Pandora’s Music Box

Has a friend ever lent you a CD? “Here, take this – you might like it,” they say. So you press play on it and wait to hear what happens.

And you don’t like it. It sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. How could your friend be this far off in his recommendations? What does he hear in it?

And then you listen again only to realize its greatness. Your buddy was onto something. If you had dismissed it immediately you would have missed out and, whether you realized it or not, you would have suffered a little bit. Your music world would be poorer.

The same thing happens with movies. Same thing with books. Same thing with a new restaurant in your area. It’s new or different than what you’re used to, and because of that you’re afraid of spending any money or time. You’d rather spend that energy in what you know you like; what’s safe – like a room, or box, you lock yourself into because it has everything you like in it, or so you think.

This is why I find things like Pandora to be such an odd discovery tool for new music. Pandora is that box. When you hand this job over to supposedly complex algorithms it gets the job done, but I get the feeling that something is missing.

Netflix gets that same feeling, which is why they are constantly trying to improve their own recommendations and go to extreme measures to do so. They offer the Netflix Prize. If you can figure out how to make their recommendation system better Netflix will give you monetary compensation around the area of a bajillion dollars.

The obvious thing to do, I guess, is to look at previous ratings, see what other people rated those movies, what they’ve rated other movies, and then mish-mash those results together and hope for a miracle. Of course, it’s more difficult than that; there are fragile, complicated human brains involved here.

Part of the benefit of Pandora is the claim that it’ll only play music you love. But I don’t want that. I want there to be a chance that I may hear something so different from what I’m used to that I have no idea what to make of it. Pandora reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode where the crook goes to what he thinks is Heaven. He thinks its heaven because he keeps winning when he gambles – except after a month of having every desire satisfied he grows bored of it and realizes he’s in Hell.

That’s part of why I prefer Last.FM over Pandora. Pandora is built upon the Music Genome Project, but Last.FM’s is built more around its community. Their Neighborhood radio is so vast that there’s a chance that you might love something or hate it – which keeps the search for new music interesting. If you want something more like Pandora there’s recommendation radio. Last.FM has more options. It seems more organic to me.

When you hand this job over to a recommendation service like this, I get the feeling you make a decision to trap yourself in the box and try to look out, when what you really should be doing is looking in from the outside of that box.