By the time I sat with a roomful of other people to watch Steve Jobs unveil the first iPod in 2001, music listening was already well on its way to becoming a solitary activity -- a transition spurred by recorded music, then headphones, the Walkman, and the flood of MP3s transmitted over the internet to our computers, where we mostly listened with headphones on our lonesome.
Sure, Napster involved connecting to other people's music collections, the same way we connect to our friends' favorite music through the all YouTube music posted on Facebook. But for most of the digital music revolution, we have listened alone.
The pendulum appears ready to swing back the other way. Although the Microsoft Zune, with its emphasis on "the social," has gone to that great gadget bin in the sky, weightless apps that run on multiple platforms are proving far more successful at bringing listeners together than a single hardware platform ever could be.
The most interesting apps we're seeing these days, some of which have yet to be released, buck the decades-long trend towards solitary listening. Here they are, listed in alphabetical order:
AudioVroom applies game mechanics to music. In order to rack up points used to listen to ad-free music stations on the iPhone (pending approval) you need to "bump" phones with other users, creating stations that both of you can listen to, combining your musical tastes into a single station.
Automatic DJ, admittedly more of a hack than a consumer-facing app at this point, takes pictures of people at parties to let them DJ the music just by being there. It uses facial recognition to figure out who a person is, mines various APIs to determine which dance-party-friendly music they like, and plays it for everyone at the party.
As mentioned above, YouTube is already a great tool for sharing music on Facebook and other networks, but ChatMusic takes the concept to the next level by creating listening rooms where friends can listen to music embedded from YouTube together, and any member of the group can contribute tracks to the playlist.
Currently in private beta (as in you have to apply), Listening Room lets like-minded fans get together in a private room, play MP3s from their collections, and chat about it.
The Music WithMe app lets you share the music you're listening to on your Android phone with your Facebook and Twitter pals, regardless of which app you're using to play a given song.
The free Roqbot iPhone app comes in two forms: one for venues, so that they can enhance the ambience with intelligently-selected music, and another for patrons, to let them play songs jukebox-style and vote on each others' picks.
SoundTrckr doesn't let you bump phones to merge stations the way AudioVroom does, but the fact that it lets you listen to people based on their proximity to you (sort of like Color for music) and lets you see their profiles makes it a good way to meet people in real life through a shared love of music.
Inspired by the dual-jacked Walkman of yore, wahwah.fm (private beta) lets you listen to music as you broadcast it to your friends. Everyone listens at the same time, so you can chat about what you're all hearing.