Computers are awesome and they can do awesome things…but I’m still a fan of “Team Human.”
Humans have the ability to move and inspire other humans in ways that machines can’t do on their own. Computers might be smart and sexy, but they can’t illicit emotional responses. As Kip explained, while serenading his new bride at the conclusion of Napoleon Dynamite, “Sure the World Wide Web is great, but you, you make me salivate.”
That’s what I’m talking about.
Human connection is where the magic happens. Computers can spew out inconceivable amounts of data, but–for the time being–humans are the ones who can most effectively curate data into bite-sized chunks of experiential content. Once processed, this curated data can illicit emotional responses, resulting in laughing, crying, salivating and the like.
Take music, for example, among the most emotionally-charged content in the known human universe. Computers can spit out infinite musical playlists based on genre, era, even beats per minute. Many humans are amazed by this. Tickled even. But once the Pandora-like algorithms have demonstrated their stuff, true music fans are often wanting more. They want deeper experiences, emotional context, and something they can feel an attachment to. Most of all, they don’t want to be bored.
Musical algorithms are essentially sequences of finely-tuned rules and, unlike computers, humans have the ability to break such rules and create the unexpected. I’ll give you an example. Back in the last millennium, I worked in broadcast radio at an “alternative rock” station that was known for breaking formatic rules on a regular basis. We would surprise people by dropping Ozzy Osbourne or James Brown in the middle of the expected mix of Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. By breaking our own algorithm, we broke through the clutter.
This wasn’t a random exercise, though, as we curated these experiences by introducing non-formatic songs that actually inspired the artists that were churning out the current Alternative hits (and, not for nothing, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” sounds pretty awesome next to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). When prompted, listeners would say that they loved these musical u-turns because they were “fun.” Perhaps more importantly, they also felt that we were acknowledging their excellent musical taste and their ability to accept the unexpected. It’s as if we were patting them on the back while simultaneously providing them with a great listening experience.
Humans love the feeling of being patted on the back and being acknowledged for their intelligence. Computers don’t do that.
Fast forward to this millennium, where I lead the content-development efforts at Slacker. Sure, we’ve got some fancy algorithms up our sleeves, but our focus is on creating content experiences that are highly curated by human beings who have unnatural levels of expertise in their given type of music. We’re all about creating content that pushes envelopes while also staying true to the core aesthetics of each genre.
We recently launched a countdown of the 101 Greatest Songs in Classic Rock History, for example, and we started with the idea that “Stairway to Heaven” could not top the list. We disrupted the accepted Classic Rock pattern and knocked “Stairway” to #4! As a result, we have music fans deriding and applauding our choices, but the main point? They’re not bored. In fact, they are engaged and wearing their passion on their sleeves.
And it didn’t hurt that we added interview segments from the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. Sorry, Siri, but you’re clearly not ready to have a deep musical conversation with Jimmy page.
At the end of the day, at Slacker we’re devoting a lot of time and resources to create true emotional bonds with our audience. We feel that this is the only way to encourage actionable brand loyalty and consumer evangelism–and we know that our human curators are far more effective at doing this than any fancy algorithm.
Almost 30 years ago, Electronic Arts famously ran a print ad asking “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” As far as I’m concerned, the answer is no. It’s the human beings behind the digital content that creates the type of emotional responses that matter.