When midnight comes, I open EasyNet, click on a song, and observe the number of comments that are welled up with melancholy and wistfulness springing up like mushrooms after raining. It is both magical and insane.
EasyNet is a music app. It is functionally equivalent to Spotify or SoundCloud, where users can listen to and possibly download songs they like. But what intrigues me most is EasyNet’s comment section: each song has a space for users to leave their comments; interestingly, after midnight (like some kind of magic that happens in fairy tales), users start to share their melancholy, sometimes even heartbroken, stories under certain similarly melancholic songs, as if trying to dry up a stack of damp paper by the fireplace.
...interestingly, after midnight (like some kind of magic that happens in fairy tales), users start to share their melancholy...
A large number of comments are about sad romantic stories, sometimes starting with “10 years ago…” or “it was a rainy, dark night…” Yet many comments are also about childhood memories, unexpected partings, painful illness, and unrequited love and longings. The music itself elicits feelings and memories, which inevitably leave traces in the comment section of a song.
I must not be the only one whose fingers swipe the screen while listening to the music on EasyNet. Oftentimes, in the late evening, I turn off lights, wrap myself in fuzzy blankets, and quietly read those melancholy comments under the comment section of a song. I feel a strange intimacy with people who listened to, are listening to, or will listen to that song. What’s more, I feel a (virtual) emotional attachment to those strangers who leave a comment and share their stories.
Several times I have found myself tearing up. I experience a fusion of experiences, theirs and mine. The chances to know their life stories (sometimes they are complicated: you cannot distinguish the fictional ones from the so-called “real”), and to take a glance at one another’s emotional struggles are precious enough. These are not just stories, but also lives, lives of hundreds and thousands of music listeners.
Lots of these music comments are about break-ups (in every sense) and unexpected, or long-anticipated partings. Under a sad love song, someone wrote:
“When I can’t have it, the only thing I can do is forget it. I always mentally break down at inexplicable times, and I always miss things from the irretrievable past. But nostalgia is useless, and people in the past will never come back. I used to recline on the mountains called love, but now I find some of them full of thorns and others full of beasts. Yet I have no choice but to drown myself in the past memories. I’m unable to forget my past.”
And another comment under this song is about memory:
“It is sad that memories are reconstructive. I started to see all my past memories in light of this sad and destructive event. I remembered listening to this song with her in the evening on our way to our apartment: I once believed I could not be more delighted in her accompany. But now I doubt whether the happiness was solely my imagination, whether it was all fake, and whether she was always lying. The fake happiness I had…If only my past memories can be protected from reconstruction and from the heart-broken sadness.”
Sometimes I have the same (unfulfilled) yearning that my past memories will always stay the same (especially the good ones).
Sometimes I have the same (unfulfilled) yearning that my past memories will always stay the same (especially the good ones). But it is the nature of our memories that they are evolving to create a more coherent personal narrative—for good or ill. While the safest memories are always those that have been long forgotten, I think I still prefer remembering to safeness. I will just accept that if I want to remember something, it is in danger of being changed.
Other comments on EasyNet overflow with complaints about insomnia, descriptions of pairs of dry eyes remaining open until dawn, metaphors of how the whole world is crying, and worries about partners or family members who are away from home in the age of pandemics.
Music is not just about lyrics or melodies, although these are important enough; music is also about the opening up of the experiential world of oneself and another.
Music is not only about resonance and a sense of community, although these are precious enough; it is also about the creation of a space for the expression of a certain mood or emotion—a way of world-building.
Once my friend said: “Everyone, you and me, is like a bubble with one’s emotions residing in it. It feels wonderful to get closer to other bubbles. But if the bubbles unexpectedly burst, we will be hurt. So, sometimes it is better not to take the risk.”
Each person builds a world with their emotional experiences.
Each person carries with them their experiential world, and sometimes interactions between these worlds lead to ecstasy but other times sadness. Thinking of a time when you shared some experiences that are extremely important to you but that were treated lightly by your friends. Or imagine a time when you were in a sad mood, but people around you were happy and delighted, which made you feel that you were living in a totally different world. Each person builds a world with their emotional experiences. Between some worlds there are barriers, which are not uncrossable, but would take lots of energy and effort to cross. And, if people’s moods are not attuned to others’ world, they will be hurt.
In my digital anthropology class, building on Marwick and Boyd’s notion of the context collapse, I coined the term “affects collapse” (2011). Affects collapse refers to the ethical pressure of attuning one’s emotion to the general mood of one’s online surroundings; this collapse leads to the ethical and normative judgments of what one should be posting at a certain time, and how one should react to certain events online. For instance, when one is feeling happy because one has come up with a wonderful idea, one might not choose to share one’s joy on social media, if her friend just caught a very bad flu.
This is a way to prevent the bursting of one's own and another person's bubbles, but it also makes each bubble an enclosed interiority.
Music contains and opens up a multitude of possibilities. It is like a hyperlink which subsequently reveals others’ concealed, experiential worlds. Music attracts bubbles with similar emotions residing inside, and lets them dance, dance, and dance along the music. In a music app like EasyNet, people no longer worry about “affects collapse,” because a song will automatically attune the mood of its listeners and provide a space for them to share their stories without being judged.
Being unaware, listeners collaboratively construct a world that allows the presence and expressions of a certain emotion.
Music has a “designed narrowness” like games. Differing from offline life where people’s goals are diverse, in games everyone has the same specific objective and follows the same set of rules. According to the philosopher of games Nguyen, “this designed narrowness is what enables the strange intimacy of game-playing.” Music’s “designed narrowness” manifests itself in emotional terms. A song carries with it a certain emotion. One then aligns their emotion with it when listening to that song. Being unaware, listeners collaboratively construct a world that allows the presence and expressions of a certain emotion. The role of music, say, is that it not only provides a hyperlink for one to click on it and take a glance at one another’s experiential world, but also accommodate people with similar emotions and attune them to each other. In this way, it is easier for one to share one’s vulnerability, like music listeners on the music app.
Today I’m a single mushroom, but tonight you will see my kind springing up in the forest (really: on the music apps). These encounters are so precious. One’s murmurs can finally be heard. Maybe one day you will read my comments—my murmurs —under a song without knowing it’s me.
We are intimate strangers.
Marwick, Alice E., and Danah Boyd. "I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience." New media & society 13, no. 1 (2011): 114-133.
Nguyen, C. Thi. “Op-Ed: The Word on Wordle: It Is Bringing People Together by Letting Us See into Each Other’s Minds.” Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-01-21/op-ed-wordle-game-minds-play.