Pandora is a pretty fun streaming musical service. You can seed stations with bands you like and then when you play a station the algorithm plays some songs by those bands but also songs by other bands that it thinks you will like. When this works well, you discover new bands. You can also nudge the algorithm by clicking thumbs up or thumbs down on given songs. In my experience, the best mix of songs requires hitting the shuffle button so that songs randomly show up from different stations.
As a veteran of I don't know how many turn-based strategy games (most recently Civilization V) part of the fun of these things is always trying to figure out exactly how the algorithm works. I think I've figured out what's going on with Pandora, albeit there were some weird facts in need of explanation:
- Pandora amply verifies Nick Cave's infamous claim, “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the #&%$ is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Three of my favorite channels are 80's Punk (Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, etc.), Depressing Music (the Drones, Fiona Apple, Velvet Underground, etc.), and Classic Rock (obvious). For the first month or so on all three of these channels I was forever having to give a Red Hot Chili Peppers song a thumbs down.* Why Pandora? Why?
- When you are not in shuffle mode, Pandora will sometimes get stuck in a subgenre that you don' t like. After I added Motorhead and the Misfits to my 80s Punk channel, I would spend some afternoons watching it slowly descend into song after after song of overwrought numetal.
- I wanted to see what would happen if I seeded a channel with just the Beastie Boys. It wasn't pretty, what I got was Ton Loc, Sir Mixalot, and Sublime, not all of the cool bands that the Beastie Boys loved, took as influences, and often sampled**
When I started experimenting with Pandora I just assumed it was a dumb statistical algorithm of the Amazon sort, recommending songs that are liked by people who also like songs by the bands you've seeded the station with. Given the above, I thought that this couldn't be possible. How many Beastie Boys fans love Ton Loc, Sir Mixalot, and Sublime so much. How many fans of Black Flag like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So I assumed they must be doing it the old school way, where every song is pretagged according to some category, and the algorithm negotiates a search tree based on that. But then I realized I'd made a mistake. What's going on is that a lot more Pandora users like the Red Hot Chili Peppers than like any of the bands I like. A lot more people like Sir Mixalot than the Sugar Hill Gang. Some percentage of those Sir Mixalot fans also like some songs by the Beastie Boys. But if very few people are seeding stations with the Sugar Hill gang, they won't be represented well on a Beastie Boys channel. Given this an Amazon type algorithm might very well end up pushing the Chili Peppers on Gen Ex music lovers who have no time for them.
An easy solution would be for the algorithm to more heavily weigh the likes and dislikes of people who have seeded stations with the same bands that you've seeded your stations with. It would be interesting to see if such an algorithm, when set lose on a Beastie Boys seeded station, would produce a radio station that the late MCA would have wanted to listen to.
As far as the cycling towards numetal thing I think it was a combination of just how many people like those wretched bands and me imparting a pattern where there was none. I mean, if an infinite number of monkeys were typing for an infinite number of years, one of them would pen all of the terrible music of Korn, Linkin Park, Godsmack, and Limp Biscuit for that matter. Right? I don't know.
[*Some dear friends of mine love the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they are all post-grunge. For grungies, The Red Hot Chili Peppers were our version of Limp Biscuit, something for people who ostensibly rejected jock culture but nonetheless embodied all of its worst aspects (and none of the good ones). We can't forgive them for the sad realization that being "alternative" was consistent with being a sexist meat-head. This is the point that gen exers en masse gave up on the possibility of radical politics. I'd rather listen to the Steve Miller Band anyhow. I take it the band represents something else for millenials.
**This is possibly the coolest web page in the universe. You can click on any song from Paul's Boutique and get a list of all of the songs sampled by that song. See the canonical article by slate dot com's Matthew Iglesias on how bad copyright law killed a whole genre of music.]