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In defense of personalization

Mills Baker defends personalization on the right grounds. In a brilliant and brilliantly written post, he maintains that the personalization provided by sites does at scale what we do in the real world to enable conversations: through multiple and often subtle signals, we let an interlocutor know where our interests and beliefs are similar enough that we are able to safely express our differences.

Digression: This is at the heart of our cultural fear of echo chambers, in my opinion. Conversation consists of iteration on small differences based on an iceberg of agreement. Every conversation inadvertently reinforces the beliefs that enable it to go forward. Likewise, understanding is contextual, assimilating the novel to the familiar, thus reinforcing that context by making it richer and more coherent. But our tradition has taught us that Reason requires us to be open to all ideas, ready to undo the entire structure of our beliefs. Reason, if applied purely, would thus make conversation, understanding, and knowledge impossible. In fearing echo chambers, we are running from the fact that understanding and conversation share the basic elements of echo chambers. I’ll return to this point in a later post sometime…

I love everything about Mills’ post except his under-valuing of concerns about the power personalization has over us on-line. Yes, personalization is a requirement in a scaled environment. Yes, the right comparison is between our new info flows and our old info trickles. But…

…Miles does not fully confront the main complaint: our interests and the interests of the commercial entities that are doing the personalizing do not fully coincide. Facebook has an economic motivation to get us to click more and to exit Facebook sessions eager to return for more. Facebook thus has an economic interest in showing us personalized clickbait, and to filter our feeds toward happiness rather than hey-my-cat-died-yesterday posts.

In one sense, this is entirely Mills’ point. He wants designers to understand the positive role personalization has always played, so they can reinstate that role in software that works for us. He thinks that getting this right is the responsibility of the software for “Most users do not want the ‘control’ of RSS and Twitter lists and blocking, muting, and unfollowing their fellows.” Thus the software needs to learn from the clues left inadvertently by users. (I’d argue that there’s also room for better designed control systems. I bet Mills agrees, because how could anyone argue against better designed anything?)

But in my view he too casually dismisses the responsibility and culpability of some of the most important sites when he writes:

The idea that personalization is about corporate or political control is an emotionally satisfying but inaccurate one.

If we take “personalization” in the insightful and useful way he has defined it, then sure. But when people rail against personalization they are thinking about the algorithmic function performed by commercial entities. And those entities have a massive incentive—exercised by companies like Facebook—to personalize the flow of information toward users as consumers rather than as persons.

I think.



Thanks to Dave Birk for pointing me to Mills’ post.

3 Responses to “In defense of personalization”

  1. Hello! First, thank you for reading and thank you for your very kind words!

    I think the idea you’ve challenged is indeed challengeable, and is perhaps one of the most “political” ideas in the piece. In short: it’s an argument based on a sunny appraisal of the free market.

    How sunny one actually finds markets varies a lot by how one has been personally treated by them, by how one thinks morally about gains and losses and wealth, and by much else besides. Without recapitulating the entirety of that debate —which I couldn’t do even if I wanted to— I will restate or emphasize my argument, which is simply that software networks (and commercial entities) are much less powerful and entrenched than we tend to think.

    The classic examples —of Facebook destroying the invincible MySpace, or of Twitter scaring Facebook to death before beginning what appears to be a slow collapse if they can’t reverse trends— are well-known, but for me personally, *nothing* could have been more persuasive than Apple’s saga. As a fanboy in the 90s, I believed

    (1) that Apple made “objectively” superior products that
    (2) the market was incorrectly not rewarding such that
    (3) Apple was probably doomed.

    The expert consensus then was that Wintel PCs and the MS ecosystems were impregnable, a software development and deployment and use platform so interconnected, richly featured, and widely-used that no disruption was imaginable. I doubt whether anyone would have believed a time-traveler with news of iOS and Apple supplanting MS as the “dominant” platform maker.

    What about all the applications users had already spent for, installed, and learned? What about the businesses and agencies and developers who were “all in” on MS and its technologies? What about the distribution advantages MS and their partners had? Insurmountable!

    Yet users happily left all that software, all their documents, all their habits and processes and commercial relationships behind; in just years, the entirety of the software world was changed. As with AOL, MySpace, Friendster, and countless others, the “moat” was an illusion; the market was waiting, latent demand of simpler interfaces building, until someone was able to execute on the right bundling of services and functions.

    So I don’t want to discount the possibility that Facebook (e.g.) and its users could have different aims; and I don’t want to ignore the possibility that concentrated power in the hands of the few leads to corruption (it often does!). But I want designers to remember that these tools will either (a) serve user ends or (b) fail, if it takes months, years, or even decades. Obviously decades of corporate censorship aren’t desirable, but I doubt seriously whether users today would endure even years.

    There’s so much competition —FB for example takes Snapchat pretty seriously for all kinds of reasons; it’s not a trivial threat at all— that “powerful” companies often become losers seemingly overnight. Were FB to censor or even fail to personalize well, the contraction would begin and competitors —upstarts with VC funding, larger entities with deep pockets, etc.— would eat our lunch.

    Incidentally, “pet death” posts tend to have enormous engagement and activity. My own old dog died last year and it was exceeded only by my post about getting engaged in comments / reactions. Believe it or not, what FB users seem to want online is what we want in person: not pap, not only chipper nonsense (although plenty of that!), but reality, human experience, sincerity, etc.

    But again: great points and concerns, and I really appreciate your deep reading and nice remarks!

  2. Mills, thanks so much for reading it and especially for your response.

    I honestly don’t know what will happen, but responding to your comments pushes me in one particular direction. If our positions were switched, I’d undoubtedly be pushing in the other direction. My thinking is unsettled, and thus is reactive and incomplete.

    I very much take your point that experience shows that today’s giants can fall faster than we imagined. Microsoft’s lock-in was just about complete, yet Apple now has more revenues and more mobile devices than Windows, albeit fewer desktops. It’s clear who’s driving the market and the tech, and it is not the prospect of Windows 11.

    And yet, while the monarchs have changed, the lock-in has gotten worse. Sometimes it’s simply because it’s good for business, e.g., Apple increasing it’s death grip on its hw, sw, and sw distribution channels,. Sometimes it’s the inevitability of network effects arising in commercial, closed systems. Either way, it’s not particularly comforting to me that Apple has replaced Microsoft with an even more tightly controlled ecosystem.

    Even more sobering is the “Redistribute the Web” crowd’s growing recognition that few people are going to migrate to services that have a distributed architecture or even that give them more precise control over their filters. They are going to stay with the services that are easy and fun to use. FB is one of those, obviously. Behind this is the assumption, which I think is generally true, that centralization makes it easier to give users great experiences. This is certainly one of the lessons of Steve Jobs’ life.

    So replacing one company with another may bring lots of benefits, but more openness is not likely to be one of them.

    I find some hope in the fact that I am almost always wrong.

    Then there’s the question of whether FB is filtering feeds in ways that reflect the interests of their users. I have less confidence about this than you do. I accept that FB does have to filter the feed because otherwise it would be a Heraclitian river. But the temptation to filter toward more clicks and toward happier news must be economically overwhelming. In both cases, the user feels well served: Oooh, more interesting things to click on! And my FB time is a happy time, not a grim recital of all my friend’s complaints.

    So, one might say that if the customers are happy, then their interests must be aligned with FB’s. But I’m taking interests in a broader sense. I’m assuming either of two models: First, there is such a thing as human flourishing and it requires not just entertainment but some degree of challenge and expansion of interests. Second, there is a social need to have citizens who are curious, aware, open-minded, sympathetic and caring, etc. If FB is making people happy by lowering the bar, then that happiness is actually doing a disservice to people because it is not helping them to flourish. Likewise, FB would be doing the social realm a disservice.

    Now, it’s highly contestable that flourishing is a higher value than being content or even happy. It’s the sort of thing economically secure intellectuals believe. And it’s also highly debatable that FB should sacrifice some revenue opportunities in order to support a privileged person’s point of view about what Society needs.

    But I think we are in a position in which FB’s filtering is making most users very happy, so there is little competitive foothold at least at the moment, but that filtering is not in the users’ best interests. And if FB is supplanted by The Next Big Thing, that NBT is likely to be even more locked down and out of step with their users’ best interests.

    This is quandary that only alcohol can extricate us from.

  3. Your answer lifts the incneligelte of the debate.

Web Joho only

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