Devaluing the word “Genius”

It’s bad enough that Apple decided to call “tech support guys with some actual training” “Mac Geniuses” but now they’ve applied the word to a “people who bought this, also bought” feature.

The problem with the Genius feature in iTunes is simply that it confuses “also liking” with “going with”. You can have data that shows people who like Strauss also like Copland, or that people who like Talking Heads also like Paul Simon, but it doesn’t mean that these people want to create playlists from mixtures of these songs. It’s like assuming that because people who like “The Silence of the Lambs” also like “Shakespeare in Love” they must be similar movies.

According to the iTunes “Genius” feature, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” goes with almost anything I pick. I’m guessing that it gets uniformly high ratings from the people who have it in their collections, as a consequence of which it got attached to a playlist based on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Keep the customer satisfied”. (If you don’t know how inappropriate a match this is, here’s a rough idea: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is sung in a dull monotone by a band chiefly famous for its lead singer committing suicide and then reforming as the slightly less suicidal New Order. “Keep the customer satisfied” is a loud, brassy, very upbeat song about … selling marijuana, I think.)

Every Leonard Cohen song might be similar in mood, but Simon & Garfunkel can be cheerfully whimsical (“Feelin’ Groovy”), stoned and sarcastic (“Simple Desultory Phillipic”), melancholy and reflective (“Old Friends”), cheerfully betrayed (“Cecilia”). I don’t think there’s another song they did that would obviously belong in a playlist with “Keep the customer satisfied”, which is why I picked it.

When Jobs described the feature, I assumed that what Apple was doing was either (a) employing people to make links between tracks, or (b) figuring out which links already exist by examining manually constructed playlists.  Now I think all they’re doing is correlating ratings, which is a great way of recommending things people might like to buy, but a lousy way of figuring out which goes with what.

So, Genius now means stupid. Thanks, Steve.