from the February 16, 2006 edition -
How they know what you like before you do
The high-tech tracking of people's preferences puts firms in touch
By Kate Moser | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
The other night, a few friends sat in Tracey Kennedy's Rock Island,
Ill., living room listening to music. A song by a band no one but Ms.
Kennedy knew started to play, and everyone wanted to know who it was.
Kennedy revealed that it was Silversun Pickups, an under-the-radar Los
Angeles band she'd found using an Internet music service called
Pandora.com. For her, the website's personalized music
recommendations have sparked new listening habits. "It's like I've
come back to life," says Kennedy, a 30-something computer
programmer. "I'm getting all these vitamins I need." Since she
started listening to Pandora at work in late October, Kennedy has
bought about 35 new albums.
That's music to the ears of those who make recommendation technology.
By 2010, one-quarter of online music sales will be driven by such
"taste-sharing applications," predicts a study released in December by
the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and
research firm Gartner.
Over the past decade, e-commerce has taken a cue from the notion that
friends give the best recommendations. Personalized suggestions have
become more commonplace as various forms of media converge, industry
professionals say, and this could both change the entertainment
industry and give consumers more power.
What started with Amazon.com's "collaborative filtering" approach,
which made product suggestions to consumers based on what they bought,
has become a more precise science.
Kurt Beyer, president of Riptopia, a digital media processing company,
divides recommendation technology into two general schools:
theoretical and empirical. The theoretical approach bases its
recommendations on qualities inherent in a product. The empirical
approach is similar to what Amazon.com does, gathering large amounts
of data about the buyers of a product to make recommendations based on
demographics and interests.
Recommendation technology is "exploding," claims Daren Gill, vice
president of ChoiceStream, a Cambridge, Mass., company that powers
recommendations for AOL, Yahoo Movies, and eMusic, among others.
ChoiceStream makes recommendations based on about 25 attributes, such
as "macho," "romantic," "mainstream," and "obscure." Eight editors
monitor the technology to make sure that when new music or movies
arrive, the automated system places them in the appropriate
category. Then algorithms create recommendations for users based on
their previous choices.
MusicStrands, a free online music service based in Corvallis, Ore.,
launched last year and is working to make "music discovery" a social
activity. Last week, the company rolled out a new version that lets
users see what their friends are listening to in real time.
"They don't want to sit down and listen to what other people are
programming for them," says Gabriel Aldamiz-echevarria, MusicStrands
vice president, in a telephone interview.
With a library of more than 5 million songs, MusicStrands provides
instant recommendations based on what someone is listening to at that
moment. Listeners can build and share playlists and "tag" music with
terms such as "contemplative" or "driving."
This kind of social interaction, the Berkman Center study predicts,
will help democratize musical tastes. "Instead of primarily disc
jockeys and music videos shaping how we view music, we have a greater
opportunity to hear from each other ... These tools allow people to
play a greater role in shaping culture, which, in turn, shapes
themselves," the study states.
The Berkman study found that 58 percent of participants said they were
exposed to "a wider variety of music since using any online music service."
That kind of discovery is what Pandora is banking on. "People are so
hungry to get reconnected with music," says Pandora founder Tim
Westergren. "When you get into your 20s, music's just going to play a
smaller role in your life ... You become another person who hasn't
bought an album in -- you name it -- number of years."
To counteract that inertia, Mr. Westergren started the Music Genome
Project. At Pandora's offices in Oakland, Calif., about 40 musicians
classify about 8,000 songs per month. They identify a song's
fundamental traits from among 400 possibilities. The traits of a
Beatles song, for example, might include "melodic songwriting" and "a
clear focus on recording studio production." By identifying these
attributes, Pandora connects listeners with all kinds of music - from
mainstream to obscure. At its website, people can enter a song or an
artist that they enjoy. Based on the qualities of that song or artist,
Pandora then plays other songs it thinks they'll like. If they like
it, perhaps they will click on a link to an online store and buy the
music -- and Pandora will get a commission.
Movie renters are expanding their horizons, too. Customers have
contributed more than 1 billion ratings on the Netflix website, says
communications director Steve Swasey, adding that 60 percent of movies
rented by its 4.2 million members are based on computer-generated
recommendations. Those curious about what films are most popular can
check out the Netflix Top 100, or they can enter their ZIP Code and
find out what's hot in their neighborhood.
Community-driven Netflix recommendations are useful, says Mike
Kaltschnee, who publishes a Web log, HackingNetflix.com, which is
supported partly by Netflix and Blockbuster ads. Mr. Kaltschnee, who
lives in Danbury, Conn., says he sees friends dropping red Netflix
envelopes into the mail, and conversations about what people are
watching start there, and then move online. "It's sort of turned into
a little club," he says.
But advances in recommendation technology have raised concerns about
privacy, too. Last month, iTunes customers complained about a new
feature called "MiniStore," a list of personalized recommendations
based on an individual's music library. Critics say Apple shouldn't
have access to such information.
"The more that the company tries to get into the mind of the consumer,
the more that they try to aggregate consumer information, there is the
danger of blurring those lines of what is mine and what is yours,"
says Mr. Beyer of Riptopia.
Will Internet companies sell profiles of their customers to others?
Westergren of Pandora says record companies have asked him many times
"if any of this stuff is for sale." It never will be, he adds.
http://www.csmonitor.com | Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor.
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