Wednesday, September 23, 2009

9/23/09 - All Taste is Subjective vs. the Netflix Recommendation Contest

Read this interesting article on by Farhad Manjoo on the phenomenal success of Netflix's contest to improve their movie recommendation algorithm. Manjoo approaches the success of the contest from a business/tech perspective, which is interesting in and of itself, but to me is secondary to the fact that contest winners did in fact improve the algorithm by the goal of 10 percent, which is an amazing achievement when the nature of the problem is contemplated.

It reminded me of the initial article I read on the subject in the NY Times, which can be found here:

The Napoleon Dynamite problem laid out in the article is a fascinating one to me, since it speaks to something that I (and, I think, most people) experience in a visceral and day-to-day way. That is, most of the time one can be confident that in recommending a book/movie/album/work of art to someone if one enjoyed it, assuming that the recommendee will also enjoy it, but there are a subset of cultural artifacts that personally connect to one person that repel other people for seemingly no predictive reason. And often, these books/movies/albums/songs/what have you are the ones that the person doing the recommending feel a particular protectiveness/affinity for.

For example, I have spent the last two years recommending Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to various friends of mine that are avid readers, only to be met with one of two reactions: 1) a refusal to read the book because it's too big and impossible to carry around OR 2) complaints that the book starts slow and is too long and only gets good toward the end.

I am sympathetic to both of these reactions. The book is really long, and it's heavy to carry around. And, I can see the criticism that it starts slow. But, here's the thing. I don't agree at all. My experience of the book was basically 800 pages of solid rapture. But I have no idea how to set expectations for people when I'm recommending the book. I know that I love it, and if there's a chance that someone else who likes to read will have anything close to my reaction, I want to facilitate that experience. But at the same time I haven't talked to anyone that I've recommended it to that has reacted the way that I have.

The thing is, though, is that the book is hardly some obscure, difficult work. It won awards, it was on the bestseller list, it got great reviews - I'm not the only person by a long shot that enjoys the book. But at the same time, I love Jane Austen and I love dark fantasy, so it's possible I'm just uniquely in the sweet spot for Susanna Clarke's artistic aims.

Point being is that it's kind of exciting and kind of shiveringly terrifying that these sorts of questions are being algorithmized (if that's a word) with increasing success. I'd like to think that there's an unquantifiable part of art that accounts for the way that some works divide people.

The polarizing movies listed in the Times article above are described by the writer as "culturally or politically polarizing and hard to classify". It made me wonder what other works across genre falls into this classification. My reactions to the listed movies w/the Napoleon Dynamite problem below:

I Heart Huckabees - loved it.
Lost in Translation - loved it (know many people who hate it)
Fahrenheit 9/11 - loved it
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - have not seen
Kill Bill: Volume 1 - loved much like a child loves his/her blanket
Sideways - loved it, had extended argument with a good friend who thought it was total pap.

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