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Just One Question for Jeffrey Veen

Jeffrey Veen is Wired Digital's executive director of interface, and a
contributing editor to Webmonkey. He's also the author of Hotwired Style:
Principles for Building Smart Websites, an avid mountain biker, a post-punk
socialist and the proud parent of Labrador retriever.

Jeffrey's also one of those people who consume media like water. So when he
mentioned to me recently that his television consumption habits had been
radically altered by the purchase of a TiVO Digital Video Recorder, I
begged him to take time out of his busy schedule to answer just one

*** Sippey:
It's been almost three years since the buzz about Firefly and their
collaborative filtering technology reached a crescendo with the Sunday New
York Times piece by Daniel Lyons. Back then, there was an awful lot of
prognostication about the imminent death of mass media, accompanied by
either worried hand-wringing or wide-eyed celebration (depending on who it
was that buttered your bread). Fast forward three years, and people are
starting to actually live that filtered life, whether it's through simple
Amazon recommendations, a web of trust on, or's
Launchcast web radio service. As a voracious consumer of media (and the
type of guy who tends to actually think about that consumption), how much
of your media consumption has been affected by collaborative technologies?

*** Veen:
Wow, has it only been three years since Firefly burst onto the scene? Ican
remember using it, and it's academic predecessor RINGO, and being very
impressed conceptually but completely underwhelmed with the execution. The
problem, of course, was the recommendations are a pale substitute for the
actual thing that's being recommended.

Think about the user experience: you invest time in an application that
asks you question after question about your preferences. Do you like The
Clash? How about Elton John? Stone Temple Pilots? Then, after all that
work, the application responds. "You should try listening to Soul

"Great," you think. "I'll be sure to go right out and buy that album and
see if you're right."

Apps like Firefly turned into match-making services. Since they couldn't
provide the immediate gratification of providing the music, they took the
only step they could: The system would introduce you to people with similar
interests. Well, I guess that's cool. But how much time do any of us really
need to spend in chat rooms with people just like ourselves?

Thankfully, the technology has survived through early implementations and
is starting to trickle into products we actually use; most notably, the
media we consume.

I recently purchased the TiVo Digital Video Recorder. Like your VCR, this
box records television for you. Unlike your VCR, it's actually a Linux box
that digitizes the shows you record as well as the live TV you watch. You
can pause, create your own instant replays, skip commercials. But even more
interestingly, the device uses a method of collaborative filtering to to
fill the rest of it's hard drive with stuff it thinks you'll like. How does
it know? Well, beyond logging the stuff you record, the remote has two big
buttons: one with a thumbs-up, and one with a thumbs-down. As you watch,
you rate. TiVo gets smarter, and your viewing gets more focused.

Music is undergoing the same transformation. Sign up at and you
can see the Firefly recommendation engine done right. As you listen to a
high quality audio stream, you rate the bands, songs, and albums (with an
exceptionally unobtrusive Flash-based interface, by the way). The engine
learns what you like, and creates a personalized commercial-free radio
station for you. Interesting features: create different profiles based on
your mood, a "new music" slider that lets you specify how often a random
seed is thrown into the mix.

Now, I don't want to sound too much like a breathless venture capitalist
stoking the new paradigm fires. But I am impressed with how my media
consumption has started to ... uh ... evolve. I no longer channel surf,
looking for something to watch. I don't care if I get home in time to watch
all my favorite shows. I no longer watch or listen to crap just because
it's on. But most importantly, I'm presented with new choices on a regular
basis based on recommendations that reach much farther than my group of
personal acquaintances. And these new choices are a click away. And
clicking is a lot easier than buying stuff.

Where is the logical extreme? Where else can profile-based recommendations
enhance our lives? may give us a glimpse into a
collaborative future. By answering a series of questions, the service will
recommend everything from who to vote for to the type of pet you should own
to the name of your new child. While not technically filtered (they simply
match questions to a database of pre-existing answers), it's not hard to
imagine wiring it all together.

I wonder what other socialist, post-punk, Labrador owners are watching


Value added version of this story (with links!) located at:


Discuss amongst yourselves:

Has collaborative technology altered your media consumption habits?


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