15 years at Discogs

Edited hero image (lifted from discogs.com)

So today is my 15th Oggsday. I’ve been a member of discogs.com for a decade and a half.

It has become as much a part of my daily online regimen as checking my email or Twitter feed. No other site has grabbed my attention in the way that Discogs has, nor has any other online resource infuriated me in the same manner.

Discogs is as fascinating as it is frustrating.

Now, if this sounds somewhat familiar, then you’d be right: I used a similar introduction for my 10th Oggsday. Read that article first to gain insight into how it all began and how things developed during my first decade there.

What’s happened since? Which features and improvements have been introduced?

Speaking for myself, what happened in the past five years is that I’ve submitted almost as many new items as in the preceding ten years. I’ve cracked the magic 1000 contributions marker by way of hundreds of tapes, CDs and (finally) much of my record collection. I’ve revised a large number of South African label- and company entries as part of a long-term project, and in 2017 I purchased my first two items from the marketplace.

Both were bootlegs.

It was pure luck that I managed to get hold of them because, in a strange twist of irony, it would be just a few months later that the sale of “unofficial releases” would be prohibited entirely. And that’s where most development seems to focus on nowadays: the marketplace – that entity attached to the database, the one that pays the bills and surely the one that requires the most staff support. Nobody wants an unhappy customer.

As for the database itself? Significant new features or fields are rare. Those that were added (such as “price codes”) merely built upon existing facilities; most anything else has been stagnant despite an increasing list of quirks, bugs and feature requests.

Sure, database content itself has grown at a phenomenal rate (close to 11.3 million individual release entries at the time of writing, compared to the five million entries five years ago) but I’d like to see it put to more use — over and above better data curation.

The “Tracks” feature for instance (still in beta) has huge potential but I consider its approach and implementation poorly thought through. I remain on a quest for “label name variations” and am keen to see tag clouds implemented. The display of live releases (official concert recordings) on artist pages needs to be improved, and classical music as well as audiobooks need to be rethought overall. There’s much to do.

The most recent gadget (the integration of artist pages into the Books, Films and Posters side projects) is a great touch, even if only to broaden their general footprint and SERP relevance — a position and responsibility Discogs is hopefully aware of.

In preparation for this article, I also reached out to several fellow long-time users in an effort to be cheered up and have my memory juggled.

It took several messages before one reminded me of a welcome improvement: artists such as The Beatles are no longer captured as Beatles, The. I’d almost completely forgotten about it. Rejoice!

Surprising, though, was that the majority of respondents did share one common observation: The site’s lack of direction. Discogs is like a huge cruise ship lost at sea. One described the situation as follows:

The staff at Discogs has always been distant. I’m not quite sure what they do nowadays other than go around record fairs, and post memes and other content on social media… The Discogs database doesn’t seem to be getting much attention, so maybe the developers are focused on doing things at the other sites.

It’s apparent there’s no navigator. Passengers and rats alike are going elsewhere.

No, not because the ship is sinking — quite the opposite, in fact: It’s taking on tons of cargo (data viz. stock) while unpaid stewards (voters) are trying their best to slot everything into its right place and guide stowaways (clueless users and vanity artists) and well as passengers and tourists (regular users and buyers) by reciting their boarding passes (guidelines) so that they may learn, contribute, and safely enjoy the ride. Someday they may even be awarded their own set of oars. In the interim, tour operators (“success coordinators” and marketers) keenly have brochures printed up and sell more tickets while the machinists (software engineers) try to plug leaks as they’re reported. None of this matters to the shareholders (site management) so long as cargo (stock) gets shifted. Those who are overly enthusiastic may get shown out of meetings (forums) or keelhauled (banned completely).

Stewards and passengers alike consider this a hobby. Discogs is a crazy party cruise!

The biggest problem I see is that management doesn’t seem to have any sense of direction anymore[…] Unsurprisingly the exponentially increasing userbase has no sense of direction as well, and accuracy is not perceived as something worth pursuing. Heck, most don’t even understand what the purpose of any database is. The few people who actually know (or care) what they’re doing can’t really stop the tide or slow it down. The best we can do is fix what we can, and only hope to be good example for others.

As for the forum, well, the days of thought-provoking discussions are long gone. A good amount of knowledgeable people left, a few are banned, and the forum is now a place for drama, uninformed opinions and quarrels between users.

I still consider discogs as a good hobby and feel the sense of community (at least with a few selected individuals), but it’s hard not to be discouraged with the way things are going now.

Yes, indeed, what of the data capture drones community of users?

Their mood is easily gauged through the forums, and it’s not the healthiest right now.

It’s very comparable to […] the Linux community. When Linux was in its infancy there really was a community. Oh, it was flawed in many ways, but it did function as one anyway. Today, when Linux dominates the corporate server room and is on a majority of devices consumers use […] there is no community, no cohesiveness, and the infighting that occurs any time you get a number of Linux enthusiasts together is viscous. The professionals mostly ignore what passes for a community these days. The same devolution is happening to the Discogs “community.”

Sure, there will always be idiots who shouldn’t be allowed near any kind of keyboard, for whom the guidelines are tl;dr or who cannot tell the difference between a Spotify stream and a glass-mastered, physical compact disc but those are usually weeded out. Different users have very different agendas and uses for the system.

Yes, there are pirates and wanna-be lounge singers on this ship, too. And snowflakes.

A degree of belligerence is always required when engaging in peer review but as of late those who do so “too aggressively” are booted once others complain. When we bickered and argued, we did so with a common goal. We shook hands and agreed to disagree.

There’s been a noticeable generational shift between voters.

When I first started here, I felt like a small little something on the shoulders of giants. I’m positive there were huge egos at play back then, but all that was discussed and decided was done in the greater interest of the database, not individuals or groups of people. Egos got smaller over the years.

Scarce are the users who actively go on search-and-destroy missions against erroneous entries whilst only the bravest of souls venture into the toxic environment of the forums should they encounter issues not covered by the guidelines — or when a mass-edit is needed. Two other dismayed users wrote:

For a while there, I really was interested in Discogs’ mission and spent a good deal of time trying to help push the site in what I thought was a positive direction both on the forums and by making edits unrelated to releases I owned. If you want my honest opinion, I haven’t felt like it’s been worth it in the last couple years.

Nowadays there are only two reasons left why I’m still here: a) there simply (still!) isn’t a better tool for cataloguing my collection, and b) selling records I no longer want is nice and easy. And that’s it. I no longer care about the countless pending submissions, the endless queue of merge requests, or tens of thousands releases marked “NMC”. Been there, done that.

As a result, flawed and grossly incorrect entries can sit in limbo for years, nor are they highlighted as such to the casual visitor. It’s become unclear if the data can be trusted.

Add to this a general and structural disincentive to get any medium to large-scale fixing done resulting from zero investment in data managing tools, long-requested database evolutions perpetually postponed in favour of gimmicks or pet projects that no one ever asked for and that seemingly get abandoned halfway through (Tracks, to name what appears to be Discogs™ main strategic project of the last few years), amateurish management (the great marketplace bootleg purge and the lack of foresight on its impact on the database is a case in point) coupled with bureaucratic procedures and, you named it, a somewhat toxic forum environment… It is all a bit dispiriting, yet the database remains addictive and a unique resource and there’s still that kick when you get something actually done against all those odds.

On a more positive note, the system now supports a boatload of obscure and obsolete formats such as Tefifons, Video2000, Elcaset, and wire spools. It even goes on to prove that MiniDisc is alive and well in the vaporwave scene.

Personally I think discogs is better than it used to be. My main reason is because I don’t think the forums are as “toxic” as in years past. There seems to be a much more open and collaborative atmosphere. This doesn’t mean that discussions don’t get unnecessarily heated. But I don’t feel they’re generally as bad as they used to be, and the attitude seems to be to promote open discussion and to consider alternative viewpoints. I am actually glad that certain significant contributors were excluded from the forums. This is because, though they contributed an awful lot in terms of accuracy and clarity, they also paradoxically contributed a lot in obfuscation and confusion, because the vehemence (and nastiness, and condescension) with which they expressed their views helped contributors like me to not contribute opinions, or make edits, due to the fear of reprisal.
Many things could still be improved. And like many others, I really wish that discogs would put more effort into considering the implications of organisationally-instituted changes (including the introduction of the tracks feature), and to test and forewarn of changes better. However, I think discogs is a better database than it used to be, and I enjoy contributing more than before.

The infamous “version 4” upgrade (for those of us who remember the waves it caused) didn’t sink Discogs after all. It’s still going. Where is goes, nobody knows — we’re all just floating along in a critical mass of functional lethargy. If the sheer numbers and statistics of the top contributors are anything to go by, the site has fulfilled its purpose. Dedicated and grateful users remain, despite the aforementioned shortcomings.

It’s not doom and gloom after all.

I think the site has become a great site and the fact that a majority of the releases are not “Moderated” hasn’t lessened the value as we thought all those years ago. I think that people still try their best to get things right and the error checking and fields are great. I try and add stuff that is obscure and do use Discogs to purchase a lot of the missing music from my collections. It’s still the best place to find the really rare pressing variations or catalog numbering variations. In all I wished I had more time to finish off my collection and really get into cleaning up and modding my favorite artists. I think the site is still the best for us hard core collectors […]

As for the next few years, speaking personally?

Back when I was an eager rookie (image via the Wayback Machine)

There are three boxes of unprocessed media left in the basement archives — not counting another collection that arrived recently. I’ll probably even put a few items up for sale soon. And someday, oh! Someday I might get to catalogue my personal core CD collection. There remain untold treasures of old material left to unearth, and there will always be new music released. Discogs drives and feeds this hunger in equal measures.

The site is a fantastic resource (if you know how to read it) and a permanent source of entertainment (if you know where to look). The guys from Vinyl & Data indirectly confirm that Discogs remains as fascinating as it is frustrating.

And if it gets a little too much… well, it’s good to take a break for a while (as I have).

That said, stepping back from caring about the site as much has been nice. I can still use Discogs quite a bit and think the site is a great resource overall, despite the little problems. As far as positive things, I think the “find your version” function that was introduced several years ago was a huge improvement for site usability.

Oh, one last thing from the past five years: I’ve since met fellow oggers in real life. Hi!

Update 28-07-2019: Major rewording and general edits.

All images via hmvhDOTnet unless specified otherwise.

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