Learning from Turntable to make sticky immersive interfaces


For the last few months, I’ve been obsessed with Turntable.fm. If you haven’t used it yet, you probably shouldn’t because it’s incredibly addictive. Others have gone into exhaustive explanations about how ttfm works sociologically. I’ve been doing some of my own analysis and wanted to put it out there so that other startups and people creating stuff that people actually want can be inspired by it.

If you find this analysis useful, please vote for it on Quora.



I’ve spent a fair amount of time keeping TTFM open to try to understand behaviors there.   I believe that TTFM has grown rapidly for the following reasons:

  • Element of surprise & intrigue.
    When you use other music products, you typically have a sense for the type of song that will play next, unless it’s a completely randomized playlist.   You might either be listening to a radio station over the wire or on satellite (sirius/xm), or maybe a Pandora radio station.  Turntable can be similar because you can be in a room defined by Genre — but it often isn’t.  People go into turntable rooms with friends who have eclectic tastes in music all the time.  It doesn’t happen often, but tracks could switch from electronica to  world music to classic rock to Tchaikovsky in a span of 15 minutes.
  • Reciprocity increases engagement
    Reciprocity is built in to TTFM — So when other people listen to your music, you’re more than happy to listen to their music.  When you log in to TTFM, you are directed to the lobby, where you can see other people who you are connected to, and the “rooms” that they are in.   In the real world, people are generally more likely to go to places where their friends are hanging out — I imagine the same happens with virtual places like Turntable.
  • Realtime / Synchronous
    Probably one of the most unique aspects of Turntable is that everything happens in realtime.   In other words, there is rich synchronous interaction, much like you’d expect from a game.  You feel like you’re in the same place with other people at the same time.
  • Competition / Gaming built-in
    Unlike many experiences which use principles of “gamification” and competition to elicit certain behaviors, Turntable has an implicit sense of competition and gaming built in.   The actual interactions revolve around playing good/apt music for a particular instant in time and currency is exchanged through these actions and nothing more.  There’s no more to learn, no more to aspire to other than playing good music that people want to listen to.
  • Minimal effort to learn (n00b friendly)
    I think that TTFM is incredibly easy to understand and learn how to use, even for the most basic internet n00bs.  I realize that most social gaming is relatively uncomplicated (Playing farmville and the like), but selecting some music is just about the easiest thing one can do.
  • Social lubricant/currency
    TTFM works really well with strangers whom you don’t know, and people that you have a shared affiliation with (like work colleagues).   You can become “fans” of other DJs which is similar to following them, but the added kicker here is that you are notified when someone that you “follow” is playing some music in a turntable room.  This type of connection between people makes the experience all the more sticky.  Social currency is traded among users who know each other when a song is “awesomed” by another.   Shared music becomes a great social lubricant for starting conversations with other people.  I noticed on the site one day that two people chatted and (admittedly jokingly) one proposed to the other by the end of the conversation.  Needless to say, they ended up continuing a relationship that transcended the TTFM room they were in.
  • Immediate feedback
    When someone likes a song that you play on Turntable, their avatar’s head bobs back and forth.   It is a “cute” way to provide feedback and provides the most basic human need in a well packaged head nod, affirmation and approval.
  • Supports musical discovery
    Social discovery, in general, is how people learn (see my startup, BetterAt) new things.   While complicated systems like Pandora have been created that make it easy to see how songs are connected from their core rhythms, tones & melodies,  Turntable provides what you *really* want — A way to look into what your much more musically adventurous friends are listening to right now so you’re not the last to find out about {insert hip & ironic band name here}.
  • “Safe” & supportive
    When you’re in a room of people that you know, you generally feel safer and in a supportive environment.   You can say things that you might not say in a more public forum.  You start to get people that you don’t know.   It allows you to take more risk with songs that you wouldn’t play on the radio out loud at home because people are generally listening with their headphones.   If they don’t like it, you can easily “skip” it after just 10 seconds and try another one.
  • Supports lurkers + überusers
    I’m starting to understand and believe that this is one of the most important aspects of any communication/entertainment medium.  Turntable supports people who are just there to listen, but also relies on überusers to participate and play music (and thus vie for points and better avatars).  Without both types:  listeners and DJs, the idea would completely fail — Similar to blogging platforms like posterous, tumblr, wordpress or blogger:  The community relies on both creators and the loyal audience.
  • Immersive / sense of place
    Turntable has managed to take something that second life has excelled in (creating a 3d sense of place) but extruded it to its most basic essence.   In order for Turntable to work well, people just need to have the sense that they are in the same space with others, enjoying music together.   It provides just the right amount of customization (users can pick from one of under 10 avatars to start out), but doesn’t go to the extreme like Secondlife might.   In this sense, TTFM feels accessible and removes it from the realm of exclusive “hobbyist” or fanatic behavior.
  • Democratic / “fair” governance
    TTFM has done a great job at providing mechanisms that prevent ‘gaming’ the tool for points, and to prevent trolling.   I’ve been in enough instances now that I’ve seen where the community or a room can self-police and ensure that trolls or “off topic” DJ’s are quickly removed.

There are probably many other reasons why Turntable has taken off that I’m missing.  What do you think is missing?  I think social scientists are going to have a field day learning from the interactions on TTFM.

Respond to me on Twitter: @AshBhoopathy or follow the discussion on HN.