For the past few days, Iâ€™ve been trying to use a music streaming serviceâ€”specifically Beats Musicâ€”as my primary way of listening to music. I have a number of thoughts that Iâ€™m still working through, but there is a design pattern Iâ€™ve noticed, common to all the major streaming services, that deserves some scrutiny. On Beats music, it looks like this:
Other services use the Siskel and Ebert â€œThumbs Up/Thumbs Downâ€ approach, but the idea is the same. It asks: â€œDo you like this song, or do you dislike it?â€ Your selection is tied to whatever algorithmic method the service uses to determine what else it should play for you, though itâ€™s not terribly explicit how it works. I think itâ€™s safe to assume that a Heart or Thumbs Up means â€œGive me more of this,â€ and the Xâ€™d Out Heart or Thumbs Down is â€œGive me less of this.â€ Opting not to choose, I imagine, is interpreted as apathy.
The problem is that I donâ€™t relate to a music on the binary level (or trinary, if you want to count the â€œmehâ€ option of not tapping either) that these services use. My feelings about music run along a fairly wide scale that, at the extremes, could be described as â€œI want to hear this song over and over again until I drive everyone around me insaneâ€ to â€œIf I hear this song again, I will punch someone.â€ This is probably too wide, and personal, of a gamut of values to expect a streaming music to implement, but that doesnâ€™t mean there canâ€™t be more nuance involved.
Itâ€™s possible there already is. If the folks handling these algorithms are as smart as they think they are, theyâ€™ll probably assume that a Thumbs Down, followed by skipping to the next song would weigh heavier against a track than a simple Thumbs Down, or that a Heart followed by a skip would indicate â€œI like this song, but I donâ€™t want to hear it nowâ€¦ maybe play this artist less often.â€ These algorithms are so opaque, however, that thereâ€™s no way of knowing for sure. Thatâ€™s what really throws me. How many times do I need to tap the Xâ€™d Out Heart and then skip the song in Beats for it to know that I really do not want to ever have to hear INXS again, ever?  It would be better if I could be just a little more explicit in how I feel about a song or an artist, so that I donâ€™t need to rely 100% on the algorithmâ€™s learning process.
After all, if algorithms are going to play such a massive role in what media weâ€™re exposed to, it benefits us to have some insight into how they decide, even if itâ€™s to correct the inevitable mistakes itâ€™ll make during the learning processâ€”and, occasionally, after. I want to see what my streaming service thinks about me, something like Googleâ€™s Demographics page meets Last.fm. Iâ€™d like to see things broken down by genre, by artists, possibly even by song, if Iâ€™ve made any specific decisions on any. Thatâ€™s one of the biggest issues I have with streaming musicâ€”iâ€™m wary of giving up control of the music I listen to purely to some black box of an algorithm. Probably because so many of them areÂ both opaque and inaccurate all at once.
One point in Beats favor is that it’s onboarding process includes a step where you explicitly exclude some genres and artists, but itâ€™s hardly comprehensive. Iâ€™m just glad it gave me a chance to banish The Smiths before I heard note one of Morrisseyâ€™s atonal warbling. Â â†©