As a Web Analyst the supposed holy grail of data usage and optimization is personalization. Disregarding the whole PI issue for the time being, the notion of a website that uses data to optimize itself to you; that tailors itself to your interests is awesome. Think of all the sites that do it, Netflicks recommends films based on your personal tastes. Google shapes its search to present information that is more relevant to your needs. Facebook changes your news feed, and there are more and more sites that do this all the time. The technologies behind it (predictive modelling, data mining) are interesting but not nearly so as the ethic dilemma’s it produces.
Personalization at first blush may seem like a good idea, but there is an interesting TED talk by Eli Pariser which presents another side to it.
Eli brings up an interesting notion of the “gatekeepers”.
I work for the CBC, which is (for Canadians anyway), a gatekeeper of information. The content that the CBC chooses to air is decided on by a relatively small group of people who follow a journalistic code of ethics. These individuals are making decisions based on data, Comscore ratings, Neilsen ratings, PPM, that sort of thing. They are making the best choices they can given the data they have and the mandate from the Canadian government. These people, who are smart, hard-working, and talented (if they weren’t they wouldn’t be directors and c-levels) also choose things they think Canadians should be exposed to.
The government is at arms length so it cannot dictate to the CBC what news to report or what shows to air but it is still filtered to some extent because it is someone making the decisions about what to report and what to ignore. It is a choice. This lead me to thinking about Chris Berry’s recent post on what you choose to ignore. Personalization it would seem, is as much about what we choose to ignore as it is about what we choose to focus on. The problem is it is effortless on the part of the user.
I think this quote from Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook is very telling,
“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
How sad is that. This thing, which was created to connect people all around the world, has changed to allow people to bury their heads in the sand and only see those point of views which confirms their current beliefs. Never before has a single ordinary person been able to reach out to millions, but now that is tempered by data and mathematics. And it might not be that the squirrel is more relevant to your interests, it might be that based on your past selections you are not even exposed to this new information about people in Africa.
For me, one of the greatest joys is stumbling upon something at random you might otherwise never discover. Whether it is a point of view on the sex trade you hadn’t considered before, a new movie you might never choose to go to or this incredible photo collection you might never see because the algorithms didn’t select to show them to you.
I think Eli makes a very persuasive argument that personalization, like all technology must be used in moderation lest we all become cocooned in self-confirming information.