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The Curse of “You May Also Like”

3 March 2013

From Slate:

Of all the startups that launched last year, Fuzz is certainly one of the most intriguing and the most overlooked. Describing itself as a “people-powered radio” that is completely “robot-free,” Fuzz bucks the trend toward ever greater reliance on algorithms in discovering new music. Fuzz celebrates the role played by human DJs—regular users who are invited to upload their own music to the site in order to create and share their own “radio stations.”

. . . .

“Can the auteur survive in an age when computer algorithms are the ultimate focus group?” asked Leonard. He wondered how the massive amounts of data that Netflix has gathered while users were streaming the first season of the series [House of Cards] —how many times did they click the pause button?—would affect future episodes.

Many other industries are facing similar questions. For example, Amazon, through its Kindle e-reader, collects vast troves of information about reading habits of its users: what books they finish and what books they don’t; what sections they tend to skip and which they read most diligently; how often they look up certain words in the dictionary and underline passages. (Amazon is hardly alone here: Other e-book players are as guilty.)

Based on all these data, Amazon can predict the ingredients that will make you keep clicking to the very end of the book. Perhaps Amazon could even give you alternate endings—just to make you happier. As a recent paper on the future of entertainment puts it, ours is a world where “stories can become adaptive algorithms, creating a more engaging and interactive future.”

Just as Netflix has figured out that, given all their data, it would be stupid not to enter the filmmaking business, so has Amazon discovered that it would be stupid not to enter the publishing business. Amazon’s knowledge, however, goes deeper than Netflix’s: Since it also runs a site where we buy books, it knows everything that there’s to know about our buying behavior and the prices that we are willing to pay. Today Amazon runs half a dozen publishing imprints and plans to add more.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Susan for the tip.

Amazon, Disruptive Innovation

5 Comments to “The Curse of “You May Also Like””

  1. “Other e-book players are as guilty.”


    I’m not sure guilt is exactly the term I would use. I think they’re trying to find out what we like.

    Rotsa Ruck with that.

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    • Yeah Brendan, the word “guilty” jumped out at me too.
      I tend to think that algorithms are a bit over touted. You see it in customer reviews for books all the time, five star rave fests next to one star hate fests. What one person loves another one hates, and with the passage of time, tastes change.
      Extreme amounts of information doesn’t necessarily equate to knowledge. I know more about my wife than anyone on the planet, but I’ll be damned if I can figure her out.

  2. I have yet to find a book that I love using Amazon’s alsobot or their “J’s recommendations.” Now, sometimes a book I already have appears there. But something new? No.

  3. Same old Slate fake contrarianism, appealing to some vague widely shared misgiving by disguising it as a counter-intuitive think piece. Look closely and you will notice that there is nothing there. There is never any evidence to back up the opinion.

  4. I like Amazon’s recommendation system – I’ve found some good stuff. But I’ve also passed on alot of their suggestions. That’s okay, I like the information!

    But this article takes it pretty far. In other words, Amazon has now learned some ‘secret formula’ that will make a book a bestseller, and is going to “take over the world” by starting imprints and publishing those books – well, all I can say is this: Hallejujah! I’d love it if someone figured out how to always publish an incredible book. And if Amazon has figured that out, then Amazon should be in charge of the world.

    Maybe Amazon can start working on the meaning of life next. I’d like recommendations about that.

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