Why SoundCloud Is a Broken Social Network
SoundCloud took on the difficult problem of creating a social network that simultaneously benefits two very different groups of users: song posters (people who actually make music, DJs, etc.), and song listeners (everyday users). Unfortunately, they over optimized their social network for song posters, and under optimized it for song listeners. Deconstructing how the system driving SoundCloud’s social network is broken is a great example of a broader point that has been crystalizing in my head recently:
Any platform that depends on user-generated content needs a path to glory to incentivize the community to contribute their content.
The First Link
SoundCloud correctly understood the first type of user-generated content needed to make their social network valuable: music. They are a music platform, and without artists, DJs, and producers contributing new music SoundCloud has no reason to exist. Music creators are incentivized to post music because every new track is a chance to gain new audience. This is made possible by a very simple mechanism, reposting, which is a tried and true concept for creating virality on social platforms.
Every song that an artist posts gets put in the feed of all of that artist’s followers. Then, if any of their followers repost the song, the song gets put in the feed of that follower’s followers. And so on. Any song can go viral far beyond the artist’s current following, and bring the original artist new followers and a bigger audience for their music. However, there is a hidden concept driving the success of reposting for artists, and that is attribution. No matter how many degrees of separation there are between the original posting and the reposting that a listener sees, the profile name of the original artist gets attribution.
Looking at this screen shot, you can see what I mean. I follow j.robb, and he reposted a song that I liked from Jovani Occomy. From the song, I discoveredJovani’s profile, and followed her. Then, I reposted her song to all my followers. They, too, will be able to discover Jovani’s profile and follow her if they like what they hear.
The path to glory for artists, the chance to growing their audience virally, is built on giving them attribution for the content they contribute.
The Missing Link
There is a path to glory for artists, but remember, SoundCloud is a social network built for a second group as well. This second group, song listeners, also have to contribute a form of content for the whole system to work. Song listeners, by engaging with the reposting mechanism, are building out a feed of content that others can follow. The reason you follow other song listeners, whether that be your friends or people you happen to discover who have similar tastes, is to be aware of the music they repost. Everyday users contribute their tastemaking to SoundCloud.
Tastemakers are finding the best music on the platform, and amplifying the virality of that music by reposting it. But, because there is no attribution for reposting good music, there is no path to glory for song listeners. Let’s go back to the screenshot I used earlier.
Remember, I reposted a song I discovered from j.robb. But you can see that none of my followers will discover that j.robb was my tastemaker. He gets no attribution for putting me on to a new artist and a new song. Similarly, if any ofmy followers enjoy my repost, and decide to repost it themselves, none of their followers will know that the song came from me.
In other words, there is no way to build an audience as a tastemaker. Since I don’t post songs, my profile will never be discoverable beyond my current following. So, because song listeners are poorly incentivized to repost music, the network effects are broken for both listeners and artists:
The virality of artists depends on reposting, meaning the path to glory for artists actually depends on the path to glory for tastemakers.
SoundCloud does a decent job at the loop on the left, but does a terrible job at the loop on right, and that will always limit the growth of their platform.
I won’t be prescriptive on the “how”, but I will touch on the “what” of solving this problem. First, SoundCloud must create attribution for both user-types in their social network. When you follow someone, like j.robb from my screenshot, and they repost a song to your feed, you should be able to determine both who the artist was who contributed the song to SoundCloud and who contributed discovery of the song for j.robb by reposting it to his feed.
Second, SoundCloud needs to create variable rewards for both artists andtastemakers. Artists who contribute music to SoundCloud are able to keep track of how many likes, reposts, and comments they get for any song they post. The psychology of variable rewards is a well-documented driver of habit-forming products. The chance that the next song you post will perform better than the last is a huge incentive to keep contributing music, chasing those highs of social validation.
But SoundCloud provides no variable rewards for tastemakers. I don’t particularly care how they do it, whether they surface it through notifications or something else, but I should be able to track the activity generated by my reposts. If I repost a song to my followers, I should know how many of my followers liked or reposted that song. I would stop it at one degree of separation, so I don’t need to know how many of my follower’s followers reposted the song. I just need to know how my tastemaking was received by the audience I have already built. The chance that some songs I find may be more or less approved of by my followers is both a reason to try to be a great tastemaker, and a reason to keep reposting.
If SoundCloud can make tastemakers discoverable through attribution, and create variable rewards for great tastemaking, they will greatly increase the value of the platform for artists, active song finders, and passive listeners.