Yahoo: music and authenticity

There have been a couple of interesting postings in the last week on the Yahoo! Music Blog — almost as interesting for their candid, open style as for their content.

First, Ian C Rogers outlines the new features of the Yahoo! Music Engine. Ian’s blog post seems to take the place of a corporate press release [correction, 14 February 02006: there is also a press release], and it’s the antithesis of the normal approach of such press releases: it reads like a personal message from someone who has himself worked hard on the product and genuinely cares about it. It has personal asides (including publicly airing a gripe about another supplier’s service), and even the screenshot features the Music Engine playing one of Pere Ubu’s finest tracks, which no PR assistant or focus group would ever sanction. Anyone can add a comment to the blog posting, and Ian himself replies quickly to the grumbles.

Second, Todd Beaupré compares different music recommendation/personalisation services. Todd explains that this is prompted, at least in part, by the recent coverage that the blog and media world has given to Pandora, Last.FM and such like. He wants to bang the corporate drum by pointing out that “Yahoo! Music has been offering personalized music recommendations to music-lovers for more than 6 years” (oh, and can I remind readers that I was writing about Last.FM two years ago, Soundflavor eight months ago and Pandora last November?). But then he goes on to reference the ‘competing’ services in some detail, with links to their sites and a frank assessment of their pros and cons. He publishes results of a comparison test showing the recommendations that each of the services produces.

This isn’t the way we are used to billion-dollar corporations talking to their customers. In these and other examples, Yahoo embraces and embodies what David Weinberger calls the authentic voice — a concept he applies to corporations at greater length in his book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined:

Companies talk in bizarre, stilted ways because they believe that such language expresses their perfection: omniscient, unflappable, precise, elevated, and without accent or personality. This rhetoric is as glossy and unbelievable as the photos in the marketing brochure. Such talk kills conversation. That’s exactly why companies talk that way.

So, well done to Yahoo for the attitude, for ‘getting it’, for being less stilted, and for recognising the value of conversation.

As to the content of the Music blog posts, the Yahoo! Music Engine is looking more and more desirable. All I need is for it to be available in a different country, on a different computer platform and using a different file format. I guess I’ll have to be patient, particularly with regard to the latter two changes. (Actually I’ve discussed this offline with Ian Rogers, after he mailed me about one of my playlist postings, which is another sign of how genuinely open the Yahoo culture is, even if the technologies aren’t yet equally open.) Thanks to being on a Mac, I’ve never seen the Yahoo! Music Engine in action, only the screenshots, but I notice the visual style and look of the buttons is quite similar to that used by MusicStrands. I don’t know if there’s anything more than coincidence in that.

One criticism of Todd Beaupré’s comparison test is that it seems to involve entering just the name of one band and seeing what recommendations come up. He criticises services for coming up with recommendations that don’t ‘feel right’ for fans of that particular band. It’s quite possible that a good personalisation engine would start off by making a broad set of recommendations in order to avoid making too rigid and blinkered assumptions about a listener based on limited evidence. A more rigorous and interesting test of a recommendation engine might be how well it responds to extended ‘training’, and whether it gets into all the corners of someone’s musical taste, rather than just the middle of the room.

However, Ian Rogers’ comment on Todd’s post that, “I think it’s incredibly ironic that Pandora has gotten all this ‘Web 2.0’ buzz when it doesn’t leverage the power of the network” is spot on.

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