I have been using the Microsoft Groove ecosystem for a long time now, back when we used to call it Zune and it we had brown dedicated devices to hold your entire music libraries. In those days DRM music was still socially acceptable … how things have changed! It was not long after settling on MP3s that we once again started migrating our cash to music streaming services (DRM by another name?), the advertised advantage being for a monthly subscription cost you could access any music you desire.
Even more recently these services are “intelligently” evaluating your listening habits and providing specific playlists tailored just for you, it is a marvel really, but as with all intelligence context is everything and I would like to highlight just how getting just a few small details wrong can ruin an experience. Lets take Your Groove, for example, here is a quick intro to the concept (TL;DR auto generated playlists based on your tastes):
Today, we are pleased to introduce Your Groove, the place for music that is centered around you... Playlists for you are automatically generated playlists curated to your taste, based on a variety of factors such as your use of Groove (e.g. top plays, recent adds), musical metadata (e.g. mood, genre, era), information about the world of music around you (e.g. recent releases, who is on tour, critical reception), and common music-related activities (e.g. focusing at work, getting a party started)
Lets take a quick look at this as it relates to my favorite genre, Gospel music! I grew playing a variety instruments in a church context and so the history of Gospel music and its influences on other genres has always been important to me. I captured a screenshot of each subgenre with description directly from Your Groove … just soak those descriptions in for a moment.
Playlist: “Expressive Gospel Choir”
The first playlist was something called “Expressive Gospel Choir – Dramatic, emotional Gospel songs”, and for a Gospel aficionado like myself this categorization makes sense. Gospel music by its very definition is emotive and heartfelt, if you want an archetype for this collection, I would propose Mahalia Jackson. Her voice is both powerful and angelic, you will not be disappointed, she would often sing at the behest of Martin Luther King Jr., following his lead into the deep south of the US, her voice bringing much needed succor to an entire generation. Jackson once said "I sing God's music because it makes me feel free…It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues".
So a great start for Groove algorithm, they nailed this section and its description.
Playlist: “Smoky Christian”
So this next section brings in some interesting questions the full title is “Smoky Christian – A selection of romantic Religious songs based on your music”, and I am starting to think that we are missing the underlying point of this particular genre. Maybe the more imaginative biblical scholars will point to the Songs of Solomon as being romantically inclined, and with a healthy dose of hermeneutics would posit that this playlist is perfectly valid. Personally, I would suggest not inhaling that smoke.
Playlist: “Defiant Contemporary Gospel”
The most preposterous sub category has to be “Defiant Contemporary Gospel – A selection of arrogant songs based on your music”. This now feels less like an intelligent application and more like a skit from Whose Line Is It Anyway, stuffing together a list of incoherent nouns in an attempt to illicit a hearty laugh.
My point here is that broadly applying algorithms without fully appreciating the context just looks random and crass. Groove managed to implement a really cool feature, but it falls flat with these relatively simple edge cases. Intelligent applications are clearly in their adolescence and I think we are going to see more embarrassing scenarios like this until those platforms fully mature.