The Tech Guru Who Paved the Way for the Age of Social Media

A provocative article in Netguru, “Intelligent Agent: How Pattie Maes Almost Invented Social Media,” digs deep into the 1990’s archives and discovers that renowned AI scholar and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Pattie Maes was building and branding technology that set the foundation for today’s social media and streaming platforms – from Meta to Netflix – as far back as 1994.

In an era when people were mainly connecting to information through USENET and AOL, Maes and her team developed and launched a service called HOMR – short for Helpful Online Music Recommendation service – which they spun off into a startup they named Firefly. This technology would later be used by many of today’s platform companies.

“HOMR pulled off a trick that was genuinely unprecedented at the time: it could make surprisingly sophisticated recommendations of music that you might like. It seemed to be capable of learning something about you as an individual,” explains writer Steven Johnson of Maes’ technology. “Unlike just about everything else on the Web back then, HOMR’s pages were not one-size-fits-all. They suggested, perhaps for the first time, that this medium was capable of conveying personalized information. Firefly would then take that advance to the next level: not just recommending music, but actually connecting you to other people who shared your tastes.”

Today, Maes serves as director of the MIT Program in Media Arts and Sciences at the world-renowned MIT Media Lab, which CBS News once dubbed The Future Factory. A global authority on human-computer interaction and a trailblazing entrepreneur who sold Firefly to Microsoft in 1998, Maes runs the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group, which conducts research at the intersection of Human Computer Interaction and Artificial Intelligence, with a focus on applications in health, well-being and learning. She and her team continue to develop smart technologies, including wearables, that help people improve cognitive skills in such areas as attention, motivation, behavior, memory, creativity, learning, and emotion regulation, with the goal of improving how we live, work, think, move and create.

“I was always much more interested in helping people — thinking about how technology could help us with decision-making and communication and finding other people that we might want to talk to. Or how it could augment our memories,” Maes admits. “Looking back, it was a benefit for me that I wasn’t one of these typical [computer scientists] who are really in love with machines in general. I’m in love with people not machines!”

Future Technologies for Improving Health, Wellness and Performance

Pattie Maes can deliver a customized keynote to audiences of any size. If your organization is interested in learning more about the transformative technologies she and her team develop, contact us about a virtual or in-person engagement.

Whitney Jennings: