Play that funky #music

How Twitter's new music app can help you discover your new favorite artist

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

by Virginia Heffernan

A sweeping new free app from Twitter, Twitter #music, styles itself as a “music-discovery app.” Even though “discovery” is tech-world jargon these days, the word is promising in this context. It means that Twitter—which in seven years has both exploded in popularity and suffered a slow-mo identity crisis—has decisively found a purpose.

Twitter #music manages to crystallize what’s great about Twitter, and justify, for now, the faith that 200 million users have in it.

So: Why “discovery”? Before I tell you about the intriguing but imperfect #music app—just download it; it’s free for the iPhone and on the Web—I’m going to spell out at some length why that word elegantly gets to the heart of an existential question: What is the Internet?

It starts with an anecdote. Not long ago, I was talking to a programmer at Google who kept referring to “Google queries.”

“Don’t you mean Google ‘searches’?” I asked.

He meant queries.

At Google, he explained, they now see users as entities who come to the World Wide Web with specific questions: How tall will the Freedom Tower be? What does the Dalai Lama believe? Is this mole dangerous? Customer satisfaction, in this framework, is answers, direct hits. Action and reaction. Question mark? Period. And done.

Did you notice, Web users, that we’re askers now, and not searchers? That's a serious reclassification. Questions are simple; searches are, in contrast, thorough and wide-ranging, the work of cowboys, scientists and inspired lunatics like Carrie Mathison on "Homeland." They end in revelation or madness—nothing so banal as consumer “satisfaction.”

With Google, we are no longer searching, we are querying. Our endpoint as Google users is a terse answer, which appears like Jeeves of the old AskJeeves, officious and prompt.

In a literal way, this seemingly subtle shift in the way Google frames the World Wide Web and its users means that Google returns mostly Wikipedia and Google’s own boxed-off factsheet in response to our “queries.” For example, “Hiroshima” returns Wikipedia and a Google box with info about the dates of the atomic bombings. Nowhere from the page-one returns would you even know that a man named John Hersey had once written an article—and then a book—called “Hirsoshima” about those bombings, and that that book was among the most beautiful and necessary works of literary journalism of all time.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going. A visitor to the Web is less likely now than ever before to encounter even the obvious literary and journalistic responses to their inquiries on the Web. They’re less likely to have spontaneous encounters with prose and images. They’re less likely to be surprised or enlightened, to find something they didn’t know they wanted or needed, to be stunned or sent on a detour that might elevate their existence. But they’re also less likely than in earlier Web days to be disappointed or to have the old, dread experience of information overload once known as “drinking from a fire hose.”

In aiming to avoid that fire hose effect and make the unruly and astonishing contents of the Web seem tame and satisfactory, Google has flattened them. And, not incidentally, disincentivized all forms of journalism while incentivizing the creation of fact sheets, databases and encyclopedia entries.

This would be a sorry, almost tragic state of affairs were it not for the non-Google Web, which I like to call Twitter.

Why do you go to Twitter? To find out specific information? No. Twitter is notoriously unreliable for flat-out facts. Occasionally you go for eyewitness accounts of breaking news, or to crowdsource something. But if you really use Twitter, you use it to be surprised, to find things you didn’t know you were looking for, to be amused and amazed and bugged and inspired, and to ... discover.

That’s why I was pleased when I saw that Twitter had seized this word with its new app, which positions users to encounter new music, without actually being a music site. (Twitter refers app-users to the ample holdings of Spotify, Rdio and iTunes.) By finding music that shows up under the #NowPlaying tag, the app pulls music together onto charts called “popular” and “emerging”: The first is basically blockbuster tracks everyone’s playing, and the second is tracks that are just weirdly but observably kicking around among the billions and billions of tweets that comprise the site.

The instant I saw this, I knew that Twitter had found itself. The #music app is easy to navigate and nifty to look at, with glittery mosaic-style thumbnails of Twitter accounts ripe for the clicking, and a cool analog-era turntable graphic that appears when you want to magnify the song you’re playing. It also shows that Twitter has now recognized itself as a massive, kaleidoscopic database. Rather than get people to “query” it, though, Twitter has sorted its own holdings—in this case, what musicians people follow and what tracks they are listening to—so that you can readily bump into stuff you’ve never seen before.

The discovery happens fast, and it’s fun. I thought I listened to a decent amount of music, but I had heard of not one of the 140 acts on Twitter’s Emerging list the other day. “The Nothing Part II,” by someone called Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, caught my ear. I started following @ladylamjams on Twitter, which led me—via the #music app—to the musicians that @ladylamjams follows. From there, I found St. Vincent (@st_vincent) whose song “Cruel” I promptly listened to. Both songs and both musicians have been on in heavy rotation almost ever since.

Compare this with what happened when I put “What new music should I listen to?” into Google. Google, which by now should know my very soul since I pour so much data into to it, blessedly didn't point me to the Wikipedia entry on “music.” But it did send me to Esquire Magazine’s search bait: “Songs Every Man Should Listen to 2012.” Hosted, somehow by a pinup figure, who is qualified to teach me about music because she is “the lover of John Legend,” I was presented with a song called “Get Got,” which is “like Frank Zappa sped up and remixed by TV on the Radio.”

I gave speedy Zappa a pass, quit querying on Google and went back to searching for retreating beauty, amid the chaotic glamour of Twitter #Music.

You can follow Virginia Heffernan on Twitter

  • Energy sector to drive Canada first-quarter profit gains

    By John Tilak TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian companies are expected to post solid profit gains when they begin unveiling first-quarter results next week, with robust earnings at energy companies seen overcoming weakness at miners and the materials sector. Energy companies will benefit from a ramp-up in production, improved prices for Canadian crude relative to global benchmarks, and a rally in natural gas prices.

  • BlackBerry's meltdown sparks start-up boom in Canada's Silicon Valley
    BlackBerry's meltdown sparks start-up boom in Canada's Silicon Valley

    By Sayantani Ghosh, Ashutosh Pandey and Euan Rocha (Reuters) - The troubles at BlackBerry Ltd, which fired more than half its staff and lost more than 90 percent of its market value as consumers shunned its smart phones, might have spelled disaster for the company's hometown of Waterloo, Ontario. More than 450 start-ups opened for business in the twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener last year, more than four times the number begun in 2009, according to Communitech, a local company that advises them. Often, the new companies are being founded by former BlackBerry employees chasing their entrepreneurial ambitions in a community that's Canada's answer to technology hubs in California and elsewhere. "For those who are trying to get a new tech business off the ground, get it funded, and not get lost in the shadow of Silicon Valley, Waterloo can be the best place to get your company on the map," said Sean McCabe, vice-president of engineering at drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs Inc in Waterloo.

  • Bank of Canada says inflation rise hasn't shaken neutral stance
    Bank of Canada says inflation rise hasn't shaken neutral stance

    By Louise Egan and Leah Schnurr OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian central bank chief Stephen Poloz said on Wednesday an interest rate cut is still a possibility even though the bank forecasts inflation will pick up speed this year and approach its 2 percent target. The Bank of Canada held its benchmark interest rate at 1 percent, as expected, extending a 3-1/2 year freeze on borrowing costs.

  • For Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, boring is beautiful

    Investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc posted better-than-expected quarterly earnings on Thursday, helped by gains in merger advisory and stock underwriting. The results underscored how businesses viewed as stodgy before the financial crisis are becoming critical drivers of earnings for investment banks now. Goldman's investment management, stock underwriting and merger advisory businesses logged big gains. Morgan Stanley did well in those areas, as well as in wealth management and bond underwriting.

  • U.S. delay pushes Canada oil pipeline choke points upstream

    By Nia Williams CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Enbridge Inc is on the brink of breaking through oil pipeline bottlenecks in the U.S. Midwest that have dogged the company for nearly four years, potentially ending a need to ration space at the heart of its network. But here's the rub: Relieving congestion downstream is simply likely to expose choke points further upstream, traders say, as unexpected delays in securing a U.S. permit to expand a major segment of its 5,363km (3,333 mile) Mainline system leaves Canada's heavy crude bottled up for months more. But a parallel project to expand the northwestern leg of the system called Alberta Clipper, which runs from Alberta's oil sands to just south of the U.S. border in Minnesota, has been delayed by as long as a year. As a result, traders and analysts say the bottleneck will simply shift into Canada, leaving cash crude prices under pressure well into 2015.

  • GM to seek court protection against ignition lawsuits
    GM to seek court protection against ignition lawsuits

    GM has said it is protected from liability for claims related to incidents that occurred before it exited bankruptcy in 2009, and has taken steps to raise those issues with the court by filing motions to stay recall-related lawsuits while it asks that bankruptcy court to clarify the extent of that protection. In a filing with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Tuesday, GM asked for a stay on litigation related to ignition claims until a judicial panel on multidistrict litigation decides on a motion to consolidate the case with other lawsuits and the bankruptcy court rules on whether the claims violate GM's 2009 bankruptcy sale order. The company earlier filed a similar motion with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California seeking a stay on pending litigation. The defect has been linked to the deaths of at least 13 people and the recall of 2.6 million GM vehicles.

  • Lululemon's status as yogawear's top dog at risk
    Lululemon's status as yogawear's top dog at risk

    By Phil Wahba NEW YORK (Reuters) - Still hurting from last year's see-through yoga pants debacle, Lululemon Athletica Inc is about to face a new headache: stepped-up competition from rival yoga retailers, department stores and hot new brands. The company is facing aggressive competition from stores such as Gap Inc's Athleta, VF Corp's lucy, Macy's Inc and others selling activewear at lower prices at far more locations. Small but hot yogawear brands such as Sweaty Betty and Lorna Jane also pose a potential threat, but the biggest competition is expected to come from Athleta, which will open 30 stores this year, tripling its locations to about 100 stores in just two years. Long a Wall Street darling for its dizzying revenue growth, the Vancouver, Canada-based company recently reported its first decline in quarterly comparable sales since 2009.

  • Mt. Gox set to liquidate as court denies rehabilitation
    Mt. Gox set to liquidate as court denies rehabilitation

    Mt. Gox, once the world's biggest bitcoin exchange, is likely to be liquidated after a Tokyo court dismissed the company's bid to resuscitate its business, the court-appointed administrator said on Wednesday. CEO Mark Karpeles is also likely to be investigated for liability in the collapse of the Tokyo-based firm, the provisional administrator, lawyer Nobuaki Kobayashi, said in a statement published on the Mt. Gox website. "The Tokyo District Court recognized that it would be difficult for the company to carry out the civil rehabilitation proceedings and dismissed the application for the commencement of the civil rehabilitation proceedings," he said. In Wednesday's order for provisional administration, the court put the company's assets under Kobayashi's control until bankruptcy proceedings officially commence and a bankruptcy trustee is named.

Follow Yahoo! News