• Social Recommendations: No Surprises There

    Today I'm pleased to share a contributed post from Alan Wolk. Alan is Global Lead Analyst at KIT digital. He frequently speaks about the television industry in general and second screen interactions in particular, both at conferences and to anyone who'll listen. Recently named as one of the "Top 20 Thinkers In Social TV and Second Screen" Wolk is one of the main architects behind the award-winning KIT Social Program Guide and writes about the television industry at the Toad Stool blog. You can find him on Twitter at @awolk

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    Social Recommendations: No Surprises There
    by Alan Wolk

    There’s a firmly held belief in the world of social TV and social media that our social graphs-- the people we are friends with on Facebook and Twitter and other social networks-- are the best source of recommendations for anything from restaurants to movies to TV shows. (Witness this week’s Facebook Graph Search announcement.)

    I’m here to suggest that may not be the case, particularly in regards to television.

    Let’s take Facebook, the most personal of the social networks. While it is considered good form by many on Twitter and LinkedIin to connect with relative strangers, our Facebook friends are generally people we know in real life.

    Or knew.

    For most people, Facebook is random collection of old classmates, former coworkers,  family members, acquaintances, neighbors and close friends. So it’s questionable how much value you’ll place on recommendations from your great-aunt or the kid who sat next to you in Chemistry junior year. Even our close friends don’t necessarily have taste that coincides with our own. Or, more importantly, surprises us.

    My biggest issue with social recommendations is that they rarely uncover something new. If the most popular sitcoms among your friends are The Office, Seinfeld, Family Guy and The Simpsons, you’re not discovering anything. There are no surprises there, no obscure-but-brilliant shows you didn’t know about. And for the vast majority of people, it’s safe to say that their social graph’s tastes generally mirror their own.

    Which is not to say that social recommendations are useless: they can remind us to
    tune in to live events like the Oscars or the World Series or cue us in to what’s popular during any given time slot, given that most live viewing is still on one of the major networks.

    It’s just that there are other data points that are more interesting, draw from a larger pool and can probably do the aforementioned a lot better: What are most people in my zip code watching right now? Most women 25-34? Most Philadelphia Eagles fans? Most other accountants?

    Since those data points are only slightly more likely to produce surprises (unless, of course, you check the data on a group that’s markedly different than your own, e.g. teenagers, bus drivers, fencing enthusiasts) there’s a compelling argument for getting recommendations from actual critics, people who evaluate movies and TV shows for a living. Their recommendations may not always differ from the ones we get from our social graphs (popular shows are popular for a reason) but since critics evaluate a much broader range of options, their recommendations are far more likely to actually contain some surprises.

    Given that TV is rapidly losing its “boob tube” stigma and is starting to be seen as a legitimate art form, I can see people paying for a “TV concierge,” someone who “curates” content for them and recommends each night’s viewing. Sure, it sounds more than a little goofy, but to paraphrase W.C. Fields, no one ever went broke underestimating twenty-first century Americans’ willingness to pay for anything that reeks of exclusivity. Or has the word “curate” in it.

    Snark aside, there are actually valid reasons to look at a curator or an algorithm that factors in the suggestions of professional critics.  There’s a world of new OTT-only content available via providers ranging from YouTube to Crackle to AOL and Yahoo. While many of these are short clips, there’s a trend towards long-form content, a lot of which is starting to rise above amateur level.  Ditto the huge rerun libraries the various OTT networks are buying up.  Here again, there’s a lot of junk, but plenty of gems. As these alternate resources grow in both size and quality, our social graphs alone won’t be enough to help us wade through all the options, let along figure out which of them we actually have access to on our various connected devices.

    So if I were a TV curator (or an algorithm than mimicked that function) I wouldn’t dismiss my client’s social graph recommendations out of hand. I just wouldn’t make them my primary data source. My clients, after all, are paying me to surprise them. Something the increased range of viewing options will make a whole lot easier.