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Pandora: Putting the “ME” Back into Mass-Media

OAKLAND, CA (Hypebot) – Introduction – At the rate of twenty-two million regular listeners and a billion hours streamed last year, Pandora is leading individuals astray from the masses and giving them a new direction. Since their debut on the iPhone, approximately three million people have activated the application and in addition to that, about twenty thousand new users sign up for the service each day. For many, it’s the dawn of an entirely new kind of radio where stations only play music that you like. Rather than being subjected to programming that consists of songs that everyone might like, it begins a mission to find music that you may really like.

This arises many challenging aspects to the notion that popular music is the sociocultural superglue of the masses. If everyone is subscribing to their own personalized slice of the world, whom will they share a similar listening experience with? While it’s quite likely that many users start their first station with a fairly well-known artist, from that point on the streaming is almost fifty percent independent music. Therefore, one could argue that this factor leaves a high potential for users going onto create as many independent stations as mainstream, which further broadens the spectrum of music that’s being played.

"They don’t care about what’s popular at the time
or what the very definition of "popular" means."

Had users supplemented traditional radio entirely with Pandora, they would in effect be embracing a radically different experience, because the service isn’t a promotional tool with competing interests. They don’t care when the music was released or by whom. They don’t care about what’s popular at the time or what the very definition of "popular" means. All they care about is rendering a user experience which reflects music that is by their standards good and similar to your tastes. Resulting in a very democratic and inclusive collection through which users can personalize each recommendation in real-time.

“If you value [Pandora’s] suggestions,” as Swarthmore Professor Barry Schwartz puts it, “then you are in effect using it to be your filter—your professional [DJ]. It will suggest possibilities that are like things you have already [listened to.]” And, unlike the single driven environment that we’ve become accustomed to in traditional radio, its aim is the opposite of diversity. For users, this means that the music in their listening experience will only be as varied as the stations they use to help them select it. Furthermore, they can indicate which songs they’d like to hear more often and those they’d prefer to not hear at all.

Actively Passive Media

With this option, Pandora has given its users the ability to ‘maximize their music experience’ rather than ‘suffice to its limitations.’ Thus, encouraging its users edit out every moment of culture that doesn’t suit them. While this potentially heightens the amount of satisfaction and happiness derived from each listening experience, it raises the question: To what extent should we filter challenging pieces of music from our lives? In essence, although traditional radio exposes us to music that we may not actually like, it, though numerous rotations, typically causes us to actively ‘voice’ our distain rather than passively ‘exit.’

"Causing us to be active and engaged in our cultural experiences
rather than passively watching them go by on
the ‘musical conveyor belt’ that Pandora provides."

Essentially, this means that the exposure to music we don’t like reaffirms our beliefs about what we do. That the frustration and dissatisfaction we feel is, in a sense, good for us. That ‘voicing’ our concern about why anyone would let Paris Hilton record an album, is far better than simply ‘exiting’ from the experience with a ‘thumbs down.’ Causing us to be active and engaged in our cultural experiences rather than passively watching them go by on the ‘musical conveyor belt’ that Pandora provides. Yet, in this scenario, fault does not fall on them for giving us something that we really do want and sometimes need.

‘Song-surfing,’ as you might call it, is the result of people wanting Pandora to pick the songs they should to listen to rather than relying on themselves to choose something from the overwhelming amount of music available. The problem with this, Professor Schwartz points out, is that it can turn “choosers” into “pickers.” This distinction, he says, “is meant to capture differences in how active and engaged people are as they make their decisions.” “Choosers,” are active in their music experience. They critically evaluate music and take initiative. Whereas “Pickers” are much more passive. They don't want to take the time or make the effort to seek out new music.

"since they aren’t actually engaging with the music itself,
the process tends to be more passive."

However, if overly relied on, it could cause some users to become passively engaged with culture through a medium that revels in their active involvement. In light of traditional radio, listeners could “choose” which stations and playlists to passively consume, but not the songs that were played. Now, I’m afraid, all we have is users that may “choose” which stations they create, but, in turn they are only “picking” which music it should play. In other words, users are actively involved with the medium, but since they aren’t actually engaging with the music itself, the process tends to be more passive.


The paradoxical effect of a service like Pandora in the digital age is that it does take those who relied upon radio, expose them to more music, make them more engaged, and less passive. On the other hand, it has the same potential to take those who sought out music and make them less engaged and less active. Instead of taking the time to “choose” from the music that’s out there, it’s much easier to just ‘song-surf’ on radio stations you’ve created and “pick” from what’s already playing. After a few "thumbs up" and "thumbs down's," each of us can tune into our own, private radio-station-within-a-radio-station.

“We will make less contact with [music] that is different from what we already know we like than we would in the neighborhood [radio stations] of yesteryear…,” Schwartz continues, “Nowadays, we need never confront a disagreeable [lyric], an unsettling [artist], a challenging piece of music, or an angry dramatic representation of the world we live in.” No, in this new world, Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens” can’t get under the skin of society, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” can’t confront you around every corner, and surely Wheatus’s “Teenage Dirtbag” can’t become the cultural phenomenon that everyone knows the words to.

"Now, airtime is infinite and everyone
can find something that they ‘really want.”

Previously, mass broad-casted radio enabled a generalization of interests and assumed 'known artists’ between crowds of people. Many of us have listened to the same music simply because there wasn’t enough airtime on radio stations to give everyone exactly what they wanted. Therefore, we had to all agree on listening to music that everyone ‘kind of wanted.’ Whereas Pandora, which is computer generated, uses recommendation engines to specialize each of our interests and expose us to potentially 'unknown artists.' Now, airtime is infinite and everyone can find something that they ‘really want.’

In turn, this relates closely to what Schwartz called, “The ultimate paradox,” which, as he describes it, “is that the amazing cultural pluralism opened up by digital culture can lead to individual isolation and cultural energy can lead to individual passivity.” Yet, if we’re all at least somewhat aware of our individually tailored selves than each person we meet could bear discovery into a new perspective as neither of us would not be bonded by the same culture. Which potentially empowers what Nancy Baym called, “The Future of The Networked Audience,” as a rich, diverse of culture could flourish over mediocre sameness. – Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor