Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why An App?

Since I announced I was making a David Rovics app – available now for free on both Google and Apple app stores – a lot of people have asked me why. My short response has been “the ability to send geographically-targeted push notifications.” For many people, this response does little to answer their question in a way that makes much sense to them. So, for anyone interested, here's a more thorough answer to the question.

Mainly I thought I'd run through this because it's interesting. That is, society, people and how we communicate is interesting. And how all of this has changed and then changed again multiple times in the past two decades is of particular interest to me.

The pros and cons of modern forms of communication are familiar to most of us by now. In a nutshell, we can now communicate more or less for free with most people from most of the world (pro). But we are so overwhelmed with Too Much Information that our ability to communicate with so many people so easily has many of us in a state of shell shock, and we end up having superficial relationships online with lots of people, rather than the deeper kinds of relationships that are an essential ingredient in the making of a happy human (con).

Everything may change by next month – my abilities as a futurist are extremely limited and I have no idea if that is or isn't the case. But I do have some understanding of how things are now, and how things have changed over the past two decades or so.

Communicating by email became extremely popular by the late 1990's, and pretty soon musicians like me stopped sending out postcards to our mailing lists, which is one of the main ways we used to tell our fans about our upcoming tours, new albums, etc. Sending out all those postcards was expensive. And for a while, sending these tour or album announcements to our email lists seemed to work almost as well in terms of the feedback, album orders, etc., of the people receiving them.

Over the next few years, as most people became inundated with more and more email communication, email lists, etc., reaching fans via email for us musicians became less and less effective. Then Google started doing email (Gmail), and soon around half of email users seemed to be using it. When Google later changed the default settings for their email users from the normal chronological list of emails received to a three-folder system, relegating anything on a list to the Promotions folder, my experience was that my email list suddenly became about half as useful, overnight.

Just to get into this point a little more, for Gmail to start dividing their users' inboxes into three folders made a lot of sense from the perspective of the TMI phenomenon. Now people could just look at their main folder, containing the most important stuff – emails written personally to them, mostly from people they actually know and want to hear from. And they could check out the other folders if they had a chance, or just ignore them completely, which seems to be what most users have done. Mostly I don't think they consciously chose to do this – they do it because it is the easiest thing to do under the circumstances of TMI and not enough time or desire to stare at a screen longer than necessary.

Now, these settings can be changed. There are various ways around the three-folder system that Gmail has adopted, for people who have the time, knowledge and organizational tendencies to set their inboxes up differently. The fact that settings can be changed doesn't seem to matter much, because most people tend to do whatever is easiest and simplest. Your spam filter works, but you're still on too many email lists, half of which you didn't even sign up for on purpose? You can unsubscribe from each list you don't want to be on, you can choose the ones you really want to pay attention to and set it up so that they appear in your Primary folder, etc. But that's not what most people do, as far as I can tell. They do what's easiest, and ignore their Promotions folder.

As these changes were taking place within the email world, at the same time, Facebook was becoming massively popular. In the beginning, the News Feed for people with Facebook accounts was chronological, as with their email inbox (as Twitter still is). Musicians like me who have thousands of people on our email lists soon had thousands of Friends and Followers on Facebook.

Posts can go viral, and this was the case in the earlier days of Facebook as well. But in the earlier days of Facebook, if you had thousands of followers, a significant percentage of them were likely to see your posts, especially if you timed your posts for hours of the day when many people tend to check Facebook. But then Facebook introduced their mysterious system of algorithms, so that which posts you see in your Feed are not necessarily related to who you're following or when someone you follow posted something. Suddenly, I had the same experience many other musicians had when Gmail introduced the three folders – the floor dropped out from under me again, in terms of any kind of reliability as far as who might see my posts.

Of course, the situation we're in, whether we're on the marketing end of the equation – such as musicians trying to tell our fans about our upcoming gigs -- or the consumer end – people wanting to keep up on their email inbox and their Facebook feed without being overwhelmed by TMI -- most of us are in a situation where two megalithic corporations control our main platforms of communication, and change them at will. Unregulated global monopolies have a massive degree of control over every aspect of our ability to communicate with each other – how we communicate, who sees our emails or posts and who doesn't, what kinds of posts we see and what kinds we don't, etc.

Many people say that Google and Facebook made these changes in order to encourage people to buy advertising and reach people that way. There is no question that this is a big part of the story, and that they are able to make these random changes that affect the lives of billions of people because they are unregulated monopolies. Equally, what's also clear is global society is suffering from, among other things, TMI. In order to continue to be popular platforms that attract lots of users who see lots of advertisements, Google and Facebook decided to change the way their platforms work. That's also part of the story.

It used to be that if you wanted to invite all of your Facebook Friends to come to your gig, you could do that. This created a situation where many people were getting a constant stream of invitations to attend events that were essentially irrelevant to them because they were happening far away from where people lived. Facebook changed it so that you could only choose up to a certain number of Friends to invite to an event, which probably helped a lot of people target who they were inviting a little better. Of course it also meant that if you wanted more people to hear about an event that you wanted to invite everybody to, you were left with the option of paying to Boost your post or event.

Other platforms came along that were trying to address the TMI reality, in terms of musicians and their fans. Platforms like Songkick and Bandsintown came along. Their strategy for cutting through all the TMI was and is very sensible. You join Songkick or Bandsintown, you choose artists you want to follow and you tell the platform what part of the world you live in, and then you receive notifications via your Google Calendar, email, or by other means, that tell you when a musician you're following is playing within 50 miles of your home (or 100 miles or whatever you choose as your parameters).

These kinds of geographically-targeted notifications telling people about things they actually want to know about are handy. As much as I encourage people to use these services, however, I find that my numbers of followers on them remains anemic. The main reason, I believe, is that most people are too overwhelmed by TMI to bother signing up for yet another source of yet more information, even if it's information they really want to know about.

Another reason, I suspect, is that there's no significant incentive to use these services, aside from the fact that they work really well for helping people sort out their TMI.
If an artist has an app, however, the formula changes a bit. At least that's my working hypothesis. How does it change? Well, you can do what Songkick and Bandsintown both do so well – that is, you can notify people about something happening near them that they definitely want to know about, in a place they are likely to actually see. Unlike with these platforms, however, an artist can give away all kinds of exclusive digital material of whatever kind on their own app, in addition to having the ability to notify people about upcoming gigs, etc.

How does an app like this cut through TMI? I'll explain – but bear in mind that this all may change soon in ways that I don't understand and can't predict. But as things stand now, the way the Android and Apple smartphone platforms (that dominate the world) work is people download apps in their respective app stores that they want to download. So, unlike with email lists and Facebook invitations, you're unlikely to download an app that you didn't intend to download.

Once you download an app, you are asked if you want to receive notifications from the app, that appear on your phone when you open it. And you are asked whether you give the app permission to know your location, so that the notifications you receive might be especially relevant to you (such as an upcoming concert in your town).

What has been the tendency since the internet became popular is for the corporations that run different platforms to keep trying to evolve in ways that get more and more people to use their platforms for longer periods of time in a given day or week, and to maximize their profits at the same time. These goals don't always go well together – MySpace collapsed under the weight of all the advertising they introduced, for example. The corporation's efforts to increase their profit margin resulted in achieving the opposite.

So they have to be careful, to be sure. But once they achieve the monolithic level of popularity that Google and Facebook have achieved, the formula here changes, and the corporations have a lot more flexibility in how they change their platforms in order to maximize their profits -- without their users effectively having the ability to abandon the platform in favor of another one.

So if DIY musicians and others having their own apps becomes a way that we are effectively able to reach our fans without buying advertising on Google, Apple or Facebook, these corporations will surely at least try to find a way to limit the usefulness of apps or otherwise find ways to make us pay for the number of people we are able to reach.

For now, however, I'm banking on the notion that it will be worth my while to keep spending the $400 or so per year required to keep my app functioning and available, in the hopes that the Freemiums I'm offering – hundreds of free songs and an upcoming ebook that will only be found for free on my app – will inspire people to download the thing, so they might get – and see – the occasional messages I send to their phones when I have a gig in their area.