The Filter's recommendations hew to the mainstream

I've been trying The Filter, which counts Peter Gabriel among its investors, for the last few days, but so far its recommendations seem tailored to people who don't listen to much music.

Tech Culture

The Filter is an entertainment recommendation service that asks questions about your taste, then tries to refer you to CDs and DVDs you might be interested in buying. (The site will eventually add other forms of entertainment, such as TV shows.) It's been in a closed beta since earlier this year, and has gotten some press thanks to the involvement of art-rocker Peter Gabriel. On Tuesday, it opened to the masses.

The Filter recommended these records for me. Screenshot

The idea's not has had a recommendation engine for years, and many online music services like Pandora, iLike, and Jango employ variations on that theme.

I filled out the survey asking what genres of music I like, and was somewhat surprised that it only offered about a dozen genres. After noting that I liked jazz, "rock/pop" (a genre so huge as to be basically useless), and electronic, it kept recommending mainstream modern hip-hop, like 50 Cent and Ludacris. Not my bag, although I do own music by Outkast, plus more obscure artists like Mos Def and DJ Spooky. (How can an algorithm ever reconcile those types of contradictions? I have no idea.)

I cleared that up by going back and giving hip-hop my lowest rating. Then the engine kept throwing up pop-rock acts that I'm already familiar with and know I don't like, such as Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy. After a few more low ratings, it seems to have realized that I'm in my late 30s, and on the front page it recommended three CDs that I heard about a million times back in the early 90s--Pearl Jam's Ten, the Counting Crows' first record, and "Mother's Milk" by the Chili Peppers. All OK records for their time, but not exactly new discoveries. It also recommended a Bruce Springsteen collection--not his last album, Magic, which is actually his best in years and which I might theoretically not have heard since it got very little radio play.

The recommendations interface could also use some improvement: when I click "Improve My Recommendations" it takes me back to the genres page, which I've already filled out once. It doesn't offer me any artists to rate (like iLike does). There's a slider that lets you tell the engine to make recommendations "more surprising" or "more expected" but it's only available when you click through to an album page, and it didn't seem to make much difference when I moved it all the way to the "surprising" side. (Question: if you want recommendations that are "more expected," why would you need a recommendation engine at all?)

Maybe the interface and recommendation engine will improve over time. But based on my early testing, I'm guessing The Filter's meant for busy Internet users who view "entertainment" as an occasional product to be consumed, but don't know where to start. It doesn't seem to be for music (or movie) geeks or collectors. Fair enough. Just not for me.

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