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An Ode to an .EXE

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The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor it is the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. – Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (126). 

 

Audiogalaxy doesn’t exist anymore. The website doesn’t take you anywhere. There is no 404. It is just dead. The official Facebook page is down – only Wikipedia links and fandom pages linger. It is not coming back.

Audiogalaxy has existed in different forms and iterations. Most recently, it functioned as a music streaming service. It was a way to stream your entire mp3 collection (and multiple other file formats) and playlists from a home computer through multiple devices. A small program was installed on your computer with all the music on it, and it streamed it to your smartphone or to any other computer by simply logging into your account on the AG website. You collection stayed in one place and you could take it anywhere and everywhere. Logging into a website gave me access to the thousands of songs I loved. I didn’t need to install anything on an office computer, it didn’t upload my mp3 collection to a company’s cloud, there were no annoying or irrelevant ads, and it was completely ad free. It was, by and far, one of the greatest music-related programs I had ever encountered in my entire life. Its last day of functioning use was January 31, 2013.

Dropbox bought out the technology and the development team. It is unclear what their plans are. The Facebook page was very tight lipped about there being any sort of future for Audiogalaxy, but people speculated on possible music streaming being integrated into Dropbox. But, they work on a cloud system rather than flat-out device to device streaming. They do not exactly match in terms of technology or service. No one seems to know what they plan on doing with the AG technology or development team – not even Dropbox.  Fans were angry. While the page no longer exists, many on the Facebook page vowed to uninstall Dropbox and never use their service again.

For a bit of perspective, iTunes takes up about 200mb of space (for some reason) and comes with multiple invasive programs – some of which I don’t know the function of. Yes, it does a lot, but I’ve never had much use for it beyond playing movie trailers. It is too cumbersome and clunky for me as a music player, takes forever to load, and wants full control over your media experience.

Audiogalaxy is/was just a few megabytes and functioned beautifully – it made you forget that it was there and let you do your own thing, it simply helped.

But, there is more to this story. I had used Audiogalaxy every day for the last couple of years – but I had also used a different version of AG nearly 15 years ago.

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The original program and purpose of Audiogalaxy was very different. While it was always a lightweight, mostly web-based service, it started in the post-Napster craze of music sharing that took dial-up internet by storm. Napster allowed us to look for music and files we wanted, but it did little other than to help you find a repeatable file of a song you heard on the radio (and maybe its techno remix). AG was most useful for its ability to help you find the song, album, artist, or genre and link you to related content that you would most likely enjoy. In so, it provided a landscape of musical and artistic exploration. Before Napster exploded, young people either knew about the radio, from friends who happened to know something different, or from monthly mail-order music programs (who one time accidentally sent my older brother Cannibal Corpse instead of Red Hot Chili Peppers. We loved it). These were good ways to find something new that was relatively available, but not a good way to explore unknown aesthetics and possibilities.

As mp3’s became increasingly prominent, so did too the underlying system of labeling files. ID3 tagging helped programs categorize files based on more than file names (which were often wrong, inaccurate, or victim to trolling). You could now search for popular files in the same genre, file ripper, quality, or a variety of things. Lesser known and independent artists benefited from this, as people sharing files could help pass along something to someone else with similar tastes. Audiogalaxy benefited from this cultural process immensely, integrating it into their service. There were comment boards and community groups, allowing people to connect and communicate with each other, rather than blindly sharing. A group based on a genre could link to various artists and someone in that group could sample new music based on recommendations very quickly. I learned not just about new songs or artists, but the stories and histories of these artists and genres, how they connected to other groups, and perhaps most importantly, developed an intense need to explore and learn about the art I was consuming. AG is perhaps singly responsible for where my cultural capital is today.

I used the service rabidly, filling up my parents’ computer’s hard drive with all the weird and extreme music I could get my hands on. And hiding it at the same time, so they couldn’t hear how weird or extreme my tastes were. During a very important part of my teenage years, I found music that I really cared about rather than what corporations expected me to like (and purchase). And there was an aura of excitement to it all – not just listening to different music, but discovering it all. Unearthing the unknown. Perhaps it wasn’t the music that changed me, but the act of discovering it, and Audiogalaxy provided that in my life. It helped me develop my tastes as well as how I thought about culture and art – find my own thing, unafraid to be weird.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one, according to a Facebook fanpage.

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While users attempted to block downloads of particular songs and artists in order to extend the legal life of their service, people figured out loopholes around this process by being coy with file names and tag data. But, it was only a matter of time. The service had a relatively brief life (about 3 years) and the whole thing was shut down. The RIAA was particularly brutal and incredibly powerful, proclaiming that an industry was in mortal danger. Audiogalaxy was more than a simple program that let people send things back and forth to each other. It was more of a contemporary music service years ahead of its time – multifaceted communities, encyclopedias of information, and the limitless unknown pushing the limits of dial-up connections across the planet. The community aspect was perhaps what was most terrifying to the RIAA. It wasn’t that people were sharing files, but sharing ideas and aesthetics. Users were not only capable of downloading mainstream music for free, but learning that this music had little purpose in their lives, and to look elsewhere for new and different things.

P2P’s were no longer safe to use. Viruses plagued the unsuspecting  and people began to learn the horror stories of life-crippling lawsuits for downloading a single song. While Audiogalaxy attempted to go legit while teaming up with Rhapsody, the community abandoned ship. In 2002, BitTorrent was just getting on its feet, and people were beginning to get broadband connections as opposed to dial-up. Albums and discographies were able to be downloaded as opposed to single songs and people learned about new music from message boards and newly-developing “social networking” communities.

As a member of these communities, it was interesting to see how Audiogalaxy shaped me in comparison to others. I was able to track down obscure musicians on MySpace or talk about bands people might enjoy while on various boards. I found these artists in local record stores (if possible) and supported them through merch sales. The program, in essence, changed my life in a serious way. It wasn’t just a way to find music, but it taught me the importance of cultural exploration – something I missed out on from my small-town adolescence. I learned to not just be satisfied with what was presented to me, but to go and find things that I actually liked. As a consumer, I learned about why I liked things rather than just simply liking.

Cut to almost a decade later.

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In 2010, it took me by surprise that Audiogalaxy still existed, had the same loopy logo, and was providing an incredibly effective and free service, albeit entirely different than its original inception. Instead of downloading music from others, a user was able to stream their library of music to different devices. You could have an extensive collection of music at the touch of a finger on your memory-limited smart phone, or keep your sanity at work by having all of your music to listen to via a web interface. By logging into their website, you could listen to all of your music. Your computer became a cloud rather than paying a large company like Apple or Google to be the cloud for you. You had full control over your files and experience. There were no ads or algorithms competing for your attention.

In grad school I researched, typed, and graded papers in my office through insane A.M. hours while listening to black metal, dark ambient, alternative rock, new wave, comedy, podcasts, or any number of files without lugging around my laptop or needing to constantly update and organize an iPod through the horrors of iTunes. At jobs, I edited boring corporate blog posts and media presentations while comforted by sense of individuality and life outside of office walls.

But, this too was short lived. Audiogalaxy was bought by Dropbox in late 2012 and shut down its service entirely on January 31, 2013. No one knows how Dropbox plans to use the AG technology or development team, but fans are afraid. Again, years ahead of its time, AG fans fear that a company will charge money for simple and effective service that they’ve grown to love and use for free.

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I still have Audiogalaxy installed on my computer. Its little logo sits lifeless and gray in my running programs list. I don’t want to uninstall it. I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want it to be gone from my life again. To me, it isn’t simply a program. AG’s essence, its process, its community, its freedom, and its passion became a fundamental aspect of who I am as a consumer, a fan, and as a human being. It feels odd to suggest a personal connection to a program, but I don’t think I was ever more connected to an .exe file.

While Audiogalaxy taught me about new music, it also taught me about myself.

R.I.P. Audiogalaxy 2002/2013.

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Internet Culture – Everything / Nothing

 

This image is an internet artifact about Everything/Nothing culture, cam culture, and cam girl culture (YM Magazine, publication information unknown). But, of course, this article only focuses on one aspect of the life style – the openness. I say “of course” here, because at that time it was a rather shocking thing to do – tell potential strangers and “fake” friends about your personal life on the internet. Facebook, however, has transformed that shock into a banal yawn. Nevertheless, this was at one point the moral panic for the parents and friends of a particular set of internet-people. Blogging was barely a thing. There were no content management systems you could just log into and make pretty and use easily. Writing about your life, openly and honestly, for a stranger to read about was a hugely subversive process. Luckily, the internet was at a point in its development where this attracted more like-minded individuals to each other than the serial killers from Lifetime Original Movies.

Liking the internet used to be a mark of shame. Having friends on the internet used to be worse – you could tell no one about it, you had to lie to other people about them, and people were concerned about your attachment to the non-reality of the computer. “My friend said something really funny today” to a meatspace human being would be a clever cover for “My friend updated their LiveJournal with a hilarious story.” Daring to meet that person was also something that required several lies. Why were you traveling to Indiana? How did you know this person? How were you friends with someone in Indiana? It took me years before I was comfortable with telling my parents I had met people off the internet, and that the majority of my now-real-life friends were from there. However, even if you were able to confess that you spent a lot of time on the internet, it was still impossible to admit that you were a blogger, or had a website, a journal, or a cam.

The internet had become/was becoming a real place. (Especially if you believe that it was not one already).

Contextualizing this panic is difficult. There was shock and confusion by the mainstream press that the internet was becoming something and someplace for more than just the nerdiest of nerds in their basements. There was more to it than that. This image is not just about describing a hot new trend for teens, it is a rudimentary glimpse at a particular and now forgotten internet subculture/subgenre. I use subgenre here on purpose. As much as there was a community to this, there was also a style. Often, the community had no particular market of connection other than we were all hanging out.

There was the community of people – some of the brightest and funniest individuals I have known online. A community of like-minded people who were complete strangers, but could now talk in real time (thanks to long forgotten programs like IRC and ICQ), people who had figured out how to do long-form writing online for cheap or free, and for the first time could actually see each other. This was the Everything/Nothing scene – E/N for short.

This moniker was a description of the overall content of posts that was created by these people, covering topics from Everything to Nothing. These were people who actually owned domains of their internet handles (or other non-corporate things that were names of communities). They churned out creative, truthful, earnest, hilarious, and communal content and strove to stand out on beautiful (aesthetically or technologically) websites – central hubs for individual or crew identities. These people were some of the first (culturally) internet literate, and demonstrated a shift of people caring about the online just as much as the off.

[I don’t include BBS in this, simply because it was structurally a very different concept than how we know the internet now, even if there are remarkable similarities.]

Almost all of these websites are dead, so they are impossible to link to. The people have aged and left handles behind. IRC rooms are now ghost towns, if the servers even exist. Radical bloggers now have jobs and families – or at least nicer apartments. Some may have even been able to sell of domains for some cash. Some were even celebrities, for a while. “You know so-and-so? You met them??” Others even appeared on TV (TechTV, before it became G4).

The programmers were uniquely talented. They created so much because there was so little to work with and we all wanted/needed more – technology that is now common places, corporate, and integrated into the lives of millions. The writers – so much creative content and each post fueling the fire for more work from everyone else. Blogs are almost at the point where the entire concept seems outdated and quaint. Anonymous identities are dead. Chat protocols are laughable (I did have students giggle and mock, “Who uses AIM anymore??” during a lecture).

The article above also alludes to the concept of caming. To explain the process now, and I have tried to people younger to me, is to sound like a grandparent. A webcam would take a static image of a person (320×240 resolution, the only way to go) – limited in environment, as the webcam generally was tied to a PC/desk, and one could upload this image to an FTP (not Photobucket, a Facebook gallery, or Imgur). This would image would constantly be called the same thing (cam.jpg, for example), in order to remain on an individual’s page or a community’s portal – collections of multiplce cam images from multiple users on display. Uploading a new image would refresh the old and something new could be seen. Programs were developed to do this automatically, and could add a limited amount of language to the images. Often a time/date stamp, a URL (as cam images were linked around to many portals), and sometimes a comment of some sort – a funny thought, a remark about their day, a song lyric, etc. If you were awake at night, you could hang out at a portal and a particular IRC room and chat with people while watching them be goofballs on their frozen cam images. If the portal was particularly good, the page would automatically refresh itself to ensure new images, and be coded so that the most recent/current images were displayed before the old ones from inactive users.

This is a link to a cam portal that is relatively close to the past. Some of the code is a bit more fresh, but it is right on.

Like I said, sort of a boring explanation of an outdated concept. However, this was completely radical for the internet and its denizens. We could actually see each other – not just scans of old photos, or poor quality digital camera pictures (if you were able to afford one of these…), but semi-live images of people being people. You could express your identity through a 320×240 jpg. The bonding grew by being able to know each other on a more intimate level. We were not just words or nicks, we were people.

Caming was sort of like Twitter, in a way. Limited means of expression – a single, small still image, limited text on said image. You could custom build a portal to share who/what you wanted – sort of like a retweet of someone else. You could re-mix/retweet (crude photoshops) someone and re-share it on your URL. There was even a sort of Follow Friday, particularly with cam signs – Your Name on a Post-it. I would argue that the processes are very similar. (More on caming and TwitPic a bit further down…).

But, more important than that, caming was a part of your online identity (if you did it). As I mentioned, it was the first time we could really see each other online in a semi-live context. We had proof of who we were, as we had pictures that could refresh of us at any given time. Our physical bodies were intimately tied to our digital identities in a way that previously did not happen. We weren’t just words on a screen or a nickname. Our lives weren’t just technological engagements. We were our nicknames, our websites, our posts, our content, our bodies, our jpgs, ourselves. The intimacy of the digital connected to the offline and vice versa. There wasn’t a difference to us/them. It was all the same and we had made it that way.

This aspect of the internet is gone now. I am not a curmudgeonly old man complaining about how the youth does not get it, because they have their own thing to get. However, for the most part, we had to grow up with the internet and develop it as we developed ourselves. Now everything is just here. We wanted to be creative and had to develop the technology to do so. So many things that the scene developed (and never took credit for, never tried to make money from) are standard place for young people (Stickam, Twitter, Twitpic…). These concepts more or less existed in somewhat crude (but less crude than you would think) forms 8-10 years ago. We had to be creative to be creative.

Currently, every output on the internet for creativity is a corporate owned entity with a privacy policy (even something like Canv.as or Reddit) (and there are exceptions like Dump.fm). Of course youth culture will develop their own things (and have) as the need arises. They will create (and have) amazing things with what has already existed for them. They will use and are using corporate products in similarly subversive and transgressive ways. The old people just will not see it right away. They never do.

[Theory based on a statement in above paragraph: Anonymous as transgression through hacking – Internet scenes were previously able to create things for themselves, develop tech, and develop scripts/apps/etc. Everything is corporate controlled and made now, so there is no output for that energy. Therefore, they seek to rebel against the enforced limitations, even if they are not conscious of previous openness…]

I recently fell back into the E/N scene through a private Facebook group and watching everyone talk about our internet histories and what was accomplished has been very inspiring.

This is a fantastic presentation from NotACon 2005 by StephTheGeek – a staple in E/N and camgirl cultures. While caming was a huge part of the E/N culture, camgirls were equally important. They were often the face of cool for a particular community – “So-and-So is on this site’s cam portal? It must be awesome…”. It became a culture of its own, providing intimacy, openness, community, and sexuality. And it wasn’t as heteronormative as one might think. Also, note how much of this presentation is NOT about sexuality. It was not really about breaking ground in that aspect of life as it was a logical extension of the openness of the overall culture. Some people were just willing to go that bit more and it was not a big deal. It was their life. It was all a part of who they were. (This would be a place to start talking about Foucault…).

I made this joke on twitter, but I am actually sort of serious about it, “camgirls used to all be awesome web coders because dudes had not yet figured out how to exploit nerdy looking women for money as a fetish.” The camgirl scene (not every camgirl was involved with nudity and not every E/N woman with a webcam was a camgirl. Camgirls were all sizes, ages, and races and there were camboys) had such an immense sense of sexual empowerment to it all – in brotalk that means there was a decent amount of nudity at times. These women were in control of their sexuality and willing and proud to display it for themselves, friends, and the community(ies) on the internet (Note: I did not say they were willing to display FOR the internet, as that lacks agency (and the internet was much smaller back then…). They were also fully in control of the means of production. Often these women were very talented webcoders and graphic designers. They created some of the best looking and surprisingly advanced websites around. If you watch all of the very interesting video above (and I recommend it), you will hear a lot of the tech talk, which is in of itself rather interesting. For example, you will hear Stephthegeek describe a pre-Twitpic version of Twitpic as a common part of her blog life a year before Twitter was even invented and three before Twitpic launched. Being a “professional” camgirl was barely for profit. Sure, people made some money and got some Amazon gifts, but that never seemed like the point. (Though maybe you could spot the scene’s decline when it did…).

The image above focuses on a woman and is right to do so. They were not only central to the Everything/Nothing scene, but very often the driving force. While so much of this was about putting yourself out there, women were often the ones who were actually brave enough to do so. And of course men would often gawk and drool, but it was often an attraction based on respect (of their site, of their code, of their writing, etc) – even if most of us were assholes.

I miss this homebrew sense community – people who found each other by chance or luck, without the help of a search box or a ReTweet. I miss how things were not always tied to my name and where I live. I miss not having to Accept a corporate statement to participate. I miss how the internet used to be. We all wanted to be there, we all wanted to contribute. Overwhelmingly, what people have missed the most, according to the Facebook Group’s catch-up thread, is the creativity. Did it just die, or did it move elsewhere? The answer is both, really. We do not have to be as creative in some senses, but we still are in others, and in new ways as well. We are still subversive and transgressive.

The internet used to be a global concept. I had friends in New York, California, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Indiana, Washington, Canada, England, Germany, Japan, and various other locations. I could travel and know someone somewhere. What we have now on the internet is something different. Facebook changed the digital landscape from being global to being interconnected localities. You know longer found strangers and befriend people, you are just more linked with the ones you already know. Do teens now have a sense of exploration when they think of the internet? Do they discover new things and new people, or is it all carefully controlled? Maybe it is just easier to find people? Well, there are probably those strange few who venture out and discover others, but I wonder if it is anywhere near the same extent.

I might muse on this some more later, but I encourage any feedback.

There is a lot more to be said about all of this. I am barely scratching the surface.

Perhaps next will be my history of pre-social networking indie kid websites?