The Technology of Personalization and the Bubble Syndrome

A decade ago in another place and era during my days as director of technology research for a Fortune X company I tinkered with a cool array of then new personalization tools. The aim was simple, use some of these emerging technologies to deliver a more customized and personalized user experience for our customers and suppliers. What could be wrong with that? Surely, custom tools and more personalized data could do nothing but improve knowledge and enhance business relationships for all concerned. Our customers would benefit from seeing only the information they asked for, our suppliers would benefit from better analysis and filtered feedback, and we, the corporation in the middle, would benefit from making everyone in our supply chain more efficient and happy. Advertisers would be even happier since with more focused data they would be able to deliver messages that were increasingly more precise and relevant based on personal context.

Fast forward to the present. Customization, or filtering, technologies have indeed helped optimize the supply chain; personalization tools and services have made customer experiences more focused and efficient. In today’s online world it’s so much easier to find, navigate and transact when the supplier at the other end of our browser knows who we are, where we live, what we earn, what we like and dislike, and so on. After all, if a supplier knows my needs, requirements, options, status and even personality, I’m much more likely to only receive information, services or products that fall within the bounds that define “me” in the supplier’s database.

And, therein lies the crux of the issue that has helped me to realize that personalization offers a false promise despite the seemingly obvious benefits to all concerned. The benefits are outweighed by two key issues: erosion of privacy and the bubble syndrome.

Privacy as Commodity

I’ll not dwell too long on the issue of privacy since in this article I’m much more concerned with the personalization bubble. However, as we have increasingly seen in recent times privacy in all its forms is becoming a scarce, and tradable commodity. Much of our data is now in the hands of a plethora of suppliers, intermediaries and their partners, ready for continued monetization. Our locations are constantly pinged and polled; our internet browsers note our web surfing habits and preferences; our purchases generate genius suggestions and recommendations to further whet our consumerist desires. Now in digital form this data is open to legitimate sharing and highly vulnerable to discovery by hackers, phishers and spammers and any with technical or financial resources.

Bubble Syndrome

Personalization technologies filter content at various levels, minutely and broadly, both overtly and covertly. For instance, I may explicitly signal my preferences for certain types of clothing deals at my favorite online retailer by answering a quick retail survey or checking a handful of specific preference buttons on a website.

However, my previous online purchases, browsing behaviors, time spent of various online pages, visits to other online retailers and a range of other flags deliver a range of implicit or “covert” information to the same retailer (and others). This helps the retailer filter, customize and personalize what I get to see even before I have made a conscious decision to limit my searches and exposure to information. Clearly, this is not too concerning when my retailer knows I’m male and usually purchase size 32 inch jeans; after all why would I need to see deals or product information for women’s shoes.

But, this type of covert filtering becomes more worrisome when the data being filtered and personalized is information, news, opinion and comment in all its glorious diversity. Sophisticated media organizations, information portals, aggregators and news services can deliver personalized and filtered information based on your overt and covert personal preferences as well. So, if you subscribe only to a certain type of information based on topic, interest, political persuasion or other dimension your personalized news services will continue to deliver mostly or only this type of information. And, as I have already described, your online behaviors will deliver additional filtering parameters to these news and information providers so that they may further personalize and narrow your consumption of information.

Increasingly, we will not be aware of what we don’t know. Whether explicitly or not, our use of personalization technologies will have the ability to build a filter, a bubble, around us, which will permit only information that we wish to see or that which our online suppliers wish us to see. We’ll not even get exposed to peripheral and tangential information — that information which lies outside the bubble. This filtering of the rich oceans of diverse information to a mono-dimensional stream will have profound implications for our social and cultural fabric.

I assume that our increasingly crowded planet will require ever more creativity, insight, tolerance and empathy as we tackle humanity’s many social and political challenges in the future. And, these very seeds of creativity, insight, tolerance and empathy are those that are most at risk from the personalization filter. How are we to be more tolerant of others’ opinions if we are never exposed to them in the first place? How are we to gain insight when disparate knowledge is no longer available for serendipitous discovery? How are we to become more creative if we are less exposed to ideas outside of our normal sphere, our bubble?

For some ideas on how to punch a few holes in your online filter bubble read Eli Pariser’s practical guide, here.

Filter Bubble image courtesy of TechCrunch.

134 thoughts on “The Technology of Personalization and the Bubble Syndrome”

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