Weaving a Tighter Web 2.0

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, August 10, 2008

Until now, there was never much reason to linger at the online MP3 store eMusic past the time it took to click on a download button or two.

But the 10-year-old service has begun launching a pile of tweaks, designed to latch on to the popularity of sites from Facebook to YouTube. Like a lot of Web companies, eMusic is hoping to get users to stick around longer -- and spend more.

Say you're a fan of the Brooklyn band the Hold Steady. In the past, if you were considering a download of the band's latest work, the eMusic page might have included a few sentences about the band and the new album, with a link to a review or two. In the redesigned version, that page now holds nearly everything you'd want to know about the band, including biographical information from Wikipedia, videos scraped off YouTube and photos from Flickr.

If you're a blogger, other tools will allow you to lift music samples and other elements off the eMusic page, in case you want to write something about the band's new album on your site.

While eMusic's competitors -- chiefly Apple's iTunes and Amazon.com -- don't offer such cross-pollinating features, the applications are becoming fairly typical on the Web.

Tech industry analyst Andrew Frank, with research firm Gartner, said such features, generally filed by Internet thinkers and entrepreneurs under the heading "Web 2.0," are quickly becoming the norm online. "Web sites have begun to accept that people want more ways to interact with them than by just clicking around and filling in forms," he said.

With that in mind, online photo service Shutterfly is scheduled to introduce an upgrade from the usual online photo album this week. The new application, called Share 2.0, comes with tools that will let users create free, personalized sites that automatically drag in news and updates from around the Web. Where Facebook brings in large groups of people who don't necessarily know each other in the real world, Shutterfly is hoping that its new features, incorporating ideas from the blogging and social networking worlds, will appeal to groups of real-world acquaintances. It hopes soccer teams or church groups will see the new features as a better way to collaborate on projects. Maybe they'll buy more photos, too.

Even an upcoming computer game, the latest from the creator of the Sims, is getting into the social networking act. Called Spore, the new game from Will Wright lets players create exotic virtual species from scratch. If you have friends who are also playing the game, you can keep up with their virtual creations through "Sporecasts," which will automatically feed those creations into your virtual universe. As your creatures evolve to the point where they travel through the game's version of outer space, they'll make contact with planets populated with your friend's creations, or vice versa.

Players will be able to keep track of their own creations via their "MySpore" page, sort of a Facebook for the virtual critter set. Thousands of early Spore fans, in a sample-sized version of the game that was released by its publisher Electronic Arts this summer, have already uploaded videos of their creations to YouTube with the aid of some built-in software tools. If players are enamored enough of their designs, EA has made it easy to buy a customized mug or poster with a few simple mouse clicks.

Such nifty tools are just a reflection of the sort of things that tech-savvy consumers have been doing on their own, or wanting to do anyway, executives say.

"It's about trying to stay relevant as people get used to traveling through a more fluid Web," said eMusic's chief executive, David Pakman, of his site's new features.

And a big part of staying relevant is allowing people to lift elements from eMusic for use on their blogs, he said. "Our customers are using blogs as a discovery mechanism for finding out about new music, so we decided that we need to let them take things from our site and put them on their blogs," he said.

The music site is even leveraging the information it gleans from your social networks to better serve up the content users are seeking. If you've synced your Facebook account with your eMusic account, the next time you search for an artist or band, the eMusic search engine will pop up results that also take into account what your friends have been listening to lately, in an attempt to deliver more relevant results.

Spore producer Caryl Shaw said that even though the upcoming game, set for release next month, has been in development since before the advent of Flickr and Facebook and YouTube, such sites have had an impact on the game's final incarnation.

Originally, the game's design team thought they would personally pick out the best content that players designed and download them into the universes of Spore players. But the advent of social networking tools happened to complement ideas of the game's design team for how Spore would work. "We had kind of a light-bulb moment," she said.

Now, she said the game is a little like Facebook in that it will allow players to keep up with friends without having to talk to them that much. "I look at Spore as this game that's sort of like Facebook, sort of like Flickr," said Shaw during a recent trip to Washington to show off the game.

Other executives, however, sometimes shrug off the buzzwords.

"This is Shutterfly's social networking play," agreed Jeffrey Housenbold, Shutterfly's chief executive, of his company's new Share 2.0 product.

But, then again, Web sites like his have always strived to enhance the social or family connection among users, he said, whatever the jargon of the day is. "Social networking is just this era's new way of saying community," he said.

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