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DT Debates: Is the movement to personalize the Web hurting or helping our Internet experience?

The world gets smaller every day — and so does the World Wide Web. Part of what’s contributing to this tightened existence is the personalization of the Internet and its various applications. The injection of “social” and “local” elements into our Web consumption has become an incredibly important feature for products; it’s part of how we find recommendations online or the best nearby restaurant, or the most important updates from our friends. At the same time, it’s narrowing the scope of searchable data. This week writers Andrew Couts and Jeffrey Van Camp argue whether or not Web personalization is a helpful, time-saving tool or hurting our ability to fully search online when we ask… 

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andrew-coutsThe proliferation of mandatory personalization online does not simply hurt our “Internet experience.” I believe it is making us dumber, more close-minded, closed in, and coddled, to the point that it breeds a dangerous sense of self-important ignorance.

Take a simple Google search, for example. If you and I search exactly the same term, we will likely receive vastly different results. Google claims this is better because, of the hundreds of millions of Websites in its index, its algorithm is finely tuned to give those that are best for ME — based, of course, on my browsing and search histories, on what I click on most, on where in the world I’m located, on who my friends are, and about four dozen other mathematically-chosen criteria. Sounds reasonable, even great. Unfortunately, it is also cutting me off from a wealth of information that is now infinitely more difficult (for me) to find. I would go so far as to call it censorship, even if that’s not the intended purpose.

Of course, this ignores all the potential benefits to personalization, which I’m sure you’ll be happy to tell me about. I probably even agree with a good many of them. But the point is: personalization should be a choice. Google, Facebook, news sites — anyone who is tailoring content should at least give me the ability to control the intensity of this “feature.” Not just by making me sign out of my account first, but by building in granular controls that let me decide how little or how much personalization I want in my life.




Jeffrey Van CampYou know, I completely understand the horrible fear that you’re missing out on some search result, Facebook post, or Netflix video that would rock your world, but it’s an irrational and misplaced fear. Personalization is one of the greatest things to happen to services and, if done right, can save you tons of time and introduce you to many new things that you like. 

No, personalization isn’t perfect, or near perfect, yet. It’s a new idea, but it’s a good one. When I went on Facebook the other day, the first post I saw was about one of my best friends having a new baby. That post hadn’t JUST happened, and if Facebook didn’t have personalized results, I may never have seen it. For those with limited time, or just don’t care to sift through everything, a personalized result is often better. As these engines get more accurate, they can even recommend things that you may want to take a chance on.

What I don’t understand is the outrage. You can turn off personalization in Google search by opening an Incognito or Private browser window, or simply logging out of it. Even new phones have this feature. Sure, it would be cool if Google had a setting, but it doesn’t yet. Results for an average person aren’t even changed a whole lot either. And Facebook does have a filter right at the top of your News Feed that allows you to sort by “most recent” if you care to do so. What is the problem? Do you want Netflix to not recommend movies based on the ratings you give? Some services are built on personalization. If you don’t like it, there are many around that aren’t.




What is the problem? The problem is that an algorithm designed to make me click the most things is deciding the information readily available to me, all while keeping the list of criteria that determines those decisions a secret. At the very least, these companies should tell me how their algorithms choose what percolates to the surface, and what gets dumped in the bottomless pit of the Web.

Furthermore, by only showing me things that are related to topics or people I already enjoy, personalization makes it more difficult for me to discover entirely new things, topics, ideas. The Internet has made the world a smaller place, where someone in France, or Bangladesh, or Marietta, Ohio, can put something online for anyone to see. But with personalization, finding such a thing becomes far less likely. Instead, I am simply fed more of the same.

Yes, I could simply log out, or use some other website or service that doesn’t filter what I see in such a way. And I do. But not everybody knows that that’s how it works; not everyone knows that my Google News and their Google News serve entirely different stories simply because our IP addresses come from two different parts of the country, for example. Are their benefits to personalization? Of course! But to characterize the practice as simply innocuous — and those wary of it as foolish — is to completely ignore the possibility that it could have some detrimental consequences.

And for the record: I am neither afraid, nor outraged. I am simply concerned — concerned that the wave of personalization overtaking the Internet could eventually do more harm than good.




Of course Google News is feeding people different stories based on their location. Its job is to curate news stories. One thing you don’t currently find in Google news, aside from some location-based targeting, is any account-based personalization. My Tech News section should still be the same as yours.

The ability for a service to know a few of your preferences and likes is a new thing, but it is potentially a good one as well. The very fact that Google can feed you local news is fantastic. Local is something that has been missing from the Internet in many ways. If Google or other companies release the algorithm, or rules, that dictate how they deliver personalized results to users, they’ll be gamed within minutes by those who want to cheat their way into personalized results. 

I hate to break it to you, but even without “personalization,” the Google algorithm is already attempting to curate and deliver results that are tailored to each search query. Nobody seems to complain or wonder what Google or Facebook doesn’t show them when personalization is off. I’d be just as worried about what you’re missing there as well. With personalization, now when I search for “Laundromats”, Google automatically can guess that I might be searching for laundromats in Manhattan, near me. And when I search for Andrew Couts, it will know that we’re friends and take me to your Google+…. Well okay, there are clearly some issues with Google’s approach. But don’t blame the technology for Google’s shoddy social network. I like it that Netflix immediately recommended Drive to me when it became available. Now I don’t have to keep watching episodes of Hoarders.




As I said before, personalization is not an absolute evil, nor is it necessarily bad. Rather, it is a powerful tool that can be used in beneficial and detrimental ways. My entire argument is that we as consumers of online content should be able to choose how online content is filtered. And we should question the legitimacy of those companies who choose not to make such efforts transparent. In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to do personalization. And right now, I don’t believe enough focus has been put on making sure it’s done right.

I’m glad you brought up Netflix because Netflix is one of the companies that I believe does personalization right. If all I watch on Netflix is Hollywood-made action movies, Netflix’s algorithm still filters in suggestions for documentaries, dramas, and foreign films. Now, maybe I’ll ignore all these suggestions every time, but I still think that’s better than excluding them in the first place because my usage history shows that I never watch anything but American action flicks.

The same can not necessarily be said for Google or Facebook. When I search Google now, while logged into my Google account, I am very often given search results at the top of the page that are either from sites I visit often, articles I’ve written myself, or articles written by people I’m friends with on Google+. If this were simply one section of my search results, that would be one thing, but it’s quickly becoming the majority of all results that appear on the first page. As a journalist, I find this extremely frustrating, as it automatically limits the sources most readily available to me, or requires me to waste time logging in and out of my Google account just so I’m not bombarded by a pile of links that I’ve either already seen, or simply want to avoid.

If your entire argument is that personalization has some benefits, then consider yourself a winner. I agree, it has many benefits. But as it is currently being used by Google, Facebook, news organizations, and other Websites and services, personalization has, at the very least, made it more difficult for me to find and discover new ideas. Left unchecked, I believe this could have long-term consequences for the free flow of information.




You know, I do agree. While we are extreme cases in that we are extremely involved in one Website (Digital Trends), it does point out the flaws in the way Google handles personal results right now. If Google can’t figure out when we are searching for our own content and when we aren’t, it should take the safe route and recommend the best content or unknown content to us, not things we’ve already clicked on or written ourselves. 

As nontransparent as Facebook is, I do believe it does a better job of filtering and it has never claimed to offer anything but a personalized feed.

The current problems of personalization come down to crappy programming, in my opinion. Google, Facebook, and others need to get a better grasp on what is and isn’t worth personalizing and yes, let us turn it on or off. 

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