Archive for February, 2009

Ideal Recommender Systems are dead, long live Surprise-Me Buttons

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

[Sometimes I paraphrese bits and pieces of this book's intro] How perfection killed recommender systems.


The market for news, entertainment, and information has been finally perfected. In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte prophesied the emergence of the Daily Me – a communication package that is personally designed, with each component fully chosen in advance. If recommender systems know a little about you, they can tell you what “people like you” tend to like – and they can create a Daily Me, just for you, in a matter of seconds.

Perfect! Not really. There are serious dangers in the Daily Me, serious problems to democracy. In his new book “Republic.com 2.0″, Cass Sunstein shows why.

The dark side of Social Computing
Sunstein says that a well-functioning system of free expression must meet two distinctive requirements:

1) People should be exposed to materials they wouldnot have chosen in advance.

2) Most citizens should have a range of common experiences.

If those two requirements aren’t satisfied, there are risks of
fragmentation and, more worryingly, of extremism. Recommender
systems allow their users to bypass general-purpose intermediaries
and restrict themselves to opinions and topics of their own choosing. If recommender systems were to be perfect, millions of people would listen to louder echoes of their own voices, they would find it hard to understand one another, and they would engage into extremism, which is produced by any situation in which like-minded people speak only with themselves.

How to satisfy those requirements? It’s important to maintain the
equivalent of “street corners” or “commons” where people are exposed to things quite involuntarily. There are many apparent “street
corners” in the Internet, but they are highly specialized, limited
to particular views. Lives should be structured so that people 1)
come across views and topics that they have not specifically
selected; and 2) share common experiences upon which to form a
social glue.

The case for Surprise-Me Buttons
Does all this call for a counter research agenda in social computing? One in which imperfect recommender systems (perhaps with surprise-me buttons) are more than welcome?

UK Social Networks Conference – July’09

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

5th UK Social Networks Conference. Friday 3rd – Sunday 5th July 2009 University of Greenwich, London. Low registration fees and …

Additional Short Courses:

The problem with web 2.0 crowds: imitative!

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

I attended a talk by David Sumpter on “How animal groups make decisions” (hosted by Max Reuter). David is a mathematician working on self-organisation and decision-making based on simple rules. His team looked at behavioral rules that explain, for example, how birds fly together.

My take-away from his talk: Group decision-making may be better than individual decision-making ONLY if each member of the group takes decision indepedently. Indeed, idependence is one of the four elements to form a wise crowd. Alas, I think that social prejudices make it impossible to reach independent decisions in our society. Does this suggest the end of the wisdom of crowds?

Few scribble notes:

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Innovate! Europe – 6 February 2009

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009
Name Innovate! Europe
Date 6 February 2009
Location NESTA, 1 Plough Place, London EC4A 1DE
Description NESTA will host the Innovate!Europe competition which identifies and supports top European technology, media and telecom start-ups ready to accelerate their business in Silicon Valley and around the world.
Registration More information and how to apply.