Commentary: To build audiences, think about preference discovery engines

NEA Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett, interviewed by Barry Hessenius on WESTAF Blog, 1/30/13

I think we have to take a hard look at the investments being made to build audiences.  In my previous job, I spent a good portion of my days working on citywide cultural events calendars. Never once did I ever use one of those calendars to plan something to do in my personal life.  If someone lives in New York City and hasn't figured out how to get to the theater, I am not sure that an alphabetized list of a thousand events is going to be the silver bullet to get them to attend a first performance. I think we have to look at preference discovery engines.  There are three basic kinds: Amazon's, based on patterns of behavior (people who bought X also bought Z); Facebook's, based on personal relationships (I am friends with X; X likes Y; I might like Y); and Pandora's, based on inherent qualities (song A has X, Y, and Z characteristics, and so does song B).  I think if we could create a cross-disciplinary Pandora, it would revolutionize audience development.  Can you imagine an algorithm that takes a person who listens to jazz music and enjoyed reading The Color Purple and suggests that that person might also enjoy seeing Bill T. Jones's company dance?  It would be revolutionary.


A new social recommendation engine for NYC arts lovers

From the Culture Craver website

In real life, the people you trust help you make decisions. The same should be true in your digital life. We know you trust different people, both experts and non-experts, with diverse tastes. Culture Craver gives you the tools you need to see what your people are excited about and avoid the things they hate. It also lets you connect in novel ways with the people you care about and gives you a platform to share how savvy you are. How it works: Follow the friends and critics you trust. 'Crave' events you're excited to see and rate those you've seen. Then, based on your tastes and the opinions of people you trust, Culture Craver generates custom recommendations for you [without] a secret, impersonal algorithm. We help you leverage the culture knowhow of the friends and pros you trust to help you decide what to do. Culture Craver lives online, on an iPhone app, and in an e-newsletter distributed each Friday. We also post updates, reviews, and cultural experiences on our blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.


A new site sells 'indie' theater scripts with Amazon-style recommendations

Rochelle Denton, New York Theatre Experience's blog Plays & Playwrights, 1/4/13

Just over a year ago NYTE launched Indie Theater Now, the digital theater library for the 21st century. Today it includes just about 500 plays by about 340 playwrights. The interest in and excitement about this new endeavor is far beyond anything we imagined. And I want to share all that is happening on Indie Theater Now with everyone interested in contemporary drama by serious playwrights willing to experiment, to cover all genres, to reach out and influence, to speak their mind, to be 'indie'. Indie Theater Now has a recommendation engine on the Play Detail Pages -- similar to what you would find on Amazon; it notes other plays by the author, people who bought this also bought, and plays similar to this one.    


Graph Search: a recommendation engine only Facebook could power

Brittany Darwell, Inside Facebook blog, 1/16/13

Facebook's new Graph Search is unlike any other search engine. It opens the vault of likes and interests stored in Facebook and combines it with meaningful social identity. In other words, it's something only Facebook could do. When people sign up for the social network, they list their age, gender, relationship status, hometown, current city, schools, workplace and much more. Every subsequent action people take on Facebook is connected to that identity, so when someone Likes a movie or checks into a restaurant, Facebook starts to get a picture of the type of person who is a fan of a particular movie or goes to a certain restaurant. Now with Graph Search, that information will be accessible to the average user. There are a number of new and interesting use cases for Graph Search. One of the most compelling ways to use Graph Search is as a recommendation engine. Users can combine a number of properties to find music, movies, attractions, and other things that they are likely to be interested in. Friend recommendations can be quite meaningful, but in other situations, users might value the opinion of other groups of people. For now, Graph Search only indexes people, places, photos and interests, but as the company integrates Open Graph and status updates, it will become an even more powerful recommendation engine.


How Graph Search could impact the future of music (and other arts)

Jason Epstein, SoundCtrl blog, 1/18/13

[Facebook's Graph Search] could be a great way to localize and add an unprecedented social element to music.  You could find a friend's photos of a band or interests associated with a specific genre of music.  You can use Siri-like search terms like "what music do my friends like?" or "what concerts are my friends going to in 2013?" instead of more traditional Google-friendly search terms.  With this new feature, word of mouth music exposure will now be searchable, enabling recommendations from the past to come into the present.  Seeing a friend's "liked" band can lead to you to "liking" an artist, seeing an upcoming show, or finding an entirely new genre to enjoy. Graph Search could change music marketing in a big way.  Search Engine Optimization has been helpful for all types of monetization and Graph Search could become one of the most important, influential and widely used search engines out there, facilitating a need for artists to use SEO for high search engine results page rankings in Facebook.  Facebook's shady dealings could even result in auto-completes being populated with results that point to the page of the highest bidder. Whatever may come down the line, this is certainly an interesting and worthwhile addition to Facebook that could have an increasing impact on the way we find, consume and share music, both old and new.


Commentary: Why online recommendation engines don't work for visual arts

Art critic Jason Farago, The New Republic magazine, 10/22/12 promises to introduce users to art they'll enjoy via a sophisticated recommendation engine; the New York Times placed alongside Netflix and Pandora as a means for serendipitous artistic encounters. At the core of is an algorithm that assesses art via a series of properties. But really they're just tags, hand-affixed by a team of art historians. In one way, this is refreshing: unlike its predecessors, doesn't make the mistake of believing contemporary art can be boiled down to formal elements. At the same time, the warren of art history grads hand-coding this thing gives the game away. What poses as machine intelligence is in fact a distinctly unglamorous form of curatorial labor. [P]eople have been trying to sell art online for more than a decade, with little success. is the most sophisticated attempt yet, and its team of art world veterans has a better chance than its predecessors of cracking open the cottage industry that the art market remains. [But] the monopoly of the offline market endures. So why does art remain resistant to the Web, when almost every other cultural medium has been subsumed by it? A work of art gains meaning and importance not from intrinsic qualities, but from its position within a network of institutions -- museums, galleries, art schools, magazines, etc. We live in a time of image explosion, but without that network, images are just content. There's simply no possibility of a viral digital success -- a "Call Me Maybe" of painting or photography -- because a work only becomes successful upon its art world approbation. And that can't be dismantled, not unless you also feel like dismantling the entire critical apparatus of contemporary art. Disdaining the digital is, at its core, a survival strategy. Indeed, as the art historian Claire Bishop has argued [free registration required to view this article], the most consequential shift in art since 1990 has been away from technology, not toward it.

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