The third in my series of future scenarios from the first draft of my book imagines a situation where pocket music players with better-than-Zune sharing features have become so cheap as to be almost disposable (like cameras).
It is also partly inspired by the story three years ago of Universal encouraging schoolchildren to act as ambassadors for bands like Busted and McFly. Universal suspended the initiative when it was exposed, but the principle will doubtless continue to be applied — and is being applied — as long as it is implemented more sensitively. I've been speaking to Ken Thompson at Swarmteams, and he talks about 'alpha fans' (comparable to the Savants and Originators in my book) building a reputation as trusted influencers with their network of contacts, and thus being able to act as ambassadors for bands (and brands?) — more on this in a week or two.
This scenario plays out as a dialogue between mother and daughter, as the former is at first suspicious of the latter's hidden motives, but they are reconciled by the end. I know I'm no Raymond Carver, and so, with hindsight, it's no surprise that this story ended up on the cutting room floor, but the idea of the scenarios was to stimulate ideas about future possibilities, and I hope it serves this purpose.
Melanie is just finishing emptying the dishwasher when her thirteen-year-old daughter Tracy appears at the door.
"Mum, any chance you could drop me over at Weston Park later this morning?"
"I don't know, sweetheart — I've got a loads to do this weekend, and none of it's going to take me over to that part of town. Why do you want to go anyway? I thought you didn't like the coffee houses over there."
"Oh, I just thought I might hang out with Nikki and some of her friends, and just, you know, catch up with stuff…"
Melanie catches the false affectation of casualness in her daughter's voice, and realises she's not getting the whole story. "Come on, Tracy, most of the time you're bitching to me about what bullies Nikki and her crowd can be. What's going on?" Then she notices the Y-Share in Tracy's hand. "This hasn't got anything to do with your Team position, has it?"
Tracy's attempt to brush off the question by swinging her shoulders loosely and not saying anything for few moments isn't fooling anyone. There have been arguments before about the obsession she has developed over her standing among friends as reflected in the Y-Share's tracking of sharing activity.
"So what's really behind this sudden desire to go over to Weston Park and see Nikki and her friends?"
"I've got an advance copy of the new track by the Green Cross Code [her favourite band], and I've already shared it with everyone I can at school, but if I can go over to Weston and get the track out to more people in that area of town, I could get special Ambassador status on the Team, which means I get special mention on the band's official website, and I get a backstage pass next time they play here."
"Hmmm. Do you mind if we have a look at your profile together?" Melanie asks, and with Tracy's resigned assent the two go upstairs to find a computer and log on.
The Y-Share is a peer-to-peer file-sharing and playback device that made its debut in the US a couple of years ago. It was specifically designed to encourage young people's discovery of audio and video, and it came about as a result of two circumstances. First, in the wake of prosecutions of young people for illegal file-sharing, parents lobbied the technology and media industries to help them find a solution that would 'enable teenagers to do what teenagers inevitably will do' without risking hefty fines for the parents. Second, the recording industry agreed to a blanket licence for sharing of the old MP3 files that had been circulating for years, as they turned their attentions to marketing a new extra-hi-fi format of digital files.
Kids use their Y-Shares as a means of grabbing, auditioning and sharing their favourite tracks and videos. They can pull down almost any track from a catalogue of about 10 million from the wireless 'cloud', but it's more common for them to acquire tracks directly by sharing them over the links between each others' Y-Shares. There are several reasons for this preference. The simple interface of the Y-Share (a touch-screen without full keyboard) makes finding the track you want from among 10 million others a long-winded process. (Conspiracy theorists suggested that the interface was intended to be difficult to use for anyone without small fingers, lest adults too would be attracted to Y-Shares and forsake the 'premium' higher-cost alternatives.) More importantly, the act of sharing a track one-to-one carries greater weight on the charts that are compiled from network activity. Several kinds of charts are produced, and updated more or less in real time. The charts of bands and songs are available at global and national level, but also as locally as postcode district, so that kids get a real sense of who's popular in their patch, and the role that they play in this. This sense of the audience's role and importance is reinforced by charts of top fans for each artist in each area.
This is what has got Tracy hooked, as her mother has sniffed out (this isn't the first time Tracy's Y-Share-inspired obsessions have caused trouble with her parents). By getting recognition as one of the most prolific sharers of her favourite band's music and videos, Tracy gets to go up the ranks of the local fan Team. Higher ranks get rewarded with progressively more privileges, including merchandise like limited-edition branded 'skins' for their Y-Shares, free tickets for gigs when the band comes to their town, backstage invitations for the top ranks - and plenty of promotional material to pass on to friends. However, hard currency rarely changes hands in the Y-Share world. The product and service are aimed at a market too young to have their own credit cards or online accounts.
In the US, the original Y-Shares were low-cost consumer electronic devices. But the UK educational establishment got hold of the concept and, in an attempt to make learning seem hip by association, piloted a scheme to give away an educational version of the Y-Share via schools. This version has an area partitioned off for learning resources. The idea is that teachers can share relevant educational audio and video material by beaming it direct to students in the classroom. Many audiobooks are available, including the 'classics' that are out of copyright (with recordings of readings by volunteers) and others related to the school curriculum, for which the government has negotiated Y-Share-specific licences.
When Tracy first got her Y-Share, it was registered to her so that the service can track her use (if she loses or damages the original device, it is remotely disabled, and she can get a new one with all her data and settings in place). She can use her registration to log on to her device via the web, tag new content that she wants to put on the device, and keep up to date with the full charts. Even though many of these features can be accessed directly on the Y-Share, the web interface is quicker for some functions, easier for browsing long charts, and more convenient if two or more people want to see the screen - that's why Melanie suggested using it to view Tracy's profile together.
As the main page of Tracy's profile pops up, they can see a set of alerts in different parts of the system. There are updates of new tracks that have been released. Most of these are recommendations from the system, based on Tracy's previously established preferences, but there are also a handful of 'sponsored suggestions' where an artist or label has paid for their music to be placed on the lists of people who might like it (this, along with non-intrusive advertising and other sponsored content, is one of the ways the service generates revenue). In the Learning Zone, there's an alert that Tracy has an outstanding podcast that she's scheduled to listen to before Monday, and a video that she's supposed to write notes and feedback on. Melanie shoots Tracy a glance with raised eyebrows, but decides to leave it for the time being.
"So show me the Green Cross Code fan charts," she asks.
Tracy navigates to a screen that shows several measures of fan activity, with an aggregate chart for the town at the top of the screen. "You see, I'm at number two at the moment, but with just a few more shares outside my home patch, I've got a good chance of making it to number one, which means I become an Ambassador."
"But the chart isn't based just on numbers of shares, is it?"
"Well, there's number of plays — but I'm maxed out on that and can't get more points above the ceiling that I've already reached — there's comments and feedback, and then there's number of shares inside your home patch and in neighbouring patches. And it's shares that count most."
"OK, but how about comments and feedback? Could you do more on that?"
"But, Mum, the new track's awesome; they're all awesome — that's why I love the Code so much — what else is there to say?"
"Tracy, that's all you ever say. Everything's either 'awesome' or it 'sucks'. But what makes it awesome? You've told me that you've got favourite tracks and that you didn't think the new one was quite up to the standard of some of their previous stuff. What was it about the new song that's not so good?"
"It's just… Well, it sounds like they're just being more poppy, and trying to get a bigger, younger audience."
"OK," says Melanie, stifling a plus-ça-change smirk, "but maybe if you could turn that criticism round, and express what you really like about the earlier songs, and what you're hoping to hear more of in the new material; maybe they'd find that really interesting and helpful. Don't they take some of the comments on the forums and use them in the publicity — with the fans' names attached? How cool would that be: to get to number one based on your comments and be quoted on the Code's main site?"
"Pretty cool…", Tracy admits.
"Right, well just have a think about it, perhaps listen to the tracks one more time and make some notes as you go. While you're doing that, I'll get on with my errands, and if I have time, we'll see about going over to Weston Park later. But I'm not promising…"