February 1522, 1996
A new technology helps you sift through the bins.
By Margit Detweiler
In an age when a computer can outsmart the best chess player in the world, is it surprising that a computer can tell you what kind of music you'd like?
Imagine a web site that got to know you, like a good friend, and started suggesting albums to buy and artists you might dig.
Firefly is a new web site that does exactly that. Conceived by six 20-something M.I.T. students in late March of 1995, the group Agents Inc. uses something called "agent technology" on the web to sort out recommendations for its users. By compiling data from anybody who registers with the site (which is free), the agent computer coding software learns how your preferences match other users' preferences and suggests music based on what other users have told it.
For example, if you like Pearl Jam, you might also like The Stone Temple Pilots. Or you might not. It's up to you, the user, to rate albums and artists from one ("pass the earplugs") to seven ("the best").
I met the Firefly folks during a recent trip to the Internet Home and Office Expo at the Javits Center in New York. It was the booth with, literally, all the buzz. Twenty-something Firefly staffers in black and bright orange-designed T-shirts were explaining the system and every once in a while tossing out the coveted "Firefly" T-shirt to the audience. (One guy practically wrestled an eight-year-old kid for one until a few people chided, "Hey, he's just a boy" and made him relinquish it to the tyke.)
The Firefly concept started three years ago when two of Agents Inc.'s founders, Dr. Patti Maes and Max Metral, developed an e-mail agent which helped prioritize mail so that certain letters would be sifted to the top and others would be pushed to the bottom or even off to the side.
"The question was raised that what if these agents could communicate with each other in effect learn from each other?" said 27-year-old CEO Nicholas Grouf. "They then developed a way to leverage human experience."
Grouf, Maes, Metral and their braintrust buddies realized that the same technology could be applied to other mediums, like music for example.
"Instead of having to wade through thousands of titles in a record store, your agent presents the four or five that are most interesting to you it's like having your personalized shelf."
The Firefly service went live last October and has already received several awards, including being ranked as one of the top ten Best Multimedia Products of 1995 (Entertainment Weekly) and The 50 Best Web Sites (NetGuide).
Before the Feburary Internet expo, its number of users was 40,000, but Grouf said after the conference that number just about doubled.
"It's no longer about one person sitting in the middle of the room deciding what's interesting, important or cool for the rest of the universe," said Grouf. "Instead, now we can all get personalized information by including the experience of people we don't even know. You think about the universe of people you know within that there's a small subset of people whose taste you actually trust. And its a long process of figuring out who you can trust and who you can't. What the system does is it automates that process. It automates word of mouth."
"The more you use the system, the more your agent learns about you. The smarter it gets. The more other people use the system, the smarter the entire community becomes."
Sounds perfectly, creepily Orwellian, actually. But my interest was piqued.
Basically, Firefly has three main components People, Music and Buzz as well as a user-produced zine called Flypaper which runs album reviews by Firefly users.
In "People" you can meet other users, visit their Firefly homepages (you can create your own site on Firefly which might include pictures, your own album reviews, music recommendations, links to other sites) and in "Buzz" you can chat in "real-time" with other users. But the "Music" section is the main focus of the site and the most addictive.
I sat in front of the Web for a solid hour as the computer tried to figure out what made my musical taste tick.
The computer flatly recommended a few artists; Stone Temple Pilots, The Sex Pistols, PM Dawn and Joe Cocker. I rated them. At the bottom of the page is a section to input your own favorites so that you can rate them as well I threw in a little Liz Phair, Lou Reed, Captain Beefheart and Art Blakey as my favorites.
Up popped Patti Smith, Miles Davis, Tom Waits, Mozart and Yes. I love the first four but told Firefly "don't show again" in the box next to Yes. You can do that. It's a good feeling.
As I entered more ratings and made my search more specific (you can search by artist or album, and by genre) the computer was starting to scare me as it honed in on specific albums I loved and suggested music I'd never heard but was curious to hear.
If you want to read more about a particular artist, or hear what they sound like, in some cases (through digital audio samples) you can do that (Captain Beefheart's "Zig Zag Wanderer" didn't sound half bad rocketing out of the little bitty computer speaker).
You can also buy the music and put albums in a virtual "shopping cart." In fact, the prices for most of the albums are cheap $10.99 for a CD in many cases. Firefly guarantees that you can purchase CDs securely (without someone scamming your credit card number) through Newbury Comics a Northeast music retailer.
One of the more curious aspects of my search was that certain things kept returning the more I input my taste specifically, The Goldberg Variations (the Glenn Gould version) Art Ensemble of Chicago and rockabilly artist, Dick Dale.
"It's placing you in context of other users," explained Grouf. "Even though you may not have rated many classical artists you're becoming part of a community and those people obviously have put in classical information... There's no hard coding so when Firely tells you that the Beatles are like these other artists that they're similar it's not saying The Beatles equal the Rolling Stones equal The Moody Blues. It's saying people who are passionate about the Beatles would also be passionate about another band."
I decided to test the system and spice up the palette.
So I threw in Tiffany.
Suddenly there was a very slight skew in my recommendations. Toad The Wet Sprocket, Toto and The Go Gos were suggested.
I thought I'd mess with Firefly a little further and test out the relative cheese factor of the system. Re-registering with a new handle "Boboli" I told the computer my favorite artists were Yanni, Charlie Rich and Debbie Gibson.
Paula Abdul, P.D.Q. Bach and Garth Brooks were recommended but then so were Patti Smith, Polvo and Frent. After that the computer said it couldn't recommend anything to me, but offered artists like Giant Sand and The Residents not artists an easy listener like Boboli would enjoy.
So I tried narrowing my search by asking Firefly to recommend only "light rock" artists: Jimmy Buffet? John Lennon and some band named Lake, Emerson and Palmer appeared.
Where was Celine Dion? Michael Bolton? John Tesh for god's sakes!
It seamed the computer was either innately cool, or had a tough time being distasteful.
Though Grouf couldn't offer a profile of the typical Firefly user I'd venture to guess that Firefly's primary users are young music enthusiasts who have better taste than the average joe.
Then how accurate is Firefly?
What if you only ever rated Roger Waters and Placido Domingo as your absolute favorites the only artists you ever listened to? How far could you go with that?
You can see the danger of becoming nestled in your own little world. A sort of devolution of taste that creates a "hive world."
One acquaintance/ anthropologist/ cyberhead commented that, as Darwin pointed out, evolution does not imply forward progress, just change. Species can, and often have, evolved themselves out of existence.
Celine Dion fans stay Celine Dion fans. And skinhead rockers stay skinhead rockers.
The target marketing possibilities are mind-boggling.
"Broadcast advertising is completely numbing it's such a rare interest when an ad is actually relevant to you. In an environment like this, the advertising will be relevant to you. The ads shouldn't be a nuisance, but actually helpful... If you're Bantam Doubleday Dell and you have 15 new titles coming out this month we can offer an ad for "X" for people who enjoy Pat Conroy novels and an add for "Y" to people who enjoy biographies of American presidents and so on."
Firefly intends to use their agent technology for other mediums such as books in March they're going to offer a service that helps you choose movies.
They even hope to channel the technology into a local sphere so an agentcould recommend restaurants, hotels even doctors in an HMO plan. One Agents Inc. specialist is developing agent technology called "Web Doggy" to surf the web to help generate a personalized hot list of cool web sites.
"1996 will be the year of the intelligent agent," reads a quote from their press release from Allen Weiner, principal analyst of Online Strategies, Dataquest.
Of course Firefly isn't the only web site offering agent technology though they may, as yet, be the hippest. Other sites such as Reason Line and General Mangic Inc. have also developed agent services or decision processors and are starting to offer their services on the web.
And though there are many CD stores on the web, there's nothing else yet that helps you sift through the best possibilities on the web.
"We're all overburdened with so much information, it's like having your own personal guru, if you will, filter away the things that aren't really relevant."