Disclaimer: The contents and opinions of this blog post do not represent the views or values of Honours Review as a publication.
Introduction: The Public View on Personalisation
Song recommendations, video suggestions, related articles – these are just some of the curated features we have come to rely on when using platforms like Spotify, YouTube and online news sites. All of these strategies for making us consume more and more media material draw upon the much-debated concept of personalisation: tailoring content to suit personal preferences. It might sound luxurious, but there are darker consequences for individuals and their communities indulging in the custom-made appeal inherent to many aspects of today’s world.
Ironically, a reflection of society’s worries about online personalisation’s negative effects is often most visible in online environments which employ different methods of personalisation, such as news sites. Wired claims companies like Google and Facebook are “violating our free will to choose the information we want” (2); Forbes publishes articles titled “Digital Privacy: Brands Figuring Out Where Personalization Gets Creepy” (5). When navigating opinions like these, readers should think critically about the many invisible ways that music, news and video content is curated for them on an everyday basis. Entrusting the personalisation of one’s information and entertainment to media companies and algorithms: is it a violation of the natural order or simply a convenience of technological development?
Catering to the Individual
Almost every website and media producer we turn to for content uses some type of curation not only to provide us with the song or video we were originally searching for, but also to keep us browsing other options for as long as possible. After all, our attention translates into their profits when we are exposed to on-site advertisements or pay our subscription fees. Media giants like Netflix are at the forefront of innovating strategies for learning each viewer’s preferences and accordingly crafting their binge-watching and Netflix browsing experiences. It is not just that different viewers will be offered different content: now, even the thumbnails for the same shows are customised based on individual viewing history (1). Of course, the millions of users to learn about and tons of screenshots to choose from for the most fitting thumbnail make this job impossible for humans to manage without the help of algorithms. But how accurately can a machine know us and predict our tastes?
When it comes to personalisation-specific algorithms, Spotify can be seen as the contemporary expert. Collecting and analysing mountains of data, the streaming service categorises listeners according to their taste profiles and then makes playlists like Discover Weekly – composed of songs you have not listened to, but which are supposed to fit your preferences. It is certainly an effective method for making the listener feel catered to, but it might also contribute to the depersonalisation of humans as complex beings who change over time, perceiving us more like machines to be figured out and kept satisfied. Internet activist Eli Pariser’s notion of the filter bubble – a state of intellectual isolation resulting from algorithm catered content (6) – is a related phenomenon that might not seem too serious regarding our preferences for music or TV series. Applied to news consumption or online political participation however, it raises concerns about the convenience of personalised content removing the necessity for the individual to explore, grow and change their perception of the world.
The Curated Community
Considering human evolution and development of technology, we might look at personalisation algorithms as just the newest disruptive element in the history of our media consumption. The “older media” of radio, broadcast TV and newspapers now have more attractive alternatives, respectively Spotify, Netflix and curated online news feeds. While this has undoubtedly been beneficial for many us, as we are free to access niche content any time, any place, often for lower prices, there are also losses to the broader society stemming from these changes in media use. The physical presence of a medium like television in households across the world has historically been tied to the family and community bonding functions a TV screen can fulfil (3). Now that we can view TV content on our phones, computers and tablets instead, there is reason to worry about the extent to which personalised media can bond community members rather than emphasise their differences and thus isolate them.
The idea of our belonging to a local community being limited by the isolating effects of media personalisation draws upon media theorist McLuhan’s popular concept of the “global village” – the world tuned into a village by technology, which enables information to move far and quickly (4). It is now much easier to be exposed to content from across the world whose niche characteristics, as identified by algorithms, match your preferences, where before one might have had to put in more effort to search for fitting content closer to home. Still, content in local newspapers, news and radio channels is also personalised, albeit in less detail, for us as members of the local community. Therefore, since many people continue to consume both global and local content, for example, visiting local concerts as well as going abroad to see your favourite artist perform, perhaps the community bonds are simply adjusting instead of disintegrating as feared.
A shift can be perceived in the counter movement to the potential self-isolation brought on by having your tastes constantly catered to. This opposition is the way we use our personalised content to represent ourselves on social media – a behaviour rooted in human history and nature, thus denying power to the argument that personalisation leads to humans being perceived more as machines to be figured out. Similar to how the content of your bookshelf and the ability to frequent opera houses was representative of your social status centuries ago, nowadays, the pages we follow on Facebook and the Spotify playlists we share with our friends are indicative not only of what we like, but also how we want to and will be perceived by others.
It does not seem that personalisation can be classified as a violation of human bonds as much as an agent of change, but it cannot be naively viewed as a no-strings-attached technological convenience either. Instead, the effects and future uses of personalisation depend on how we will balance the interactions between the algorithm and the human mind, as well as between the media company and the media consumer.
1. Barton, G. (2018, November 21). Why your Netflix thumbnails don’t look like mine. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/11/21/18106394/why-your-netflix-thumbnail-coverart-changes.
2. Kaushik, P. (2014). Tomorrow’s Internet: A world of hyper-personalized tribes?Wired. Retrieved fromhttps://www.wired.com/insights/2014/03/todays-internet-world-hyper-personalized-tribes/.
3. McCarthy, A. (2001). Shaping public and private space with TV screens. In Ambient television: Visual culture and public space (pp.117-153). Durham: Duke University Press.
4. McLuhan, M. (1987). Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Newman, D. (2018, March 20). Digital privacy: Brands figuring out where personalization gets creepy. Forbes. Retrieved fromhttps://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnewman/2018/03/20/digital-privacy-brands-figuring-out-where-personalization-gets-creepy/#668ddae243a7.
6. Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you.New York, NY: Penguin Press.