Friday, October 19, 2007

The madness of Barbarella

The madness of Barbarella

Friday night, time for collaborative filtering! Game theorist and Ajax programmer Rob Brown, a guy with perhaps the worst web site and yet most brilliant essay on the madness of crowds we've ever seen, notes it's been a full year since Netflix offered 1 million bucks to anyone smart enough to improve its movie recommendations. The target is a 10% increase in personalization; 12 months later, the world's greatest minds are only at 8.5%.

Brown tried to solve the problem by plotting each film and viewer as points in space, tied to a suburban metaphor.

The idea is that I needed to put each movie, and each user, into a "neighborhood," which roughly equates to "genre." There is a science fiction neighborhood, a comedy neighborhood, a horror neighborhood, and so on. But the neighborhoods have blurry boundaries, just as real neighborhoods typically do. "Alien" would be somewhere between the science fiction and horror neighborhoods, while "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" would be somewhere between the science fiction and comedy neighborhoods. Each user would live in a neighborhood, closest to the type of movies they prefer, and furthest from those they dislike.

Nice mathematical construct, but we see one glaring, major problem. Consumers are not single points on a map. They are schizophrenics with different mind modalities, leaping from mental neighborhood to neighborhood. Even us. Tonight, we're in drama mode. Tomorrow, we may long for Barbarella. And Sunday, we're hosting a kid party and want a Disney fix to keep the tots at bay. How does any software sort through the madness of crowds in our own head?

This problem is obvious for anyone who's signed up for Netflix. The video rental site gives you a little test, to help set up the personalization, and asks you to rank different movie categories from 1 to 5 stars. When we got to "children's films," we paused. High School musical was personally horrible. But our kids were glued to it, and we had a nice family evening ... so we both love it and hate it. How many stars is that? 3?

The honest fix for sites like Netflix and Amazon would be a "customer modality" dial. It would look like a big radio knob, and you could crank it to your mode of the moment. Father. Lover. Family guy. Documentary-adventurer. Go ahead, collaborative filter us all you want. Sometimes we just need a big red button for Barbarella.

Posted by Ben Kunz


regina said...

I have read that a remake of Barbarella is currently being planned.

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