Several months ago Tom Slee offered these “Theses on Netflix” (he modestly thinks that sort of title for a blog post is bombastic, but nothing could make me want to read something more—maybe if he called it a “manifesto”). By serving as automated filters, these systems make reviewers and critics somewhat superfluous. “While bad reviewers and publishers would not be missed,” Slee points out, “good reviewers and publishers are not only filters; they are also an active part of cultural creation.” That is true, but the critical debate often takes place far away from the marketplace and the popular audience for most cultural products. And online there are more critical voices to be heard then ever, albeit at varying levels of professionalism. If anything, we are encouraged to produce opinions, to help make automated recommenders work better, have more data to feed on.
The surfeit of opinions, though, and more important, the surfeit of culture, makes filters more necessary as the demands on our attention become overwhelming. If we are intent on consuming more of what is available, we have less time to participate in such staid, slow-moving endeavors as having a critical debate about one work. There’s too much pressure to move on to the next thing and broadcast an opinion about that. So our opinions will be pronouncements, and debate will perhaps become even more of an elitist activity, for those paid to conduct it in academia.
But the key point Slee makes in his theses, amid the recognition that these recommendation systems will become more and more central to cultural consumption, is that they are not neutral. They have the capacity to leverage small differences in initial popularity into huge disparities among works that may not be all that different when regarded objectively (assuming for the moment that an objective standard like that can be approximated). And more sinister, recommendation systems can become the disguise for payola-type schemes that make certain lucrative titles more visible. As Slee puts it:
Ownership matters. Given the variety of approaches, outcomes, and absence of clear “best” alternatives, and given the ability of recommender systems to shape the experiences of their users, there is ample room for ulterior motives to become embodied in the system. The incentives for the recommender and the recommendee may be different. The incentives for Netflix in a regime where they deliver physical DVDs (of which they have limited stock) may be to promote the back catalogue. When they deliver movies digitally (as they are about to) there may be no such constraint and they may be more tempted to promote existing blockbusters.
Slee followed up on this idea a few months later in this post, also with a great title: “Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche.” He draws on paper by Daniel M. Fleder and Kartik Hosanagar to argue that online recommendations do not lead us to diversify our cultural experiences. The ideology of the “long tail”—as Slee puts it, that “our cultural experiences, liberated from the parochial tastes and limited awareness of those who happen to live close to us, are broadened by exposure to the wisdom of crowds, and the result is variety, diversity, and democratization”—turns out to be something of a hoax. Even though their is a wider field of culture available online, recommendation services work to block most of it out, not open our eyes to it. The parochial tastes once nurtured in isolation were what gave us our distinct niches, our peculiar tastes—that’s why local music scenes were distinctive 50 years ago, but are entirely homogenous now that music is conceived and sold for national audiences. Our taste is more readily massified by exposure to the algorithms that average out the tastes of as many participants as possible. Along the same lines, Slee’s simulations suggest that we experience more diversity offline, whereas online we are subjected to “monopoly populism.”
A “niche”, remember, is a protected and hidden recess or cranny, not just another row in a big database. Ecological niches need protection from the surrounding harsh environment if they are to thrive. Simply putting lots of music into a single online iTunes store is no recipe for a broad, niche-friendly culture.