The comments on Soundcloud.com, the music-hosting community, get a bum rap for how they gum up the interface. If a track becomes too popular — well, not even too popular, but just popular enough, then these myriad vertical bands appear, each one delineating the comment of one or another Soundcloud user. Take for example the comments seen in this player, which is for Brian Eno’s song “2 Forms of Anger,” off his recent Small Craft on a Milk Sea album:
That’s what, as of this writing, some 131 comments look like in a tight horizontal space. And that’s 131 out of 176 comments total. Some 45 commenters thought to add non-“timed” comments, which is to say comments that appear below the track post, and not literally atop the song’s waveform.
There’s something simple that’s slightly broken in the Soundcloud user interface: Not enough people are getting the correct nudge to only leave “timed” comments when they’re appropriate.
In any case, the big problem with those striations isn’t what many people complain about — they complain about the visual noise, which is admittedly not insignificant, in large part because of the general placidity of the Soundcloud interface, against which they make a serious contrast.
No, the big problem with those striations is that they are for the most part meaningless.
Sometimes, yes, frequently even, one does come across comments that make note of a special moment in a track. At 2:43 in the Eno song, a user named AliaK says “quite a build-up there,” which is true, and fine. The majority of the comments, however, are praise and complaints that don’t correlate with where they appear on the timeline.
The thing about the Soundcloud system, though, is how great it is despite issues like the “timed” comments. For example, regardless of how incredibly tiny the little square comment user-avatars are, I was easily able to discern ones by people I know — well, “Internet know,” which is to say I follow them, or their work; and that’s “Internet follow,” not as in “I follow the Grateful Dead,” which suggests a deep immersion in a culture, just “follow” as in their activities appear in one or another of my social network feeds, and I pay some attention to them. For example, I made out the face of Mark Harris, who commented how the Eno track reminds him of Sonic Youth, and what a welcome surprise that comparison is.
Here, now, is a track for which, at least as of this writing, there is but one single comment:
It appears close to the end of the waveform, and happens to be by a musician whose Soundcloud account (and more broadly whose musical activity) I follow. It appears as a “timed” comment, which is to say it appears along the track’s timeline, though it’s quite likely that the brief note of praise (“Great stuff”) doesn’t refer to the precise moment of 4:24, but to the track as a whole.
Soundcloud lets you discover tracks in various ways, including by seeing what people you follow have said about (i.e., commented on) various tracks. What’s interesting from my personal experience of this track is that I came across the comment by chance. I didn’t click on a link that said “So and so said something about this track.” No, I found myself on the track’s page, and while listening to it, noticed the tiny familiar icon of someone whose work I admire and point of view I trust. The result was akin to virtual “warchalking.” Warchalking is the much-discussed act of leaving a subtle public message (in the physical world) that alerts people to the presence of an open wifi network. On Soundcloud — as on many avatar-enhanced social networks — the appearance of a familiar user-icon was the best kind of word-of-mouth: it wasn’t sought out, and it wasn’t pushed on me; I simply came across it, a casual experience that only helped amplify its impression.
Now, as complicated as software engineering can be, social engineering can be a lot more complicated. At this stage, it would take a seriously concerted effort on the part of Soundcloud to get users to only make time-coded comments when they really intend them to be time-coded. However, there are things the site can do to make the comments more meaningful to users. For example, the Dashboard — the site’s internal feed of information — could allow you to tailor which users’ comments you’d like to be made aware of. And, better yet, when on a given track’s page, you could have the option of only viewing comments by people you follow.
Soundcloud has quickly become a central site in the online culture of musicians making their music freely available to each other and to supportive listeners. Commenting is a core constituent part of the Soundcloud service, of how musicians and listeners communicate with each other — sometimes literally, and sometimes through means that are more like signals, virtual nods of approval.