Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pandora's Blind Rating System

Rob Walker explains the method to their madness. A couple of interesting quotes. First,
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
Individual's opinions on movies or songs are so noisy and biased that it doesn't make sense to put too much weight on any individual one. Must better to trust the algorithm and/or trust a large group of independent raters.

Then, Walker discusses the founder's gross understanding of the conformity theory, which he calls a "popularity contest." As he explains it,
Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice.
Once something is mainstream, it loses lots of cred with the in-crowd. This doesn't work me into a vitriol like it apparently does for Westergren. I frankly don't care that sociocultural determinism is the name of the game, and in many senses it's actually a Nash equilibrium. As I wrote two years ago, keeping up with the cool kids can't be easy, otherwise everybody would be cool.

A few other notes on their system. It seems like they use a 5 point system for each category, but work on the 0.5 scale, which works out the same as the 10 point scale that seems to be the best.

The article at one point discusses the apparent conundrum that you must listen to a song repetitively before you like it, but after enough listening, you will become annoyed. This seems like sensitization to the song at first and then habituation.

Finally, it's good to know that human coders are better than machines at coding the overall context of songs. We may still have jobs after the robot apocalypse, after all.


You can tell if someone is a true Pandora fan by their reaction to the 40 hour rule, after which you have to pay one dollar to continue listening for the rest of the month. If you don't know about it, you're not a true fan. Sorry. At the beginning of months I used to tried to ration myself, but the anxiety it produced wasn't worth the cost. Now I rationalize paying my $1/month fee as pride for supporting the music industry.


My go-to Pandora station is Explosions in the Sky. It didn't have many songs with lyrics on it to begin with and I've now downvoted all of them out so that I can read in peace. The best song that I've found through listening to it is "The Cat That Went to War" by Breaking the Cage, and second best is "Olson" by Boards of Canada. Take that with a sociocultural pinch of salt.