Friday, April 15, 2016

The Personalised Experience

I recently bought a tablet, mainly to take some of the load off of my badly overworked laptop, but also make things like watching catch up TV in bed easier.  As with all such devices, the tablet comes preloaded with lots of apps, most of which I have no use for whatsoever.  That said, there's a surprisingly good news aggregator app from Google, (that's the surprising thing, a Google product which is quite good), Newstand, which I've been using quite a bit, as it brings together stories from a wide variety of news sources in the UK and globally.  (It also has an excellent graphical interface).  The one thing about it which bugs me, however, is the way in which it keeps asking to use information about me that it has collected from various bits of my use of other Google products in order to 'personalise' my experience.  In other words, to show more news stories selected from sources whose sites I've visited most often, more stories on subjects it 'thinks' that I'm interested in and more stories based on what it 'thinks' I might be interested in based on my previous news reading history.

My problems with this are twofold.  Firstly, Google's track record in successfully predicting what I want to see is very poor.  I've already posted on You Tube's viewing recommendations for me including such things as breast-feeding videos, despite the fact that I don't have children and have no plans to have any.  Moreover, looking back on my You Tube viewing history, I really couldn't see what would have led to Google's algorithms suggesting such viewing matter.  Whilst the breast feeding videos seem to have disappeared of late, the viewing suggestions haven't really improved in relevance: right now I'm being urged to look at something about Amazon tribes and the 'Top 10 Celebrities With the Worst Plastic Surgery'.  Where these are coming from, I really don't know.  My other big problem with 'personalisation' of the news app is that it will effectively ensure that I only see things i already know about and am likely to agree with.  Personally, I like being confronted with the unexpected (as long at isn't breast feeding videos) in terms of news stories.  I enjoy being exposed to news sources whose content might challenge my existing views and prejudices.

I always thought that was a large part of what the internet was about - this process of discovery of new perspectives and information.  At least, it was back in the early days of the web.  Sadly, the contemporary internet seems obsessed with this idea of 'personalisation' in order to make your entire experience of news feeds, social media and the like 'safe' and to protect you from being offended.  Which is all bollocks - being offended never hurt anybody.  On the contrary, it's character building.  Of course, the likes of Google would undoubtedly tell you that it is all about improving the user experience by ensuring people see more of what they like. Unfortunately, the end result is an increasingly mediocre experience as anything which falls too far from the 'norm' or which might offend someone is excluded.  In reality, the likes of Google should be trying to give web users not just what they think they like, but what they didn't know they liked.  (Although I can safely say that I know for sure that I wouldn't like those breast feeding videos).

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