Can public relations free us from the tyranny of recommendation software?

June 1, 2010

In an interesting article in last week’s Time magazine, writer Lev Grossman gives readers an inside look at how recommendation software is used by online giants such as Pandora, Netflix, and to suggest relevant topics and products.

It’s a good read, and full of little-considered issues as to how this software is created and what factors go into associating one song, movie, or lover with another. Once the purview of critics and reviewers, our tastes have been commandeered by software that constantly makes associations for us.

So if you listen to Pandora, your exposure to music is being controlled by an algorithm developed according to specific characteristics shared by the songs that Pandora is serving up at any given moment.

I started to shy away from the music recommendation software of iTunes and Amazon, and stopped listening to Pandora after realizing just how limiting my own taste in music had become. A year-long fetish for Death Cab for Cutie led me down an increasingly long, melancholy diet of Radiohead, Coldplay, and My Morning Jacket that ended when my personal trainer banished “slit-your-wrist” music during workouts.

As software becomes more important to consumer choice, we run the risk of narrowing our own field of vision, making it increasingly difficult for new products and services to break through our own air defenses. While convenient, recommendation software keeps us in a safety zone of music, products, and people who we already have some familiarity with.

It relegates us to our own tribe, and doesn’t allow for that rare find of something new, outside the tried-and-true that might excite, educate, or expose us to a new thought, a new belief, or at least some new music that doesn’t drown itself in self-sorrow (at least the way it did for me).

And perhaps that’s good news for public relations practitioners. In a world of the expected, we have the skills and know-how to introduce audiences to the unexpected. Granted, it’s not without bias. But it does run against the grain of mass recommendations made by the automated brain of the common wisdom. By playing against trends and bringing new ideas forward, we have the ability to break the lockstep that comes from recommendations based on past experience.

In the old days, that would be called news — something other than convention. And news was — and still is — the very lifeblood of public relations. By countering trends, inverting the expected, we PR folks, perhaps better than any other player in the information markets, can help overcome the homogenization of taste and bring forth that which is outside what we have purchased, viewed, listened to, and dated in the past.

After reading the Time article, I am left wondering whether The Beatles, The Clash, Nirvana, and other game-changing bands would have been discovered by the masses and if they would have accounted for such great shifts in pop culture. None were based on the past.

All shattered expectation, rather than played to it, which is an important basic tenant of public relations and one that might explain why Lady Gaga is such a simple incarnate of Grace Jones and Madonna, and why, if recommendation software had existed in 1961, we still might be listening to Pat Boone.

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