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Just One Question for Jeffrey Veen
Mar 24, 2000 :: Michael Sippey

Jeffrey Veen is Wired Digital's executive director of interface, and a contributing editor to Webmonkey. He's also the author of Hotwired Style: Principles for Building Smart Websites, an avid mountain biker, a post-punk socialist and the proud parent of Labrador retriever.

Jeffrey's also one of those people who consume media like water. So when he mentioned to me recently that his television consumption habits had been radically altered by the purchase of a TiVO Digital Video Recorder, I begged him to take time out of his busy schedule to answer just one question...

Sippey: It's been almost three years since the buzz about Firefly and their collaborative filtering technology reached a crescendo with the Sunday New York Times piece by Daniel Lyons. Back then, there was an awful lot of prognostication about the imminent death of mass media, accompanied by either worried hand-wringing or wide-eyed celebration (depending on who it was that buttered your bread). Fast forward three years, and people are starting to actually live that filtered life, whether it's through simple Amazon recommendations, a web of trust on, or's Launchcast web radio service. As a voracious consumer of media (and the type of guy who tends to actually think about that consumption), how much of your media consumption has been affected by collaborative technologies?

Veen: Wow, has it only been three years since Firefly burst onto the scene? Ican remember using it, and it's academic predecessor RINGO, and being very impressed conceptually but completely underwhelmed with the execution. The problem, of course, was the recommendations are a pale substitute for the actual thing that's being recommended.

Think about the user experience: you invest time in an application that asks you question after question about your preferences. Do you like The Clash? How about Elton John? Stone Temple Pilots? Then, after all that work, the application responds. "You should try listening to Soul Coughing!"

"Great," you think. "I'll be sure to go right out and buy that album and see if you're right."

Apps like Firefly turned into match-making services. Since they couldn't provide the immediate gratification of providing the music, they took the only step they could: The system would introduce you to people with similar interests. Well, I guess that's cool. But how much time do any of us really need to spend in chat rooms with people just like ourselves?

Thankfully, the technology has survived through early implementations and is starting to trickle into products we actually use; most notably, the media we consume.

I recently purchased the TiVo Digital Video Recorder. Like your VCR, this box records television for you. Unlike your VCR, it's actually a Linux box that digitizes the shows you record as well as the live TV you watch. You can pause, create your own instant replays, skip commercials. But even more interestingly, the device uses a method of collaborative filtering to to fill the rest of it's hard drive with stuff it thinks you'll like. How does it know? Well, beyond logging the stuff you record, the remote has two big buttons: one with a thumbs-up, and one with a thumbs-down. As you watch, you rate. TiVo gets smarter, and your viewing gets more focused.

Music is undergoing the same transformation. Sign up at and you can see the Firefly recommendation engine done right. As you listen to a high quality audio stream, you rate the bands, songs, and albums (with an exceptionally unobtrusive Flash-based interface, by the way). The engine learns what you like, and creates a personalized commercial-free radio station for you. Interesting features: create different profiles based on your mood, a "new music" slider that lets you specify how often a random seed is thrown into the mix.

Now, I don't want to sound too much like a breathless venture capitalist stoking the new paradigm fires. But I am impressed with how my media consumption has started to ... uh ... evolve. I no longer channel surf, looking for something to watch. I don't care if I get home in time to watch all my favorite shows. I no longer watch or listen to crap just because it's on. But most importantly, I'm presented with new choices on a regular basis based on recommendations that reach much farther than my group of personal acquaintances. And these new choices are a click away. And clicking is a lot easier than buying stuff.

Where is the logical extreme? Where else can profile-based recommendations enhance our lives? may give us a glimpse into a collaborative future. By answering a series of questions, the service will recommend everything from who to vote for to the type of pet you should own to the name of your new child. While not technically filtered (they simply match questions to a database of pre-existing answers), it's not hard to imagine wiring it all together.

I wonder what other socialist, post-punk, Labrador owners are watching tonight...



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