Advertising, big data, and why it’s not always so bad to be watched

As of this writing, I’ve listened to 54,552 songs since 2007, according to the online music recommendation service Last.fm. That’s nearly six years of my music listening life. And keeping that count accurate is a point of obsession.

I’ve tried to explain it to family and friends, but few seem to quite understand. What could I possibly gain from knowing the number of times I listened to Sleigh Bells last month? Or exactly how often I’ve hit repeat on the new Justin Timberlake song? It can make for some cool visualization for us analytics nerds, but I get that data porn isn’t everyone’s thing.

The thing is, it’s about more than just trends and numbers – it’s about how I can harness all that data about my music listening habits in useful and interesting ways. It’s about taking my lifelong love of Radiohead and Beck and turning it into something cool.

For a good example of what I mean, there’s no better place than Facebook. Over the last month, Facebook has started suggesting to me event pages for concerts – and it’s suggesting bands I like with a startling degree of accuracy, and events that I didn’t even know where happening. It’s a form of advertising, sure, but unlike all of the other display ads and sponsored posts on the sprawling social network, these are the first I’ve actually liked.

For Facebook to do this, it has to know a couple of things. It knows that I’ve been listening to the new Foals album quite a bit, thanks to the listening data I share from the music streaming service Rdio, and in the past, Last.fm. And it also knows that I often go to concerts with two good friends of mine, Melody and Max. So when Facebook sees that I’ve been listening to a lot of Foals, and Max is attending a Facebook event for a Foals concert that I haven’t yet joined, Facebook decides its a good idea to suggest that I attend.

What makes this so effective is the number of data points Facebook has to make such a precise targeting decision. It knows about my music listening habits, as well as those of my friends, and it knows what concerts my friends and I are attending, and what we’ve been to in the past.

Unlike traditional display ads, which often guess at interests based on search terms and cookies, Facebook has actually tapped into the musical data I’ve been building for years across multiple online networks to deliver useful and relevant results. When I think about why I started tracking my music listening habits in the first place, this right here is it.

To some this is scary, and I’ve grappled with fear of exposure too. I certainly wouldn’t want all my life’s habits splayed across databases and APIs – just choice over the ones I do.

Music is one of the fundamental interests I don’t mind laying bare, as long as there’s a benefit, too.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in the App Store.

 

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