Mixtapes: The Future of Curation?
Don MacKinnon
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Can mixtapes exist in cyberspace? On the value of the artifact

Photo by Ars Electronica, shared under Creative Commons

Paving the way for how we now use social media to share everything from hot new tracks to cat videos and TED talks, Don Mackinnon argues, it was mixtapes which had us take our crucial first steps in individually curating content. We sampled and shared our favorite bits of music with those we loved; remixing, reinterpreting and repackaging them into new works that held deeply personal meanings for both ourselves and the people we gave them too.

In comparison, he writes, our Facebook feeds are disjointed, randomized, atomized beasts:

I follow people and their posts wash over me in a newsfeed and disappear. [..] The experience of consuming the Feed, unlike the contextual serendipity of mixtapes, is just cacophonous noise and jarring juxtapositions. Not only is it noisy, it means genius posts by amazing curators disappear into the DisposAll of the feed along with mind-numbing portraits of latte foam and sweater-paw selfies.

It’s an engaging piece, personal in its passionate ode to mixtapes and yet broad in its observations about the nature of today’s social media. It ends, however, in a promo for MacKinnon’s latest venture, Milq. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it sounds like a cool project, and of course I’ll go look! But can it succeed in his stated aim: to recreate the intimacy and meaning that was inherent in the painstaking act of compiling the mixtape?

Photo by J E Smith, shared under Creative Commons

To me, what remains missing in such initiatives, perhaps crucially so, is the value of the mixtape as artifact. Something tangible and, to some limited extent, lasting. Of course, compared to other physical media, tapes were notoriously vulnerable, and it’s not like cassette decks are necessarily easy to find these days. And yet I still have boxes full of tapes stored somewhere from 20–30 years ago that, if I’d really want to, I could find a way to play again. And, who knows, perhaps an ex-girlfriend has one or two stored somewhere still as well! Well, you know, maybe.

Uploading and/or curating digital content on yet another innovative-looking new online service seems in comparison a more precarious endeavor; just look at what happened with what had seemed like a promising online platform, Jux. It went offline overnight without even providing its users a functioning opportunity to rescue their assets, as anguished comments on its Twitter feed testified. Google’s Vint Cerf sounded the alarm on this phenomenon just the other day:

We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised [..]. If there are photos you really care about, print them out.

All too often we confuse digitization for preservation. Laudable, concerted efforts encourage communities and broadcasters to build digital archives and share them online, and whole physical archives are being digitized in the name of preservation with sometimes amazing results. But to which extent, Cerf asks, will the touch of time be even more unfriendly for the digital copy as for the analogue original?

Photo by Steve Berry, shared under Creative Commons

When the fate of Jux, Posterous and countless other services is repeated often enough, do people become hesitant to invest the kind of time MacKinnon describes of carefully curating thematically organized, personal content on a new service? A tape might get lost or “spew out of the tape deck like so much tagliatelle,” but rarely would your whole collection go up in smoke in a single stroke. With so many promising start-ups struggling (and often, eventually, failing) to tear into the walled gardens of Facebook & co, who knows what will remain?

Come to think of it, in all its own glittery, puerile cacaphony, the much-maligned MySpace still offered some of the experience MacKinnon describes, in a way Facebook really doesn’t. You could run your blog and people would come round and visit it; you could compile your featured music playlist; there was even the thrill of seeking out new songs to play on your page, during that brief period before the auto-play feature turned from interesting novelty to one of the site’s most loathed aspects. When the site finally relaunched, many years later, you could still download your long-moribund blog if you wished to (and noticed in time_, but the embedding framework you’d once tweaked and tinkered with, however ineptly, went up in smoke.

Photo by Wayne Marshall, shared under Creative Commons

Just two days ago, another mixtape-inspired digital product was featured in the Daily Dot. “Sharetapes are physical cards, no bigger than a credit card, with a retro cassette skin,” which users can fill up with content by creating a playlist of digital music. The creators were motivated by the same desire: to try “to bring back a little of that magic” of mixtapes in the age of smartphones. To revive the “forgotten level of thoughtfulness,” the romance even, inherent in the making of a mixtape. They went into the opposite direction, though, prioritizing a celebration of the physical, tangible artifact over convenience. The creators seem to admit that the result is fairly gimmicky, not to mention unwieldy, but at least it reintroduces the value of the artifact into the conversation. For what else is that artifact, whether it carries digital or analogue content, than a mini-archive? And weren’t we archiving our emotions, on those mixtapes, so as to share them in meticulously articulated precision with our lovers, our friends?

Talking about those, one niggling question remains amidst all this effusive nostalgia for the age of mixtapes by guys who sound just a little like Rob Gordon / Rob Fleming. Did the girls we make them for ever really enjoy listening to them quite as much as we enjoyed making them?