Pandora's box

Over the past century, broadcasting — first radio then TV — transformed the media landscape, providing what many consider to be the most efficient means by which to deliver entertainment, information and commercials to the masses.

No other medium has demonstrated the ability to reach large audiences with the efficiency and effectiveness of broadcasting. But this has come at a very high price for society. Mass media has created a homogeneous pop culture where consumers are constantly barraged with messages that seek to classify us in terms of demographic groups rather than as individuals.

The overall noise level is so loud and annoying that individuals are opting out of the mass media to focus on what they enjoy, what they want and what they really need. In this there are two letters that the traditional media conglomerates have come to fear and are now reluctantly beginning to embrace: IP.

The Internet Protocol has created a new means by which communications is facilitated — from the one-on-one intimacy of e-mail to the mass appeal of services that can be accessed virtually anywhere on this planet. IP can support the few-to-many culture of broadcasting, the many-to-many culture of social networking and the ability to deliver an optimized experience for an individual.

Broadcasting, on the other hand, is efficient, but impersonal. IP now threatens to open up Pandora's box with massive personalization of the entertainment experience.

All the evils of mankind

Remember when an encyclopedia took up several shelves in the family book case? Remember the joys of searching through those printed pages for information that was out-of-date by the time it was printed?

According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, “in Greek mythology, ‘Pandora's box’ is the large jar carried by Pandora that contained all the evils of mankind — greed, vanity, slander, lying, envy, pining — and hope.”

It is not much of a stretch to think of the radio in your car or the TV in the family room as Pandora's box. Turn it on, and you will be confronted with all the evils of mankind — and a barrage of advertising messages, most of which must be intended for someone else … You are just a demographic, not an individual. Broadcasting is impersonal and sensational — the harbinger of mass culture.

It certainly has and will continue to have a place among all of the media that are available to the masses. The important question to ask at this juncture is whether it will be complemented by highly personalized media or replaced by it.

One could also claim that the Internet has opened Pandora's box, providing individuals with access to all that is good and bad about mankind. We are exposed to spam, viruses, pop-up ads and just about every possible opinion on any issue. To enjoy the many benefits of this new medium, we must filter out the noise and decide what we will let in and what we will tell the world about ourselves. Sharing a little information can pay rich rewards in terms of finding what we are looking for, but only if we trust the service with which we share that information.

The personalized IP experience is entirely dependent on our willingness to tell a computer what we like or want. It also relies on technology to use this information to filter the vast archives of Internet servers to find what we want, or to allow a service to push its content to us for consumption on-demand.

The notion of locally caching content is critical to the personalized IP experience, not to mention the ability of broadcasters to create relationships with individuals rather than demographics. Broadcasters can push content to local cache if they can convince consumers to subscribe or link to this content.

TiVo has become a generic term, not unlike Kleenex. The company has enjoyed limited success selling personal video recorders (PVRs) and its customized guides and personalized media services. But the concept of linking program guides to a digital video recorder has revolutionized the multichannel television programming world of cable and DBS.

Here, personalization is the responsibility of the individual to mark programs for recording. TiVo goes a step further by recommending programs based on what you already watch, and the company is beginning to offer personalization services for advertisers.

As the broadcast networks start moving their content to the Internet, they too are learning how to optimize that content for individuals. The net result is programs with fewer commercial interruptions and ads that are better targeted to the individual that is watching.

Advertisers have put up with the shotgun approach to TV advertising, but they will all tell you that the ideal future is one in which their ads are highly targeted to individuals, preferably those in the process of making a buying decision about the advertised product. It's a small wonder that Google has been able to create an advertising mecca on the Internet, with search-driven ads.

The Music Genome Project

Way back in 2000, a group of musicians and music-loving technologists came together with the idea of creating the most comprehensive analysis of music ever. They set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level, assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into the Music Genome Project. Together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song — everything from melody, harmony and rhythm to instrumentation,orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and singing and vocal harmony.

With the Music Genome as its basis, a new Internet music service is demonstrating how dumb, impersonal computers can assist with mass personalization of media content. Pandora Internet Radio is available via an Internet browser and on a range of mobile devices such as Apple's iPhone. (See “Web links.”) In a matter of minutes, an individual can create a radio station that streams music based on his or her preferences. Pick an artist or a song, and Pandora will make recommendations. Give a recommendation a thumb up, and it will find more music with genetic links. Likewise, a thumb down helps to identify what you don't like. Once you have a profile in place, you can turn on your “station” and stream music to your computer or phone.

Apple just added a similar feature to iTunes called Genius. (See “Web links.”) Select a song, and the Genius sidebar shows other music that is similar. A few clicks and you have a new playlist based on music in your iTunes library. And Genius also recommends new purchases from the iTunes store that complement the music in your library.

It is not difficult to extrapolate how this kind of search technology is going to affect entertainment television. One particularly interesting aspect of this approach is that it may help hook-up independent producers with potential consumers of their content.

The broadcast world depends on massive promotion to make you aware of its programs. Radio ads hawk TV shows. The TV talk show circuit is used to promote TV shows, movies, music and books. And radio continues to be the promotional arm of a rapidly changing music industry.

When consumers take the time to search for content, and use services like Pandora Radio, much of the promotional advantage of the media conglomerates is lost. The individual determines what he or she wants, and computers match this up with metadata that describes the content.

The only caveat is the data itself. Who creates the data? How does content get listed in the database? Can content owners buy preferential placement as they do with the Google search engine today?

There are as many questions about this brave new world as there are proven solutions. What is clear is that Pandora's mass media box has been opened, and the media conglomerates no longer have as much power to control what we see.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.

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