Internet comments are mostly bad. That is not a controversial or new statement, but a truth that has become more pronounced over time. It used to be that the most annoying thing you could to do to a stranger online was misdirect her to a Rick Astley video, an adorable prank when you consider the puddle of mouth foam that currently accumulates beneath a piece of well-clicked content. These days, places for online discussion are unruly enough that many people have embraced the neologism to “never read the comments,” and publications like NPR, Bloomberg, and the Daily Beast have simply eliminated them.
But amid the desolate wasteland of comment sections, there is one respite: SoundCloud. From its very beginning, the nine-year-old music company has been a gem, home to free-to-stream mixtapes, indie podcasts, and every “Hotline Bling” remix you can possibly think of. Major artists including Erykah Badu and Kanye West have used it to test out their new music. And as its creative community has grown, its active user count has, too. The site is home to more than 175 million listeners a month. Technology giants have taken notice: Rumor has it that Google is interested in buying SoundCloud, less than a year after Spotify was said to be mulling a deal.
But it isn’t SoundCloud’s lure as a commodity that fascinates me — it’s the fact that it’s created a feedback tool that can accommodate so many people without soiling the website. But SoundCloud is one of those rare tech companies whose entire design was founded with a single medium in mind: audio. Its cofounders, Alexander Ljung and Eric Wahlforss, met in 2006 in the computer lab of Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The earliest version of SoundCloud was inspired by their desire for a more collaborative music tool. They replaced the boxy progress bar popularized by services like iTunes with a waveform visual that allowed users to track and comment on specific moments of a song. “The web was sort of switching from becoming just big to becoming social,” Ljung told Bloomberg in 2015. They saw content as “a social object, almost like a campfire that people gather around. For us the social object would be the piece of audio.”
Today, those campfires host hundreds of thousands of listeners at a time. Play a song, and comments appear in sync with the specific moment that moved people. Audio comes at us in little bursts of emotion — the anticipatory buildup before a beat drops, the wailing crescendo of a chorus, the whimper of an outro. Played aloud in a dim room full of strangers, these moments might inspire a head bob or a waist twist. In SoundCloud’s comments, those dance moves translate to a short, euphoric declarations like “damn” or “yesss” or “this.” Users emote in clusters around the intro of an infectious beat or a particularly clever lyric, creating a visual map for the peaks and valleys of a song and enriching it.
Over the years, various companies have experimented with recreating the energy of listening sessions or live concerts on the web. The now defunct Turntable.fm allowed people to choose an avatar, enter a virtual concert hall, and battle for the DJ throne — a spot that would be awarded or revoked based on live feedback from your audience. The social virtual reality platform AltspaceVR recently introduced a technology that allows a headliner’s avatar to be beamed to various virtual rooms (comedian Reggie Watts was their first performer). The music-broadcasting platform Boiler Room, which allows DJs to stream live sets, offered a live chat feature below performances until a band of trolls harassed a Glasgow DJ midperformance. SoundCloud’s scrolling comments might not be as involved as these models, but they’re probably the only collective listening experience that’s truly scalable. Running your mouse over the colorful thread of SoundCloud photos that populate beneath a track is a convenient, low-commitment way to take the temperature of how people are reacting to a song, and it’s typically much more satisfying than listening to a Spotify track in complete isolation.
Yes, the stuff that populates beneath SoundCloud files has all the same flaws of your typical online comments sections. Thirsty accounts pop in to ask for followers, porn bots advertise their services, and people troll, insult, and spout nonsense. It’s the same mix of chaos and bickering that we’ve known for years. But the difference on SoundCloud is that these comments merely flash before your eyes, pegged to a snippet of the song. If they’re short and emotive, you can absorb them. If they’re long-winded and spammy, your eyes naturally glaze over, and then they’re gone. And that’s the best thing about a SoundCloud comment thread: It has a definitive beginning and ending. When the song is over, so is the stream of feedback below it. Sure, you could scroll down. But there’s no need. You got the idea. You listened with the crowd.