Vanderbilt Law Review


Frank Pasquale

First Page



What to read? or watch? or listen to? These are hard questions, not because of any scarcity of expression, but rather because of its abundance. Over 100,000 books are published in the United States each year, thousands of movies and CDs are released, and the amount of textual, musical, and visual works on the internet continues to rise exponentially. Whose work can we trust? And who knows what of it will rank among the best that has been thought and said-or even provide a few moments levity?

Admittedly, a bulging bookshelf or surfeit of films prompts an existential crisis in only the most sensitive souls. Most of us, most of the time, drift along a well-trod path of filters and recommenders. The New York Review of Books may be a trusted guide to "must-reads" (or "must-avoids"). A favored movie or music critic might act as Beatrice (or Virgil) in our daunting quest for information, entertainment, or a fresh perspective on current events. As Richard Caves observed in his classic analysis of the "creative industries," "buffs, buzz, and educated tastes" are indispensable tools for making sense of the world of media around us.

Such tastemakers have become all the more important-and varied-as content offerings proliferate. They provide the metadata (i.e., data about data) essential to finding the expression one wants. A website such as "Rotten Tomatoes" can quickly aggregate reviews of a movie and present them concisely. Amazon invites anyone to review the books it sells. The iTunes music store posts customer reviews of the podcasts it offers. Search engines complement all these efforts by quickly assembling digital information regarding a query. Such categorizers are on the verge of becoming even more effective guides to online content; for example, as Google aims to index books, and new technologies of sampling provide ever more sophisticated ways for online reviewers to illustrate their posts and podcasts. The rise of these metadata providers suggests that the problem of information overload is beginning to solve itself. As more and more services rate and organize content, there is less reason to think one has missed some particularly compelling, delightful, or important work.