Getting Boxed into the Personalization Corner (or Olly’s Problem with Pandora)

You can tell someone lots of facts about you, but what helps them “know” you is how they understand those facts.  Take for example my musical tastes – I can tell you I like “The Crystal Method,” “The Shamen,” “Simple Minds,” and knowing all about music you could certainly pick some things I like.  But for me at least, there’s a problem, which I was reminded of a few weeks ago, when reading Mike Melanson’s ReadWriteWeb article about Google’s Custom Search

Mike’s metaphor, “Customizing search results, it would seem, can be like putting us in an echo chamber of similar ideas and opinions…we’re suddenly being subtly driven back to our own world view, as repeated by our peers,” rings true for me and and highlights a notion that I experience with many 1-to-1 personalization solutions deployed today; you can tell them lots of facts, but they struggle to “know” you.

I have broad musical tastes characterized explicitly by some of the artists I mentioned above; however, Pandora, despite its wealth of expertise in music genomics is not equipped to comprehend that my preferences are deeply entrenched in a broader personal context. If I were to tell you that I grew up in the UK in the ‘80s and ‘90s, have played jazz and classical violin since the age of 3 years old, I bet you could pick me a much broader and more satisfying playlist than Pandora with the artist information above.  And let me tell you, it wouldn’t be hard –  I’ve pretty much given up on Pandora, because I find I like so little of the directly related musical content it recommends that I tend to box it into a corner with all my “thumbs down-ing.”

Google’s customization effort is trying to leverage a broader view of you as a user, but as a user you can only passively engage it – and leveraging the music preferences of my Facebook social graph would certainly help expand Pandora’s actionable information. That said neither can capture, express, and act on the more personal statements I made above.

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