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What Monica from "Friends" Can Teach Us About Why Ping May Fail

|Includes: Apple Inc. (AAPL)

As was widely reported, Apple (AAPL) recently announced the addition of a “social network for music” to its latest version of iTunes.  Ping, as they have inexplicably chosen to call this service, could have a noticeable impact on the value of the company if it is successful.  Such a service could provide a gold mine of consumer data, drive increasing iTunes sales, and, keep people in the Apple environment a little longer each day.  Each minute you are with Apple is another minute you are not with its competition.

So I tried it out and I’ve been thinking about what I experienced.  Not much, is the short story.  For the longer explanation of how I feel about this service, at least so far, I need to go back a few days…

I was flipping channels and I paused on an old episode of Friends. Monica was throwing a party.  At least she was trying to.  It was clear to everyone but her that her guests were not enjoying themselves. Why not?  You’d think an OCD attention to detail take charge person like Monica Gellar would throw an awesome party.  No detail would go unnoticed.  Well, you’d be almost right.  The problem is that Monica took her party so seriously she tried to control her guests’ every move. After asking them to use pens to write something down, she instructed her guests on how to cap the pen tightly after use.  She even complained shortly afterward that “Not everyone is capping his pen tightly, people!”

Very funny for the audience at home but very painful for the party goers.  At least this time the guests were all paid actors.  But if you’ve already been on Ping you may see where this is going.

I’m not overly excited about social networking in general. I don’t use Twitter and I deleted my Facebook account last year after trying it for a few weeks to see what the fuss was all about.  Many folks like me past 40 understand the usefulness of sampling current trends if for no other reason than to understand the jokes on TV or be able to have something resembling a conversation with a 20 year old.

Still, in this day and age social media and membership based internet sites (like Seeking Alpha) are inescapable and often useful tools for a great many folks on a daily basis, regardless of how I feel about some of them.  I was sad when a blogger I used to read for her provocative political topics recently tweeted that she was “surprised she could eat a bagel so quickly”.  I only saw the tweet because it appeared in the sidebar of her blog.  She used to lament overconsumption in densely worded page-long rants about the consumer culture, but she had now redefined overconsumption for all intents and purposes to the speed at which she ate her bagel.  It took us over a hundred years to go from the richness and complexity of a newspaper article to the misleading shallowness of the sound bite.  On the internet we did the same trip in a few short years.  Who can say something useful in 140 characters? But I digress.  (A luxury I enjoy because I am not tweeting!)

I tried Ping for two reasons.  The first is that I am an Apple fan and investor.  I was curious to see the business impact of such a product. And the second is that I thought it might actually be a good idea. Whereas other social media suffer from lack of focus and the inability to distinguish the relative value of information (“I just ate a bagel” and “Israel warns Iran” compete in the same space on Twitter), a music site just might provide the focus so many networks need.  I come to Seeking Alpha when I want to talk stocks or read about the economy. Maybe along a similar vein I could visit Ping when I wanted to talk about and share music.

I made my profile Friday night.  I chose a picture from Halloween a couple years ago.  I had bought a Sgt. Pepper costume on eBay and had even spent a couple weeks (okay maybe it was a month) growing the facial hair that completed the look.  I thought it was a perfect profile pic for a music site.  It shows a side of me my employees have certainly never seen.  Most of them probably don’t even think I know who the Beatles are. (Some of them may not know who Sgt. Pepper is, but I can’t go there or I get sad.)  iTunes, of course won’t admit it knows who the Beatles are, but that’s a different story.

So I got my profile fired up.  Chose a few folks to follow.  Bought a song.  And then I… ran out of things to do.

See a major flaw in the model is that users do not get to do the same things that artists do.  While Lady Gaga gets to post videos and comment on her latest exploits (we’ll forget for the moment that Lady Gaga is not actually at her computer doing these things), I get to decide if I “like” her comment or if I’d like to buy a song.

For my friends (if I can find them) I get to tell them the types of music I enjoy.  (But I’d better not like more than three and none of them better be Punk, Bluegrass, or Folk.  I guess many people are using singer/songwriter for folk, but Bluegrass isn’t country or blues and if you think it is maybe you’d better not try to design a social networking site devoted to music.  Spoken Word is a choice, though, thank goodness. We’d hate to leave out all those people who attend Spoken Word festivals!)

I also get to recommend up to ten examples of music that I like.  Filling this area of my profile was a fascinating psychological experiment. Trying to find ten songs you think adequately describe your taste in music is really hard for most people who enjoy music.  And that wouldn’t be a problem except this is supposed to be a social networking site DEVOTED to music.  I understand there has to be some limit on each profile, but I wonder what possessed the designers to cap the song list at ten.  Since I can only like three kinds of music, remember, maybe ten songs should be enough.

To be fair I can make comments, but not in the way a user can on Facebook.  The profile area on Ping is nothing like your wall on Facebook, and frankly feels more closely related to the claustrophobia of Twitter’s 140 character limit. 

I can understand that Apple did not want to just reproduce Facebook within iTunes.  I can see they wanted to bring some focus to the site. But they seem to take so seriously their idea of what I should want to do for fun that I can’t even loosen my tie.

There’s still hope for Ping.  The service is young.  And with the right changes they may have a product that adds value to their brand and helps keep their story alive even as their market cap grows to astounding levels.  But they need to get going.  C’mon Apple.  Lighten up.  You can’t throw a party and then stand over your guests making sure they cap their pens tightly.  That sound you hear?  That’s all your guests not having any fun yet.  Can’t we just crank the tunes and get this party started?  I won’t even request any Beatles, I promise. 


Disclosure: Long AAPL