Why You’re So Predictable

Fortune talks about recommender systems.

Take Amazon’s “if you liked The Da Vinci Code, you’ll love Blink.” Now move from book-to-book relationships into book-to-other relationships: “If you liked the Da Vinci Code, you’ll like a Jura Capressa espresso maker.” That’s a recommender system.

Fortune’s example is www.whattorent.com, helping slackers save time at 10PM Friday night at the local (at least, still here today) Blockbuster by predicting what movie they’ll love.

Fortune interviewed whattorent’s two founders at a coffee shop, and put them to the ultimate test: pick two strangers in this restaurant, and—just by observing them—guess their favorite movie.

They settle on a guy and a young woman. After much clever psycho-babbling, the founders guess: Starship Troopers for Joe, Roman Holiday for Renee.

And wouldn’t ya know it—they’re dead right.

You can hear Fortune cuing up the PGA graphic—“these guys are good!” And indeed that’s our reaction—wow, how could anyone pull that off?

But wait. What if we’re mixing up cause and effect? Maybe it’s not that two twenty-somethings are great predictors. What if we’ve just all gotten way more predictable?

Everyone had their favorite Beatle. If you preferred John to Paul, it said something about you—to everyone. Because everyone had a common reference point. The Fab Four were global litmus tests.

Since then, culture got way more global. Africans wear Arizona t-shirts; Valley Girls know Tibetan monk choirs. The weapons of mass dispersion are well known—iPods, MySpace, YouTube, Hollywood.

Everyone wants to be different—but we share referent points from which we diverge. Jeans, music, hair, slang… Take five variables with five values each: five to the fifth power is 3,125 combinations. Sounds like a lot, but it’s based on a small set that’s easy to reverse-engineer.

People don’t predict us: we self-identify, and the code is easy to read. Marketers love this stuff.

Ironically, it also makes it easier to trust others. When a British Stones fan meets a Jagger aficionado from Beijing—the world shrinks.

The question is: can we keep the diversity while enhancing the trust?