Back from a looong summer vacation

Well it has been a fabulous summer for me, taking an extended break from any research activities whatsoever. Now that I am ‘back to school’ (in the sense that I still work at SFU) it’s time to consider my academic pursuits, and if I will consider further research (possibly publications?) on this topic. I have been contacted by several journalists over the summer interested in doing stories on cassette tapes which I am always willing to participate in. The most recent one has really got me thinking (excitedly) about my research so I thought I’d use it as an excuse to get back on the blog. The following is an email correspondence. Stay tuned tapeheads!!!

Hi Jason,

I work at CBC Radio in Winnipeg and am thinking about doing a piece on cassette tape collectors. While doing some research, I found your thesis on tape collectors and how the art/design of tape collections can be applied to digital media.

I was hoping to talk to you about it, either by email or phone. I’d like your views on tape collectors and how they differ from vinyl or cd collectors. I’d also like to get your point of view on why tape collections can help with the layout of digital music players.

Last question, I was wondering if you were in touch with some big cassette collectors during your thesis research and if they’d be willing to talk to me.

Take care,


Hi Daniel

Thanks for your email. I’d be happy to talk to you about cassette tapes anytime, but will try to answer some of your questions in a quick email.

Re. Tape collections vs. other forms of analogue media
Cassettes were a huge breakthrough for the personal recorded music experience on two fronts, their mobility and customizability. My research did not look specifically at the mobility aspects of the technology, but it did reveal how important it was for people to take their music out of the home, and (initially) onto the road in car decks and eventually onto the hip or shoulder via walkmans and portable tape decks.
The customizability aspect was more to the point of the research as I wanted to know more about how people interacted with their entire collection of music how they stored it, organized it and why the KEPT them at all particularly now that the technology is nearly 20 yrs ‘obsolete’. Of course it was blank tapes that made the customizing of a personal music experience possible, and the analogue limitations intrinsic to the media meant that great care had to be given when making a a tape because like traditional typewriters, it was almost impossible to go back and change what had previously been recorded. People were willing to spend that time however and the precious objects became known as mixtapes. Turns out, these artifacts are very sentimental for many people and wether people can play them or not they are often held onto because of the nostalgic value.

I argue that tape cassettes gave us the basic kinds of interactions we want with our music collections that have not changed to this day. Digital technology HAS improved the personal recorded music experience in different ways. By making our music collections digital, we are able to increase the size of our collections dramatically, but at the cost of being able make other kinds of searches extremely difficult such as “what kind of music was i listening to in my 20’s?” or “what did we listen to on that roadtrip that time?”

In a nutshell, this is one of the characteristics that is lacking in modern digital music players. iTunes (for eg, but all the major ones are very similar) will record your ‘last tracks played’ or ‘most played tracks’ etc, but there are no affordances in the user interface for tracking a musical history greater than say several months (possibly years if you are diligent with your software). Tapes are similar to time capsule in the sense that they can be brought out and used to reminisce and share stories about ones (distant) past and this has value for many people.

As for your last questions regarding avid tape collectors, you will probably be interested in talking to Zan Hoffman. He has a crazy amount of tapes, many recordings of his own plus he trades with others. Check out his blog for a glimpse to the extent of his collection, its mad! He is a friendly guy, I think his contact info should be on that site.

Let me know if this helps, or if you would like to discuss further.



Observing Cassette Culture: Thesis now available

yay for finishing projects!
The above picture was taken about an hour before my final final deadline. I am not even sure how I managed to pull this off, and yet here I am, done my masters degree. Its especially gratifying doing this level of work on a topic that I am so fond of, and has received such little academic inquiry. (these are the kind of things i can say now)

Once again, a big bunch of thanks for all the participants who contributed images to this study. Couldn’t have done it with ya. There are plans to continue this research, and perhaps rewrite the thing into something smaller and more interesting to read, so stay tuned for that.

For those who cannot wait, I have posted the thesis which you can download here. enjoy!

vive la cassette!

Observing Cassette Culture


Title graphic for thesis defense.

Earlier this week, (Monday actually) was the defense for my thesis titled, “Observing Cassette Culture: User Interface Implications for digital Music Libraries“. Every thing went off without a hitch, and although I have a little ‘housekeeping’ to do on the final document before i can publish it, I passed! Today, I thought I would post up the powerpoint presentation I used to deliver the oral part of the defense. It hints at what is to come when i do post the final thesis. Although the outline below is quite abbreviated, it indicates the overall structure and ideas I presented. Thanks to all the participants who agreed to allow their photos to be published, and completed the survey. I am looking forward to continuing this research!


People construct their music listening experiences with the technology that is readily available, and the collection of recorded music they keep.

  • Music collections, Tapes and MP3s
  • Why cassettes are special
  • Research questions

This Research Study

This research observed the images of peoples tapes, as posted on the social photo sharing website flickr.

  • Online Ethnography – User centered design
  • Bookmarked images on Flickr
  • Analyzed images and conducted survey


iTunes and the other music players are not all that bad, I believe however the design of them has been more influenced by the capabilities of the technology, as opposed to the needs of users.

  • Organization – Tapes could be browsed. iTunes is organized by default but the entire collection cannot be displayed.
  • Personalization – Tapes embodied memories, relationships events. Could be shared.
  • Digitization – Physical affordances are lost, such as the musical history.


The analysis of the results showed some behaviors that have not been accounted for in the design of digital music players.

  • Organization
    • Images – Showed many examples of “piling”
    • Survey – Stars rating system not used (over 75% no)
  • Personalization
    • Images – Many mixtapes in collections
    • Survey – People still give and receive “music mixes”
  • Digitization
    • Images – Many narratives were documented, (almost every picture has a story)
    • Survey – Tapes are kept for sentiment and nostalgia and fear the music will be lost

Design Implications

Indeed, many implications for the design of digital music libraries were noted.

  • Organization
    • An un-organized view may be desirable
    • Browsing needs better support – visualization
    • “Coverflow” does this to some degree
  • Personalization
    • Tagging may support better playlists
    • Playlists should also be customizable
    • Sharing needs to be expanded
  • Digitization
    • Tracking music histories my be useful such personal music charts
    • Snapshots of the state of the player at a given time may also be useful


Future research

  • Where does music go to die?
  • Tension between automation and user control