Burning out on Turntable.fm (Or Why Building a Synchronous Application is Really Hard)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post heralding the greatness of the newest Internet music sensation Turntable.fm.

From that post:

I love 8Tracks and Pandora in a serious way.


But this weekend, I spent all of my time listening to music in Turntable.fm – a new web application from Seth Goldstein and Billy Chasen – the co-Founders of IoT company StickyBits.


It’s fun, highly addictive, and has provided all of the music for my weekend at work and play.

Looking back, highly addictive was a massive understatement.

I spent five days straight logged into Turntable.fm: curating my playlist, chatting with other listeners, amassing hundreds of points, and vying for spots on stage.  There were points where I would turn on my wireless hotspot just to travel back home so I wouldn’t lose my spot on stage during a hot streak.

It was constantly in the back of my mind as I wanted to vie for more points and virtual elite status and all part of the experience which Om more elegantly described today as the Alive Web.

Until one morning I stopped logging in.


And found myself back privately listening to Pandora, 8Tracks, and the new Skrillex Album with the occasional share on Twitter.

So what happened?

I was burned out.  I couldn’t keep up with the pace of engaging in the product and living my actual life.  The real-time nature of the product required constant attention, which I couldn’t provide and I needed to go back to normalcy.

So I was done.

Beyond allowing me to relax once again while writing my emails at night to the awesome British Rock of Jamie T – this realization illustrates one of the major challenges with building an application that requires synchronous engagement by end users.

That is – the product requires your entire attention over a long period of time – something most users aren’t willing to give up.

The most basic example of a synchronous application would be a chat room.

  • Users derive all value from the system by engaging in real-time with each other
  • There is no value derived by a passive user in the system (Passive defined as not typing or watching the conversation)
  • There is no value derived by a user who wants to engage when there are few or no other active users

Because users need to be actively engaged at all times when using the product, the total amount of time a user can be active on the site is relatively small which requires a synchronous product to have massive user scale to ensure that any user who logs into the system has a positive experience.

(There’s probably some really interesting studies here on market sizes needed to sustain synchronous communities at scale – if you know of one – email me.)

Going back to the example of Turntable.fm, the product requires a small group of engaged users to be in a room for it to be interesting and to keep other users interested in participating.  Engagement here means DJs updating their playlists and users chatting with each other in the sidebar – which makes it difficult for them to multi-task with other products at the same time.

Looking at examples of the major web 2.0 properties, it’s interesting to see that while some of their features could be used in a synchronous nature – users still derive most of their value from passive, non-time sensitive participation.

  • Facebook: Profiles, Photos, and the Wall make logging in for a few minutes every once in a while a really engaging experience for users
  • Twitter: Stop by to find news, interesting content, or broadcast what you’re thinking for others to enjoy later
  • Zynga Games (ex: Farmville):  Actually started by wanting to make board games social before realizing it was hard to get users to engage in real-time online.  Games like Farmville capitalize on time delayed interaction enabling users to sustain their addiction for longer periods of time

Because they don’t require constant engagement – users can passively enjoy these products when they have a few minutes, more times during the day, and for a longer overall time.  Because of its passive nature, users don’t realize they’re spending time on the platform until way too late – when they’re sucked in and already addicted.

Will I be back to Turntable.fm one day?

Absolutely.  It’s an amazing social application which I truly enjoy using.

However, it will only when I have a bunch of free time to kill.  Or don’t want to DJ a party on Saturday night.

16 thoughts on “Burning out on Turntable.fm (Or Why Building a Synchronous Application is Really Hard)”

  1. I personally get awesome value from Turntable.fm even when I am not on stage DJing. I use it like iTunes Radio (background music while working or whatever) and when tired of a certain genre of music or specific song, I simply visit a different room (similar to changing a radio station).

    The genius of the service is that I can passively engage it, and when feeling social I can either DJ (assuming there's room up there for me), and/or chat with people. It's also a great music discovery tool for me – looking forward to seeing what upgrades they make to the service, but I think that they've got a major hit w/ the service.


  2. Great post! This is why rooms like "Coding Soundtrack" and "Indie Chill Acoustic" are the most popular. The actives DJ and chat, and the passives listen re-engaging to reward / save songs they like or punish songs they dislike. I predict that rooms like these will eventually dominate.


  3. I think another contributor to Turntable.fm burnout is its over-reliance on status as a motivator. I think points and avatars are too central to the current experience to foster long term usage.


  4. I noticed the same thing with my own Turntable usage. I wonder if they could add some features that make the experience more asynchronous and lower effort. For example, maybe import playlists people already created in iTunes so a DJ doesn’t have to add all the tracks one at a time.

    The Turntable model might be a better fit for other uses where people have more time. I keep thinking that a Turntable-like app for video with Airplay would be a killer living room experience. I’m far more likely to commit the time and attention when I’m vegging out on the couch than from my Mac at work.


  5. Great post Adam. I think it touches on a couple of the things that drive me nuts about Turntable.fm, which I otherwise am head-over-heels in love with:

    1. You need to be incredibly vigilant to get a spot in any room with more than 15-20 listeners, and borderline manic to get a spot in Coding Soundtrack (the 100+ person room every day). In Coding Soundtrack, I've sat clicking on top of the 5th DJ's avatar for 20 minutes just to be beaten out in the click-war by someone else.
    2. When you do have a spot, there is zero incentive to give it up, and no way to really tell if you are engaging or going AFK with your playlist on.

    I think that both of these problems will be put to rest soon, as I'm sure they don't escape @seth. I think a DJ waiting list and a per-turn song limit (set individually in each room, from 1 song to unlimited) would go a long way. It would also put engagement into smaller buckets, so you don't have to be there for hours on end.


  6. This line very much resonated with me:

    Because users need to be actively engaged at all times when using the product, the total amount of time a user can be active on the site is relatively small which requires a synchronous product to have massive user scale to ensure that any user who logs into the system has a positive experience.

    That's going to be the next major hurdle for this new generation of immersive Web experiences to overcome. Offering the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous value — as well as building the experience as a mobile first experience — requires lots of learning.

    By the way, I'm impressed by your dedication: turning on a personal hotspot so you can keep DJing in your car? Nice play!


  7. I completely agree with your comment "Until one morning I stopped logging in. Completely." I've ceased logging in because it required a level of mind share that prevented me from being productive. I think turntable.fm is brilliant but I will likely not be spending much time on it in the near future.


  8. I think the idea of customizing rooms to facilitate the level of interaction, DJ duration etc are going to be important, as is some means to effectively manage multiple playlists without bogging the system down. A bigger issue is scalability, and the dependence on marginal technologies (Flash and JS) that are making the experience too aggravating for a lot of my friends.


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