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Debra Scherer

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Pandora Founder Tim Westergren Talks the Future of Content

Posted: 06/29/11 02:14 PM ET

It seems to be the conversation making everyone feel a bit uneasy and sound like they are science fiction fanatics. What is the ultimate online experience going to be? Has anyone figured it out yet? How do luxury brands translate? How do magazines translate? What are all of these gifted content makers going to do with all of this shiny new technology? And how do we adapt to a world where everything is reusable, remixable, unedited and possibly irrelevant in an instant? There is so much to consider it has almost become impossible to concentrate on doing the creative work; that kind that you really believe in. Right now, when one mentions an idea for a story, instead of the inquiring mind wanting to know "what" the story will be about, and "how" are you going to do it, now the next part of the dialogue will certainly be, "where" is it going to end up? And in "which" format. That's where we are right now; on the fence. On one side, magazines and newspapers, very neat and chic and well thought out design structures having their very existence questioned (!), and on the other side, the internet, which is alive and ticking and a huge horrible mess much like the universe probably was right after the big bang. There is just stuff everywhere. Some predict that one side will eliminate the other, but it seems like the best thing that could happen to both sides is that they let go of each other and let each find its own expression, its own center of gravity. To put it more simply, the print world and the online world need to get divorced.

The experiences are so unrelated that the content for each must be unique to have even a possibility of gravity. Yet, in this unhappy marriage, magazines suffer from having the online world rely on them for behind the scenes, extras and repetitions that rob them of their mystique, while their online representations might look great on big and little screens everywhere, but we all know they don't feel great. In the meantime, the online world itself probably is such a mess because it can't let go of the layers of design and concepts of representation which don't really translate graphically. It rebels against print by letting everyone in, have equal footing and by being purposefully chaotic (hence the constant need for search!). If everyone would let go, then what could the online experience of content eventually be like?

We are working on a short film piece right now discussing the possibilities of the online content experience with the founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren, where we draw many interesting parallels between their approach to the delivery and discovery of music content and our own visual content experiment we are doing at The Little Squares. There are a lot of "what if's," but Pandora certainly has had great success in demonstrating an alternative approach.

To begin with, again, we still love magazines and believe in them. Everyone has become so "quick to click," who isn't his or her own editor-in-chief? Everything begins to lose its point of view. Between bookmarks, cached pages, favorites; there is no beginning, no middle and definitely no end. It's more like a merry go round... the Internet operates in non-linear time.

The beauty of the strict parameters of a magazine is that the content lives between the front and back covers. It runs in a straight line in the same order, every time. You have already found your center of gravity, your point of view, by picking it up and sitting down to look it over.

The print world is a Newtonian experience, set up in a predictable understandable grid, in a very calm and ordered world, that's why it allows you the freedom to "lean back."

So when we thought very deeply about what that magic experience would eventually become in the online world the first question that came to mind was, "what if you took all of the design out of it and just had the content?' It seems clear that the most beautiful print design elements were created to solve issues of limitation in the three dimensional space of a magazine or newspaper. We kept making drawings of content organizing itself into little squares instead of mimicking the stuff you could be leaving behind. The content itself should be designed. That's the big theory, the big switch that has to take place.

As Mr. Westergren explained,

It's like peeling away the structure and design when you move to the web. This will be an experiment as to whether raw good quality content will just float up. It's an interesting parallel to what we are doing. Peeling that away lets the consumer judge the material based on what it really is. So if you lose that layer, you are really straight to the marrow, its all just about the content itself.

So when content begins to organize itself into these neat little squares, (just look at your smart phone and you can see that it's already happening), then how do we find what we want to experience? Maybe it will come and find us?

When we spoke of the original ideas that Pandora was born from, he says,


What I was thinking then, was to create a system that had its own momentum, so it wasn't searching for something. It was more like you're a magnet and you put your magnet into the online world, and things will come to it. In the case of Pandora, music will find you. It's based on a genomic approach, so that makes stuff just float to you and that's starting to happen now.

There is a big difference between this and how content is currently handled online for the most part.

I think the thing that's different about Pandora is that we take this genomic approach. It drives me crazy when people call us an algorithm. The technology is just a kind of tool to translate what is fundamentally a deeply human creation (the content itself as well as the pieces that they turn into genomes, or qualities of sound and expression). It's human on both ends. It requires the technology only to scale it to millions and millions of people.


Every other process is statistical. If you buy this book, then lets look at everybody else who has bought this book, and then we will recommend the next most popular book among that group of people. It has no intrinsic knowledge of the content itself.

It's just like having friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter and Tumblr. Content has fallen into the mother of all popularity contests. You mostly like things because other people like them, not because you actually like them.

It's a becoming the way people find new stuff. Its all driven by "which bucket do I belong in?" The one thing I like about a genomic approach is that it is inherently "anti-bucket. It really respects the art.

What we are both saying, is, if you like this, then we will find more stuff like this based on similarities between the content and not based on popularity or similarities between you and other consumers. If we could take a genomic approach to content in general, we could spend less time searching and have a generally more 'lean back" online experience by developing more magnetic effects.

So, may digital and analog go their separate ways and find happiness as individuals, as television, radio and movie theaters have done in the past. We still love magazines and the web is a new source of wonder. The stage has been set. By us.

This post originally appeared on The Little Squares.