Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Internet Radio

Most people seriously underestimate the impact of cultural and social factors on innovation. Very often excited inventors roll out a product that is objectively “better” only to find that it bombs in the market for reasons that are perhaps obvious only to an anthropologist.

Take, for example, the stubborn resistance of European drivers to automatic transmission, which is an almost universal standard in the US and Asia. Most vehicles sold in Europe still have a manual stick shift and if you admit that you like automatics people look down on you. Your European friends will rationalize all sorts of explanations about safety, economy and performance, but the reality is that they are afraid to seem inadequate. Drivers of automatics are perceived as being incapable of driving properly and deep down they are considered unmanly, regardless of gender. Pretty much the same hostility slowed the introduction of footrests on saddles, wheels on luggage and countless other improvements.

Sometimes also people resist innovations because they do not “look right”, meaning that they prefer to follow the herd rather than use a more functional product. Back in the late 1970s Steinberger introduced a new style of electric guitar where the headstock is replaced by a tuning mechanism in the body. The result is a lighter, more compact instrument that most musicians would not be seen dead playing. Thirty years later rising young musicians like Orianthi Panagaris still use a traditional style guitar.

There are innovators who perhaps inadvertently find ways to address these issues. One well known case is the way sports equipment makers engage popular role models to use their products, making them socially acceptable. Tennis players all used laminated wood rackets until Jimmy Connors made metal rackets socially acceptable. Many companies use the same technique without, perhaps, being aware of the reason it works.

Other companies seem to ignore the problem completely and just hope it solves itself, and then there is Pandora Internet Radio, which seems to be in a class of its own.

Pandora Internet Radio is a web-based automatic “radio” website that first asks you to name some songs you like. Based on these inputs it prepares a playlist for you and streams you similar songs. As you listen you can give feedback on the choices so that it can refine its model of your tastes and predict more accurately the songs you will like. You can find out more at
www.pandora.com but the streamed music content is not available outside the US for copyright reasons.

Most other services of this type base their recommendations on algorithms that compare your choices with others. If you like the song “Alpha” then they check what other people who liked Alpha are listening to. If 98% of users who like Alpha also liked Beta then they recommend that to you. This algorithm thus embodies social factors because it is based on what people say they like and not on what they do like, so peer pressure is factored into the formula.

Pandora is different. They have paid musicologists to prepare a detailed technical description of every song in their database. If you say you like song “Charlie” they analyze the musical characteristics of that song in excruciating detail. Then they search the database for other songs with similar characteristics and recommend them, creating a virtual radio station just for you.

Predictably people get upset sometimes, just like they do when Amazon makes recommendations that they find socially unacceptable. People have written to complain when they have been recommended music by Celine Dion, because obviously in the circles they move this is not something you would ever admit, though in actual fact it might be true.

For this reason Pandora has been accused of ignoring the culture factor. Their geekish assumption is that if you can mathematically prove that I like Celine Dion I will buy her stuff, when in fact people take into account what their friends listen to. Maybe I feel better telling people I like Orianthi rather than Celine. This is reflected in the way traditional social media let you share your musical tastes so that you can find out what is acceptable in your group and learn to like it, or at least pretend to.

Pandora does this the other way around. First it analyzes clinically your musical tastes then it gives you more of the same. But here’s the twist: at the same time it lets you connect with people who have been demonstrated to have the same real tastes. So if you don’t really like the music of your friends, instead of just learning to like it you can get new friends. Whether this works or not I can’t really say but I am watching carefully. Their streaming radio service is hugely popular in the US but will it undermine the effect of social pressure on music choices? Perhaps this could be the start of a major new trend or maybe it is just another interesting case study for people like me who are fascinated by the impact of cultural and social factors on technology & innovations.

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