Monoculture and the Waters of March

March 15, 2009

Tom Slee over at Whimsley writes about Online Monoculture and the End of the Niche:

Online merchants such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix may stock more items than your local book, CD, or video store, but they are no friend to “niche culture”. Internet sharing mechanisms such as YouTube and Google PageRank, which distil the clicks of millions of people into recommendations, may also be promoting an online monoculture. Even word of mouth recommendations such as blogging links may exert a homogenizing pressure and lead to an online culture that is less democratic and less equitable, than offline culture.

I am going to talk about a song called Waters of March. The first version of this song I heard was by a band named Smoke City. The Portuguese title of the original song  by Antonio Carlos Jobim is “Águas de Março” and the Smoke City version is partially in Portuguese and partially in English. 

This song is simply wonderful, which many if not most Brazilians already know, and the Smoke City rendition is unique and opens the song up to an English speaking audience. OK, too much talk about a song…. 

Go Listen to the Smoke City rendition of Águas de Março (Waters of March) at YouTube.

If you want a bit more, try the SeaLab version or the banjo version. 

So the point of my post is this, internet search and recommendation engines are not about being democratic or equitable they are about discovering greatness. In the case of the Waters of March song or the band Smoke City the recommendation engines fail miserably. The Wikipedia entry for Waters of March does not mention the Smoke City album Flying Away. The Flying Away album entry on Amazon in no way helps you find out about the original  Antonio Carlos Jobim song. Flying Away gained a cult following mostly because a the song Underwater Love appeared in a Levi Jeans commercial. iTunes is the worst with their we-know-what-best-for-you walled garden.

But people find this music despite the lack of links, recommendations, and availability of music to download. In fact, I think the truth is that people will go out of their way to share things that are truly great. The Internet with its links gives us a way to share. The recommendation engines and other tools are in their infancy but they will get better. People are ultimately the best recommendation engines and they will find ways to overcome the barriers of language and countries and bad software.

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2 Responses to “Monoculture and the Waters of March”

  1. tom s. Says:

    I wish I shared your optimism. My standard link about the belief that popularity reflects merit is this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html

  2. RAD Says:

    Tom, I believe that the success of a work of art (call it a product in a cultural market if you like) is dependent on two qualities 1) aesthetic, and 2) social. I don’t think the aesthetic aspect is as subjective as many believe.

    Recommendation engines are currently only good at aggregating some of the artifacts left behind by the social component, i.e. the URL links and sales numbers.

    In the case of the song Águas de Março I think it has tremendous aesthetic quality. It also hit a social chord in Brazil but not the rest of the world. I would not be surprised if some kind of social nudge (like a movie sound track) moved it into mainstream success outside of Brazil.

    I think the results of the musiclab experiment are interesting but not surprising. What the experiment is missing is a true hit thrown into the mix that the downloaders were not previously aware of (easier said than done I know). I suspect that they would be listening to it over and over and then spread their find via e-mail etc. rather than browsing other songs regardless of the relative “popularity ranking”.

    So my optimism is not in recommendation engines but in people. We want to share wonderful things and go out of our way to do so. The Internet makes it easier to get the social stuff moving. The fact that we are influenced by social aspects is not a bug but a feature.


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