An algorithm for friendship?

Goodreads is a website that was set up so people could share their views about books. In web terms, it is just a larger group of friends, all with a common enthusiasm. So far, so uncontentious. But now Goodreads has decided that 4.6m ‘friends’ is not enough. It has bought the website Discovereads, which promises it has ‘the best book recommendation system online’.

So suddenly friendship, common tastes, shared passion for a subject has become a ‘system’. Amazon already does this — if you loved xx, you’ll love y, the website merrily tells you. So does Zappos after you buy a pair of shoes. But do I want to share my passions for books with an algorithm? I really don’t think so.

Amazon is wrong more often than it is right. I bought a copy of My Secret Life, by ‘Walter’, for a book I’m writing — ‘Walter’ was (perhaps) an anonymous Victorian who had a, shall we say, ebullient sex life. I needed to know about prositution in 19th-century London, and Walter is, more or less, all we have of (possibly) first-person narration. But becuase I bought Walter, Amazon now has it firmly in its little head, or algorithm, that I ‘loved’ My Secret Life, and therefore recommends porn, and Victoriana, to me with cheerful impartiality. Well, thanks a heap, Amazon, but a real friend, not an algorithm, would actually know that I didn’t ‘love’ Walter, I read it (a very different kettle of porn).

Zappos may suggest that if I ‘loved’ my furry slippers, I will ‘love’ a pair of Uggs. Somehow I don’t take that so personally, because I don’t really love my slipppers; indeed, I have never held an unspoken passion for any of my shoes, even the ones I really like. They just aren’t that important.

But I do have passions for books, and I object to that passion being cheapened by mechanized ‘loving’. Even books I truly do love, with real passion, I couldn’t produce an algorithm for. I ‘loved’ Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a deeply ungirly love; I also loved Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, an equally deeply girly love. Is there an algorithm that encompasses both? A real friend, a person, not an online algorithm, in fact gave them both to me, with the booklovers’ immortal line: ‘Here, you’ll love this.’ And I did. But my (real) friend has known me for 25 years. The computer’s algorithm has never met me. And that’s why one hands me Neal Stephenson, while the other recommends porn.

I think I know which one is my friend.

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