Ping Pongs – Apple’s foray into social media

Last night Apple released an update to iTunes, 10.0.1, which changes the way Ping works and promises great things. Ping, for those who have somehow missed the news, is Apple’s iTunes-integrated try at social media. The idea is that you create a profile, connect with your friends in iTunes, and share reviews and the details of your purchases. Being the social media geek that I am, of course I’m signed up. Here’s what I thought.

Sign-Up and Privacy
Firstly, the sign-up. Apple get a point straight away for making it opt-in. You have to choose to share information, and it’s good to see that they got this right first time. However, they then spoil it and lose several points for the poor choice of privacy options. You can choose to (i) “Allow people to follow me” – everything will be public, including all your purchases, or (ii) “Require my approval to follow me” (oddly, a sub-option of (i)) – name, photo and location are public, everything else becomes public if you approve someone to follow you, or (iii) “Don’t allow people to follow me” – you can follow others, but no-one can follow you, and your name and photo only appear if you write a review or comment.

Ping Privacy Screen

Privacy? We don\’t need no steenkin\’ …

The options seem quite restricted (only three levels), and quite hard to follow. Why is (ii) a sub-option of (i)? I THINK I know what I’m signing up for, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if something was shared that I wasn’t expecting. Couldn’t they ask us what we want to share, whether name, location, age, purchases. Better yet, ask me each time I buy whether to share that information? Everything I buy is listed, no filtering. Once it’s up, I can delete it, but I get no choice about whether it’s posted.

Oh yeah – opting out again? That’s a bit hard to find. If you do want to turn Ping off, you need to go to the iTunes ‘Store’ menu, ‘View My Account’ to open your webpage, and then under the Ping section, you can choose to turn it off. There’s no off-switch directly in iTunes. It’s a logical place to put it, but not really designed to make it easy. Why not make this a menu option, Apple?

Ping bit in Your Account

Turn it OFF! Turn it…

Set-Up
The front page is a fairly standard social-media layout, which shows links to your profile, allows you to search for friends or invite them, and lists your updates. It was pretty plain even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t connected to anyone yet. But that wasn’t the main part of the page, and here’s the first sign that Apple hasn’t quite got it. The biggest prime chunk of screen is recommending artists for me to follow. It’s not about connecting with people, folks, it’s about selling you music.

Ping welcome page

Start. Go on, what are you waiting for?

The “Artists We Recommend You Follow” came up with some pretty lousy choices, too. There were 173 pages – at 6 per page – and left me with the feeling that they just wanted me to follow everyone. Why not give me a list of everyone in my music collection, or the 20 artists I have most tracks by? They were recommending artists I’d never listened to, and not in a “Genius” way.
It was also buggy – sometimes clicking ‘Follow’ changed the button to ‘Following’, other times it left it unchanged but when I clicked again told me I was already following. And the display didn’t check whether I was already following an artist before showing me them – but if I clicked on one, up popped the error message again. It got old very quickly.

Persistent Ping Error Message

Not again?

Once you’ve signed up to follow a few artists, it’s still underwhelming – the same sort of information about artists that you get on Facebook, only most of them don’t have updates on Ping yet. But it’s early days yet for Ping, and this part of the experience should get a lot better when there are more people using Ping and more reviews available.

At the end of the first page, I was unimpressed. The first rule of social media is to put the user in control, and Ping never quite does that, it always wants to be in charge. I got the distinct impression that Apple don’t really know what Ping is for. Is it really social media – allowing people to connect, talk, swap opinions – or is it for selling more music? Is there really anything here that couldn’t have been done – better – by letting users post the track link to Twitter?

Ping in iTunes
Things improve when you look at how Ping is linked in with iTunes itself. Scrolling through your music, playing a track, you can ‘like’ or post it straight away from within iTunes. You even have two options – a Ping sidebar, or a pop-up menu from each track. This is the part that’s new with last night’s release, and it makes it easy to tell everyone what you’ve just downloaded and liked, or just played and liked.

iTunes 'Ping' sidebar

This is more like it

The sidebar also shows updates from the artists or people I’m following in iTunes itself, so I don’t have to go to the Ping pages. Maybe this is why Apple didn’t waste money getting the Ping pages right – they’re not expecting you to use them.

Ping Pop-Up Menu in iTunes

Same again, but pingier?

Conclusion
It’s a bit unfair to be so rude about Ping – it’s a first try, and I don’t have many friends signed up to the service yet. No social media site is at its best without your friends on there, as connecting and swapping opinions are what it’s all about. But I would still have thought that Apple could do a first try that’s better than this. It doesn’t seem to offer anything that Facebook doesn’t already give me, except the opportunity to do track or album reviews. And to be honest, I don’t buy music because my friends recommend it to me – I buy music because my friends PLAY it to me. Sending a link is somehow less contagious than putting on music and listening to it together.

Summary
Content: 3/10, but should improve with time
Privacy: 4/10, and unlikely to get better until there are complaints. Apple, you really should know better.
Usability: 3/10 – there’s no flow to the experience, and those errors are annoying. Buggy and fiddly.
Overall must-join factor? 3/10.

Ping never quite lets you forget that the aim of all this is to sell more music. It’s buggy, it’s limited, and the content just isn’t there. And when you get right down to it, you’ve got a pretty limited range of things to do – tell your friends you like a track, or write a review of a track. Ping just never stops being a music store add-on and lets you take charge.

But of course if all your friends join, it will jump to 9/10 for you straight away. Because after all, that’s what social media is about.

Has anyone else tried Ping? What’s your experience?

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