A friend of mine recently complained to me that he felt “out of the loop regarding music”. Normal radio stations did not interest him, and he felt that the internet just gave him more of what he already knew.
I think that this is indeed a dilemma: Most “normal” radio stations have to focus on mainstream music to attract a big enough audience. If you don’t like whatever they play, there’s a good chance that you end up using some web-based music service like last.fm.
At first, this feels like heaven. Only music that you like! Wonderful!
However, what my friend observed shows one of the downsides of those services. There is even a name for that. It’s called “The Filter Bubble”.
What is “The Filter Bubble”?
Many websites personalize the content they deliver to you in some way. For example, my Google search results for a given search term are probably different from someone else’s search results.
At first glance, this looks like a nice feature. After all, if Google makes it easier for me to find things that I am most likely interested in, that saves me time and effort.
This is known as “The Filter Bubble”. There is a nice talk about this phenomenon that’s really worth watching if you have 10 minutes:
Don’t give me what I want! Give me what I need!
If you think about this phenomenon in detail, a lot of fundamental questions arise.
In many cases, it’s probably ok if a website looks at my previous preferences and serves me based on that. But what about the things that I never see because they are very different from my previous preferences? What if there was something that would be important to me if only I knew that it even existed?
I don’t want to become too philosophical here, but even if you just think about music, there are quite a few consequences. What about all the good music that I never hear because it’s just too different from my previous preferences?
For example, I listen to a lot of House music, but that doesn’t mean that I only want to listen to House music. On the contrary, I really like being exposed to different musical genres. The question is how to make sure that this happens.
The role of the curator
Maybe the algorithms that drive those filters will be smarter one day. Maybe they will learn to not just look at what I have listened to before, but also to serve me sounds that I have never heard before.
Until then, it’s probably a good idea to not only rely on filters and algorithms. I wouldn’t say that those things are generally dangerous. Filters are often useful as they help us separate the good from the bad or useless stuff. You just shouldn’t trust them 100%.
I think it already makes a big difference if you just trust them 80% and rely on people for the remaining 20%. There’s actually a name for specialists that are responsible for selecting and presenting content. In museums, they are called curators. Related to music, we usually call them DJs.
My advice to escape the filter bubble is this: Find someone whose taste you trust and let him/her guide you to music that the algorithms would never play to you.
Oh, and of course I would be more than happy if Sweet Headache could play that role.