Tom Slee on monopoly populism and cultural niches

by Henry on March 17, 2009

This is a really interesting post.

Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to “niche culture”. Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distil the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. … Whenever I make these claims someone says “Well I use Netflix and it’s shown me all kinds of films I didn’t know about before. It’s broadened my experience, so that’s an increase in diversity.” And someone else points to the latest viral home video on YouTube as evidence of niche success. So this post explains why your gut feel is wrong. … a paper by Daniel M. Fleder and Kartik Hosanagar called Blockbuster Culture’s Next Rise or Fall: The Impact of Recommender Systems on Sales Diversity. …


I’m just going to show you two simulations. … The results of these simulations are far from the only possible outcome, but they show why the gut feeling may fail, and I’ve chosen them for that purpose. … In Internet World each customer experiences an average of 3.5 products over the course of 75 choices with an active recommender system, while in Offline World each customer experiences only 2.4 different products. So the wider set of people providing recommendations in Internet World has led to an increase in individual diversity. This is like saying that “Netflix shows me pictures I would never had heard about from my friends alone”, or “Amazon recommended a book I had never heard of, and I liked it”. On the other hand, the overall diversity of the culture can be measured by the Gini coefficient of the products. A Gini coefficient of zero is complete equality (each product is chosen an equal number of times) and a Gini coefficient of 1 is complete inequality (only one product is ever chosen by anyone). And Internet World has a Gini of 0.79 while Offline World has a Gini of only 0.52. Internet World is less diverse than Offline World.

… While each customer on average experiences more unique products in Internet World, the recommender system generates a correlation among the customers. To use a geographical analogy, in Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower, hilltops. They may not see as far individually, but more of the ground is visible to someone. In Internet World, a lot of the ground cannot be seen by anyone because they are all standing on the same big hilltop.

Go and read the original – it not only has more argument but pretty pictures too!

I think that I probably buy the core argument Tom is making here. It seems quite plausible to me that online connections lead to less overall diversity. Nor have I ever been particularly sympathetic to the argument that the Internets create an ever-proliferating set of niches, and isn’t it awesome! But my query is – should we be worried about this? If you are a libertarian of a certain techno-utopian strain, then yes, this is a disquieting result. Niches don’t exfoliate forever, the long tail isn’t as hot as it’s supposed to be, and all of that. But
if you’re a social democrat like me or Tom, who believes that the collective aspects of culture have value as well as its narrowly individual rewards, you could interpret this result (if it bears out in the empirical evidence as well as simple simulations) in different ways.

The most plausible social democratic interpretation in my mind of these kinds of results is to emphasize that there are tradeoffs between cultural diversity and the strength and viability of sub-cultures. Which is to say that too much diversity may be a bad thing. If everyone is doing their own cultural thing, so that one woman becomes an aficionado of counting caterpillar fuzz, while the guy next door masters one dimensional chess, and their neighbour across the street devotes his time to Chinese Scrabble, then all of them, in a certain sense, lose out, because they can’t enjoy the social aspects of culture. Everyone might prefer a world in which they were able to coordinate. That is, maybe the Chinese Scrabble expert and the one dimensional chess guy would prefer to count caterpillar fuzz if (and only if) they knew that there were enough people who wanted to do the same thing that they could all be sociable counting caterpillar fuzz together, comparing the fuzz of different breeds and getting into furious arguments over which caterpillar’s fur felt nicest etc etc. If this trade-off exists, then the ideal point on the scale between cultural homogeneity and diversity clearly doesn’t lie right at the diversity end. It is furthermore implausible, except to monomaniacs, that it lies at the end of pure cultural homogeneity (in which everyone would take up caterpillar fuzz counting). On most plausible representations of people’s tastes, we might imagine that people would be better off in a world where there was some diversity of cultural niches (so they could find niches reasonably close to their own) but also some possibilities for sociability (people could coordinate on niches which might not be perfect for any one individual, but that were a reasonably good fit for everyone inside the niche. Thus, the best situation (unsurprisingly) likely lies somewhere between the extremes.

But – and here’s the rub – without some clearer theory of where the tradeoff falls – that is, of where more diversity starts to be a bad rather than a good thing, or when homogeneity starts to generate blandness and poor tradeoffs) – we can’t make normative judgements whether Tom’s Offline World (or any world between the extremes) is worse or better than Tom’s Internet World. It could plausibly be that we are better off in a world where many, many people end up coordinating on the same very small number of cultural points, while allowing some leeway for minorities, than in a world where people coordinate on a larger number of medium sized cultural niches. What Tom describes as ‘monopoly populism’ (a really great coinage by the way, which deserves to be spread widely) may not necessarily be a bad thing on its own terms – we have no reason to be sure that more people won’t be happier in this world without some understanding of their underlying tastes etc. And looking to politics, if you are interested in inspiring successful collective action, you might prefer everyone to coordinate on one or a couple of cultural points or frames in order to facilitate it.

This isn’t to say that that Offline World is necessarily worse – despite the cavils above, my first-approximation reaction would be to prefer a greater level of diversity than we get in Tom’s Online World simulation. But it is to say that there is a very interesting argument to be had here on what these systems (sometimes disaggregated, sometimes designed) of collective choice mean for culture and politics,sup>1 and whether we should prefer, on this normative ground or that, the one or the other arrangement.

<1> And, perhaps for more besides see also the research agenda set out at the end of this very interesting short paper by Cosma).

{ 40 comments }

1

dave 03.17.09 at 4:21 pm

Tocqueville, Democracy in America, nailed this kind of thing 170 years ago. To paraphrase: aggregating the preferences of a vast mass of mediocrities will end up with a system where only mediocrity is aggregated.

2

Keith 03.17.09 at 4:24 pm

I think there’s a flaw here in that there’s no accounting for semantic noise. Page ranking and recommendations in the online world provide a mechanism for minimizing noise by collecting and presifting through data while in the offline world, we lack that mechanism. Or rather, we have a mechanism but only one, our brains and individual tastes, but we still have to deal with a lot more noise in the offline world. I’m hesitant to draw a qualitative distinction though,a s the 2 worlds serve different purposes. So, I think we have an apples and oranges problem here.

3

Aaron Boyden 03.17.09 at 4:35 pm

The kind of diversity that this internet phenomenon is reducing is diversity produced by geographical accident. I must admit to being much more interested in encouraging and supporting people in choosing to be different than in maximizing the random accidental pressures toward difference. Admittedly, there may be a connection, but one plausible link would be that the more actual diversity there is from any source, the less people will stress out about being different. Diversity enforced by geographical accident won’t have that effect, because people largely won’t notice it (the people they see every day are those close by, who aren’t diverse if geography is producing the diversity).

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Sebastian 03.17.09 at 4:37 pm

In Internet World each customer experiences an average of 3.5 products over the course of 75 choices with an active recommender system, while in Offline World each customer experiences only 2.4 different products. So the wider set of people providing recommendations in Internet World has led to an increase in individual diversity. This is like saying that “Netflix shows me pictures I would never had heard about from my friends alone”, or “Amazon recommended a book I had never heard of, and I liked it”. On the other hand, the overall diversity of the culture can be measured by the Gini coefficient of the products. A Gini coefficient of zero is complete equality (each product is chosen an equal number of times) and a Gini coefficient of 1 is complete inequality (only one product is ever chosen by anyone). And Internet World has a Gini of 0.79 while Offline World has a Gini of only 0.52. Internet World is less diverse than Offline World.

Either my interpretation of the math is completely off, or I’m not getting it at all. It seems to me that his result was dictated by the model he chose of the ‘Internet System’ rather than a close approximation of how it works. Furthermore, the model he chooses in opposition to it is not a close approximation of how recommendations work in a “local book, CD, or video store”. It is a closer approximation of getting your recommendations from friends (which I would presume you can still do in an internet delivery system).

The problem with his internet model is that it weights everyone’s opinon similarly. But take a community like Rotten Tomatoes or Amazon. Certain regular reviewers end up with much more influence than the random person. Which should lead to the insight about the store-driven model

His next model, essentially chains friends one to one to one. Yes this clearly allows for quite a bit of diversity. It also has nothing to do with the small CD store model. A model of that with 48 people would involve 3 or 4 people making the recommendations to all of the remaining 44-45 people. Under his run method, that is very likely to create even less diversity than the aggregate opinion model that he uses to approximate internet recommendations.

And as you say, it isn’t clear which we should prefer: individual experiences of diversity, or system-wide ones.

5

Nick Valvo 03.17.09 at 4:51 pm

My concern with Tom’s line of argument is that the “offline” world being described seems to me to be a long-absent utopia. Television is a curiously missing term.

As for me, it’s the weird points of contact between broadcast and social media, things like Anderson Cooper’s twitter feed, that I think are interesting now. I think this is a dangerous step for the broadcast media, because they risk encouraging a kind of authority inflation that they may ultimately be unable to control.

Also: what do you guys think about locality-production aggregators like outside.in? The founder of said service, also a writer, Steven Johnson, has a post about a related topic on his weblog (http://bit.ly/xKvh4).

6

eric 03.17.09 at 5:01 pm

virtually the same argument has been made for globalization generally.

7

lemuel pitkin 03.17.09 at 5:19 pm

Tom Slee’s stuff is indeed very good. But i don’t think this model can support the kind of welfare analysis you’re doing here.

In the real world, people’s tastes aren’t exogenous. Nobody is born with a genetically-determined taste for one-dimensional chess or Chinese scrabble; they acquire these tastes from a recommender of some sort. So whatever the social benefits of diversity are, they can’t be that people get their pre-existing tastes more precisely satisfied.

One obvious benefit is that greater diversity means more people can succeed as cultural producers in Slee’s Offline World than in the more winner-take-all Internet World. But I think most of us would also agree that there important reasons to value diversity at a society-wide, even if they’re not easy to capture in a formal model.

8

Sebastian 03.17.09 at 5:27 pm

Also if we are looking at it from a societal benefit point of view, it isn’t clear that greater general diversity with lower levels of individual diversity exposure is preferable to somewhat less general diversity with noticeably higher levels of individual diversity exposure.

It may turn out that exposing individuals to quite a bit more diversity does good things that just having lots of diversity doesn’t.

9

yoyo 03.17.09 at 5:33 pm

The first people who get the tall mountain may have it good, but what happens when the next generation of content creators all were looking off the same hill? Instead of an early-life-goop of different tastes mixing, you just keep . ‘content’ in the useful sense only gets made because people who really like some bands decide to hang out and play some music like what they heard. His simulation is only running once. The problem gets much worse once you realize you have to iterate the content creation too, unless we want to extend that great model we’ve developed in copyright where nothing after 1923 ever reënters popular culture in reinterpreted form, except as a happy-meal tie in for the fourth sequel.

10

Stuart 03.17.09 at 5:38 pm

Doesn’t this miss the point that Online World and Offline World are not in two seperate universes? That I buy stuff at amazon doesn’t somehow block my friends from talking to me about music/dvds/books, so the two effects are additive, not competing.

11

Nick 03.17.09 at 5:52 pm

Glad to see my personal experience of Amazon’s hopeless search engine confirmed. If you’re not interested in the pap that everyone else is buying then you need to know the ISBN or serial # of the item you’re looking for. Browsing for curiosities? Forget it . . .

12

Nina 03.17.09 at 6:12 pm

It is interesting that in Tom’s argument diversity, whether individual or collective, is measured by the range of products for sale. Not ideas, or beliefs, or experiences, but the number of things for sale. Individual diversity is measured by the number of things we each look at before deciding what to buy, and collective diversity is measured by how many types of products are available in the marketplace.

It seems unlikely that reduced diversity of products available for sale will lead to less diversity of ideas. In fact, maybe Tom’s scenario would produce greater diversity of ideas, as a side effect of all that communication going on in the comments sections of product reviews. This could even happen if, as Henry implies, reduced diversity of products leads to reduced diversity of “cultural points.” If there are fewer topics of conversation, then more people will be engaged on each topic, so there will be a broader range of views on it. (Assuming we can avoid “groupthink,” which I admit is not guaranteed.)

13

Cryptic ned 03.17.09 at 6:19 pm

I think the “people who bought this also bought that” works…well, better than nothing for introducing me to things I wouldn’t already know about. Of course this is very path-dependent, and actual browsing is impossible.

14

Dave Maier 03.17.09 at 6:24 pm

I certainly agree that Amazon’s recommender (and imdb’s!) is useless, but I don’t think the division is rightly drawn between “Online” and “Offline”. I get most of my (useful) music recommendations online, where list members or bloggers review their latest finds (and/or provide entirely illegal, albeit relatively lo-fi, “previews” thereof; but of course you don’t have to d/l the file to read the review). Plus there are a million netlabels for legal filesharing. Most of my offline friends (with some notable exceptions) are hopeless in this sense, as you don’t have to have any musical interests to be my friend.

Also, while it’s true that some people limit themselves to a single “niche,” a lot of people are extremely eclectic. What’s wrong with caterpillar fuzz on Monday, one-dimensional chess on Wednesday, and Chinese Scrabble on Friday? In any case I’d still like to know which expert to ask about the latest buzz about fuzz, or one-d chess strategies, so the existence of such narrowly-focused sites or people need not entail the extreme diversity Slee worries about. (How do you play one-d chess, anyway?)

15

Ano 03.17.09 at 7:52 pm

As eric @6 hints at, this is really similar to the New Trade Theory result that Krugman and others predict. One example I think I remember Krugman giving is that instead of there being 100 car companies, where everyone has a choice between two locally-designed crappy cars, there are 5 decent car companies that everyone in the world has access to. Result: more choice and better products for each individual, much less diversity world-wide.

So is this post about New Cultural Trade Theory?

16

tom s. 03.17.09 at 9:02 pm

Thanks for the post and the comments. There were two things I was trying to get across. One was that an individual experience of greater diversity does not imply an increase in overall diversity, which I think is uncontroversial but which is often ignored or sloughed over in techno-utopian arguments (which were my real target). As eric and ano say, the argument has been made in other fields, and in a comment on my blog one “derek” points out an ecological case that is very similar too.

The other thing was to label the cases “Internet World” and “Offline World” rather than “run 1” and “run 28”. That one runs on electrons the other on shoe-leather does not automatically produce this kind of result but to me, it’s impressionistically true that there are cases where diversity gets lost online and this seems like a plausible mechanism.

I’ll try to respond to individual comments later; right now I’m supposed to be working.

17

Cryptic ned 03.17.09 at 9:18 pm

Amazon’s recommender (the thing that says “You may be interested in”) is useless in my opinion (gee, really? There are other seasons of Seinfeld besides seasons 1, 2 and 3? Michael Innes wrote more than one book? No fucking way!), but the thing that says “People who bought X also bought (several dozen other things, ranked in order of correlation with X)” has been useful.

Are they the exact same thing? Would the recommender also recommend dozens of more loosely related things if I showed any interest in it?

18

JulesLt 03.17.09 at 9:22 pm

I think the general point is true, in that the big on-line stores are an appalling browsing experience compared to visiting any real world record or book store, where serendipity can take place.

The thing is that to a large degree this flattening has already happened in the real world anyway – a significant number of music, video and book sales were already through supermarket chains, stocking a very narrow range of successful or heavily marketed titles, even before Amazon arrived.
The playlists on commercial radio stations were already narrow. Labels like EMI were already reducing artist count, balanced by making those artists successful in more territories – i.e. the world has been heading in the direction Ano speaks of.

However, there are certainly some other counter factors. For instance, subcultures themselves tend to grow and die around the social side, as much as around issues of creative growth – a tendency towards extreme diversity is naturally reigned in by the author or musicians need for an audience. At a certain point, a lot of people will go and find something more popular to do.

Having worked in nightclubs as a DJ since the late 80s, I’ve seen this cycle play out repeatedly – factions form and split off to form new subcultures – at other times, things merge – sometimes due to declining numbers, sometimes due to creative mergers.

The other key point is that subcultures themselves have always been a ‘recommendation engine’ for what isn’t stocked in the supermarkets. As other people have said, the networks of culturally specific music blogs, or Mog, are the online equivalents, but it’s unlikely people will ever wholly move their lives online.

What I think is problematic is that these sites can only put affiliate links in that take you back to Amazon, iTunes, etc – rather than being able to build on top of a more open platform (bleep.com is closer to this, with some resellers emphasising rock based content, others electronic).

I’d also disagree with the notion that nothing created after 1923 has re-entered popular culture – a lot of the people currently lobbying against copyright because it’s suddenly a technology control issue, seem to have forgotten that hip-hop and sampling got on fine before they’d even started to pay attention.

Equally, cultural ideas have always been traded and up for grabs, hence the vast huge amounts of Beatlesque music. The publishing framework has also seen vast numbers of Beatles covers. I remain unconvinced that it’s actually preventing significant cultural recycling – except, of course, sampling of Beatles recordings, which was a reason why I used them as an example.

19

Matt 03.17.09 at 9:31 pm

I’ve found the recommender on Amazon to be a useful tool, but only after training it for some time. You have to use a computer that has you logged in to Amazon, of course. Then, if you spend a lot of time flipping through the recommender, noting books you have, rating them, and noting things you are not interested in, it gets a lot better over time. But, you have to spend time with it. With “search inside” you can get a lot of the benefits of going to a book store. (I really don’t understand why some academic presses- Harvard, often enough- don’t at least show you the table of contents, back cover, and index, as that’s hugely useful for deciding if I want a book or not.) It’s easier to get the recommender to perform well if you have a boring job that allows you to spend a lot of time on the internet.

20

sleepy 03.17.09 at 10:40 pm

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Ginger Yellow 03.17.09 at 10:51 pm

Apologies for not ploughing through the original paper yet, but the implication seems to be that in “Internet World” the only means of diversification is the algorithmic recommendation system. If so, this seems a spectacularly poor model of how Amazon, Netflix etc work in practice. Rather, for most people, the recommendation algorithm interacts with traditional interpersonal recommendations, traditional reviews, blog links, citations in other books and so on. It’s pretty hard to argue that Amazon etc don’t facilitate greater diversification in this expanded, more realistic model, given that they allow easier and faster access to a (more or less) full catalogue of products, which in turn leads to more/faster “Internet World” recommendations but also more/faster traditional “Offline World” recommendations as well.

To use a geographical analogy, in Internet World the customers see further, but they are all looking out from the same tall hilltop. In Offline World individual customers are standing on different, lower, hilltops.

This immediately leads me to ask: “Well, what about all the research about the ecosystem of the political blogosphere, which shows people standing on at least two different hilltops?” Does that really not translate at all into different hilltops for political books, say? Let alone music books, cooking books, history books and so on.

22

Tom 03.17.09 at 11:21 pm

Do people really use online recommendation systems? I don’t.

23

John Quiggin 03.18.09 at 12:01 am

I had a go at some related questions in a post on McDonalds and soft power quite a while ago.

24

Bruce Baugh 03.18.09 at 12:18 am

I used Amazon’s recommendations and “folks also bought these” lists just this week, actually, and starting with recommendations from right here at Crooked Timber. I’m doing research on a hodge-podge of aspects of life in (mostly) the US in the first quarter of the 20th century. Starting from a reiterated recommendation here for Cultures of Corruption, I bounced around semi-randomly and snagged several more useful-looking books, periodically checking archives here and at other blogs to see if the other books had also been discussed, scooping up fresh leads, and so on.

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Bruce Baugh 03.18.09 at 12:28 am

I very strongly agree with Sebastian about this, if I understand his point: It may turn out that exposing individuals to quite a bit more diversity does good things that just having lots of diversity doesn’t.

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tom s. 03.18.09 at 1:16 am

Several people point out that the simple numerical model does not capture either world and of course it doesn’t. You either like simple numerical models or you don’t as a way of identifying mechanisms that are, in more complex ways, at play in the real world. Me, I like them.

@Bruce & Sebastian: it may also turn out that letting new subcultures develop in a relatively protected environment may do good things. For all the talk about remixing, for me most of the more interesting musical trends come out of particular geographic scenes.

@Ginger Yellow: it’s just a posting, not a paper. But if there is any one scenario I have in mind it is Amazon. I don’t see it being a diversifying force at all when it comes to books and literature.

@Nina: I label the points as consumers and products, but that’s just convenience really. Still, I agree that treating culture as a matching problem has some pretty strong limitations. I could claim it models “believers” and “religions” because that’s also a matter of taste, but I’d not want to.

27

Ryan Miller 03.18.09 at 2:42 am

Nick @11: buying books helps tremendously. I’ve bought a couple hundred books from Amazon and now their recommendation is quite strong, though it does rather annoyingly continue to encourage me to buy more and more translations of the same works.

28

Sebastian 03.18.09 at 5:31 am

“it may also turn out that letting new subcultures develop in a relatively protected environment may do good things. For all the talk about remixing, for me most of the more interesting musical trends come out of particular geographic scenes.”

Maybe, maybe not.

Ok, but again I don’t understand why you think the friend to friend to friend model is close to what happens with brick and mortar specialty stores. A much better model would be 2-4 key employees doing the recommendations for everyone. And that doesn’t sound like it would lead to much more diversity.

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Zamfir 03.18.09 at 9:39 am

When people cite the internet, or amazon, as a source of diversity, do they mean the recommendations system? I would say they mostly mean the large catalogue, with the recommedations not as a particularly diversity-promoting aspect, but I could well be wrong.

And I agree with others here that the offline-equivalent of the recommendation system might not be friend-to-friend contact. If you take bestseller lists, or music top-100s as the offline equivalent, the recommendation system looks a lot better.

Music tops shw by the way a clear example of a system where diversity reduction is a feature, since people actively prefer to know the music other know too. Subcultures may scorn those lists, but they do tend to have their own, less explicit, lists to have everyone on the same page.

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Slocum 03.18.09 at 12:25 pm

The basic problem with the argument, it seems to me, is that it depends completely on the simulation of a recommendation system. But is it a reasonable assumption that people’s ‘Internet World’ choices are mostly driven by recommendation systems? I think that assumption is dubious. My opinion of the recommendation systems match those of ‘Cryptic Ned’ — which is that they are all but worthless, and I don’t think I’ve ever chosen anything based on Amazon or NetFlix suggestions.

The internet has obviously expended the universe of choices by an enormous factor — that’s not in question. Is the power of recommendation systems such that despite the new richness of options, people are consistent steered by recommendation algorithms into a lower level of cultural diversity? I don’t believe it. Certainly not based on those simulations (and on no data).

31

ogmb 03.18.09 at 12:27 pm

1. Never trust empirical results created by simulations, especially in such a data-rich environment as CD and book sales.

2. Gini is a very very very bad measure for concentration when you have long tails (lots of products with very few buyers). If you add a million fictitious products with zero sales to the actual sales distribution of a vendor the Gini will shoot up. This isn’t a problem if your choice set is invariant and compact but it’s a big problem if for the long tail of products the membership to the choice set is ambiguous (e.g. sold only by third party vendors, out of print and only available used, erroneous double listings, etc.). A better way of looking at concentration in online vs. offline sales is the contribution to total sales of the N best-selling products.

32

Slocum 03.18.09 at 2:08 pm

it may also turn out that letting new subcultures develop in a relatively protected environment may do good things. For all the talk about remixing, for me most of the more interesting musical trends come out of particular geographic scenes.

But remixing and ‘geographical subcultures’ are not the only alternatives. Interest-based subcultures can be as self-contained as geographical subcultures ever were. Which is to say — somewhat, but not very, self-contained. When you read Kwame Appiah, for example, you understand that the containment of geographical sub-cultures has long been quite porous.

33

Zamfir 03.18.09 at 2:45 pm

The internet has obviously expended the universe of choices by an enormous factor—that’s not in question.

Well, it has expanded the choices available to any individual. But whether it has expanded the amount of options in total is a lot less clear. I could imagine Tom Slee’s phenomenon even without recommendation systems.

My own experience is that the internet has made my reading material more English/American-oriented, and this is probably true for people all over the world. Even the offline recommendations around me have become more American, simply because everyone has a similar exposure.

It might be true that this effect is more than compensated for by non-geographic niching, but that’s far from certain.

34

Russell Arben Fox 03.18.09 at 2:53 pm

For what it’s worth, I think Appiah’s argument in the foregoing link, as interesting as it is, is nonetheless seriously flawed. His understanding of what constitutes a “porous” relationship between cultures presumes a cosmopolitan valuation that the very idea of “cultural niches” denies.

35

roy belmont 03.18.09 at 3:32 pm

Amazon at its best is only a bookstore, it isn’t and never will be a library.
But neither does it have a library equivalent.
We have a vast online bookstore with an increasingly accurate personalized display, while libraries are mostly municipal holdovers, dwindling, beleaguered, and underfunded, or individual, private, small, in the home.
Academics generally, with their still nicely funded institutional libraries, are spared the disturbing scent of social unravelling most public libraries give off today.
While the needs and interests of the book-buying public are catered to more and more accurately online, the actual diversity of the book-reading public is being reduced still further.
Once again, as with the great failure of television to realize anything like its potential, something central to the human experience is being occupied, dominated, shaped exclusively by mercantile interest.
Andrew Carnegie would tell us that’s a profound change, and not for the better.

36

Slocum 03.18.09 at 4:05 pm

Well, it has expanded the choices available to any individual. But whether it has expanded the amount of options in total is a lot less clear.

Oh, I think it is clear when you consider the vast pool of historical artifacts that were previously buried and inaccessible but now are available to all (e.g. public domain book scans, historical youtube musical performances).

But if you want to worry about something, worry that this explosion of availability of historical cultural artifacts is necessarily competing with new cultural production — because past culture is now so readily available, it’s likely that the incentives for production of new culture is impaired to some degree.

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Ginger Yellow 03.18.09 at 5:48 pm

But if there is any one scenario I have in mind it is Amazon. I don’t see it being a diversifying force at all when it comes to books and literature.

OK, but if we’re talking about the recommendation system alone I don’t see how it’s anything but a trivial result. I mean, the whole basis of a recommendation system is “people who like this, also tend to like that”. That’s obviously not a driver for diversification but reinforcement of existing relationships. Indeed, this is the big challenge for creating useful recommendation systems, as the Netflix prize has shown. They can’t account for off-beat combinations of tastes or “Marmite” films.

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lemuel pitkin 03.18.09 at 6:26 pm

Obviously we’re not talking about the recommendation system alone, tho – Slee thinks his model captures more general features of online distribution of culture. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong — like Henry I’m inclined to agree but far from certain — but it seems like a lot of the response here are taking the model much too literally.

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tom s. 03.18.09 at 7:09 pm

What lemuel pitkin said.

Also – for those who say “no one trusts recommendation systems anyway” – there is an influential set of people who would claim otherwise and (here is my real gripe) are pushing creative and idealistic artists towards trusting outlets like Amazon and Netflix to directly connect to their audience without any of those elitist publishers in the way. See Clay Shirky’s talk at http://web2expo.blip.tv/file/1277460/ and, of course, The Long Tail for examples.

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Consumatopia 03.19.09 at 3:50 pm

The recommendation system in Online World (Run 1) is not “people like you liked this” but “a plurality of all people in the universe liked this”. “Broadcast World” would be a better name than “Online World”.

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