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How Apple's Ping dings Twitter, Facebook

Ping picks at the good parts of Twitter and Facebook and builds a social network around something for which everyone has strong feelings. Might Ping teach Facebook something about privacy too?

People who describe themselves as friendly often aren't. What they actually mean is that they're friendly to people with whom they can find something in common.

When it comes to encountering a public that is a touch more general, they're as indifferent as the next man. Who is, of course, indifferent to them. Unless they can establish some commonality, that is. If they manage that, the conversation can suddenly turn from one of utter emptiness, to one of radically emotional charge.

Remember those times when you sit at a bar and happen upon someone who supports the same baseball team, loves the same books, or adores the same band as you do? Isn't that the moment you feel you have actually friended someone?

So watching Steve Jobs present Apple's new musical social network, Ping, it made me wonder whether he was offering a new kink to the future of social networking, even if inadvertently.

Apple's touchy-feeliness always comes out of the products, rather than trying to inject it into the products. So Apple's Ping is very Apple. It comes out of the power of iTunes. It comes out of an excellent design for buying music.

Steve Jobs' Ping page. He's big on Yo-Yo Ma. Donald Bell/CNET

The thing is, iTunes happens to be inhabited by 160 million people. But, unlike the inhabitants of, say, Facebook and Twitter, they at least all have something in common. It may not be the same band, but it's the same passion for one band or another. So Apple believes that by starting one big musical cocktail party it can create more connections, more sharing, more feeling and therefore more buying.

Where Facebook and Twitter exist to be everything to everyone, in the hope that everyone finds the right someone to follow, to befriend or to ignore, Ping focuses on a conversation we have all had: at a bar, at a concert, even at a wake.

It starts with some version of a very simple question: what music do you like? It's a far safer question than "What people do you like?" And it is an automatic starting point for an open conversation. What is quite lovely about Ping is that you can make it as open or closed a conversation as you like.

While Facebook has forced people to be more open--often against their knowledge--in order to build its business, Ping begins by giving you simple privacy settings. It even--strange, strange concept, this--asks you to opt-in, rather than bulldozing you into interactions for which you are either unprepared or in which you are plainly reluctant to participate.

Ping picks at the nice parts of Facebook and Twitter--friending and following--and offers these benefits to its users without the generalists' pains.

Unlike Twitter, for example, these are all real people. Unlike Facebook, you can just wander around and see who or what you like without having to become someone's friend and without having to like anything at all.

This is real people with a real enthusiasm meeting in a bar and talking about a subject they love, rather than about a subject they often hate--themselves. There's very nice music playing in the background, too.

How many truly passionate, fundamental enthusiasms do large numbers of people share? Movies and sports, probably. Books and food, perhaps. (I wonder if there really are all that many.) Right now, these are often all being talked about on Facebook, each fighting with another for sufficient attention across very mixed groups.

It might not happen that hundreds of niche social networks will suddenly become enormously successful as people decide to fragment themselves across their various enthusiasms. But there are a few core subjects that arouse passion, conversation and the spending of money. Music is one. Apple is another.