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We Heard It Through the Napster Grapevine--All of It

September 10, 2000|LARRY SMITH | Larry Smith is the executive editor of Yahoo! Internet Life, a Net culture magazine. Web site: http://www.yil.com

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals may very well end Napster's historic, short--but notable--run on Tuesday. If it does, we'll lose more than the greatest online music mart. We'll lose the best window into the soul of our tastes that technology has delivered to date.

In just a short time, the Net has become a powerful tool to track our tastes. By asking a few questions at the right time, and watching the digital footprints we left as we moved and made choices while we surfed the Web, coders and marketers came up with a now-ubiquitous concept called "collaborative filtering."

Collaborative filtering technology buzzes quietly in the background of many Web sites. It works on this familiar premise: If Alice likes Lyle Lovett and also likes Loretta Lynn, and if Bobby likes Lyle Lovett, then he should also like Loretta Lynn.

Not terribly complicated nor imaginative--nor really so bad, as you've probably learned firsthand if you've ever bought something on Amazon.com and then encountered a note advising, "Customers who bought 'New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story' also bought 'eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work.' "

Collaborative filtering pops up in different incarnations across the Web, such as programs that suggest other sites while you surf. (Do you like MSNBC.com? Then try CNN.com.)

The problem is that collaborative filtering reinforces the obvious. Of course I'd be interested in "Frommer's 2000 Portable Paris" since I just bought "Frommer's Portable London." I could have told you that. Filtering, after all, is by its very nature reductive. It takes the stunning breadth of choices and boils them down to a limited number. In doing so, filtering fails to unearth the incredible diversity of our tastes, the quirkiness inherent to being human.

Napster's technology, on the other hand, is expansive. It allows us to peep inside the musical worlds of fellow Napster users. How so? If you come across a user whose tastes you'd like to further inspect, with two simple mouse clicks you can have Napster hone in on just what music is stored on his hard drive--often hundreds of songs that couldn't be less related. What's at work now is not technology based on an algorithm generated by software, but an actual unfiltered look at the crazy rhythms of human taste.

Scrolling through the music palette of "RaddVixxxen," "BlackWidow," "MissPeeps" and other Napster users whose collections I've inspected, there's a wild world out there. It's a place where Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" coexists with Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," where jingles from "Blues Clues" queue up alongside AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap." It's through Napster that one begins to wonder why so many people who like the Grateful Dead are also in possession of the theme from "The Greatest American Hero."

The filtering functions of the online shopping world could never measure the fascinating psyche of our weird and varied spirits. It can't explain a world in which Beethoven's Fifth and Eddie Murphy's "Boogie in Your Butt" make up the digital genome of someone's hard drive.

If I were a record executive, rather than fight to shut it down, I'd welcome Napster's vast potential to unveil what music connections people are actually making. I'd have hired hordes of people to sit on Napster all day and take notes. I'd devise software that scans Napster 24/7 to see who was downloading from whom--who are the taste setters and what those tastes are. That unwillingness--or lack of vision--to see Napster's potential is another mark of a dying industry.

For now, Napster remains one of the Web's last bastions of pure randomness. The beauty of the Net once was that you never knew where it would take you next. We actually didn't know where we wanted to go today. It was still a grand experiment, electric chaos that didn't always make sense. Filtering--as it is done outside of Napster--unearths the occasional surprise, but it largely reinforces what we already know.

Yes, I do like both Beck and Fatboy Slim, but there's no intuitive leap in figuring that one out. Napster reminds us that what makes the web of life so interesting is a world where, on more PCs than we'll ever know, Hank Williams and Lil' Kim are sharing the stage.

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