I kinda hate recommender systems

While it’s virtually impossible to opt out of it at this point, I try to avoid automatic content recommendation whenever possible. This is partly because I have found these systems to be bad at what they do, for me specifically.

My Netflix recommendations suck because I often binge watch “addictive” shows I eventually regret spending time on. My Amazon recommendations suck because I only use it to buy expensive textbooks that I desperately need. My Twitter recommendations sucked for a while because I obsessively read the profiles of people I hated. I will admit that Instagram had me figured out at one point in that it only showed me items of clothing in a 70’s burnt orange and I clicked on every single ad. Now it just shows me products related to my last Google search. (Please tell me how to get it to go back to orange stuff.)

I am being unfair here–I know that these algorithms are working the way they are supposed to–I just have to actually start using these services as they are intended to be used, and feed them more information about myself (haha, no). But I also have this sense that whatever it is that I like about stuff is not, fundamentally, a latent property of the stuff in question, or even a latent property of me as a consumer!

My reactions to music, for instance, are very subjective. Sure, there are certain genres and sonic features that I tend to like or dislike (thank God the Thrift-Shop-inspired Pop Sax Hook trend has died). But when I hear a song it also makes me think of… where I was when I first heard the song, what I know about who performed the song, what the lyrics remind me of… that kind of thing. Lots of context contributes to how I feel about the song, and yet it has nothing to do with the song–nor is it something that I would necessarily share with listeners similar to myself.

Not only does the “context” bit make what I like difficult to predict, but the process by which content was recommended to me actually affects how I feel about the content! I was born just in time to have experienced Mixtape Culture in high school and I still remember everyone who gifted me music (because I keep track, using iTunes playlists). I once dated a guy who was into metal. The breakup was awful, and I get incredibly angry every time I hear one of the songs that he gave me, so I listen to them when I go to the gym. Imagine if a recommender system had suggested that music to me instead (it wouldn’t have). I wouldn’t have the same relationship with it!

I was at a great talk by Nick Seaver about interpretability in music recommendation the other day which partly went over my head (he is an anthropologist). Something he suggested about how data scientists think about music recommendation as a problem stuck out to me: it is driven by a fundamental anxiety about the vastness of Content and the resulting desire to maximize and optimize exposure to that Content. Sad! I do not share this anxiety. Content consumption is one of those human-y things that I tend to like to do the old-fashioned way.

This one goes out to the content man.