Suggesting unsuggestions

Librarything’s Unsuggester tells us, based on millions of user-datapoints, that readers of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity are very unlikely to have read Christine Feehan’s vampire novels, and that readers of just about any work of contemporary literary fiction (my latest try was A.S. Byatt’s Possession) have not, apparently, been plumbing the breadths of recent Christian devotional writing. (For some reason I can’t get it to return any unsuggestions for Culture Making. Could it be that that book’s readers really will read anything? Let’s hope.)

On sites such as Amazon and iTunes, homophily is a selling point: it’s the basis for “collaborative filtering”, whereby you’re recommended books and music on the basis of what others who made the same purchase – people like you – also enjoyed.

The unspoken assumption here is that you know what you like – that satisfying your existing preferences, and maybe expanding them a little around the edges, is the path to fulfillment. But if happiness research has taught us anything, it’s that we’re terrible at predicting what will bring us pleasure. Might we end up happier by exposing ourselves more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people and things we don’t think we’d like?

You don’t need technology to do that, but then again, technology needn’t be the enemy: Facebook could easily offer a list of the People You’re Least Likely To Know; imagine what that could do for cross-cultural understanding. And I love the Unsuggester, a feature of the books site enter a book you’ve recently read, and it’ll provide a list of titles least likely to appear alongside it on other people’s bookshelves. Tell it you’re a fan of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and it’ll suggest you read Confessions Of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. And maybe you should.

Originally published at

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