Amazon doctors recommendations
December 7, 2002 9:01 AM   Subscribe

"Customers who bought this product from Amazon also bought fake recommendations? Yes, Amazon just admitted algorithms don't work alone in the recommendations and shopping histories department. What happened is that, besides betraying those of us who thought recommendations were made by objective software, strange things started to happen at the store. Like the one Joshua Allen wrote about on his blog (Better Living Through Software): while trying to buy the book Essential.NET, he received the following hint: "people who shopped for this product also wear clean underwear". It's not an algorithm, it's a super-algorithm with x-ray vision.
posted by nandop (17 comments total)
"So does employ legions of inspectors to check the cleanliness of its customers' underwear?"
no. john poindexter does it for them.
posted by quonsar at 9:24 AM on December 7, 2002

It is plausible that you may sh!t yourself after reading a really good book, though.
posted by boost ventilator at 9:29 AM on December 7, 2002

I'm a little surprised at the controversy around this. Being intimately involved with this at Amazon, I can assure you it was done with tongue firmly in cheek. Obviously, it wasn't clear enough that these were supposed to be funny. There was no admission or concession that algorithms alone "don't work" in this instance. The Amazon response to this can be seen here, in this WSJ story.
posted by kokogiak at 10:05 AM on December 7, 2002

posted by Armitage Shanks at 10:17 AM on December 7, 2002

Perhaps some of the tongues were more firmly in places lower than (facial) cheeks. The other day a friend gave me the URL to an Amazon listing for a Pat Robertson book, in which the second "also purchased" recommendation was a book for gay men about anal sex. Now I notice that the recommendation has been replaced, and that the book doesn't seem to exist in Amazon's database.

On preview, thanks, Armitage.
posted by divrsional at 10:23 AM on December 7, 2002

I think a bigger question is why with nearly 500 items that Amazon knows I own, another 500 or so that I've wished for at one point or another, and over 1000 items that I've either rated or marked not interested, why with all of that do they determine their # 2 recommendation for me in DVDs based on just 5 items?

And, I've had recommendations that are based on less than that.
posted by willnot at 10:31 AM on December 7, 2002

Oh no, this is terrible! Amazon's recommendations are tainted! I have no free will of my own to look at their recommendations and choose whether or not I want to buy. If I see a recommendation on Amazon I assume it's objective and always buy what I see! I need to send this story to many media outlets so we can crack down on these practices!

If you couldn't tell, I am being sarcastic.
posted by wackybrit at 12:14 PM on December 7, 2002

People who are sarcastic also purchased The Concept of Irony.
posted by pb at 12:22 PM on December 7, 2002

divrsional, I wonder if that was a bit of -- hmmm -- Amazon-whacking, where people actually did purchase those two books simultaneously, trying to seed -- or, er, fertilize -- the reccos.

willnot: I suspect that most recommendations are actually based on a mere handful of items, from what I can tell of the way their algorithm works. It may be a matter of scoring such items against each other to present them to you. I doubt it's a hugely costly transactional cross-calculation involving all your purchases. They may have pared their algorithm to the point where its results are nearly as good as they would be in a hypothetical complete analysis -- or maybe they just approximated it from the get-go.
posted by dhartung at 12:35 PM on December 7, 2002

The fact that it's just a blatant lie combined with the fact that one would not expect humor in a supposedly automatic process makes the whole thing seem a bit sketchy to me. It would be sort of like if Amazon made up fictional film critics and attributed quotes to them praising a particular DVD that Amazon was trying to promote. The fact that the DVD in question was, say, Die Hard With A Vengence and the quotes were all about how romantic it was, might make this little ploy mildly amusing to those in on the joke, but it would just seem weird and perplexing to everyone else.

I'm not saying that its illegal or anything like that, but I think it will undermine people's trust in the company, if only in a small way.
posted by boltman at 4:44 PM on December 7, 2002

so amazon are using subjective software?
posted by andrew cooke at 5:55 PM on December 7, 2002

boltman: The key difference between this and your example is that Amazon has not actually said that other customers have bought the items.

If you look at the screenshot, the entirely factual 'Customers who bought this book also bought..' section appears fine. The offending section is 'Customers who shopped for this item also wear'.. and that does not imply that the customers also bought (or recommend) those other items.

This is no more 'wrong' than those icons in the Yellow Pages which advertise other sections for you to check out.

The problem in this case appears to be someone who thinks the public don't know how to read properly and will think the clothing links are actually objective recommendations. I, however, believe the public can.. and that some blogger is just trying to get a byline for this dull story.
posted by wackybrit at 10:26 PM on December 7, 2002

The clean underwear thing is a joke, dammit! Go read the explanation here.
posted by anildash at 10:52 PM on December 7, 2002

wackybrit: You're right. Somehow I missed in the article that they eventually changed it from "also bought" to "also wear." But, apparently they only changed it after people complained. They should have realized it was a stupid idea from the getgo.
posted by boltman at 12:37 AM on December 8, 2002

"...and that does not imply that the customers also bought (or recommend) those other items."

No, it's a little worse than imply that. How can Amazon actually say that costumers who bought this product also WEAR another item from its apparel department? It could be a joke? Yes, it could (a bad one, but still - and it should be more clear). But the problem isn't that: what if Amazon is using fake recommendations all over the store and not only in this "oh, cmon it's not a big deal" example?

"Oh no, this is terrible! (...) I have no free will of my own..."

The recommendations, as well as the LookInside! and the reviews, are tools given to the costumers to evaluate a product before buying, to know if it's good, reliable and worthwhile. If the LookInside shows you the index of another book, it would be faking it. It's the same thing in the recommendation section: you would be buying a pig in a poke. In other words, it would be messing with your free will, it would been telling you to choose between the red and the blue, but faking the blue.
posted by nandop at 5:58 AM on December 8, 2002

I remember once reading at McSweeney’s when Dave Egger's Book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had just come out. Eggers encouraged all the readers of his on-line magazine site to go to and write bogus, fake and funny reviews. He would capture them and eventually do something with them. They are gone now, but they were hilarious. I remmber one talking at length about mathematics anxiety and how the reader made a breakthrough after reading Eggers book. As soon as a comment went up it seemed that Amazon, slow to the game but finally in on the joke, would remove the comments.
Ah, the fun of that Inter-Net. It might catch on.
posted by majikwah at 9:56 AM on December 8, 2002

I got "people who shopped for this product also wear clothes." a few times...

I wonder what its trying to tell me.
posted by LoopSouth at 2:03 PM on December 8, 2002

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