Almost six years ago, I was a staff writer for Seattle Weekly, in charge of a books column, features and music reviews. The amount of music we received, the number of shows we could cover, and the amount of great music out there was (and still is) absolutely overwhelming. How on earth could you possibly know where to start?
To figure it all out, I wrote an article for Seattle Weekly about music recommendations; the center of the piece was a startup, iLike, that recommended music for you based on playlists you created in iTunes. How did iLike work? How did the similar service Last.fm work? Where did Pitchfork and the media come into play?
Whenever you receive personalized recommendations, it’s based on collaborative filtering: people who like X also tend to like Y. The problem with this method is that when a large section of the population is sampled, only the most popular things tend to stick. That’s why, for example, in my Goodreads profile, Arguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens is recommended to me based on the fact that I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It has nothing to do with the qualities inherent to both of them–one is a cognitive psychology book and the other is a bunch of personal essays. It’s just because they’re both smart, popular books; popular stuff always comes up. Look at the recommendations that come up for The Hunger Games: it’s all over the place. So many people bought The Hunger Games that there’s bound to be some overlap: 1,000 people who bought THG also bought Twilight, Cloud Atlas, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The downside of collaborative filtering is that popular items get filtered in easily, and the items that you’re recommended don’t always have the qualities you’re looking for in new items.
The other way of getting recommendations is to find what I call a taste partner. Think of this person as the version of you who has time to read all about music or books and is a few months in the future. Using services like Last.fm or Goodreads is a great way to find these people. You get a lot more value out of these services by being thorough and honest about your tastes in your profile: no matter how obscure or eclectic you think your tastes are, you’re bound to find a great match. It’s worth scouring profiles of others to get out of the collaborative filtering loop.
Finally, no cultural item exists in a vacuum. We often read, watch, or listen to things because we’ve heard from critics or friends that it’s worth our time, and taking part in these cultural conversations also helps strengthen social bonds. But if this is the only way you decide what to pay attention to, you might be missing out on a lot of things that you really, really love—things that you could introduce to others.