sometimes, it’s still lame). More importantly however, it’s already taken in social media. This is evidenced by the fact that Ping.fm has been enjoying a serious traffic boost since iTunes Ping launched (obviously, people are already confused). This is combined with Ping! a popular iPhone messaging service and common result when you google “iPhone Ping.”
I know it’s a minor gripe that won’t matter three years from now, but I really think the smart folks at Apple should’ve done their homework and picked a different name.
Why None of This Matters
Ultimately, despite my complaints, people will continue to sign up for and use Ping (including me). It’s a cool idea that, despite a rocky start, Apple will no doubt continually improve as they learn what works and what doesn’t.
I honestly hope Ping takes off. The better it does the more people will sign up and the more useful it will become. I look forward to convincing my friends to sign up so I can follow their activity and check out their musical interests. It’s also an awesome way to keep up with my favorite bands. Sure, most of them aren’t even on Ping yet but that’ll change in no time.
What About MySpace?
Now that we’ve explored the ins and outs of Ping, let’s discuss what it might mean for other social music services, namely MySpace.
As Facebook stole the social media crown away from MySpace, the latter’s focus seem to slide more and more towards music. Without a doubt, musicians and record companies have embraced MySpace as the primary place to reach out and connect to their fans online. So will this trend suddenly cease in light of a mass artist migration to iTunes Ping?
In all likelihood, no. The reason for this is complicated and multi-faceted. First of all, MySpace profiles are a marketing tool often setup and run completely by record companies (though plenty of artists personally jump in as well). Marketing professionals are quick to jump onto new fads but slow to let go of things that have worked for them in the past. Further, MySpace offers a much greater range of options and flexibility for artist profiles than Ping. This includes custom media players, advanced posting and profile customization, etc.
Now that being said, how will actual users respond? This is more difficult to gauge. I don’t know anyone who currently admits to being a MySpace user and the recent drastic decline in active members shows no sign of turning around. Ping will not single handedly kill MySpace but it could definitely be yet another nail in its proverbial coffin. There are plenty of other music discovery services on the market and MySpace doesn’t seem to have a strong competitive advantage against any of them.
Last.fm: Social Music Done Right
A far more important question to me is the fate of what I see as the current best music-related social network on the web: Last.fm.
As a long time user of Last.fm I can’t help but see so many things that they get right that Ping fell short in. For starters, Last.fm doesn’t merely track what you purchase, but what you listen to, which is in my opinion far more indicative of your tastes than anything else.
Every song you hear from iTunes, your iPhone or the Last.fm player is “scrobbled” to Last.fm where it is automatically posted, categorized and placed into the detailed listening statistics shown on your profile. It amazed me that Ping currently doesn’t show me anything about what my friends have actually been listening to in iTunes (only what they recommend).
Last.fm then does a fantastic job of hooking you up with other users who share your musical interests, which in turn leads you to check out their profiles and find new music that you’ll almost certainly like. Ping currently recommends a few people for me to follow, but the suggestions seem arbitrary at best (this will admittedly improve as more people join).
Last.fm is probably the single biggest reason that I found Ping to be so lackluster. Part of me hopes that Ping will adopt a similar feature set but I would also be quite upset to see Ping turn into a blatant Last.fm ripoff.
Ultimately, I at least hope that Last.fm will stay strong for some time. I think the user base is quite devoted and probably won’t go anywhere but I can see the existence of Ping as a major barrier to new users feeling the need to sign up for Last.fm.
To sum up, Ping rocks and Ping sucks. It’s not amazing enough to change the way we find new music (yet) and not so much a flop that we’ll refuse to use it. For now it occupies that middle ground of something that’s mildly cool but has potential to turn into something excellent.
I doubt that Ping will kill any other social networks in the short run, but it does represent a serious long-term threat to the positioning of many music-based networks currently in place. Ping’s lackluster feature set is currently quite easy to find a competitive advantage over, but other networks need to find something lasting that Apple can’t or won’t replicate in the near future and hope it’s enough to keep users signing up.
Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of Ping and the impact it will make in the evolving industry of social music. Look me up if you’re already on Ping so I can check out your profile and see what you’re recommending.