me or a person like me?

Yesterday I finally got to watch the 3rd episode of the OU/BBC co-produced series Virtual Revolution. The 3rd part was titled: The cost of the free. I highly recommend it to each single user of the World Wide Web – both to those who embraced Internet as just another tool for work, information search, shopping, leisure, networking etc., and to those who look behind the scenes and do the research in this area. I recommend it, because it is informative, educational and fun to watch. And most of all, it makes you reflect on things that you might think you already know, but as the World Wide Web has been changing continuously with an ever-growing number of new exciting services and possibilities all free to use and asking no more in return but just a bit of your personal data, it is of utmost importance to stop for a while and re-think our practice over and over again.

The episode is based on a series of Interviews – Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Chris Anderson, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Terry Winogard and Douglas Rushkoff are among the interviewees. I especially liked the part where Douglas Rushkoff was talking about the influence of recommendation engines on a user:

“Recommendation engines are very good at figuring out what people like me would do and telling me what that is. So, I can then find out what people like me do. I can become much more like a person like me.  By telling me what people like me do and encouraging me to be like a person like me, they help me become more prototypically one of my kind of person. And the more like one of my kind of person I become, the less me I am, and the more I am the demographic type.”

So here is the paradox: on the one hand we have Internet as a tool supporting adventure and discovery, exploration and aha effect. It allows us to visit unknown and to meet and talk to people we would probably never get a chance to meet otherwise. On the other hand, the offer seems to be much too big for us to handle and we become indecisive. This is where the recommendation engines and rating systems come into play. But the question is, again, at what cost?

The question prompted me to think about rating systems, especially the one I use quite often – The Internet Movie Database. I started to use the database and its ranking system some 2-3 years ago to support the choice of the movie I was going to watch at the cinema. As the last two years were very busy for me and I rarely had time to go to the cinema, when I did, I desperately wanted to watch something good. The database proved to be very helpful. I set the threshold on 7 out of 10 and never went to watch a film which didn’t make it over the threshold. Some films were really good, some where ok, but still fun and worth seeing. Actually, my first negative experience came last Sunday when I went to watch Sherlock Holmes. The film was rated 7,6 so I naturally assumed that I was going to like it. I forgot just one minor thing – I have never really liked Sherlock Holmes…

This is how I was trapped by the rating system and the positive experience I had using it. I simply started to rely on it too much and got into a comfortable but experience-limiting routine. So, I am really thankful to Sherlock Holmes for this:  it showed me how easy it is to fall into one pattern and stick to it because it is comfortable, saves time, and the experience is more likely to be positive. For the last two years, I have only watched mainstream movies. Now, I am ready to explore and discover again.