Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Friend or Algorithm?

Mark Sisson poses a question:
Quick. How’d you hear about your favorite book or album of all time? Did you let an online algorithm determine what genre/artist/author/etc you’d prefer? Or did a trusted friend, colleague, or family member make a recommendation? I dunno about you, but I’ll take personal recommendations from people I trust over what some impersonal line of code thinks I should like, given the choice between the two.
This is a pervasive yet ultimately false dichotomy. Rating systems aren't based on what computer algorithms reverse engineer from the raw electromagnetic waves.* They're either based on the average ratings of other average people (like imdb) or the preferences of specific people who share some of your average characteristics (like netflix). That's the reality. Now, can you not trust these because you consider yourself too special to agree with the plebeian majority? You're free to be elitist, but at least admit it.

What's the other main reason to prefer a "trusted" friend over "impersonal line[s] of code"? To signal loyalty to your group or clique. People signal loyalty all the time** so you shouldn't necessarily feel bad about this, but again you might as well admit the truth to yourself and others before you perpetuate the information cascade.

Even though it is a false dichotomy, if I had to choose I'd still take the algorithm all day. Aggregating more opinions leads to less noise in opinion markets! What about you?


* Although that would be outrageously baller.
** I don't want to make it seem like I consider myself above this. In fact this very disclaimer is an example of signaling my loyalty to fellow lovers of transparency, as is this one, this one, etc.