How to outsmart live streaming algorithms

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Our secret guilty viewing and listening pleasures aren’t so secret anymore. If you just binge-watched a whole season of Orange is the New Black in one sitting, Netflix knows and will serve up similar content to feed your addiction. Similarly, if you accidentally bopped along to some Britney Spears tracks on Spotify a couple of times (oops, you did it again!), the music streaming service will pepper the playlist of recommended tunes with some more oh-so-catchy 90s pop. Once you’ve been typecast, you’ll fall into a narrow downward spiral of similar sounds thanks to its personalisation algorithm.

Melbourne-based app developers Andrew and Scott Julian believe many Australians are ‘still experiencing the early glow of streaming on demand’. But they say we’ll soon become frustrated with the way algorithms make assumptions about us. So, they built Gyde, an app that allows you to have more control over how you search for things to watch. ‘Although algorithms are a fantastic use of technology, they’re not the end game,’ Andrew Julian says.

Gyde is a sophisticated version of a good old-fashioned TV guide, but instead of telling you what’s on a handful of free-to-air channels, the team is ambitiously working to help you find out what’s on the entire internet instead of relying on the suggestions that are served up. Julian says they’re doing it because they care about retaining an element of surprise in our search for shows that resonate. ‘Being pigeonholed into content choices means we lose serendipity and the ability to expand our worldview,’ he adds.

Channel surfing or thumbing through a pile of records and stumbling across something unexpectedly cool is a dying art. In the coming months, they will release version 2.0, which they believe could be a game changer. The aim isn’t to stamp out personalisation algorithms, though. Julian insists that Gyde is ‘part of the supporting solution’.

'Although algorithms are a fantastic use of technology, they’re not the end game.'

Andrew Julian,
App developer

Streaming services are just as aware of the limits of algorithms. Take Spotify’s new Sorting Hat system, for example. The company’s data alchemist Glenn McDonald describes it on their blog as an ‘experimental attempt at an algorithmic organisation of the week’s new releases’. He claims that it’s the best way to proactively seek out fresh new sounds in any genre, rather than waiting for the algorithm to spoon feed listeners a limited selection of tracks based on recent habits.

Professor David Marshall, Chair of New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University, says it’s important not to take recommendations as gospel. ‘We are in constant negotiations with commercial sites,’ he explains. This new media model provides us with media to consume, but Prof. Marshall says there’s a ‘presentational regime’ that requires us to share with our communities. ‘It’s a privatised version of a village where everyone knows everything about each other,’ he points out.

We’re given what feels like a great deal of power to consume what we want, when we want. But in exchange for this freedom, we pay a price: we tell big corporations what our entertainment consumption habits are. Prof. Marshall describes it as ‘an elaborate information economy’.

On one hand you could argue that we should be throwing our streaming providers curve balls so they don’t know everything about us. But, Prof. Marshall argues that monitoring streaming habits could be as advantageous as a census. ‘A census helps to establish who is in need and who isn’t. Resources are allocated to improve parts of a community. The idea of a census is incredibly useful.’

It’s nice that these corporations are interpreting our data to enhance the service, but let’s not kid ourselves. Spotify and Netflix aren’t altruistic organisations with your best interests at heart. They want you to integrate them into your life. And they want your money.

In 2013, Harris Interactive conducted a study on behalf of Netflix that showed 61 per cent of the US-based adults surveyed were binge-watching television regularly. Roy Morgan research data shows that as of September 2015, 855,000 Australian households with more than 2.2 million residents had access to Netflix – a solid uptake since it launched in April 2015. Perhaps this is because Netflix isn’t just a company, it’s a verb. ‘Netflix and chill’ is fast becoming a national pastime.

The simplest way to avoid becoming passive consumption zombies is to actively search beyond recommended content and forage for those unexpected viewing and listening gems.

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Professor David Marshall
Professor David Marshall

Chair in New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University
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