Each week, Kate Williams ponders the world of social media. Today, she considers this Ping thing.
The night before last, Apple CEO Steve Jobs – or The Sun King, as he’s known in my head – introduced the waiting world to the latest addition to his Imperial Line.
It was an illustrious occasion, carrying with it a whiff of the mad Hapsburg Court, where royal births took place before a murmuring crowd of toadies and sycophants. Intriguingly, amidst the usual cultish adulation, there was a new sense that the potency of dynastic chain was under scrutiny.
But enough of the pomp. What of the product?
First up: Apple TV – we can whizz through this, as it’s quite straightforward. The new iteration is rental-only, and it’s neater, sassier and markedly cheaper than the original. The weeny set-top box is an alluring $99, and users will be able to stream tip-top Hollywood films on the day of their DVD release, for a near-reasonable $4.99. So far, so fine – though the noses of owners of the original box, which notably failed to fly and which Jobs once described as his ‘hobby’, might be rather out of joint.
Next up, Ping. Ping is a music-based social network which allows music-loving users to follow musicians, as well as musical friends and strangers, and to see a stream of Facebook- or Twitter-like updates describing what these other music-oriented guys are listening to. The service is available as of, to more than 160 million iTunes account-holders globally.
But is Ping all it should be? Is Ping quite the thing? Will it move Apple’s global supremacy forward by one notch, or twenty? So many questions!
Let’s begin with the name. Initial calculations reveal that Ping is 75% Bing – Microsoft’s limp search engine – but let’s put that golden nugget aside for a rainy day, and examine the intrinsic merits of the word itself.
Roll it round your mouth: “Ping”. On the one hand, it borrows from the zippy breeziness of ‘ping me!’, an expression which resounds with all the immediacy and hyper-proximity of our remarkable digital age. On the other hand, it sounds like ‘Pingu’.
Pingu, you’ll recall, is a children’s animation series, in which a pre-teen, pre-verbal penguin has a series of incomprehensible adventures near an igloo. If you’re not familiar with the oeuvre, please assume that it’s not the first brand-association either of us would reach for, when marketing our modish new social network.
Infinitely more problematic is Jobs’ term for users of his nascent social network: “Pingers”. Pingers? Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d like to be a Pinger – mainly on account of the fact that it sounds lame to the power of abnormal.
To be fair, the process of finding a word to describe a group who do anything tech-y, tribal, or youthful has long been fraught with danger. Like others before him, Steve’s first instinct has been to add the suffix ‘-ers’ to the root, but that tends to serve up words like ‘teenyboppers’, ‘rock’n’rollers’ and ‘hipsters – words which, in truth, only my dad and his jazz-buddy Terry have ever used.
It’s a problem, for sure, and one with which even Twitter has wrestled. Tweeters, or Twitterers? Say either out loud: you will feel like Jeremies Clarkson or Paxman, and will instantly recall why we now mutter “I’m on Twitter.”
A meagre cinq points, then, for the name of Apple’s fledgling social network. But what of Ping’s functionality? Well first off, Ping lives in iTunes, and that feels like an odd place for a social network to be: crowded, claustrophobic, and enclosed.
Openness has proved to be a bit of a fundamental of this social networking lark – think Twitter’s open API and generosity with third-party clients, think Facebook Connect. Then consider Apple’s constitutional inclination towards a closed-service model, and sigh. Ping’s lack of integration with our existing networks feels outmoded and clunky, forcing us to undergo the laborious process of manually inviting our friends. Molto tedioso.
Next up, this matter of sharing content – which again is something of a baseline in social networking. And again, Ping is behind the game, allowing users only to tell each other what they’re listening to, in the hope that they will then pay to download. Ad-supported Spotify, meanwhile, already let’s you send the track itself to your friends. As @shanerichmond has noted, this makes Ping less of a social network, more a giant shop.
So we come, finally, to Ping’s rationale, its underlying principle – music. One school of thought holds that it’s a pretty sensible idea for Apple to build on the success of iTunes, whose account-holders are, as @jemimakiss says, the “the engine behind Apple’s money-making content machine.”
The other school, meanwhile, is repeatedly slamming its head against the desk, the words “Apple threw away its incomparable brand magic launching a niche social network?” scrawled in permanent marker on its arm. I have to share with you, folks: I dress this side.
Which of us, after all, currently chooses music as the organising principle for our online social life? If we did, Spotify would be Twitter or Facebook, and the whole world would look and sound a whole lot different. I might love my music – might purely live to dance, in fact. But when it comes to social networking, I don’t want to exist in a niche. I want to be free.
Here’s the rub, though: Apple can’t compete on an open field, because Facebook and Twitter between them already divvied up this broad-base social network thing. Which is why MySpace just this minute downgraded to a music-sharing site – to save its social skin. Which makes Ping an attempt to compete with MySpace. Which is already itself behind Spotify’s game.
One day, perhaps, Apple might challenge Facebook. Its multiplicity of physical platforms – iPod, iPhone, iPad – constitutes a powerful weapon, and its payments system and mammoth userbase will give it added heft. But this Ping Thing? It ain’t the one.
A bientôt, mes amis!
For more social media snippets, do follow @emodkate – or for general twittery, @KateVWilliams.