From the archives: Ringo, the WOM-based music recommendations engine

Back in 1994, MIT’s Media Lab created Ringo—an algorithm-based system designed to automate the process of “word-of-mouth” music recommendations.

Here’s the overview of the project:

Recent years have seen the explosive growth of the sheer volume of information. The number of books, movies, news, advertisements, and in particular on-line information, is staggering. The volume of things is considerably more than any person can possibly filter through in order to find the ones that he or she will like. … We need technology to help us wade through all the information to find the items we really want and need, and to rid us of the things we do not want to be bothered with.

Ringo allowed users to create personal “profiles” where they rated bands on a scale of 1-7. Recommendations were then made to users based upon values assigned by other people of similar tastes — a bit like a crude Pandora or iTunes Genius.

Though Ringo was designed as an “automated word of mouth system,” perhaps most telling in terms of word of mouth findings is the rapid adoption and success of Ringo itself, which achieved 1,000 users in less than a month (in a time before Twitter, modern blogging, or Google) with little to no advertising. The system eventually expanded into movie, website, and community recommendations and amassed such large amounts of profile data from end users that they worked with the federal government to help define consumer privacy protection in the digital age.

While there isn’t a lot of info as to what ultimately became of Ringo, we were able to dig up this article from Seattle Weekly which describes how Ringo became known as “Firefly,” made its founder, Pattie Maes, a millionaire and was acquired by Microsoft in 1998 when the system was integrated into the company’s Passport Web ID product.

Read the original MIT paper outlining Ringo.

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