In digital agencies, we love content personalisation. It makes us look smarter in front of clients and hopefully keeps things a bit more interesting for the people we’re trying to communicate with. But there’s also a downside to excessive personalisation – or at least that’s the message Eli Pariser made in his fascinating TED talk on the ‘filter bubble’ (thanks to Eduardo and Mervyn for sharing this).
Pariser describes how content providers like Google are increasingly personalising the information we see based on how likely we’ve been to click on similar topics in the past. The downside being that over time we see just the lazy stories that we like to read (eg What Justin Bieber thinks about the Royal Wedding), rather than the important events we should be aware of (eg the uprising in Egypt).
Pariser focuses on the impact of personalisation on news, but there’s also an important cultural implication. If what we consume becomes purely based on past behavior, over time we run the risk of creating a positive feedback loop where our tastes and attitudes become increasingly narrow and self-reinforcing. The fact that you’ve never visited a Vietnamese restaurant doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the experience when you stumble on one.
The flipside of this argument is that we’ve always gravitated to information sources that resonate with our own world view – think Fox Sports or the UK’s Daily Mail. Furthermore, where once we only had a handful of TV channels, newspapers and local radio stations to form our opinions from, the internet now offers us access to attitudes we’d never of previously seen or heard about.
But it all comes down to our willingness to look for them. Personalisation has come about because most of us need help in making sense of the paralyzing volume of information available online. And in this way, it often helps us discover things we’d perhaps otherwise not have considered, for example Amazon’s recommendations.
If Google becomes our only frame of reference, there’s no doubt that Pariser’s vision is a chilling one. But ultimately it’s up to us to look beyond a single source of information and keep exploring.