The robot and the echo chamber

Pandora is a music streaming service which takes the name of a band or song, and delivers you a “station” full of songs it thinks is musically related. By “musically related” it means musically: it uses a bunch of criteria cooked up by something called the Music Genome Project, like tempo, “subtle use of vocal harmony,” “extensive vamping,” or “syncopated beats.” It lets you say whether you particularly like or hate a song it comes up with, and also lets you skip to the next song without expressing an opinion really. So: yeah. Yay Pandora.

last.fm is a music streaming service which takes the name of a band or song, or the name of one of last.fm’s users, and delivers you a “station” full of songs it thinks is musically related, or sometimes just a list of songs with brief previews, or sometimes neither… but you can usually get to a radio feed of some kind if you stumble around for a bit. By “musically related” it means liked by other users who profess to like the music you searched for. It lets you say whether you particularly like or hate a song it comes up with, and also lets you skip to the next song without expressing an opinion really. So: yeah. Yay la– OK, wait a sec.

I kind of have a problem, both because last.fm seems to be emerging as blogdom’s favorite of the two, and because the two seem to represent an old problem of the net.

On last.fm, you will never (in my admittedly brief experience) hear anything unpopular. You will probably hear a lot that you like, provided that you start on a similar-artists-radio channel of an artist you like. But: last night I searched on TV On The Radio, fired up the radio, and eventually got the Pixies. Now, do I like both artists? Yes. Would I describe them as similar? No… no, not really. They are only similar in that I like them, and so do other people who like TV On The Radio. The band that nobody’s heard of yet, that does the kind of intense, musical out-there stuff that TVOTR does? last.fm won’t find them unless everyone already has. It’s a feedback loop, an echo chamber, it’s the nightmare scenario of intelligent-agent info feeds: no one ever hears anything they don’t already agree with.

On the other hand, when I play Pandora, I get a lot of obscure, bad crap I have to skip. Like, a lot. The robotic correllation of somebody’s musical categories seems to result in a lot of misfires with respect to what actually relates two pieces of pop music. But: getting back to the “obscure” part, I actually almost never hear anything I have even heard of, let alone heard. I discover things. All of my lengthy Pandora listening sessions to date have resulted in the purchase of at least one album. (Sometimes after a long, long search.)

There’s trolling the whole world of information and letting a lot of crap into your attention, if only briefly, to find the wonderful unexpected stuff. That can be a lot of work for infrequent rewards, but somehow the rewards feel really, really good. There is also going to the sources you know, and not worrying that there is something else out there – just trusting that if something is really worthwhile, you will probably hear about it. Why can’t we get these two models of information filtering to work together more productively? Or, how could we cut the Gordian knot and approach the problem in an entirely different way? Or, am I just obsessing about something obvious again?

Anyway Pandora does let you say whether you like or hate things, so it must be using the data somehow. I hope they add the more personal, social-software-y features that last.fm has, to make their tool less austere and more human, and do it soon. We shouldn’t have to choose between bottom-up and top-down, between cathedral and bazaar – that’s the other thing, that Pandora’s categories were made by experts and presumably applied by professionals, whereas last.fm basically is just the product of what people do anyway, via the site and its associated Audioscrobbler tool. People say that the top-down, made-by-those-who-know-what’s-good-for-you approach is now outmoded, but in this case it seems to have what folksonomy will never get us: the element of surprise.

And then Epitonic reopened. So I guess mu.

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