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Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: social media

Thumbs Down for “Like” Culture

When the “Like” button was first introduced on Facebook, it was a useful alternative to leaving a comment, another way to show you were paying attention, but it crept from posts to comments and pages, and it now permeates every aspect of the Facebook experience and defines the entire ethos of the site. What was at first a secondary option to conversation has been enshrined as the primary and defining characteristic of Facebook. Not only is it often a superficial way to interact with someone else, by just hitting “like,” but it also influences and shapes what people post and share.

Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.

Now, we rarely “show our true selves” offline either, but it’s not self-presentation that impairs authentic social interaction. It’s when automated, superficial interaction becomes the dominant mode of communication. A “Like” or +1 may be better for Facebook or Google than a comment — a simple binary value is easier for their algorithms to tally — but that’s not the kind of human interaction that drew me to social media.

There is so much more value in online social networking than the popularity contest, than merely pressing digital levers, like lab rats looking for pellets of social affirmation. Social technology can enable intimate and in-depth conversations where time, space and fate might otherwise not allow. Ambient awareness can maintain ties that distance and a loss of common circumstances might otherwise break. The ease of organizing can enable groups and communities to thrive where, offline, they might be dispersed. Yet, I’ve seen less of this in the evolution of Facebook and other social media, and more encouragement of the lab rat lever-pushing type interaction. Deep, rich, intimate and profound interactions — expressions of love, nostalgia, unity, shared memories, the meeting of minds, bonds of friendship or common experience — these are much harder for an algorithm to make use of than a binary +1 or “Like.”

Don’t let thumbs and plus ones be substituted for authentic social interaction online.

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Google+ exists to organize people, but I don’t want to be “organized”

There are many things I like about Google+, but, beyond being yet another proprietary social networking service, something just doesn’t sit well with me about Google’s primary purpose. Comments by Brad Horowitz that Google+ will be connected to everything Google are a good example of what concerns me:

Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are [emphasis added]

Maybe I’m naive or wrong, but it never seemed like the primary motivation behind Gmail was to sell more ads. It felt like an innovative email service that Google was able to monetize with relevant, contextual ads, not merely a means to improve Google’s ad business. But Google+ feels different. Google’s primary interest is to get access to more social information, not to create a better social networking service. Buzz or Google+ are just the means for Google to gather social data.

As Fred Wilson said with respect to Google+ as an identity service:

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Google is often pretty good at aligning its interests with that of its users. For example, the more useful their ads are to users, the better Google does. Or, the better your web browser is, the more you use the Internet, the more Google thrives. But with Google+, it feels like the desire for an identity data mining tool well precedes their desire to provide a useful social networking platform.

Google+ is not first and foremost “a place for friends” or a way for student life to find expression online. From Google’s hyper-engineer perspective, we are just things to be organized in the process of organization the world’s information. They’ve organized web sites, photos, maps, calendars, videos, books — now, they’re just organizing people.

Maybe Google+ is really no different from other Google services. Maybe I’m just different. I don’t want my relationships with other people, my identity, to be treated as ultimately just data to harvest, information to organize, inputs to a proprietary Google algorithm, a way to teach Google about me as some sort of data structure. Google+ seems to exist more for Google than it does for me.

I don’t want to be treated as just a thing to be organized.

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Facebook Suggests Celebrating My First Wedding Anniversary With a Facebook Message… Or Divorce

A week before my first wedding anniversary, Facebook started to remind me and suggested I celebrate by… sending my wife a Facebook message.

Thanks for the reminder, I guess, but I wasn’t exactly planning to spend my anniversary on Facebook. This brought up some similar stories from friends:

When I removed my “In a relationship” status […] all the targeted ads changed from ‘Buy Engagement Rings Here’ to ‘ARE YOU SINGLE AND ALONE?’

The barrage of wedding ads my wife and I received once we were engaged only subsided when we got married — then, she immediately started receiving ads for baby stuff. As my friend put it, “Facebook is like a really pushy, suggestive relative.”

My wife got the anniversary reminder too, but the next day Facebook stepped up its game and served her a divorce ad.

An hour later, the divorce ad and anniversary suggestion appeared on the same page.

… was it because I didn’t send her a message? Well, there’s yet another reason to move away from services like Facebook

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A Cautious Criticism of Father Rosica

Father Thomas Rosica is the founder and CEO of Salt and Light, which, aside from being a TV station, has a fantastic blog. He posts often, and I enjoy his posts. But sometimes, it seems like he just doesn’t understand the Internet. I hope the Catholic News Service just took his comments out of context, but listen to what he had to say about the Catholic blogosphere.

Wow. Okay, first a bit of context.

Regarding the “negativity,” Rosica drew heavy fire from many Catholic bloggers after his harsh criticisms of the pro-life movement a few months ago. He had an important point about mercy and compassion, and if you dig through the drama, there was a lot of really nasty stuff directed his way. But… isn’t that to be expected when you tell well-meaning (if often, err… uninformed) people that they’re doing the “work of Satan?” There was plenty to disagree with in Rosica’s post. It’s unfortunate that the conversation spiraled to such low levels — on both the part of Rosica and his detractors — but to extrapolate as if that’s an accurate depiction of “the blogs”? Come on. What Catholic blogs does Rosica read?

More importantly, there are some serious issues the Church faces with the communications revolution of the web, and Rosica is a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He’s not just any priest, but he has a special role in assisting the Vatican with these challenges. And there are huge challenges. Writer for the Catholic Register, Dorothy Cummings McLean, explains:

What we are seeing now is a communications revolution in that anyone and everyone can set up a blog and begin writing on Catholic issues. And depending on the material presented or the skill in presenting it, anyone can attract a large following. No endorsement from the bishops is demanded or even expected by the readers. This leaves the bishops–and traditional media power structures–in a situation akin to the invention of the printing press.

I have no idea how much of a player either Salt + Light or The Catholic Register is on the “Catholic blogosphere.” My guess is that their readerships are dwarfed by the readership of such blogs as “LifeSiteNews”–which has a large American following–”What Does the Prayer Really Say” and “American Papist”. From a Girardian perspective, such blogs have something that old media might want: huge readerships and fervent fans. Meanwhile, old media have something bloggers might want: funding and credibility. These longings might be setting up what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.”

This is similar to the challenges that traditional news organizations are facing, or, well, traditional communicating-anything organizations. But Rosica’s suggestion? Oversight. Oversight?! I really, really hope that was taken out of context, otherwise someone needs to explain to him what a bad, bad idea that is before he embarrasses himself and the Church. Providing formation for Catholics in this matter in the way that the Church provides formation in general would make sense, but that’s not “oversight.” How would you even begin to provide official mechanisms of oversight for Catholic websites and blogs?

The only solution is to participate in the conversation — not to try and regulate it. This needs to be done on a diocesan level, like Boston Cardinal O’Malley or New York Archbishop Dolan have been doing. The Archdiocese of Toronto has an excellent blog as well. As Dorothy explains:

How to respond to the Catholic… blogosphere? Looking at the popularity of “Father Sean’s Blog”, the blog of Boston Cardinal O’Malley, it might be a good idea for the CCCB to begin their own blogs or endorse their favourite blogs. The dream of an episcopal stamp of approval (or even funding) might inspire some bloggers to mind their manners.

Bishops and clergy need to engage with Catholic bloggers, to set a good example, to encourage charity, truth and hope — not to enforce it. You simply couldn’t. I really hope Rosica’s choice of wording was just an incredibly sloppy misstep as opposed to anything remotely resembling a plan. Because that would be a terrible plan.

The Catholic Church knows a thing or two about evangelization. It ought to be at the forefront of social media, not fumbling around like a tired old media giant trying to be an information gatekeeper. It knows better. Fr. Rosica, please don’t suggest “oversight” as a way forward. If it’s a suggestion, ditch it, and if it’s a talking point, drop it.

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Information Serendipity In Different Mediums

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mathew Ingram’s defence of newspapers and serendipity. Clay Shirky has been talking about the bundling that occurs in newspapers as a mere accident of print, something that was only necessary given the constraints of paper, but doesn’t make sense otherwise. Mathew disagrees:

Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

It’s not just because they have to — although that’s part of it. Maybe I’ve just been trained as a newspaper reader for my whole life, but I like the serendipity of tripping over fascinating articles about things I would never have known even existed were it not for a newspaper. To take the Saturday Globe and Mail as an example, I read about an up-and-coming Muslim hockey player, a profile of Paul Shaffer, a review of the punk band Gossip, an article about contentious city council politics in Aurora and a great feature on retirees and their vanishing pensions.

Just two days before Mathew’s post, my friend Emilie and I were having the same conversation. She reads the newspaper daily and made the same defence. I used to read the paper regularly when I was commuting to school in Grade 9, but more recently, I’ve come to get my “news” through Gwibber and Google Reader. It’s not that Mathew or Emilie don’t use the web, but they both have found something valuable in newspapers that the web hasn’t been able to offer — information serendipity (by that, I mean serendipity with respect to encountering ideas). Mathew continues,

Could links to those stories show up in my RSS reader? Possibly – but I doubt it. The mix is just too eclectic. And I would never have sought out the article about the Muslim hockey player, because I don’t particularly care about hockey and therefore I would likely never have come across it. Would the retirement piece ever make it to Techmeme or some similar aggregator? I doubt it. But it was still worth reading. And so were the half-dozen or so articles I can’t recall right now, which I tripped across as I read the paper. I would never have deliberately sought them out either.

I think Mathew’s missing one of the most serendipitous aspects of the web — the social aspect. I wouldn’t likely stumble upon those sorts of articles through my RSS subscriptions (though I’m subscribed to some pretty eclectic stuff), but through Google Reader shared items (e.g. Turadg Aleahmad shares some really interesting things, like this Wikipedia article on Mamihlapinatapai). I stumbled across Valaam chant through a friend’s Facebook posted items the other day, a genre of music that’s entirely new to me and will likely influence my own music. I find interesting links through Twitter/ every week that are outside my regular areas of interest (e.g. this video riding blog from Sunday). I may follow someone who shares some interests in common with me, but that doesn’t mean their other interests are my usual fare. Information serendipity here is social.

Then, beyond the social, Mike Masnick was writing about serendipity of search a few weeks before Mathew’s post:

There’s a separate side of having search so ingrained in our lives that isn’t often explored: the serendipity of search… I do a countless number of searches during the day — it’s ingrained to quickly and automatically jump to the search box all through the day — and usually two or three times per day, I end up going down a fascinating, if unexpected path to learning something new and interesting. Usually, it’s related to what I was originally searching for, but leads me on a trail of additional information, well beyond what I expected to learn. Other times, it may be a total tangent, but still one that ends up being useful and relevant in odd and unexpected ways.

A couple days after Mike’s post, I was watching Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love with the RCIA group at the Newman Centre. She makes a passing comment in the video about the serendipity of browsing through the stacks at Robarts Library — yet another type of information serendipity.

Beyond information serendipity, there’s a likelihood of social serendipity (in encountering people rather than ideas) that exists in a communications medium like the web that you wouldn’t find in a newspaper. On any medium, it’s not so much a question of whether there’s an element of serendipity as it’s a question of what that serendipity is like.

Information serendipity on the web is different than in newspapers. There’s information serendipity in bundling, in proximity, in linking, in social connections, and then there are other types of serendipity altogether, like social serendipity. I think it’d be really interesting to dig deeper and explore the differences…

Information Serendipity in Wikipedia

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Student On Probation For Expressing A Negative Opinion About An Instructor On Facebook

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

A student at the University of Calgary was put on academic probation for making the following post on a group titled, “I no longer fear Hell, I took a course with [instructor’s name]:”

[Instructor’s name] IS NO LONGER TEACHING ANY COURSES AT THE U OF C!!!!! Remember when she told us she was a long-term prof? Well actually she was only sessional and picked up our class at the last moment because another prof wasn’t able to do it .. lucky us. Well anyways I think we should all congratulate ourselves for leaving a [instructor’s name]-free legacy for future [law and society] students.

It’s pretty hard to see how this isn’t just an expression of opinion, but the university thinks it qualifies as non-academic misconduct. The problem is, it’s not at all clear how. The only part of the definition that doesn’t involve injury, damage or theft is “conduct which seriously disrupts the lawful educational and related activities of other students and/or University staff.” It’s hard to see how a Facebook post of this nature “seriously disrupts” much of anything (until someone gets put on probation and the Streisand Effect kicks in). But there’s a nice little “includes but is not limited to” that makes the definition non-exhaustive, which is likely what university officials are relying on. You’d think that other instances of misconduct would be similar (hurting people, breaking stuff, stealing, “serious disruptions”), but apparently “expressions of opinion that we don’t like” can qualify…

A computer science professor interviewed said the posts “can be compared to putting up notices all over the university campus” (quoting the article, not the prof). But this is more like putting up a notice off campus (albeit in public). It may not have been nice, but it’s pretty troubling that a student’s right to express an opinion (free speech much?) on a third-party site is overridden without a clear policy violation.

I’ve had direct experience with this sort of thing. A couple years ago, friends of mine at another university were sent ominous emails and hauled into their department head’s office over some comments about a professor on Facebook (jokes, e.g. “crazy drunk [instructor A] is better than boring stoned [instructor B]!”). The department heads argued that the comments were “visible to the community” (similar to the “notices on campus” argument), but they clearly didn’t understand the context (wall post or message? profile or group?) or privacy settings, and they couldn’t even locate the comments on the site (someone had copied and pasted them into an email). They, too, failed to specify how any policies were actually violated (or even which ones), yet they’d gone ahead and notified the professor of the students’ comments and identities (while there was still grading to be done). We convinced them to back down and apologize, but it took a solid week, mid-semester, to deal with the mess.

Universities should understand and develop policies about social networking sites before they take action against students. If they can’t be clear about what qualifies as misconduct, how can students expect to know? What’s the difference between a Facebook group and study group? An email and a Facebook message? What difference do privacy settings make (hopefully some…)? How was this post on a Facebook group different from a review on What’s the difference between off-campus speech and speech on non-school websites? Before policing student speech off-site (problematic in and of itself), universities should at least ask these questions and develop policies first. It doesn’t seem like many of them have. It’s pretty ridiculous to just throw social networking under the ambiguous “but not limited to” umbrella.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Vatican Considering New Media Document

The Vatican is considering preparing a document on new media and how the Church’s communications strategy is affected (via @popebenedictxvi). In a seminar sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, bishops from 82 countries me to discuss “modern media and the new culture of communications that has arisen in recent years.”

The Church has been keen on embracing new communications technologies, grounded especially in “the Second Vatican Council’s 1963 decree “Inter Mirifica” on the instruments of social communications and on the pontifical council’s 1991 pastoral instruction, “Aetatis Novae” (“At the Dawn of a New Era”).” Just a few months ago, the Vatican launched a YouTube channel and last July in Sydney, the Pope was sending updates to pilgrims at World Youth Day via SMS. Last September, he sent a message to Catholics through the Xt3 social networking website launched at World Youth Day. Past documents from the Vatican, such as “Ethics in Internet,” have not only provided guidelines and encouragement, but have illuminated surprising sympathies with free software. Sister Judith Zoebelein, who runs the Vatican website, has given talks at tech conferences in the past.

That said, the Vatican’s website design could use a “refresh”, and — more importantly — it still hasn’t figured out many meaningful ways to enable the kind of two-way communication that the Internet enables.

But it appears that many bishops understand this.

“The church today cannot only give information — which is certainly useful, but we cannot limit ourselves to that,” Archbishop Celli said.

“I think the church needs to enter into a dialogue that is increasingly rich and proactive, a dialogue of life with people who are seeking, who are distant and who would like to find a message that is closer and more suitable to their path,” he said.

For that reason, he said, his council has been pushing bishops around the world not only to have their own Web sites, but also to make sure these sites are interactive.

Unfortunately, the Vatican doesn’t think it can do this itself.

Unfortunately, Archbishop Celli added, it’s been impractical for the Vatican to make its own Web presence interactive because it would be flooded by questions and comments from all over the world. It’s something more easily done on the local level, he said.

I agree that this should be encouraged on a local level, and there are some great examples of Catholics converging on various social networking sites (e.g. TweetCatholic) and creating their own (e.g. Xt3 and flockNote) as well, but I think there’s a different kind of interaction the Vatican could enable. I don’t doubt that the the YouTube channel would be overrun if they enabled comments, but there are still lots of other ways to experiment. For example, in October, someone suggested to Pope Benedict that he start a blog. Again, comments might be pretty unsustainable, but even if communication with the Vatican is tough using social media, there must be ways to experiment with enabling communication among Catholics on a global level. Though I can appreciate the challenges of scale, language, staff, etc…

Encouraging is great, but I hope they don’t shy away from experimenting more themselves.

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ communications committee, did indicate that it’s important for the Vatican to have a presence where young people are (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc), and with their help.

Archbishop Niederauer said the change in new media was in some ways like the change from the horse to the car a century ago.

“Because 100 years ago, if an old man bought a car, who could fix it? His grandson or his son, because they learned the machinery. They headed straight for it; they didn’t look back,” he said.

In a similar way today, he said, young people have seized on the communications opportunities of new media, and the church should welcome their talents and expertise.

I’m more than happy to help. 🙂

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UK Online Protest Finds Success In Just 48 Hours

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Using social networking tools to organize political protests is nothing new or surprising, but online protests have been growing increasingly efficient, especially on Facebook. In Canada, for example, a group protesting copyright legislation caught the attention of federal parliament last summer, and another opposing strict restrictions on young drivers had the Ontario Premier considering Facebook consultations in the fall.

The latest story comes from the UK where, in a mere 48 hours, a campaign run through Facebook and by helped stop legislation that would have exempted MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act (via the Search Engine). Thousands of emails were sent in the two day period, reaching 90% of MPs, before the opposition parties turned and the government backed down. It’s not so much the scale that’s worth noting, but the sheer speed at which the campaign was successful. The legislation was scrapped before most snail mail would have had time to arrive. Now, the online protest likely wasn’t the only factor, but it played an important role in spreading the message. It seems to be getting a lot harder to sneak stuff through the legislature (though that doesn’t stop people from trying) when it only takes a couple days to build an opposition.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Hired via Facebook? Fired via Facebook

This article originally appeared on Techdirt.

We’ve seen stories of people being fired over email and even text message before, but now there’s a story of a Canadian spa worker fired via Facebook (via Michael Geist). The woman still got dressed and went to into work that day because she thought it was a joke. Using Facebook seems rather harsh, though she admits to being hired over Facebook and the firing was done via private message (as opposed to a wall post…), but it’s no real surprise that a common method of communication eventually gets used this way. That doesn’t mean it’s not cruel, but I wouldn’t expect it to be an isolated case (we’ve already seen legal papers served via Facebook). It’s got to make you wonder what’s next though, fired via Twitter? “@unfortunatesoul btw you’re #fired sry”

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Facebook Artist Pages Still Have A Long Way To Go

When Facebook first launched music pages back in November 2007, I predicted a shift away from MySpace. A couple months later, I created a MySpace profile for myself, ending a self-imposed boycott. It was stupid of me to ignore the community (MySpace is simply where musicians are, unfortunately), but beyond that, Facebook Musician Pages are still really awkward.

Music Player

It’s obvious that Facebook wasn’t designed with musicians in mind just by taking a simple glance at the music player (take my page for example). I’m a fan of simple, but there’s a difference between elegant and lacking. There isn’t even a way for artists to order the tracks in the playlist, nevermind enable downloads or include lyrics or album art. It was just a few weeks ago that Facebook began providing stats on audio (and video) plays in the Page Manager application, but you can’t even tell which songs people have been listening to. I’m the last person to obsess over meaningless profile stats on MySpace, but a simple play count is fundamental feedback.

Relationship with Fans

On Facebook, you don’t friend a musician, you become their fan. Now, I wouldn’t want everyone who’s interested in my music to become my Facebook friend (that’s one of the annoying things about MySpace), but the alternative Facebook has chosen is very impersonal. You don’t message fans, like you would members of a Facebook group, but you send an “update.” You can’t reply to an update. It’s faceless, one-way. If someone wants to get in touch with you, they can post to your wall or discussion board and hope that you notice.

The relationship of “fan” versus “friend” is technically more accurate, but it gets in the way of forming a real relationship. The artist is a distant and mysterious figure, hiding behind some “wall” (har). Facebook was right to rethink MySpace’s approach, but they need to do much better.

Part of the problem is they’re using the same tool for corporations as they are for artists. It’s okay if a giant brand is faceless because it has a different type of face. Even if Facebook would just add some privacy settings, that could go a long way to allowing different uses, such as letting artists connect to their fans if they want to (e.g. “can fans send you a message in reply to an update?”, “should page admins be visible to fans?”).

Relationship with Other Artists

How about “none.” MySpace wins hands down here. The only thing remotely close that Facebook offers is the ability to “favourite” another artist page. If you want to find or communicate with other artists, you need to do this with your personal Facebook account. Or on MySpace.


This has been poorly thought out. There is no simple way to list upcoming shows! An artist must create a separate “Facebook Event” entity for every single show — that means guest list, photo, address, etc. Again, MySpace’s approach is riddled with problems, but at least you can have a simple upcoming events listing on your profile page without making a big deal of every event.

Plus, there are lots of problems with Facebook events in general that are magnified here. What if multiple artists are playing a show together? Do they each create separate events? How else can an event be listed on each of their pages? What about mutual fans — do they get multiple invites?

I’ve been experimenting with a “shell” event solution lately, creating an event for every show but (a) disabling extra content (posted items, photos, videos), (b) hiding the guest list (so I don’t have to send or monitor invites all the time) and (c) providing the basic details but linking to other Facebook events when relevant (here’s a recent example). I play a lot of shows with other songwriters, so when they setup their own Facebook events, I’ll create one of these “shell” events on my page that carries the core details but links back to their original event, and I’ll use their event to invite my friends.

Third-Party Apps

A lot of these shortcomings offer good opportunities for third-party applications, but it’s not that simple. As far as I know (and I’d be happy to be wrong), third-party applications don’t have access to Facebook Insights (the stats Facebook shows you about your page, which are always about five days behind). Sure, you could use/create another audio player or calendar, but then that application has to maintain its own stats, and all of the sudden you’re looking in three different places every time you want to check on your Facebook page (nevermind MySpace, YouTube or your own website…). For example, I’ve chosen to use a Flickr app instead of uploading my photos to Facebook, and as far as Facebook is concerned, no one has ever looked at a photo on my page. Third-party apps are second-tier when it comes to stats.

I still think Facebook Musician Pages are an important tool for artists and I have hope that the improvements will keep coming (if I wrote this two weeks ago, I’d be railing on them for the lack of any stats on audio plays). But, despite the clumsy and mostly incompetent design behind a MySpace profile, they’ve got the core things right about music. The fact that music is an “oh yeah, that too” on Facebook shows — one size doesn’t fit all.

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