It's the latest way to study natives in their natural habitat: Check their iTunes music libraries.
A group of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Palo Alto Research Center presented a study this week outlining the behavior of the wild cubicle-dweller when using Apple Computer's digital music software.
Sharing playlists on an office network turns out to be something like a peacock spreading his feathers for display. The researchers found that people actively work to create an image of themselves through the music they make available to others, just as they might by buying a new car or showing off a cell phone.
"I just went through (my playlist) and said, 'I wonder what kind of image this is...giving me,'" reported one of the study's subjects. "I just went through it to see if there was stuff that would be...annoying, that I would not like people to know that I had."
The rise of playlist anxiety isn't new. The phenomenon was noted on college campuses shortly after Apple began offering the ability to stream music from other people's hard drives over local networks.
Indeed, public embarrassment may now be the routine lot of the unhappy freshman who gets caught with a collection too heavily weighted toward the collected works of "Weird Al" Yankovic. The Georgia Tech study is the first to apply this reasoning to cubicle-dwellers, however.
As yet, the study remains more anthropological than representative. The researchers interviewed 13 people at an unnamed office about their use of iTunes and their perceptions of other people based on playlist-reading.
Along with the culling of items in personal playlists, the researchers detailed the way that people browsed and judged other people's collections. In general, people reported that music libraries didn't dramatically change their perception of their co-workers--except for one or two people who seemed a little too attached to the most current pop hits.
The researchers did offer some suggestions for future software developers. People didn't tend to try out new music randomly inside iTunes, they said--instead, they would hear recommendations offline, and then check their co-workers' libraries to see whether anyone had the songs to sample. Exploration tools could be improved, they said.
Similarly, researchers said people became attached to other people's libraries, and felt a sense of loss when their computers went offline. iTunes or similar programs could create some kind of ghost playlist information on unavailable music that could turn into purchases, they suggested.
The paper was presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems this week in Portland, Ore.