To me, as someone who has spent his fair share of time inside audio editing programs, it just felt as if the waveform was too far from ordinary people’s experiences of sound that it would just make the site look more technical than it needed to be. The waveform meant work.
Turns out that I was wrong.
Soundcloud is now doing really well. This morning I even heard somebody on BBC radio talking about how much they loved it. And it’s not despite the waveform but, at least in part, because of it. It’s an important part of the experience.
To me the waveform means work, but to millions of other people it means play.
But there’s something else going on here besides me just misreading it. There’s a broader move here towards exposing the guts of what they do in ways that would have seemed impossibly technical a few years ago.
Look at something like Wikipedia, which makes its DNA readable. Or something like Twitter, which really thrives on exposing connections between people. These services all make hay, in one way or another, by wearing their structures on the outside: data exoskeletons.
Note: I’m not just talking about complication, although it’s amazing how people who barely now find themselves able to navigate Facebook’s increasingly byzantine, constantly changing systems.
I’m talking about a different way of looking at things: a move towards, perhaps, what James Bridle calls the new aesthetic. He’s talking specifically about a way of looking at the future, but I think it holds true for what I’m talking about too.
What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder.
Being able to see something allows us to wonder at it. Sometimes, as with Twitter, it’s about making the connective tissue — in their case messages and conversations — a living part of the service. Sometimes, as with Soundcloud, it’s the idea of having a visual or physical representation of a previously invisible concept.
This isn’t always new, Of course: we’ve often had physical representations of sound — a piece of vinyl, tapes, CDs — and it’s only in the last few years, with the move to non-physical formats that we’ve lost the conception of what music looks like. But Soundcloud’s adoption of the waveform is perhaps the purest we’ve seen. It’s not just a package: you feel like if you could actually see the music itself, it would look like this.
So what is this?
Is it a brutal statement, the equivalent to structural impressionism in architecture, like Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building, or the Pompidou Centre? Or is it gentle reminder, like having a room with exposed brickwork that simply shows the craft that went into production?
Should web services do more to show you that you aren’t just trading in strings of intangible data, but in thoughts, in ideas, in effort?
I wonder if we’ll see more services like this emerge, and whether it’s possible that websites that can use this idea carefully will have an advantage over others.